So here I am, with a bit of time on my hands. Seeing that Reddit had a Fate/Extra thread up, I thought it was time to download it from HorribleSubs. Unfortunately, HorribleSubs didn’t have it, meaning Crunchyroll didn’t release it yet. Glancing over the remainder of the fansubbed versions listed on Nyaa, I realized that I don’t know any of the groups, except Fuyu, whom I don’t exactly trust since they tend to release a lot of corrected versions. Judging from the comments, one other version seemed like it was machine-translated. So I thought, hey, maybe someone has done a comparison of these releases, like UltraCarl had been doing eons ago. Just for the heck of it, I google UltraCarl and discover that he is currently working in the anime industry. Fuck.
I realized that I can’t trust any of the fansubs available without spoiling my watching experience. This is far from ideal. At the peak of the fansub era, we had multiple fansub groups releasing decent English translations in a timely manner. I used to dislike this oversubbing phenomenon, because that meant low-profile shows like Hyouge Mono had to be translated from Chinese subs. Still, those were far better times simply because you could trust groups with a reputation to do a decent job. These days, fansubs have drastically declined in both quality and speed. I follow HorribleSubs for a reason, because they repost official translations from Crunchyroll and other distributors, who do a better job overall than fan translators in any era could.
But, what if one day Crunchyroll disappears? What if anime’s popularity in the west suddenly came to a sharp decline, bankrupting anime companies left and right, leaving fans with no official sources for their fix? Diehard fans are not prepared for such a turn of events, and ultimately our communities would have less enthusiastic hands to dedicate their time to the hobby. The terminal decline of the fansub community, which was brought on by less demand for fansub products, came with several downsides: apart from the community becoming a less vibrant fan space, the knowledge of fansub know-how has been degraded and the rate of tools development has slowed down. In 2005 we were talking about implementing automatic subtitle timing, back when it was still a pipe dream. In the last few years there has been substantial progress made on speech recognition, but is anybody doing automatic subtitles aside from Google? As someone who works with machine learning algorithms daily, this is not a pipe dream anymore, even for hobbyists.
So what the fuck happened? We let Crunchyroll run this subtitling business, thinking they do a good enough job, for too long. The proactive fan has moved on to do other things related to anime, like making YouTube videos, and spamming Twitch chat with DoritosChip. We don’t concern ourselves with the infrastructure anymore, we have entrusted Taiwanese subtitle sweatshops with those menial tasks. Still, the aforementioned trust issues will always be present when we are spoiled rotten by legal options and out of touch with the hardships of translation.
Fansubbers past and present are also to blame. They drained all the fun out of fansub creation, too focused on appearing more professional, and too focused on ad revenue and donations. I fondly remember working on One Piece fan translations with Kaizoku-Fansubs, it was an amazing ensemble of characters. One of the Kaizoku guys coded an impressive fork of VirtualDub, which was able to time subs by keyframes – a rarity before Sabbu and Aegisub came along. While he was working on fansubs as a hobby, he was also running his own Hollywood-based animation company. Another created an impressive list of subtitle character attack effects, KF’s signature style, which made it clear that this was a fan product, and that those fans had fun doing it. That guy works for Google now. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to bring back the dead, but I am trying to illustrate the level of talent that used to contribute to improving the subtitling field. And as far as I’m aware, the official subtitling industry still uses Aegisub for most of typesetting work, which was designed and coded years ago by a team of primarily anime DVD rippers.
If legal options one day disappear, it’s going to take a long time to reestablish what subtitling standards we once knew. Even if they never do, the trust in fansub brands just isn’t there for all the corner cases that fansubbers have to cover. The general disinterest in translation does just that.