Translation Theory for Anime Fans: A Case Study of a Fan Translator vs a Professional

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.


Bibliographical Information

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:

  1. The fan translator actually used less translation notes than the professional.
  2. 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.



  1. One of my favourite part of fan translation is the freedom to make troll subs or jokes. Help me get through some shit anime and manga. I also noted that this is very prevalent in Vietnamese fan scanlations and subs. Vietnamese is a very rich language, there’re multiple way to say the same thing, some more polite than others. They translate however they wanted, retain the meaning while adding cutural specific jokes or phrase. Maybe this has to do with small audience and lack of competition (few Vietnamese can speak Japanese, many translate through English ver). The amount of officially released manga are huge (some popular manga here are stuff no westener ever aware of), but they are subjected to lots of censorships, so piracy is still the king.

    • It’s really interesting hearing about how fans translate to languages other than English. Can I ask what sort of censorship anime and manga are subjected to in Vietnam?

      • Well, obviously hentai are banned. You can be in jail for distributing porn materials. Full nudity in manga are censored by drawing characters wearing bikini. This can be hilarious in ecchi titles since characters reaction doesn’t make sense. Some questionable scene in Dragon Ball are cut or redraw completely. They seems to have relaxed it a bit with introduction of 15+ rating. But they have no way to stop children from reading or buying ecchi. The government is trying to censor online reader as well. Political materials are censored, but since manga have so little to do with reality, they mostly get a pass. This can be amusing in literature, though. I just read Les Miserable’s Vietnamese translation. They translator notes and what Hugo are saying sometimes contradicted each other completely.

        For anime, because cartoon=kid show, they used to show violent shounen in the same timeslot as barney & friends. Some episodes might be cut completely, causing story to make no sense. But that’s more than a decade ago. I don’t watch tv much these days, but I see cable channels air Vietnamese dubbed Sailor Moon, dragon ball z, Card Captor Sakura, Doraemon… mostly old series. The newer ones are all shounen like Fairy Tails or Naruto. I see Rahxephon on a children’s channel for some reason.The dub are universally terrible, not to mention they use the same 5 voice actors over and over again. I can watch some series legally on Crunchyroll or Daisuki, mostly low profile like Classroom crisis. This season Daisuki got Gundam and Revolutio.

  2. Is this perhaps a study you came across while writing your thesis or is this post taken directly from your thesis? If the latter, is it okay? (Heh. Of course it is, right?)

    Anyways, serious question: Do you know what kind of training you have to do to qualify as a pro translator, Froggy? Or is there just some kind of test? Or both?

    On a side note: IMO, if you have some (or maybe a lot) time and dedication, then even you can study the nature of the aspects that differentiate between a pro’s and fan’s translations; you already seem to have the skills.

    • I came across the study while researching for my thesis. It’s not a chapter in the thesis itself, so not to worry!

      As for your question, becoming a professional translator is different depending on the country you’re working in. Some countries have a national accreditation system (like Australia, for instance), but that’s the exception, not the norm. Universities and workshops offer certificates and other formal qualifications, which is useful because certified translators are listed in directories and so on. However, not all translation jobs actually ask for certification – in fact, it’s more likely that they don’t ask for it. The reason for this is that there is so much demand for translation and not enough accredited individuals. Certification can offer you a leg up in the industry, but you can still become a professional without it.

      Then there are online agencies like Gengo and Babylon, which translators can sign up for and receive commissions. Every agency has its own testing standards. Some ask for accreditation, some don’t. Since most translators work freelance, they get work mostly through reputation and building up a portfolio.

      Basically, to cut a long story short, professional translators are people who consistently get paid to translate. Certain sectors of the industry are heavily regulated (e.g. government documents and legal texts), but there are no consistent training standards or qualifications throughout the industry as a whole. It’s too big to regulate efficiently.

  3. This is why I love talking to anime dub writers. (who are often also VAs and directors) They’ll take a professionally translated script, which may have more or less notes, or done more for accuracy, and then re-interpret lines based on their own understanding of the visuals, the original JP audio, the subs, and perhaps additional interpretations given by a director with a different vision. The big example for me was Steins;Gate, where most fan translations of the geekspeak was done using 4ch memes, (emphasizing Daru, Okabe, and Kurisu’s internet savvy) while the dub went with scifi franchise references. (to complement the show’s own genre)

    It would interesting to compare the ages of the fan translator vs. the pro translator, in how the new generation has developed many more textual signifiers of tone, that only exist in concise text formats, (1, 2) a level of diction/syntax association that pre-internet age texters do not employ or recognize. For example, most who are well versed in internet/texting culture now consider the use of :) to be extremely passive aggressive. Parents/grandparents on facebook remain clueless as to this new interpretation, and in doing so sometimes reinforce the truth of it.

    • Okay, serious response.

      You know, I do get the impression that pro translators these days (at least these days) are pretty internet-savvy these days. This probably has something to do with how pretty much all translators use the internet these days, either to find work, use a dictionary tool or to research. This is probably one of the reasons why the “genre awareness gap” between fan and pro translators closed so quickly after fansubbing turned digital.

      Still, it would definitely be interesting to see how demographics factor into what sort of translations people produce. I get the impression that the people involved at, say, Commie are young dudes in their twenties, judging by their language choices.

      I’m gonna mentally file this away as something to look into when I finish my thesis.

      • What struck me in the example you chose, with how the fan translator rendered the okama’s speech, was that instead of describing the character’s speaking style through verbs or adverbs, (“he drawled” or “he said sassily”) the fan translator altered the words themselves to reflect how they were delivered.

        This strongly correlates to how, for example, we now use “yaaaaaaaassssss” instead of “yes! she screamed.” Or if we use “screaming yes rn,” that gives a different connotation from “yaaaaaaasss.”

        That, I think, is strongly tied to age. (And language. This might be unique to English, having grown up influenced by the likes of casual language reconstruction in media, exemplified in Buffy Speak.

        And while the TvTropes article notes that Buffy Speak is used to try and make teenage dialogue feel timeless, it will eventually come off as very dated to future generations. Catcher In The Rye’s prose doesn’t read like a modern light novel, for all that its content and themes match. (Consider also the project to translate the Iliad as rap. What would a LN Iliad be? Patrocules calling Achilles aniki or even onii-chan?) The translator’s life experiences (their demographics, whether they’re fans) will filter how they choose to render language that is supposed to be hip, “gay,” tough, etc. Going back to the Steins;Gate example, the fansubs would be people who find 4ch memes as the proof of nerd-savvy that the S;G characters are. J. Michael Tatum, as an “older” interpreter, associated geeks more with traditional scifi franchises.

        • I don’t think “he drawled” or “he said sassily” would have been appropriate choices for a manga translation, but other than that, I agree. I do get the impression that fan translators are more likely to use internet speak, perhaps because they’re more immersed in it. Although I assume that older people are equally familiar with this kind of writing as long as they’re heavy internet users, I suppose younger writers might find it more difficult to switch registers. Alternatively, as you suggest, different generations might have a different conception of what constitutes the “in” crowd.

          • Whoops, forgot about that manga detail. Although, then we could get into how the original Japanese itself denotes these different kinds of voices. Do certain generations use more term-based slang, or do some create slang via how they say words?

            Yeah, the internet in more anonymous spaces has definitely swirled around the borders between learning slang and age. When I was primarily on Livejournal and forums, which have more community self-selection, I didn’t learn any slang, and could feel that generation gap, even though it was still in a fandom space. (Possibly also due to the younger fans being english second language non-Americans)
            Once I got on tumblr, where you are exposed to reblogs and memes from extensive reblog chains, where you didn’t necessarily care about the who fo the origin, rather than direct interactions, suddenly I was picking up on much more new linguistic changes. (Albeit within a fandom context.) And because it was in a fandom space, propagation was through similar personality types, rather than by age. Squee-driven democratization?

            On the other hand, age definitely plays a role in the types of permutations on a meme people make. The specific situations “netflix and chill” variations are filtered through do reflect life experiences and responsibilities often tied to age.

  4. So, I’m under the impression you’re trying to pursue a career as a translator. Is this true? If so, how do you think that this

    > 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.

    will affect your career going forward, if at all?

    • I’ve been getting kinda eh about working in the translation industry lol. I’d like to get the qualifications for translating, but my passion is academia.

      That said, the rise of crowdsourcing is interesting. It won’t get rid of traditional translation work altogether, especially in specialised fields. But it will affect translators who work in localisation in particular. Professional translators will have to work more with amateur translators. Translators will also be asked to do different things as part of their job. They may have to take on more of a mentoring/editing role, for instance, while the amateurs do the raw translation. To adapt to that sort of change, professionals have to be open-minded and also realistic about what amateurs can and can’t do.

      Also, the fact that companies are always eager to cut costs and get things done quicker, particularly when it comes to translation, means that no matter what changes happen, translators will have to keep fighting for good pay. If I became a professional translator, I will have to prove that my services are necessary and that my professional oversight will make the overall product better. Crowdsourcing is making translation faster; the professional is there to make it better. In order to do that, I will have to work with amateurs, not against them.

      Of course, as a fan translator myself, I know exactly how to deal with amateurs, so I think I’m in a good position to negotiate this particular change. In fact, I’m even pushing for it. Crowdsourcing is a good thing overall.

  5. Beyond being “familiar” with the target audience, the “quality” of the translation depends on who the target audience is defined to be. For professional translations it might include people with little or no knowledge of the Japanese language and culture, whereas for fan translations it might be people accustomed to watching Japanese shows who favor authenticity. I’m from Taiwan, where everyone grows up watching anime and is acquainted with Japanese culture. There is essentially no difference between professional and fan made translations.

    • I have to admit I don’t know much about Taiwan or how translators are perceived over there, but I have heard that translations make up a quarter of publications per year. I imagine that if a readership is generally used to translations and has had long exposure to Japanese culture, there wouldn’t be much difference between fan and professional translations at all.

  6. I wonder whether you’ve heard of the “InuYasha-FanProjekt”? Bascially, a small German dvd label issued an open call in the fan community so that they get subs in decent quality. The InuYasha-FanProjekt is responsible for the subs on that release (and those subs were re-used in the recent re-issues by Kazé). The translators were not payed anything but dvds.

    For those who can read German, here’s the FAQ-page on their forum:

    Excerpt of the most interesting items (my translation):


    Q: Weren’t you being used by Alive and Red Planet?

    A: This is an argument we get to hear a lot. But even if it looks like that for some, we don’t see it like that. It’s a fact that Red Planet is a rather small label and can’t afford to hire a staff of japanologists only for a TV series. And a group of anime fans will certainly achieve much better quality than someone ignorant who’s quickly dropped in front of the series and is supposed to translate. Additionally, we’re doing this BECAUSE we’re fans. Anyone can grumble about the quality of official translations, but few do anything. Here we have, for once, the chance to change things. We can intervene and create Dvds the way we’d like to have them. And we’re all very happy to have this chance. :) Furthermore many who doubt the IYFP seem to think of capitalists with fat cigars in their big-boss chairs, when we talk about our collaboration with Alive/Red Planet. That is definitely NOT the case. We know many staff members personally, and they’re nice, enthusiastic and tolerant people. :)

    Q: Are you working on other series, except Inu Yasha?

    A: The IYFP isn’t only restricted to Inu Yasha. Red Planet appreciates our input on various other anime-related questions and individual members help out with other anime projects. This happened with Gundam Wing (minimal), Rumiko Takahashi Anthology and Mermaid Forest.


    I’m not aware of anything similar happening again in the German market, but I do wonder how often dvds or streaming services recruit from the fandom. There may well be more crossover than we think/know about, and if that’s the case. The smaller the market, the more likely this would be, I think. I do get the impression that the German market generally has pretty good ties to the fandom. I remember, for example, hearing about Fans suggesting voice actors for the German Haruhi Suzumiya release.

    One thing about Inuyasha: The series ran on German TV in the children’s section, so the target arudience for the Dvds would not have been only the dedicated anime fandom, but also children/teens who watched the series on TV.

  7. Admit it, ribbit-kun. You wrote this just for self-gratification and to brainwash people into believing your translations are プロ.

    On a serious note, I agree that neither are inherently better. Like you said, I think it’s all about context and audience. Professional translations appease a broader audience than fan translations do, but that’s probably necessary to make a profit off the licenses. In the same vein, they’re highly accountable for their mistakes, since the merchandise is paid for. Not so, with fan translations. Everyone gets a participation award and the good/reliable groups get the repeat readers/watchers.

    I personally prefer fan translations for anime (I haven’t read a professional manga/ln translation.), especially literal ones, since I like to use subs as a dictionary.

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