Anime was never intended to be a worldwide phenomenon and the biggest evidence of this is the nature in which fansubs were created. Fansubs were born out a necessity, created by foreign anime fans across the world in an effort to introduce their respective countries to anime.
The first fansubs were created in the 1980s by members of anime fan clubs who took advantage of new and cheap computer software to sub their favorite shows and as the years went on fansubs started to garner more and more attention ultimately peaking in the mid-to-late 2000s.
The adoption of streaming platforms like Funimation, Crunchyroll, and Hidive basically rendered the fansub useless as a show could now air in Japan and within a few hours be subbed and distributed in dozens of languages.
It has been about 40 years since the first fansubs were released, and in spite of the challenges they have faced fansubs still are an important aspect of the anime world.
Where are they now?
Despite the fact that fansubs were created in the 1980’s they did not gain much traction until the late ’90s and early 2000s with the mass adoption of the internet allowing fans to simply stream or download a fansub of their favorite series.
Massively popular titles like Dragon Ball Z, Naruto, and InuYasha were now being seen by audiences of tens of millions outside of Japan thanks in part to anime fans who were subbing the shows into their own languages worldwide.
In the early 2000’s a portion of the anime industry even embraced the fansubbers as they saw it as free promotion for content that at the time was not seen as marketable to a western audience.
For years fansubs continued to be the number one source when it came to watching subbed anime and formed a symbiotic relationship with some anime companies.
Subbing groups would translate popular series subsequently proving that they had an audience outside of Japan leading to multiple series receiving official subs once the official subs were announced a group would stop subbing a series and move on to the next anime.
Ultimately, the rise of streaming platforms has slowly killed fan subbing over the last decade.
Streaming services have the resources and money to hire hundreds of professional translators rendering the point of a fansub almost useless.
Streaming services also provide the user with a safe way to watch anime since fansubs were usually hosted on sketchy illegal streaming sites that, at times, could have infected the viewers with malware.
Yet despite those benefits fansubs are still alive to this day and still serve a purpose to millions of anime fans who’s languages are ignored by the large streaming companies.
Crunchyroll and other streaming services are found worldwide thus provide subs in a multitude of languages, but not all languages, for example, the Boku No Hero Academia sub on Crunchyroll only has 5 different language options.
Arguably the biggest streaming service only having 5 language options available on one of the most popular anime of the decade when there are thousands of languages on earth is a clear sign that fansubs are still not extinct.
There is a multitude of dedicated fans producing fansubs for their languages out of necessity since the big streaming companies do not see the value in hiring translators for languages that do not have a large anime fan base.
Unless streaming services begin to cater their content to even the smallest countries fansubs will still be produced.
Differences between Fansubs and Prosubs
Early Fansubs from the ’80s and ’90s tried to emulate a professional style of translation opting to even translate honorifics and Japanese terms in an effort to make anime more appealing to a wider audience.
Once anime as a whole gained enough attention, fansubbers took it upon themselves to keep as much as the original terminology as they could, keeping honorifics and terms unchanged.
A prime example is the word for older brother “Onii-chan” being kept untranslated in most subs as it was seen as a term that was known to the anime community and thus did not need to be translated.
A side effect of not translating some aspects of a show was the rise in translator notes that were added to provide an explanation to the untranslated terms or phrases.
Notes found within a fansub could range from a simple explanation of a word to a large block of text explaining references, the notes varied from translator to translator and was almost a stamp that they left on their work.
A series like InuYasha which had a lot of Japanese folklore attached to it received a lot of notes in an effort to provide context to the foreign viewers.
In contrast, the rise of professional translation by large streaming sites has reverted the sub to its original state as their mission is to make anime appealing to a general audience thus honorifics and terms are translated.
The more professional approach to translation is something that should have resulted in fairly accurate subs, yet over the last few years, it is evident that the more professional approach to translation is more akin to localization rather than a mere one to one translation.
A small yet obvious example of the lax attitude of so-called professional translators can be found within 5-Toubun no Hanayome where the protagonist Fuutarou Uesugi gets called dull looking and according to the translator responds with the phrase “that was savage, take it back”.
The term “savage” is American slang that did not gain popularity until a few years ago and still is not used all that often, yet the audience is supposed to believe it has gained worldwide notoriety that it perfectly fits in a romance slice of life comedy.
It seems translators are less and less inclined to find accurate translations and have started to take a page from the playbook of anime dubs choosing translations that encompass the “feel” and “meaning” of the original work instead of the original words used.
Fansubs are a completely different beast than professional subs and each have their own pros and cons.
Should Fansubs Return?
Fansubs are not dead, they are still found worldwide catering to millions of anime fans that do not have official subs in their respective languages, but should the old aspects of fansubs be brought back?
Fansubs offered an almost raw experience when watching an anime as a lot of aspects were kept untranslated and thus one learned to recognize certain terms and phrases.
Whilst not translating honorifics and some easy to understand terms did not negatively impact it was the subsequent notes that could at times impact the viewing experience.
At times a translator’s notes could encompass a large portion of the screen and take away from the anime itself. This problem is not found within so-called prosubs but having no notes at all is itself a problem since, at times, there is no possible way to explain something via mere translation and some accompanying context is needed.
Without some form of context, a series like Noragami or Mushishi, which deal with Japanese mythology, would leave the majority of foreign viewers confused since they do not have the prior knowledge to fully understand certain aspects of the story.
The new somewhat localization-based translation that is appearing more and more within prosubs is robbing anime fans of a true and accurate watching experience which is the complete opposite of the raw sometimes even untranslated way fansubs were produced.
Whilst a complete return of fansubs is something that highly unlikely since small groups of fans can not translate a series at the rate of multimillion-dollar companies like Crunchyroll and Funimation, a blending of the fan and pro subs is something that should be explored.
Taking the best aspects of both would result in fast, and accurate, translations that would include just the right amount of context. If a combination of the two were to be made it would ensure that the spirit of fansubs will never die and continue to live on for future generations of anime fans to enjoy.