Liberal Versus Literal Subtitles

Mm… Haven’t written an article in a long while… Time to shake things up with my opinions and observations on Anime subtitles, both official and fansub.

First off, let me just clearly state that I indeed appreciate everything that fansubbers have done for the community, and you can read about that in one of my previous articles. Translating anything is a very arduous task and I hold great respect for the people who go out of their way, be it fansub or professional translators, to subtitle our favorite Anime in a language that we can understand.

So hats off to you guys! (^.^)

That being said, as fans, we do tend to nitpick (in cruder terms, bitch and complain). Like many fans would agree, ideally, subtitles should be able to convey whatever is being said in one language, to another, while being as close to the original as possible.

The whole Liberal Versus Literal subtitling debate is an exceedingly complicated, convoluted issue that is filled with personal preference and bias. With subtitling and translating, it seems that you can not satisfy everyone.

Some common questions that are brought up include:

– Do you use honorifics like -chan, -san, -kun?
– Do you Americanize ‘Onii-san’, ‘Senpai’?
– Do you keep the last name/first name naming system of the Japanese?
– Do you whitewash jokes that have to do with a play on Japanese words?

While I’m all for literal subtitling, and keeping the Japanese essence of Anime, it seems that there are people who are vehemently opposed to this.

Such characteristic Japanese words like ‘skinship’ (referring to gg’s release of Ookami Kakushi where they replaced it with ‘kinship’) along with aspects and nuances of Japanese Language and culture are unique to Japan and are prevalent in Japan. Anime, being a distinctive, uniquely Japanese product, will undoubtedly contain jokes, phrases and such that are unique to Japanese culture.

Personally, I don’t agree with the mentality of ‘having literal subs wouldn’t be fair to someone who just started watching Anime’. If one wants to watch Anime, it will only be fair if that person learns or is exposed to Japanese culture. Is it right to say: ‘I want to watch Anime, but don’t care for anything Japanese.’? If so, why turn to Anime? I’m sure that other cartoons can provide the same entertainment value, riveting plots and interesting characters.

I and many a fan have been at that point where nearly everything about Japanese Culture in Anime seemed alien to us. If a person is truly interested in Anime, he or she should invest time to learn. When first watching Kodomo no Jikan, ‘skinship’ was a new word to me.

Many other things like the meaning of ‘calling each other by the first name’, ‘call me -chan instead of -san’, both important indicators of how close characters are, seemed strange and bizarre to me at first, but as I continued to watch more and more Anime, reading exceedingly useful Translator Notes and looking up the appropriate resources, I began to understand more and can now appreciate Anime better.

Through Anime, I have learnt a lot about Japanese culture, from the way people communicate with each other to their festivals, traditions and believe it or not, learnt a great deal of the Japanese language as well.

Is it right to simply white wash all of this?

Mochi Subs:

People argue: What’s wrong with replacing honoorifics if suitable English substitutions can be found? The thing is, most of the time, such substitutions are awkward and don’t bring convey the correct meaning across.

gg Subs:

Frostii Subs:

Hime-sama to Princess? Ok.
Sensei to Miss/Teacher? Er, okay.
-chan to Dearest? Hm…
-san to Miss, Mr? Yeah…

Doki Subs:

CrunchyRoll Subs:

Expanding on this, what would Onii-san translate to? Cute Boy???

Mazui Subs:

How about the ever-popular Onee-sama? How can you find a suitable replacement? Mistress? Sister? Would ‘Mikoto’ suffice? I think not.

What do you think is appropriate? It’s all fine and dandy till a character spouts an honorificentric line.

Continuing on, some say that the audio is unchanged, so more hard-core fans can still her and interpret the honorifics and the first name/last name thing. Oookaaay… Do you know how disconcerting it is to read and hear something different? Splitting one’s focus is not an easy thing to do nor does it make for a very pleasant viewing experience.

The thing is, those who are looking for a set guideline or rule won’t find it. Most of the time, its up to gut feeling… What sounds correct or more appropriate?

Quoting TV Tropes:

‘Politeness is a critical part of Japanese language and culture, and honorifics are a key element in that. In general they are expressions of respect or endearment, but as with many terms in many languages, delivery — tone and emphasis — can change a title of utmost honor to an insult. Using the wrong honorific, or the right honorific in the wrong way, can result in anything from simple disdain to (in feudal times, at least) clan warfare.’

Thus showing the importance of honorifics in Japanese society and in conversations and why they literally are an important aspect of Anime.

On the subject of making things easier to understand for ‘new comers’, where do we draw the line? Will we regress back to the days of Digimon and Sailormoon where anything with even a tiny hint of ‘Japanese’ is changed? *shudder*

DVD Subs:

For instance, the closeness of characters that is represented by calling each other by their first name. The pivotal scene in Card Captor Sakura (the one where Li shouted ‘Sakura!’) would not have had the desired effect if translators had taken the more localized route.

Shinji-Nekomimi Subs:

CrunchyRoll Subs:

Lol wut? (^.^;)

How about jokes have to do with a play on Japanese words? In an episode of Sora no Otoshimono, a joke was completely changed as the CrunchyRoll subbers probably didn’t feel like explaining the joke, which was a play on Japanese words.

a.f.k. Subs:

Whatever your stand on TL notes, you can’t deny the fact that they are exceedingly helpful and informative. One of fansub’s best assets in my opinion, if they make it non-obstructive enough.

Indeed, one can say that ‘nothing of importance to the show/plot is lost’. But if the joke/intent of the dialogue/original meaning is literally ‘lost in translation’, can that be considered good subtitles? I understand that it’s nearly impossible to find a balance or to draw a line when deciding how literal subtitles should be, but translators should try their best.

Fansubs are for fans and I do suppose that the majority of fansub watchers will have experienced their fair share of Japanese culture already and will be well versed with it. If not, we should allow them to take the opportunity to learn instead of cutting things out ‘for their sake’.

A-Kraze Subs:

An example of how TL Notes help explain the nuances of Japanese culture and language.

ACX Subs:

Following up on that, Liberal subs tend to provide translations that retain only the general meaning of what is being said at the expense of accuracy. While a word-for-word translation is impossible, key words and phrases that are used by characters should be best translated.

I’ve found that many lines in numerous shows were translated very liberally in gg’s recent releases.

gg Subs:

Mochi Subs:

A quick example: the word ’embarrassing’ (hazukashi) was left out in Akihisa’s line and was translated to ‘make it sound all noble’. There are many, many more instances of this, but I don’t want to spend too much time picking everything out… (^.^;)

NOTE, their subs are not horrendous. As liberal/localized subs, they’re okay. But lots of fine detail are lost in their translation process as only the general meaning is conveyed in most cases with unrelated English words.

EDIT: The above comment applies to only the first episode or two. The rest is troll-filled garbage. Avoid at all costs.

And this is another aspect of liberal subs that I dislike. Through literal subs, I was able to pick up and learn many Japanese words and phrases that wouldn’t have been possible if I had watched subs like those of gg. I feel that a translator’s job is to put forth not only the meaning of what is being said but try as best to retain the original wordings and intention of the dialogue, on top of the meaning. Why arbitrarily change what is being said?

Fans who can understand even basic Japanese will feel unnerved and perturbed at best. This again creates that disconcerting feeling when one reads and hears different things. However, even though many of us can understand various Japanese phrases, we do still need subtitles as we aren’t yet completely competent or fluent in the language. (Don’t give me that ‘then you don’t need subtitles’ argument.)

Though, it is comforting to know that there are many sub groups out there who are picking up more and more of this seasons shows I was worried I’d be stuck with either HorribleSubs or gg, both guilty of liberal subbing. Frostii, Chihiro, Nekomimi, Mochi Doki and others are doing fantastic jobs in my opinion. If you prefer more literal subs like I do, go with them. (^.^) These groups might be slower, but I choose quality over speed.

The best option that can please both sides is of course offering two separate subtitle tracks (localized and not localized) for people to choose from.

DVD Subs:

Many recent R1 DVDs are doing this.

Frostii Subs:

…and even Frostii is doing this with their K-On! Blu-Ray releases. Amazing job and I applaud them for their efforts. But I do realize that this is an exceedingly strenuous task and I don’t see many people willing to invest that much time and effort into doing this.

Last but not least, I want to touch on the point that there are many who are unaware of the liberal versus literal subs thing. With CrunchyRoll providing such ‘quality’ subs to the general audience, they won’t know what hit them.

They aren’t giving the fans a chance to decide which subs they want. It’s really sad that the Anime isn’t shown in it’s entirety, but I’ve talked too much about that already on how everyone should experience everything that Anime has to offer.

Talking bout CruncyRoll, I’m all for the idea of legally streamed Anime. If I can support the industry and yet watch Anime for free, why not? The thing is, their subs fall short as tediously illustrated above.

…not to mention: translate the openings and endings. I want to UNDERSTAND the songs.


In conclusion, call us weaboos and whatnot, it’s because fans are passionate about Anime and Japanese culture do we nitpick . Is wrong to be interested in another culture?

To clarify my stand once again:

– The best subs, should retain the meanings, wordings and intent of the original dialogue as best as possible, while still making sense in another language.
– Honorifics should be left in, cultural references should be left in, phrasings should be as close as possible, plays on Japanese words should be explained, etc…
– I’m not against the existence of Liberal subs as there are indeed fans who prefer Liberal subs.
– It is NOT alright for fans who do prefer Literal subs to settle for Liberal subs as their only option.
– I’m also against not making the viewer aware if the subtitles that they are viewing are localized or not.
– Newbies should be exposed to non-localized subs to show them what Anime has to offer.

Anyways, I have to say again that if it weren’t for fansubs, I wouldn’t have been able to immerse myself in the wondrous world of Modern Japanese Visual Culture and I’m thankful for that. (^.^)


Hopefully, I’ve been able to clearly express my views as this was one of the hardest articles I have written… Weaboo or not, I really want others to experience the full joys of Japanese culture and what Anime has to offer.

Comments? Questions? Critiques? What is your stance on this subbing issue? Do you agree or disagree with me? Or do you just pay it no mind? (^.^;) Please do not post derogatory comments. Be civil and polite.

Let the war begin!!! Now, who wants to talk about dubs? (^o^)


Note: gg has since corrected their first name/last name naming system.


Shows referenced:

Baka to Test to Shokanju
Black Cat
Cardcaptor Sakura
Lucky Star
Nogizaka Haruka no Himitsu: Purezza
Ookami Kakushi
Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei
Sora no Otoshimono
To Aru Kagaku no Railgun

22 Responses to Liberal Versus Literal Subtitles

  1. I’m with you 100% on your stance on literal vs. liberal. Like you said, I don’t mind the option of liberal subs, but it becomes a problem when it’s your only choice. I’ve been watching anime long enough to know when something isn’t being translated literally just by listening, and it’s a horrible feeling when you can tell that you’re missing some Japanese joke or reference for some cheesy Americanization.

    Anyway, I thought that this was a poignant, well-articulated article, and I very much enjoyed reading it. Great job, Actar!

  2. Alexeon says:

    I agree with your stand. While Im not patient enough to wait for the higher quality releases and instead settle for HorribleSubs and GG, ideally, I would prefer honorifics and keeping as much of the original Japanese in as possible while still being able to understand whats being said.

  3. blackmage149 says:

    I believe that although these things are not used often in english they are a great way for americans (especially children) to become more multicultural and to really open up to the japanese culture!

  4. Actar says:

    @ Archangel Shear: Precisely! Glad you feel the same way and thanks so much for the props. Just needed to get something off my chest. (^.^)

    @ Alexeon: Agreed. It’s so tempting when the latest episode is already ready for you to view, just that the subs are sub-standard. (Excuse the pun.)

    @ blackmage149: Indeed! Though not only for Americans, but for Anime fans and watchers around the world! (^.^)

  5. 45Shiro45 says:

    I can also agree with you 100%.

    I’ve been an anime fan since the mid-80’s, and I’ve NEVER been able to handle dubs very well, and cordially dislike most liberal subs (dynamic equivalence in translation terminology) as I see them as wholly unnecessary. If you have to watch something in “American”, then damn well settle for Nickelodeon or the Cartoon Network and leave the Japanese stuff alone. Culture won’t hurt you unless you’re a racist, and you might even learn something…

    On an unrelated note, I’ve just discovered your figure reviews and they are excellent! Keep up the good work!

  6. Otaku_Girl says:

    maybe we should watch dubbed instead of subbed…

  7. 45Shiro45 says:

    Yeah, so we don’t get an accurate translation at all (let alone the pervasively poor performances)… Right on!

  8. Otaku_Girl says:

    oh, shut up…

  9. 45Shiro45 says:


  10. Otaku_Girl says:

    i saw a subbed scene from lucky star then saw the dubbed. the translation was spot on

  11. Otaku_Girl says:

    then again, this is a problem. i learn some of my minimal jp from subs…

  12. Actar says:

    @ Otaku_Girl: No… Don’t even go there. (^.^;)

  13. Actar says:

    @ 45Shiro45: Thank you so much for the props! I do try my best! (^.^) Glad you feel the same way too.

  14. Otaku_Girl says:

    @actar: i should learn from “japan my love” from now on. either that or some japanese people who kno both engligh and japanese well can do the subs and dubs for all i care

  15. KaneTheMessias says:

    Great Article Actar!
    I totally agree. Also prefer the literal subs.
    I don’t mind it anymore when something isn’t translated literally
    because I know the basics of the japanese language (still learning)
    but I really appreciate it when they explain the jokes and word plays.
    It’s an important part of the japanese culture.

  16. Q says:

    For a person who watches anime series rather casually like me, my knowledge of Japanese is quite little, but I want to say that subbing is not really that easy due to the lanaguage barrier as well as cultural barrier. Sometimes when I watch something of the same episode in both English and Chinese subs, I can tell the differences on where one subs has something missing but filled in on the other. There are things like honourifics which can be ‘translated’ to some extent to a language that is closer like Chinese, but not quite so for English. For people who are used to such things they won’t mind seeing -chan and -kun etc because they probably have got used to it, but there are people who probably are not used to them and will either take some time to get used to them, or having things their ‘localised’ way (e.g. Americanised to their own knowledge, culture, or standard). In a way subs can depend on what kind of people they are catered for. While literal subs are usually the more ideal ones, they sometimes need quite a few footnotes for new audience or audience not familiar with the terms etc and may sometimes face language barrier. With liberal ones I suppose they can make up the subs to cater the people who are not so into the language or culture etc (because there are such people anyway).

    I am not so good at explaining this but I hope you understand what I am blabbering about late at the night.

  17. Actar says:

    @ Q: Indeed, I do understand that there are people that prefer liberal subs. What I’m against is not informing casual viewers of what liberties have been taken away and allowing them to decide for themselves what they want.

    I also dislike the situation where people who do prefer literal subs and are experienced with the culture have to put up with liberal subs. This ruins the viewing experience as a whole and while we still need subtitles to understand the difficult parts, the differences are terribly obvious and disconcerting.

  18. the commenter before me who had problems opening the site using Opera, I seem to get the same errors in Opera as well. I tried again using IE and it seems to be ok. Hope that was helpful.

  19. DubsSuck says:

    It is annoying when translations make absolutely no sense. And for dubs… I’ve only ever seen afew good dubs. The rest are pure crap D: Soul Eater and Higurashi had really horrible dubs. So did Rozen Maiden…

  20. wait, if people are hardcore, wouldn’t they not want to read subtitles? arent subtitles to encourage someone to watch something? and sama is like lady or a word that can be switched easily. haha, tokyo pop does the same thing but explains it in the front cover or something, because they dont want to rewrite words to explain whats going on….?

  21. rascal says:

    Really nice writing. I’m sick of all those shitty translations without honorifics and with localised things. The worst thing which translator could do.
    Subs like this are for dumb people which are used to shitty midnells dialogues in ‘murican movies.
    I love translator’s notes too, thanks to this I usually can find other meaning of dialogue.

    I added reference to your writing in my blog (but my blog is in Polish)

  22. Kyouma says:

    I agree for the most part, but even literal subs can cross the line (*cough* pilot-san, spider-san). As for honorifics, I’d say it depends. If a sub had the line “Where are Onii-chan and Onee-chan?”, I’d personally find it awkward to read compared to “Where are (names of the siblings)?”, which would equally indicate the closeness to the siblings and be what western people (the target audience for the most part) actually say. As for that it’s discomforting to read something different than what’s being said… What do you expect when subs are inherently in a different language? The closest thing to the Japanese audio would be to have kanji on screen. I do agree that the meaning should be kept (which is actually the point of a translation) though

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