Misnomers and supposition

Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei.  I forgot to note the episode number.

The first half toes around the umbrella known as translation. The second half manages to trip over the big orange monster to whom that umbrella belongs to.

Somewhere along the line, the lot of us became translators. And I don’t mean just fansubbers, but fansub watchers as well. The term gets thrown around so frequently that most don’t even bat an eye upon reading something like, “That episode’s translation is bad.”

Press further: Why?

“Because it has spelling errors.”

In reality, the text is bad because it has spelling errors, and that alone isn’t enough information to say who is at fault. Oh yes, there may just be more than one person involved in these crazy hobby projects. There usually is, yet it’s something that tends not to register with many, which is great because it allows others to get away with murder.

Translation and editing go hand in hand, not unlike book writing and editing, or article writing and editing. In all these cases, it’s hard to determine where the former ends and the latter takes over, and many times it’s an iterative process that occurs inside one mind first and involves others second. It’s not hard then to see why there’s a tendency to lump things into just translation, or just writing in general, but step back enough and these become two distinct steps, albeit with no strict borders.

In some ways, translation is like static compilation. You’re sitting in first year programming for n00bs and you press whatever button it is in your C++ IDE to see if passing the Hello World assignment happens now, or some indeterminate time later. What exactly is going on? You’re compiling your code, words are being translated into a program. And maybe that’s true for toy programs.

Fast forward a couple weeks and, my goodness, you have to reference some external library. Quite ambitious. Suppose that you are “just” compiling your program. Are you done? Can you call it a program? Does it run? No, no, and no. The translated code does not compute, it needs ideas and algorithms provided by the library, and it’s not called external for nothing. Who will reconcile these dangling connections to distant functions? A linker.

I suppose that linking is to programming as editing is to fansubbing: important steps for any non-trivial project, but terms that exist outside of popular nomenclature. If the extent of your programming knowledge is from some movie about a game of thermonuclear war, then programs get compiled, full stop. If the extent of your fansubbing knowledge is clicking torrent links, then dialog gets translated, full stop.

If there’s anything untranslated, if there are little details that are eating you like mosquitoes, or honorifics, if there is a failure to link, then chances are good that a decision was made, for better or for worse, out of literalness or out of laziness, by the editor and not the translator. The translator can output anything from product to raw one-to-one correspondences. His/her responsibilities end there. Localization, omission, salvage operations, are duties ascribed to the editor.

Of course there’s a garbage in, garbage out phenomenon that occurs when dealing with sub-optimal conversions, but spelling errors? Funky grammar comprehensible only by persons of East-Asian descent? Unsatisfactory amount of Westernization? The first two are not functions of translator laziness, and the last is proportional to the amount of material that an editor is willing to let slide.

Part 0010

Even if you were just watching Saturday morning Tom and Jerry (like me) while real people were running JACOsub on their Amiga machines, you can safely say that “Fansub” is a term that has stuck. Yet it is not representative of what can be and is done today.

Old school fansubs probably advanced as far as industry allowed it to, and it seems like in industry, subtitling has not evolved beyond the style set forth in the DVD spec. To claim that DVD subtitles are the best subtitles is like claiming that the sailing ship was the best way to travel internationally. It sure was if you were living circa 400 years ago. It also happened to be the only way, short of sitting on a bunch of strung-up logs and crossing your fingers.

Back then, technology was hard to find. It was also quite limited. Case in point, DVD subtitles are actually prerendered overlays because while Moore’s Law marched on, it hadn’t quite marched far enough to put enough horsepower in commodity DVD players to support real-time soft-subtitle rendering.

To this day, there are still howls of protest over soft-subtitles on desktops, although the performance problems don’t belong solely to the soft-sub component in a media container. But if real-time soft-subs are problematic in 2008, then they were downright infeasible in 1997. More supposition on my part, but the method of production back then was basically soft-sub rendering onto video, so even though SSA or JACOsub existed and were used, much of the potential flexibility lay dormant.

All of this is a long-winded way of saying that subtitling was all past technology was capable of, even if more could be done on paper. And when that happened to be all that the industry was (and is) capable of doing, then it’s easy to spot the stylistic similarities.

There are any number of claims one can make about technology. Technology happens, social change follows. Technology lowers barriers to entry, it increases flexibility, it’s empowering, it reduces to time to market, it can improve quality of life yet obliterate business models. The ability to better exploit SSA and its successor ASS might be an evolutionary upgrade in the subtitling world, but it’s flexibility that DVD doesn’t have and something that the industry hasn’t been able to capitalize on.

Meanwhile, the lower barriers to entry mean that younger people can access fansubs, make their own, and distribute them. The result is like a playground without adult supervision (or yes, kids in a candy store), and we are all witnesses to the attendant consequences.

Apparently the free reign, somewhat hacker-like mentality drives people up the wall. The ability to overlay images or other animations on the cheap plus aspiring graphics artists wanting to prove their skills has lead to an explosion in typesetting. The cost of a simple note is virtually nil, requiring little more effort than inserting another line into a soft-sub script. But placing any line of text, in any font size, in any orientation, anywhere on the screen, is virtually nil to begin with.

Cue adult outrage, but we were all kids once and you know what? Kids just wanna have fun. You could give them a stern talking to, and I suppose that’s already been done, but it’s still pretty hard to ground people you don’t know, from over the internet. I think that’s a Good Thing. That’s neither here nor there, but perhaps an article for another day.

At one point it may have been perfectly fine to accept the text-only world that arose out of the constraints of the day, but today’s fansubs are a much more visual and generally information intensive beast. And it’s all because people can do nifty things like coloured text and custom fonts while being able to render them in real time. You laugh (or rage quit F10) now, but I think it interesting to note that, at one point in time, mainstream computing was the domain of the command line.