Subs: Literal vs. Liberal

"Too cute your imouto is, young Skywalker!"

gg subs (which I now think should stand for “Gregariously Guffawing” subs) recently released a sub of Hidan no Aria Episode 7. It was a rather original troll sub job. While I find it a bit bizarre just how much some anime fans like the concept of being “trolled”, I have to nonetheless appreciate how gg is taking advantage of such a trolling opportunity to engage in sharply slick satire.


At least, that’s how I perceived their Hidan no Aria Episode 7 sub job.

For there is principally one factor, and one factor alone, that makes it a troll sub: The fact that it is an entirely word-for-word literal translation. It hence is, I think, gg’s attempt to implicitly comment on a literal translation approach to subbing anime vis a vis a more liberal translation approach.

Well, since gg has thrown down a gregariously guffawing gauntlet here, I think it is only apropos that we humor them with a response, and that’s what this blog entry will attempt to do.

In addition to how it occasionally trolls audiences, gg is noted for its preference for a more liberal approach to sub translation. In other words, it is generally more concerned with smooth and familiar dialogue/narration than with word-for-word translation accuracy. It values what you could call “congruency” over what you could call “faithfulness”. This recent troll sub job is, I believe, intended to leave an impression with viewers that the alternative to gg’s subbing approach is entirely without merit and hopelessly unwieldy.

Well, as someone who prefers a more literal approach to sub translations, let me explain why I disagree with gg here, and take issue with their implicit argument demonstrated by their work on Hidan no Aria Episode 7.

First of all, it should be noted that the subs of Hidan no Aria Episode 7 are so painstaking to follow due primarily to one lone issue: The sentence structure feels disjointed, and even somewhat “backwards”. In other words, characters often come off sounding like a certain famous Jedi Master from Star Wars. So, the problem is not with word choice, but rather with word arrangement.

As a proud citizen of officially bi-lingual Canada, I’m well aware of how one language can seem “backwards” to speakers of a different language. French seems “backwards” to English-Canadians like me, just like I’m sure that English seems “backwards” to French-Canadians. But we don’t accommodate for this by employing a much more liberal translation approach in general. Rather, we usually do translate as close to literally as reasonably possible, but while keeping sentence structure and word arrangement in mind. So, we just arrange translated words in a more naturally sounding order, rather than changing the words themselves.

Sub groups that favor a more liberal translation approach often go farther than that though. They sometimes engage in what some anime fans would consider localization. In other words, their translation isn’t concerned simply in having smooth sentence structure, but also in subs seeming culturally familiar to North American readers.

The negative here, though, is that this can result in cultural whitewashing.

What do I mean by cultural whitewashing?

Well, when its taken to the extreme, I mean what this rather (in)famous company does.


"Rice balls? More like sandwiches!"

Now, I’m certainly not saying that the more liberally translating sub groups are as extreme as 4Kids. But if you take the liberal translation approach to its logical extreme, you do get the sort of Americanization of characters and dialogue that 4Kids is known for.

In fairness, when you’re translating foreign entertainment for a more general mainstream audience (as is the case with most official dubs), a certain degree of localization is probably necessary in order to reach that audience. 4Kids typically takes it way too far, but I can understand some slight changes here and there. However, that’s when you’re focusing on a more general mainstream audience that aren’t particularly concerned with (or even aware of) where exactly their animated entertainment comes from.

Let’s be frank here – If you’re downloading subs of anime the very same day as they first aired in Japan, chances are that you’re well-aware of the Japanese cultural context of anime. You’re not as I was back in the 1990s, unable to culturally distinguish Sailor Moon and DBZ from The PowerPuff Girls and The Ripping Friends, but rather as I am now, acutely aware of the culturally nuanced differences between (most) anime shows and (most) North American-made or European-made animated shows.

Furthermore, when people knowingly turn to foreign entertainment it’s often due to a general dissatisfaction with local and domestic entertainment, as local and domestic entertainment is typically easier to acquire than foreign entertainment is. Many non-Japanese anime fans are anime fans precisely because they’re dissatisfied with the entertainment offerings of their respective countries. I myself am an anime fan today in large part due to how other more North American-centric entertainment industries started to lose my interest. I also know one anime fan who told me that the last thing he wants to see is anime become more like Dawson’s Creek, or The OC. 😉

So, really, I don’t particularly want to see Japanese characters sounding like they’re out of an American sitcom, court drama, or reality TV show. I became a pretty hardcore anime fan in large part to get away from that sort of entertainment.

Many of us anime fans are like that. We like the Japanese cultural flavor to anime. We see how that makes anime a more unique entertainment form, drawing distinctive differences between itself and entertainment offerings from other parts of the globe.

Sometimes liberal translating approaches go so far as to undermine that cultural flavor, I fear.

For example, Japan has a certain systematic politeness to its language and everyday discussions amongst the Japanese people, including widely beloved honorifics. That’s not to say that Japanese swear words are entirely non-existent, but they are (from what I’ve heard and read on the subject) rarer than in the English language and also used less commonly. That being said, I respect how a “delinquent” character should sound like an actual delinquent, and for the ears of English-speaking viewers, that may involve some added colorful language.

Still, does this girl look like a delinquent to you?

Well, in the K-On!! subs that I watched, Mio actually shouted “Jesus”, “Christ”, or “Jesus Christ”, at least a couple times throughout the anime, IIRC.

This is doubly problematic. One is that Mio is hardly the sort of girl to use colorful language (and nor is K-On!! a “bad ass” anime show by any stretch of the imagination; you don’t watch K-On!! for how gritty it is 😉 ). Secondly, Japan has a very tiny Christian population relative to its total population. As is generally well-known, the swear words people use are greatly determined by the predominant culture and/or religion of the place in which they live and/or grew up in (this is why Wonder Woman typically shouts “Hera!” when she is in a sate of disturbed shock and awe, and doesn’t shout “Jesus Christ”; I like how this is a nod to and reminder of Wonder Woman’s amazonian background).

Long story short, I very much doubt Mio actually shouted “Jesus Christ” in the original Japanese. And having the subs assign that line to her is hence a case of cultural whitewashing or Americanization, in my view.

Now, admittedly, this is very small in and of itself. But it can add up over time, and even a lone instance of it can be distracting to some viewers.

When watching a sub, I want the subs to convey the meaning and tone behind the words that the character or narrator stated, but I also want the cultural context of the anime to be respected and maintained. In the cases of more “bad ass” characters (like, say, Revy from Black Lagoon) this may indeed call for added colorful language. But that isn’t called for everywhere, and in fact, for most characters, a more or less literal translation would be fine.

As long as, of course, you have good sentence structure and smooth word arrangement.

I hope that’s what we see in the subs for the next episode of Hidan no Aria. 😉

Still, this bog entry is not intended to be critical of subbers themselves. Subbers do an often thankless yet invaluable service to the online anime community, and they probably don’t get appreciated enough for what they do. So merci beaucoup to them, regardless of any disagreements I may have with their chosen translating style.

Nonetheless, I think that good and legitimate discussion can be had over what subbing style is best for the modern online anime community, and it’s my hope that this blog entry can make a good contribution to that discussion.

What do you say, good reader? 🙂