Translation is not an exact science, but an oft-overlooked art form that requires creativity. Literal translations might remove the emotional connotations of words, while other grammatical constructions in one language don’t directly translate to another language. As a result, translators often need to restructure or rephrase things in order to relay what is said in one language to another more effectively.
It takes a talented professional to accomplish this task. In the world of anime fansubs (illegal amateur translations which were more significant in the days before simulcast streaming), this professionalism isn’t always there. Some fans want a literal translation, while others stray a little too far from the source. Sometimes the person translating just made an honest mistake, but published their work before they or anyone with them noticed.
One serious issue with overly-literal translations is that, when you directly translate words from one language to another, what might have been a simple statement ends up sounding absurd. There is a reason sites that use Google Translate instead of hiring actual translators often sound like garbled confusing messes. It’s also a reason why many fans prefer ADV’s translation of Evangelion over Netflix’s, since ADV’s less-literal translation sounded clearer in English.
While the anime fansubbing community had people who spoke both English and Japanese working diligently to bring anime to fans, they didn’t necessarily have writers. The result was overly literal translations resulting in redundancies, concepts lost in translation, and general absurdity.
One of the best examples of a redundant, absurd translation comes from 2006’s Fate/stay Night. In one infamous fansub of the 23rd episode, the hero Shirou declares that “People die if they are killed.” While this line did originate in the visual novel Fate/stay Night is based on, the literal translation is pure absurdity and became a meme on 4Chan as a result. A better, alternative translation might’ve been “People stay dead when they are killed,” since in context the line is about Shirou talking to Saber about his ability to regenerate.
Many fansubbers would go beyond mere literal translation to the point of not translating whole chunks of Japanese at all, including footnotes translating the untranslating material on-screen. The most commonly untranslated words were honorifics, such as -chan and -kun and -sama (oddly, -san, a very standard honorific, generally didn’t receive this treatment). These terms really didn’t need to be there; there’s a reason people translate onii-chan as “older brother” in modern anime.
If a fansubber dared translate onii-chan into big brother, certain fans would get angry. It seems bewildering that a part of the community wanted as little translation as possible in their fansubbed content, especially in hindsight. All this led to an over-abundance of translator notes, all of which cluttered up the screen, taking your eyes off the action.
However, some people preferred the untranslated material over the translated stuff. Until the Viz dub of Sailor Moon, fans commonly called the Sailor Guardians the Sailor Senshi as opposed to the literal translation of Sailor Soldiers or DiC/Cloverway translation of Sailor Scouts. The fetishization of Japanese names over translations is why you still find people calling Attack on Titan “Shingeki no Kyojin” or, even more redundantly, calling My Hero Academia “Boku no Hero Academia.”
The most infamous example of an awkwardly implemented translator’s note came about in a fansub of Death Note episode 24. In this episode, Light Yagami manages to pull off a very complicated scheme that requires brainwashing, manipulating the detectives investigating him and pinning his crimes on a maniacal executive without dying himself. At the end of it all, he indulges in a little evil laugh, declaring that everything went “all according to plan.”
While the official releases go for the obvious translation, one fansubber translated the line as “All according to keikaku,” with a note on the top of the screen reading “Keikaku means ‘plan’.” This begs the question: why not just translate “keikaku” as “plan”? It seems needlessly complicated, which is why this fansub was immediately mocked and turned into a popular meme online.
However, while being too literal in a translation can cause problems, so can not being faithful enough to the original material. Some fansubbers are unashamed to diverge from the original text whenever possible, sometimes to extreme and absurd decrees.
Sometimes this was an unintentional failing, wherein the fansubbers were limited by the demand for their content to be available as soon as possible, which led to many rushing over translations. It wasn’t uncommon to see mistakes or untranslated bits in subs available on the day of release. This was particularly common with shows where characters talked extraordinarily fast.
Other times, extra material was included on purpose. Some fansubs added creatively implanted vulgarity to anime aimed at general audiences in order to make it seem edgier and more adult. A great example of this is in the Anime Labs translation of Dragon Ball Z. Sometimes the extra material has nothing to do with the actual anime, such as the infamous “Miami Mike” note in a Dragon Ball fansub, where the translator tells Miami Mike in the credits of Dragon Ball, “I remember what you did to me at DragonCon.”
In many regards, fansubs were the Wild West of the anime community, but like the West, what transpired became the mythology and backbone of this culture we call anime fandom.
Anime fansubs were instrumental in the early days of anime fandom. However, there were also some fairly infamous bad translations.