Fan translation is an interesting subject for media scholars. The whole practice is a demonstration of how our media consumption habits have been changing thanks to online technology. Fans have always been creating their own content, but now they’re able to distribute them much more quickly and more widely than ever before. A lot of the academic debate has centered around the ethics of fan translation and its relationship with piracy, which is a very fascinating subject that will get its own post one day.
Ironically, what gets less attention is the actual translating aspect. There have been scattered observations about the translation strategies used by fan translators, but very little empirical research. How do fan translators compare with professional translators? No one can answer this for certain. The question has only become more difficult to answer as the boundaries between “fan” and “professional” in the anime/manga/VN scene become increasingly blurred.
Today, I’d like to share with you guys a case study published in 2008 which directly compares a fan and professional translation. It’s not perfect (the scope of the study is extremely limited, and not to mention the study was published seven years ago), but what’s interesting was the author’s conclusion: the fan translation was considered just as competent as the professional translation.
O’Hagan, Minako. “Fan Translation Networks: An Accidental Translator Training Environment?” In Translator and Interpreter Training: Issues, Methods and Debates, edited by John Kearns, 158-183. London: Continuum, 2008.
Summary of the Case Study
In 2006, O’Hagan interviewed a fan translator involved in the scanlation scene about his translation habits and experiences. She also asked him to translate a short manga called Shissho Nikki (trans. Disappearance Diary), which had not been translated by any scanlation or professional group at the time. (It has since been scanlated, though.) The manga was chosen because it contained a lot of culturally-specific words and phrases. O’Hagan wanted to test the fan translator on two things in particular: his Japanese proficiency and his approach to translating culturally-specific words. His translation was then compared to a translation done by a professional.
The main purpose of the study was to find out if the scanlation environment works well as a training ground for potential translators. O’Hagan goes into detail describing the scanlation process as being much like a real workplace. Translators, editors and typesetters all have clearly defined roles. Scanlation also requires regular time commitment from each group member, especially when speed is a consideration. Of course, the only way to test whether a scanlation group produces professional-quality work is to compare the work to that of a professional. Hence the test.
The results were a little surprising. While the fan translator did make accuracy errors, especially when translating informal sentence structures, his translation was remarkably similar to the professional’s overall. However, there were striking differences in two particular areas:
- The fan translator actually used less translation notes than the professional.
- The fan translator tended to emphasise the idiosyncrasies in the dialogue more. In particular, the fan translator used drawn-out vowels to show colloqualism visually. (O’Hagan calls this “orthographic devices.”)
- “This is bad . . . Reeeally bad” vs “Man, I feel sick”
- “Heeey! Don’t ignore meeee!” vs “Cutting me dead, huh?”
- “Okaaay” vs “OK”
- “I’lllll kill yoooou!” vs “I’ll kill you!”
It appears that the fan translator used the elongated vowels to convey that the character speaking the lines was an okama. The fan translator picked a translation strategy that would make the character sound more effeminate, based on his close familiarity with the okama stereotype and how it tends to be portrayed in manga. O’Hagan deemed the fan translator superior in terms of genre awareness.
Also, while both translators claimed that they were attempting to keep translation notes to a minimum, the fan translator left more cultural words unexplained. Sometimes, he substituted more obscure cultural words for more widely known Japanese words. For example, he rendered the word izakaya as sake shop. O’Hagan notes that this might have had something to do with the fan translator having a particular readership in mind (i.e. fellow fans), whereas the professional translator was thinking about audience in a more abstract way. In other words, the professional assumed less cultural knowledge from the readers.
Overall, O’Hagan concluded that the two translators used equally valid translation strategies. Both were acceptable as commercial translations.
What are the takeaways from this?
Even if a fan possesses imperfect language skills, they might be able to compensate with genre awareness and a clear understanding of their target audience’s expectations. Of course, language ability is still extremely important, so genre awareness can only carry you so far. But it does help translators come up with creative and fitting solutions to translation problems.
There are, however, huge caveats to this study. The results are obviously not generalisable. It only suggests some certain ways that the fan translation environment could potentially be useful for training prospective translators. O’Hagan doesn’t claim that fan translation is automatically equal to professional translation. The quality of fan translations are extremely variable, after all.
The other thing to take into account is how the anime/manga translation industry has evolved since this study was carried out. Most professional translators these days are extremely familiar with anime conventions and internet lingo. Some of them may even have been fan translators in the past. This is how we end up with Crunchyroll subs pulling stuff like this:
So is it worth trying to compare “fans” and “professionals”? I would say so. You might find it useful to think of fans and professionals as groups that influence each other. Even if the translations we are exposed to these days don’t fall neatly into either category, the ideas behind “fan translation” and “professional translation” continue to be extremely influential. You should also consider the fact that while professionals may frequently call themselves fans, only the professionals get paid. The distinction is not completely arbitrary.
So in the end, how do fans and professionals compare? I’ve written almost 1000 words without actually answering the question. There isn’t enough research to suggest that one is better than the other. As always, it comes down to context and keeping an open mind.
However, I will say this: O’Hagan wrote that article in order to convince translation theorists to take fan translations seriously, not just as a sociological phenomenon but as a serious alternative to the models taught in the academy. Even outside the anime world, crowdsourced translation projects are becoming ever more popular. Professionals who ignore the trends may well find it harder to adapt to a rapidly changing market. Professionals have a lot to learn from fans, just as fans have a lot to learn from professionals.