Transnational Fan Works as Popular Translation

Fans who provide subtitling and translation of professional media for other fans often fill gaps where the formal market fails, and as such both complicate and intensify the pathways of globalization.  Several other posts in this collection astutely note the promise and contradictions of fan translation practices for global fan communities and the politics of global capital (Dwyer and Lee).  While such cases are a key site in need of further academic study, I would like to shift to consider how the creation of transformative fan works also functions as a form of translation, in both literal and metaphorical ways.

Internet and mobile technologies have rapidly increased the internalization of fan communities.  Fan exchange in the pre-digital era was often limited to in-person networks, dominated by the convention circuit, letters, and ‘zines, which offered some opportunities for international and transcultural communication, limited by logistics and expense.  In the current media era, content has become more internationally accessible, and fan communities benefit from the instantaneous international communication made possible by the internet.  While modern fan communities have become more international, language still strongly influences the flow and accessibility of media.  Thus, fan works serve as a form of translation both when fans translate fan works into a different language, and when fans metaphorically translate international media into a different cultural and linguistic context by creating a fan work in their own language.

The most direct example involves fans who translate fan works into other languages, including fan fiction and subtitles for fan-made videos.  This work is often performed by bilingual and multi-lingual fans, who can fully participate in international fan spaces, for the benefit of monolingual fans, who otherwise do not have access to the often much larger body of fan works created in digital lingua franca languages (often English or Japanese).  The reverse may also be the case, wherein multi-lingual or bilingual fans translate fan works from a local language into the language of a more international fan space, to give a larger audience access to works that would otherwise circulate in smaller, localized fan spaces.

On a more metaphorical level, fans frequently function as both linguistic and cultural translators whenever they produce fan works for an international media property from a culture and/or language other than their own.  The work of adaptation, interpretation, expansion, and revision performed in fan fiction, fan video, fan audiobooks, cosplay, and fan art often involves cultural and linguistic transpositions, wherein fans resituate stories and characters within their own personal and regional language, politics, and history.  This can involve the translation of specific words, names, and terminology, but also larger socio-cultural semiotics.  For instance, even within the English language, non-British fan authors and artists reimagining aspects of Harry Potter often must negotiate whether to maintain British usage or translate to the local vernacular with words that vary in different versions of English, such as jumper and pudding.  In addition, the political semiotics of the Harry Potter world are also culturally specific, and fans internationally often translate the books’ signs and signifiers of racism and eugenics into a more regionally resonant version.  Thus for some the book’s villains strongly resemble Nazis, while for others they take on aspects of the American Ku Klux Klan, while still others imbue them with iconography and ideologies of imperialism.

These examples suggest that it is not only by subtitling professionally produced content that fans utilize the affordances of digital media to translate global culture.  Rather, it is also by engaging in processes of translation through amateur cultural forms that fans participate in international fan cultures enabled by digital communication technologies, while also moving between international and local/regional fan spaces.  While translation practices in transformative fan works in a certain sense glocalize international media and enable their further penetration into global markets, they also serve as a reminder of the diversity and vitality of bottom-up, amateur, independent, and fan produced international digital culture.


Your post reminds me of several things. One is Luca Barra's observations that fan produced translations can happen after a professional translation as stripped too much culture from the original. He looks at Italian translations of Lost, but I can see the ways in which a fan is going to do this translation in a very different way because, while they work to increase access, they don't need the audience that a show translated for another network does.

I was re-watching a fan-translation episde of Rurouni Kenshin last night and was taken out of the world when one character thanked another for speaking English. My assumption was that all the characters were speaking Japanese, and probably are in the original, but the translators changed it to English because I was listening the show in English translation. Finally I wonder about our awareness of the translation. Translation is best when we don't recognize it, but as a the Harry Potter example makes clear, while I know of obvious changes like calling the American version of Harry Potter and the Philosophers' Stone to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, I've never had a British version of the books to compare and think of the other translations that were done between English versions.

I am interested in the idea you raise of fans 'moving between' international and local/regional fan spaces. How do fans negotiate this type of movement, and how is it affected by cultural and language difference? Also, its interesting to think about how translation 'proper' also often involve non-linguistic transformation - relating to character names and ethnicity - and how fans respond to such changes.

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