Viki is an online community of fansubbers (fan subtitlers) with a difference. Unlike most fan translation initiatives, Viki is a profit-based start-up that was bought out by Japanese e-Commerce giant Rakuten in 2013. It has (lots of) advertisements and in order to watch without ads, users need to buy a Viki Pass at a cost of US$3.99 per month. It has iPhone and Android apps (Viki On-The-Go) and reports that over 30 percent of its content is accessed through mobile devices.
So, is this fan translation or does it constitute corporate crowdsourcing? What’s the difference anyway? What separates Viki from multinationals like Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter that deploy user-generated translation to perform massive feats of language transfer in tiny turnaround times? Many distinguish fansubbing from crowdsourcing on the basis of not-for-profit versus profit-based dynamics, or bottom-up versus top-down. The example of Viki unsettles such neat divisions. It is commercial, harnessing the free labour of fans to aggressively mine new revenue streams, yet it remains a community nevertheless, one powered by fans and their love of TV series and the like. It solicits translation from the crowd yet offers multiple forums for community discussion and engagement, and encourages users to suggest new content, advocate for subtitles in their own language and self-organise subbing groups.
Significantly, Viki’s ‘monetization’ of fansubbing has not resulted in de-politicisation. In fact, quite the opposite has occurred. Since its humble beginnings as a not-for-profit class project in 2007, Viki has consistently emphasised the broader geopolitical context around digital networking technologies, language diversity and access. In 2014, it launched two campaigns, Billion Words Marchadvocating for closed captioning on online content for deaf and hard-of-hearing audiences, and Endangered Languagesto help save endangered and emerging languages.
For these reasons and more, Viki is a fascinating site to watch. Its three core ingredients (fans, subtitles and streaming) are currently situated at the forefront of changes affecting the media industries as a whole, not just media translation! With the ascendancy of streaming and VOD (video-on-demand) services, media content is travelling in novel ways, creating new access demands and desires. This emerging mode of media engagement increasingly coalesces around language difference and translation, as Netflix and Hulu demonstrate through their development and promotion of in-platform, translation-on-demand tools like SAMI (Synchronised Accessible Media Interchange). Without translation, promises of global connectivity make little sense while VOD expansion efforts would ground to a halt; language transfer constitutes the critical yet often overlooked cog upon which media globalisation processes depend.
Offering free subtitles in over 200 languages for media content from around the world, Viki challenges the unidirectional ‘West-to-the-Rest’ nature of much translation traffic, discouraging reliance on English as a pivot language and supporting crisscrossing media flows that put far-flung language communities in contact, finding markets for Venezuelan telenovelas in the Philippines, for instance, and for Korean dramas translated into Arabic.
In joining the dots between fansubbing, language diversity and media access in the digital age, Viki offers a ‘big picture’ perspective on fan translation practices.