Fansubbing, a cultural mediation practice

Article  by  Mélanie BOURDAA  •  Published 15.10.2013  •  Updated 15.10.2013
By subtitling television series and anime on the Internet, they play a major role in distributing and drawing attention to these works. Who are these amateurs that practice fansubbing? How have these fans become veritable cultural mediators?

Summary

The fans - this active and productive pubic - share and create through a virtual community, a place where they belong and can chat with others. There are five categories of activity, of which subtitling of videos is one (television series for example). This makes up one of the cornerstones of fans’ sharing and distribution activities. In particular, as we will see, fansubbing can be described as an act of cultural mediation by the fans. The aim of this article is to take another look at this phenomenon. First, we will look at the origins and its integration into mediation of Japanese culture. Then, we will analyse the mechanisms used to promote this collaborative effort. Finally, we will try to understand the challenges of this kind of practice for the fan community and for the cultural industries.

At the beginning, there were mangas, anime and the phenomenon of scanlation

The phenomenon of translation and then sub-titling goes back to the Japanese cultural industry, in particular mangas (Japanese comics) and anime (very popular Japanese cartoons). The phenomenon has just kept on growing, strengthened by sociocultural factors that Hye-Kyung Lee, a researcher at King’s College London points out: a Western fascination for Japanese culture, Japanese governments’ wish to boost their cultural exports, positive critiques of anime that are often derived from mangas, and the creation of mangas for women.  The aim of these fans is to publicise these works, and to spread them, bringing down geographic and linguistic barriers virtually.  Scanlation is a collaborative practice that entails scanning pages of a manga, translating them and putting them on line for free, often illegally. As with all fan activities, scanlation developed with the advent of digital technologies, and entails sharing a work among a community of fans. The aim of these fans is to publicise these works, and to spread them, bringing down geographic and linguistic barriers virtually.
 
Many fan activities involve sharing information and resources, or more simply cultural materials and content. So, the main way in which fans share television series and films is by circulating and translating video files, in a manner that is well known. Fans have been doing this since the 1980s when manga and anime took off massively in Japan. The anthropologist Mizuko Ito reminds us that thanks to this activity, anime were distributed and became well-known outside of Japan, the country where they are produced and received. “Since fans of anime started their activities in 1980, fansubbing (subtitling by fans) has become an important practice for fans outside of Japan; indeed it is needed for cult anime to be discovered abroad. There was no official distribution of these products abroad, but by sending video cassettes from fan to fan a market and an audience were created outside of Japan”[+] NoteIto MIZUKO, “Contributors versus Leechers: fansubbing ethics and a hybrid public culture”, in Ito M., Okabe D., Tsuji I., Fandom unbound. Otaku culture in a connected world, Yale University Press, Yale, 2012X [1]. This fan activity boosted the circulation of media content - often cult - outside of Japan, creating an international market for products which were originally thought of as national products for a domestic audience only. Today, with new technologies, this practice has grown and no longer just concerns mangas and anime, but also involves films and television series. The sociologists Éric Dagiral and Laurent Tessier point out in their article on the subtitling of the America series 24 that “fansubbersare, as their name suggests, fans who particularly early on felt the desire to watch a new series without waiting for it to be broadcast nationally, usually dubbed, that you have to make sure you don’t “miss” at the said time, and for which the order of the episodes depends on the channel showing it”.
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Team work

Fansubbers work together in smoothly-run teams, have to invest time, give personal commitment, and need considerable intellectual and technical skills. Each series has its national team of fansubbers that take on the task week after week of providing subtitles for the episodes. Their name is squeezed in at the start of each episode viewed via streaming, or downloaded using peer-to-peer (P2P) software.
 
For this category of activity, the roles are well-defined. In actual fact, fansubbers work like a community within a community. The first role falls upon the uploaders or raw cappers. They are in charge of finding the original episodes and downloading them, often illegally, to share them and make them available for the community. The users of these sharing networks are fans of television who have a sufficiently high opinion of the television content to take part in circulating it, and to create files with metadata, while running the risk of facing legal action.
 
The Wikipe-tan character (Wikipedia)
 
Translators are then given the task of providing translations either from the actual episodes or using the scripts if they have managed to get hold of them. The proofreaders and editors make sure that the translation is accurate and check for spelling mistakes and layout problems. Finally, the encoders cut the dialogues into segments so that they appear on the screen at the right time. This team work requires a high degree of coordination and the group has to get on well. However, a certain amount of competition can be felt between the teams translating the same series to come up with good-quality subtitles quickly. In her study of fansubbing practices for Japanese anime, Mizuko Ito remarked that what motivated the fans to subtitle the mangas and the anime was their “desire to be part of a community of fans”[+] NoteMitzuko I., op.citX [2]. In France, the website U-sub.net brings together a large part of the community that provides subtitles for American television series and for Japanese anime. Created 5 years ago on the impetus of the teams that did the subtitles for Battlestar Galactica and Stargate SG-1 (which were not broadcast on traditional networks at that time in France), the community grew and now incorporates around one hundred teams. The administrators and founders have also trained team members so that their work becomes more of a collaborative effort. Similarly, the French website DoramaWorld offers a collaborative space where discussions can be held on dramas from Asia. The interesting fact is that through their subtitling dramas and series, the fans also think about political, cultural and social issues together.
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Fansubbers: cultural mediators

The sharing activity of fansubbers laid down the conditions for legitimising television series, because they provided them in the original version with subtitles. The teams of fans “act like cultural mediators, passing television series between national spaces whose boundaries are drawn by languages”. Hye-Kyung Lee noted that “These practices differ from simple copying and sharing of music files in the sense that they necessitate cultural consumers assuming active roles as mediators and distributors”[+] NoteLee Hye-Kyung, “Participatory media fandom working on the disjuncture of global mediascape: a case study of anime fandom”, in Media, Culture and Society, 2012X [3]. Lee continued, saying: “Fan-translation and distribution of cultural commodities contributes to the bottom-up spread of culture across geographical and linguistic borders”[+] NoteLee H-K., ibid. X [4]. Fansubbing stems from several cultures, and from important economic and social factors.  The fans, through their fansubbing, thwart the traditional production strategies of French television channels by offering premières of American series.  First, the culture of sharing is helped along by the digital culture and the development of Internet. However, this political act of sharing, specific to fans, can be seen as piracy by the culture industries and gives rise to intellectual property issues. “Secondly, cultural consumers’ desire increasingly trespasses over temporal, spatial and linguistic constraints, and this is intensified by their access to collective knowledge. The production of collective knowledge is driven by non-commercial motivations – though cultural companies are keen to absorb it into their marketing strategies – and is freely shared and augmented”[+] NoteLee H-K. ibid.X [5]. The fans, through their fansubbing, thwart the traditional production strategies of French television channels by offering premières of American series. The fans through their fansubbing take part in a culture of sharing and promoting films, series and mangas outside their domestic production and distribution markets, turning the fans into cultural mediators. This helps to develop a culture of spreading media as highlighted by Jenkins, Green and Ford[+] NoteJenkins et al., Spreadable media. Creating Value and Meaning in a networked culture, NYU Press, New York, 2013X [6].
 
It is also interesting to note that French television channels like TF1 and Canal + with the creation of a channel for television series, are adjusting to these practices and to this reception by broadcasting American series in the original version with subtitles, the day after they are shown in the United States. Fansubbing, which was originally tied up with illegal practices, has enabled the cultural industries to adapt to the demand from one part of the public.
 
Fans also legitimize, one might say destigmatise, the reception of films and television series by offering them in the original version with subtitles, thereby imitating the way that cinema-lovers like to watch them. Finally, fansubbers, as Laurence Allard, researcher in Communication Sciences, reminds us, are also decoders of national cultural practices: “the subtitling part, to which intercultural notes are added, is more akin to a form of intercultural interpretation, written by several people, than a simple linguistic translation”. Indeed, fansubbers give explanations of specific terms, of particular cultural practices or of certain places. For example, in the subtitles for the series Friday Night Light, which follows an American high school football team, the subtitlers give information on the positions, the rules and the culture connected with this sport, adding an informative dimension to their text.
 
Not only do fansubbers shed light on specific intercultural practices, but they also expose films and television series that would not have been broadcast in the public arena without them.
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Fansubbing in the convergence culture

Fansubbing strikes a particular chord with convergence culture, as described by Henry Jenkins. We have seen that fansubbing draws its strength from “collective intelligence” because this activity is a collaborative effort that highlights technical and intellectual skills. What is more, the fansubbers, by way of this practice, help to legitimise the culture of television series, while playing a role of mediator for this culture in a new geographical space.
 
Battlestar Galactica board game
 
As regards the strategies of Transmedia Storytelling, fansubbers serve to relay and transmit franchises in decompartmentalised national spaces. Transmedia strategies are often used for international publics, especially if they are set up on digital platforms. For example, everybody has access to the website of Massive Dynamic, the science company of the series Fringe. If the fansubbers had not proposed the series in France before its official broadcast on a national channel, the transmedia strategy would have been abandoned for not being coherent and for being meaningless. That same goes for the board game Battlestar Galactica that can be bought anywhere. It loses its attraction if the players have not seen the series and therefore don’t understand the issues at stake in the war been the humans and the Cylons. Fansubbers therefore help to provide coherence for and contribute to the success of transmedia strategies in spreading media content fluidly throughout the world.
 

 
Massive Dynamic website (the science company of the series Fringe)


Translated from the French by Peter Moss
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References

Laurence ALLARD, “Express yourself 2.0 ! Blogs, podcasts, fansubbing, mashups… : de quelques agrégats interculturels à l’âge de l’expressivisme généralisé” , in Éric MAIGRET & Éric MACÉ (dir.) Penser les médiacultures. Nouvelles pratiques et nouvelles approches de la représentation du monde. Armand Colin / INA. Paris, 2005, pp. 145-172
 
 
 
Éric DAGIRAL et Laurent TESSIER, “24 heures ! Le sous-titrage amateur des nouvelles séries télévisées”, in Florent GAUDEZ, Les arts moyens aujourd’hui. Tome II, L’Hamattan, Collection « Sociologie des Arts », Paris, 2006, pp. 117-130
 
Hye-Kyung LEE, “Between fan culture and copyright infringement: manga scanlation”, in Media, Culture and Society, 2009, pp. 1011-24
 
Hye-Kyung LEE, “Participatory media fandom working on the disjuncture of global mediascape: a case study of anime fandom”, in Media, Culture and Society, 2012
 
Henry JENKINS, Convergence Culture. Where old and new media collide, NYU Press, New York, 2006
 
Henry JENKINS, Joshua GREEN et Sam FORD, Spreadable media. Creating Value and Meaning in a networked culture. NYU Press, New York, 2013
 
Ito MIZUKO, “Contributors versus Leechers: fansubbing ethics and a hybrid public culture”, in Ito M., Okabe D., Tsuji I., Fandom unbound. Otaku culture in a connected world, Yale University Press, Yale, 2012
 
Roberta PEARSON, “Fandom in the digital era”, in Popular Communication. The International Journal of Media and Culture, Vol. 8 (1), 2010, pp. 84-95

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Photo Credits:
- Main picture: Capture d'écran de la série 24 (saison 1 épisode 1 VOSTFR) / site de streaming
- Wikipe-tan / Wikipedia 
- Battlestar Galactica (Will Merydith / Flickr)
- Screenshot of the website Massive Dynamic
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  • 1. Ito MIZUKO, “Contributors versus Leechers: fansubbing ethics and a hybrid public culture”, in Ito M., Okabe D., Tsuji I., Fandom unbound. Otaku culture in a connected world, Yale University Press, Yale, 2012
  • 2. Mitzuko I., op.cit
  • 3. Lee Hye-Kyung, “Participatory media fandom working on the disjuncture of global mediascape: a case study of anime fandom”, in Media, Culture and Society, 2012
  • 4. Lee H-K., ibid.
  • 5. Lee H-K. ibid.
  • 6. Jenkins et al., Spreadable media. Creating Value and Meaning in a networked culture, NYU Press, New York, 2013
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