Saturday, August 20, 2011

What I hate about Fan Subs 2 - Fans don't know how to subtitle

I completely forgot about this series of articles I was going to do on Fan Subs, and since the first post on this topic is one of my most popular articles on the blog, I thought I would continue with this little rant of mine. Not only that, but the more I focus on the current season, the more I grow to dislike them.

The number one thing I'm noticing now is just how poor a lot of fan subs are put together. Sure, any idiot can get his hands on a video editor and put text on the screen, but that doesn't mean they know how to make proper subtitles. There are about 5 elements a lot of fan subs use I'm noticing that just don't work, and I'd like to cover each and every one of them.

For the purposes of this article, I'm going to be drawing from two examples. Karman Rider OOO done by TV-Nihon and The iDOLM@STERS done by Doki. I'm not picking on these fan sub groups individually, I'm just using them as an example. These issues are not limited to these two groups nor are they the biggest offenders, they are just what I was watching at the time when I got the idea to do this article.

1. Stylized Fonts
One thing you learn in the video industry pretty quickly is that when you add text to a video, you just can't make the text whatever font that you want. This is why Helvetia is as popular as it is, its easy to read. Now you can use other fonts, but the important thing is that they have to be easy to read and not be the least bit distracting to the viewer.

Which leads to the problem, Fan Subbers have this strange need to make the subtitles look as interesting as possible. Sometimes its just a matter of the making the font more bubbly than it should or making it match the font that's used in the opening credits, but even these feel a bit much. There is nothing wrong with using a simple font. The important thing is what the characters say, not how the font looks as the character is saying their dialog.

But then you have major offenders like in the image above where the fans go all out to make one character's font stand out from the rest of the cast. With Kaman Rider OOO, I kinda get it, since the villains don't have lips move when they are talking, and they add the funky shadow behind the subtitles to give you a heads up about who's talking, but there voices are so different from each other that its not all that difficult to tell them apart just by listening to their voices. When you have this type of over stylized fonts appear on the screen really quickly, you get distracted from what's going on screen. Plus it takes time for your mind to register that what just appeared on screen are actually words and not an image. Since you spend this extra time just to letting your mind know that the thing that just appeared on the bottom of the screen are in fact subtitles, you are given less of a chance to read what the characters are saying, which means you either miss it or you have to pause the screen to read everything you missed.

This could all be easily avoided if the fan subbers had just used a simple font like Helvetia or Ariel, but they go for style over substance, and because of it the viewer gets the short end of the stick.

2. Placement Problems
In the world of video editing, there's a little bit of lingo called, "Title Safe." If you open a proper video editor, you might notice a set of lines that goes around the frame of the video. These lines help tell you where it is acceptable to put in text. Go outside the box, and you run the risk of the text being cut off by a television set's preset perspective do-hinky (I forget the actual term). Once you start editing video using "Title Safe" you can easily tell who's new to using a video editor, cause the text will be too low, too high, or too far to the side on the screen. I run into this a lot with Fan Subbers, and its a dead give away that most of them don't know what they're doing.

Not only that, but they also feel the need to place the subtitles to where the characters are located. Like in this shot. The subtitles are all the way over to the side of the screen because that's where Anrk is talking. Now, why they did this is easy to understand. They didn't want Anrk's words to be confused with what the crowd is saying. But the thing is, the crowd is just talking in mummers. Anrk's voice is the most dominate thing you hear on screen during this shot. You're mind should be able to draw the contention pretty quickly that the person with the loudest voice is what's being side on the bottom of the screen, so there's no need to place it all the way over on the left side of the screen. This is something that's just feels unnecessary for them to do.

3. Adding Kanji on the Side of the Screen During Songs

The reason why this bugs me is a simple one. The target audience of these fan subs are for people who only know how to speak English. Why are these people feel the need to add the written version of the language the target audience won't be able to read or understand? This is something they add just for flare. Its pointless and there's no purpose for it. Not only that but its more crap they throw onto the screen for us to look at. The main focus of the image should be what's going on in the show, not the piles upon piles of text and font being throw on the screen. You guys could get your episodes out so much faster if you skipped this meaningless step.

Plus with the moments with the songs, like in this shot of iDOLM@STERS, this is too many sets of fonts for the mind to process. You've got the Japanese/English translation of the song going on top, the pointless kanji on the side and what the characters are saying on the bottom of the screen. Its just too much. Also the real kicker, what's being said in the song isn't important to what's going on. Its just a song they throw into the show, nothing more, nothing less. So you don't even need to know what the song means, cause its not important. What's important is the Producer telling Haruka and Makoto to get on the stage, not the "Let's go where we want to" part of the song. This all just very unnessarcy to get the point across to what's going on.

4. No Clue What to do When Two People are Talking at the Same Time

Now in the industry, how you tackle the problem of subtitling a scene with two people talking at once is easy. You place both lines of dialog on the bottom of the screen on top of each other, with the more important line being on the bottom and the top dialog being either put in brackets or have the font be another color. Its not that hard to do, plus its not that confusing when you actually look at it.

When it comes to Fan Subbers, they have no idea what the hell they should be doing. The most common solution I find most fan subbers using is putting the important line of dialog on the bottom of the screen, while having the background conversation on the top of the screen. This is just the wrong way to go about doing it. Your eye moves in a Z like pattern across the screen, and when you put dialog on the top of the screen, its the first thing your eye registers. Since what's being put on the top of the screen is a background conversations, that isn't necessarily important, you are getting the useless information first, and you run the risk of missing the important bit of dialog on the bottom of the screen.

Plus, this just looks awful and unprofessional.

5. Adding Animations to the Subtitles.
This is just like the problem with the stylized fonts, but this, in my opinion, is a even bigger problem. Its an even bigger distraction since your eye is noticing new movement on the screen. Your eye is going to watch whatever is moving instead of reading the text, so you'll know the subtitles are there, but you might miss what exactly the subtitles are saying. Plus it draws your attention away from the action on screen.

This is done a lot during fight scenes and transformation scenes. So while you do get used to them after repeated viewings, there is still one major problem with all of this. Its extra fluff that you don't need. Sure it looks cool, but its completely unneeded, and there's no way you'd come across this in a professionally subtitling job.

But Here's the Thing...
All of these problems combine into one large Voltron of a problem that faces all Fan Subbers from being taken seriously. Since your product looks bad, your creditability in your translation is questioned. You could have the most accurate translation of an anime out there, but if you don't add the subtitles correctly, you run into either one of two problems. 1. The subtitling is so poor and off, it keeps people away from using your sub. 2. It looks so stylized that people won't get a chance to understand what's happening cause your extra flare is getting in the way of what's important. Something to keep in mind.


  1. While I frequently agree with you, I personally disagree with at least two things on this, especially as it pertains to TV-Nihon. You keep pointing out that the things that they do are 'unprofessional' or 'is something you wouldn't see in a professional set of subs'. But that's the thing. They AREN't Professionals. They do this for fun, and I have yet to have any issue with being unable to track both the action AND the subtitles. The colored font helps keep track of who's talking, and the animations are just a neat thing they do. Again, the effect of it on me is just my opinion, but if it was enough of a problem, enough people would complain that they wouldn't do it. I go on their forums fairly frequently, and I've never seen any one complain as to the presence of their fonts and animations.

    That said, some of the things I do agree with, like placement, but then again, a vast majority of the fansubs I watch/read (What verb do you use for subs? I mean, you're reading the subs, but you're watching the series...Off topic) are from TV-Nihon, so make of that what you will.

  2. few small nitpicks about your opinion of professional vs nonprofessional sub's. for one just because a professional company is supposed to be just that. professional, and know what they are doing doesn't mean thats true.. see Macross II sometime. TVN's fansubs are great. i actually like that characters have differant font color and style. it makes it easier to follow who is saying what. as for incidental music being subbed when dialog is being spoken at the same time. well heres the thing. if that wasn't there i bet you would point out "umm they didn't subtitle the music.. whats the girl saying anyway?" so yeah. i happen to like that. and the kanji down the side is actually kinda cool. after watching an episode i can go back and use it to help me learn the language. also fansubs have the added benefit of being about 20% more faithful to the original meaning of the show over localized subtitling and dubs. since fans tend to leave the japanese cultural stuff in and most of the really good fansub groups will put notes on the screen to explain something. such as an episode of the fansubbed NANA. during the episode where they are celebrating tanabata at the top of the screen what tanabata was was explained with a small caption.