Inside Fansubber Society: Meet the DIY Translators Who Make Movies Accessible
By day, Lynn works in customer service for a company that makes custom suits in Tiajin, China. Noel, who’s also from Tiajin, is studying for an English degree in college. I met them both on Instagram and am using only their first names due to legal concerns.
Because in their off-hours, Lynn and Noel are fansubbers: amateur media lovers who produce subtitles for films or shows in languages other than those spoken in the originals. They specialize in writing Chinese subtitles for English language movies and television.
Fansubbers tend to work on content that’s not yet been licensed for translated subtitles in the fan’s state of residence, and they usually distribute their products for free. This work is controversial and typically illegal, in violation of intellectual property. But it’s complicated, because fansubbing can play a role that studios don’t necessarily hate: building overseas engagement with a show. Proponents of fansubbing say the practice opens a space for creative freedom and technological innovation, as machine learning and artificial intelligence are transforming the practice. And for monolinguals who don’t speak a show’s original language, or those with disabilities that prevent them from experiencing dialogue by listening, fansubbing provides access to global stories.
I spoke to Lynn and Noel about the phenomenon of fansubbing and where it’s heading in the future.
These interviews have been edited for clarity and length.
Aneesha: How did you get involved as a fansubber?
Noel: As an English major student, I have always been interested in subtitle translation since I entered university. One day, while browsing the App Store on my phone, I came across an app named Yixueguan, on which many fansubbers work together to translate subtitles for short videos and some online courses. I was so excited to find such an app that I immediately registered as a fansubber. I have been a fansubber for three years.
Aneesha: Have any of your family members been in the world of fansubbing?
Lynn: No. On the contrary, though they want to support me to do what I love, they don’t really understand why I do something non-profit as they know how busy my real job is. But I think it’s kind of an “escape” and relaxation to me. Don’t get me wrong, I like what I’m doing in my job. The grown-up world needs escaping now and then.
Aneesha: What kind of movies do you fansub for?
Lynn: My real passion is about the T.V. dramas, especially comedies. Noel and I were in the same team of “Shameless” Season 10. We’re ready to work together with other team members on the finale season. Some other episodes I participated in recently like “Modern Family,” “Bojack Horseman,” and “Sex Education” are also my favorites. As for the movies, the only movie I took part in is “Jojo Rabbit.” Great movie.
Aneesha: What’s the most challenging part of fansubbing?
Noel: Most of my time, I translate English subtitles to Chinese. I found the most challenging part is to master a profound knowledge of both Chinese and Western cultures. For example, I have come across many English idioms or slang that might be strange for an audience, and it is hard to find the most equivalent expression in Chinese to translate them. Fansubbers have to make English jokes still sound humorous after translation.
Aneesha: What kind of technology is used for fansubbing?
Noel: Basically, fansubbing requires many kinds of software for making subtitles, creating term base, correcting errors and adding special effects. From my experience, what I frequently use includes Aegisub (a professional software for making subtitles) and Yishijie (a versatile software for fansubbers). Nowadays, artificial intelligence is being applied to improve the work efficiency of fansubbers. Essentially, A.I. can help us automatically produce English and Chinese subtitles, though there must be some inaccurate translation. I think this has greatly improved my efficiency when fansubbing for movies or T.V. serials.
Aneesha: How does the mainstream entertainment industry deal with fansubbing? Do studios embrace it because it shows fan devotion and gets more people watching, or do they oppose it because they see it as violating their intellectual property rights? What has been your experience with these tensions?
Noel: In China, the development of the fansubbing industry can be attributed to the efforts made by the early fansub groups such as YYeTs or TLF. There are many fansub groups in China taking part in translating subtitles to meet the needs of the audience to enjoy overseas T.V. series or movies of different countries.
Aneesha: What is your proudest accomplishment as a fansubber?
Lynn: I just love the sense of achievement of being part of it and the sense of belonging among the excellent team members. I believe all of us love sharing and are willing to improve ourselves. In other words, I think the gratification of the whole thing is my proudest accomplishment for now.