Fansub Culture: The Rhetorical Dance Between Copyright and Fan-Production

Curator's Note

#TV-Nihon translates and releases several Japanese television programs for English speaking audiences. One of the group’s ongoing projects is translating and subtitling current seasons of two long-running Japanese children’s television franchises: Super Sentai and Kamen Rider. Western audiences were introduced to both programs in the mid 1990s when Saban edited footage of American actors together with clips from these programs to create The Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers and Masked Rider respectively. Any conversation about adapting Asian media for a Western audience needs to touch on the practice of “Fansubbing.” Fan-subtitling, or fansubbing, is the practice of fans (“fansubbers”) translating and adding fan-made, local-language subtitles to previously untranslated international video programs. In this way, fansubbers bring international media programming to Western media audiences. While fansubbing, as a practice, dates back to the early days of videotape technology, today fansubbing is widely done with digital video files, bit-torrent peer-to-peer file sharing, and/or video streaming technologies. Fansubbing has always been an “extra-legal” activity. It deals in media caught between two copyright regimes: the copyright of the original Japanese media texts and the copyright of officially licensed (or potentially licensed) Americanized versions. As such, fansub groups do their work in a murky legal grey area with no legal recourse or promise of protection for their fan production. The fact that #TV-Nihon’s work can be found on someone else’s YouTube channel illustrates this reality. The best that #TV-Nihon, and other groups like it, can do is a kind rhetorical dance: asserting the free and noncommercial nature of their works, their ownership of their translation and subtitles, and asking for support from their communities of viewers. The work that fansubbers do is, most certainly, valuable. Fansubbing creates new opportunities for fans to see new content, and it creates new opportunities for content owners to develop new fans. Fansubbers are, if nothing else, highly engaged fans. With the advent of increasingly powerful digital media technologies, the divide between media producer and media consumer is becoming increasingly blurry. As we discuss how Asian media works its way across the Pacific, we need to be mindful of how we frame the “work” that fans, like fansubbers, do and how we, as a culture, value that work.


The practice of fansubbing is undoubtedly a defining factor in the progression of new media practices and the transnational flow of media. I would also argue that, due to the affinity fans feel toward the particular piece of media and its site of production (and previous scholarship has addressed the ways in which fans engage with media produced "elsewhere" both for its novelty and for a greater perceived connection to the nation of origin/its culture), fansubs can be even more "authentic" than those produced by the industry. I am particularly interested in the ways in which fansubbers attend to more culturally-specific language and/or references - one more well-known example might be the official English dub for Pokemon, in which "onigiri/rice balls" were re-framed as "doughnuts" in an attempt to mask cultural odor. Are fans more likely to act as literal translators to localize content, or do they work more as teachers, retaining linguistic/cultural elements to the extent that the dialogue is still understood, but the meanings are not altered? (for example, I am reminded of watching fansubbed Korean dramas where the kinship terms were maintained in the subtitles, yet "official" translations often did not follow suit). My younger self owes a lot to fansubbers and I appreciate this "rhetorical dance" they do. I am interested in observing the ways in which this producer/consumer identity changes over time and impacts our online (and offline) communities.

I think the question of cultural "authenticity" plays a huge role in fansubbing. In other places, I've suggested that fansub groups take a special interest in translating live-action TV shows because of how inherently "othered" those media texts are. Anyone can slap alternative audio over animated content, but it's harder to "Americanize" a TV show where everyone is clearly Japanese or Korean. I would also argue that fansubbers are driven by their love of the texts they are translating and those text's home cultures in general. This cultural appreciation is what leads to the "authenticity" you've described. In the end, fansubbers are creating a niche media product for a niche media audience. If there is cultural and linguistic learning happening with fansubbing, I think it is a secondary effect.

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