Literal vs. Liberal Subbing

I was going to review Kino’s Journey since I just finished it last night, but then I remembered that quite a while ago I’d do a post on this topic. Since it’s kinda overdue, I figured now would be as good a time as any to get this typed up.

Also, this is my first post giving Windows Live Writer a shot, so if anything goes wrong, I’ll try and fix it ASAP. Hopefully nothing will, though.

This is an argument topic that I just don’t get. Don’t get me wrong, personal preferences will always outweigh even the heaviest arguments, but the reasoning behind the arguments for literal subbing absolutely baffle me.

First, I have a few examples, then I’ll just start ranting.


I don’t get this reasoning at all. Yeah, maybe it isn’t the same thing, but Red light/Green light fit so well that you didn’t even notice anything. Your friend had to tell you that it wasn’t the same thing.

Putting in the actual game and changing all of the dialogues and putting a TL note is a lot more work and really unnecessary for a translation that already works. Besides, do you know what the TL note would say? “Darumasan ga koronda is a Japanese game similar to Red light/Green light.” Completely unnecessary.


I wasn’t aware that changing dialogue around a bit to fit the character’s personality was a crime. In fact, it should be encouraged, if anything.

I included Raze’s response because he mentions why writing this post now is a good choice. For those of you who don’t know, gg has been using Hidan no Aria to basically meta-troll. I don’t have any pictures from their releases because I don’t watch them, though.

For the first half of the season, gg made fun of literal subbing fans and Eclipse. They copied Eclipse’s font for Shakugan no Shana, and used a similar subbing style. They also added TL notes for as many simple terms as they could get away with.

However, gg really outdid themselves later chunk of the first half of the season, when they made fun of the concept of literal subbing itself. For those of you who don’t know, Japanese sentence structure is basically Yoda-talk in English. A direct word-for-word translation is completely incomprehensible, which is why I find the concept of “literal” subbing to be inherently flawed.

Now, why would someone prefer this concept to liberal (or, dare I say, normal or correct) translating? I’m not sure. The biggest reason I seem to see is that people see Japanese culture as some kind of untouchable culture blessed by the gods themselves. However, if you want to learn about Japanese culture, anime is not the best source to turn to. Ask an actual Japanese person, or possibly go on a trip to Japan. Or use some .org websites. You can’t be sure anime concepts are true, even realistic-sounding ones.

Well, what about honorifics? Personally, I don’t really mind honorifics at all. They’re something so minor that they can actually blend in to an English script well enough. Which is also why I don’t understand why people can get so anal over them. Even if they aren’t in the script, you can still very easily hear them. Both sides can get what they want, essentially.

To sum this up, I don’t understand the concept of literal subbing or why it could be considered better, at all. When something happens in a show that has no adequate English equivalent, then I can understand leaving it in and giving a TL note. However, almost every time, there is an equivalent, or people are just complaining about something extremely minor.

Anyways, that’s all I can think of that I planned on covering. However, I did write this post in a rush, so if I did forget something, I’ll add it later. Or just answer comments that bring those things, if any, up.

14 Comments on “Literal vs. Liberal Subbing”

  1. Hogart says:

    Translation is an art-form, and some translators understand this. The person reading the subs isn’t normally out for a history or grammar lesson, nor to play an unintentional game of guess-the-intent-of-that-sentence.

    That’s why liberal translation is far more important than literal translation. Convey the meaning, intent, emotion, and subtext – not a rote, mechanical dictionary translation. People generally can’t keep up with the visuals, voices and the subtitles, so anything that eases this process is wise. At least italicize and choose your words carefully for impact, rather than precise definitions where it doesn’t make a difference.

    It’s far more impressive to sort-of match the order of sub-sentences and word-count, so a reader can almost match the voice to the words as they’re spoken. That way there are visual cues to specify what words are being inflected and what’s being emphasized. There is some subtlety lost if you say “was that your girlfriend who called earlier?” instead of “Is that girl who called earlier.. your girlfriend?”.

    Then there’s the abject silliness of not giving the words any personality. If Lawrence is supposed to have a weak vocabulary, except when he goes pro for business or impresses Holo, then have the words he uses reflect that. And as for Holo, you, at least make an effort to render her speech uniquely, will you not?

    The less said about the pedantry over honorifics, the better. It’s pointlessly silly to obsess over it. If the Japanese viewer wouldn’t notice, I shouldn’t either. It’s when the person is being subtle, humble or rude that I need to know.. not when they are just talking normally.

    • Riyoga says:

      I was just covering literal vs. liberal subbing, so I didn’t feel the need to go into that much depth with good and bad liberal subbing.

      Nonetheless, I agree with all your points, and you worded them infinitely better than I would have.

      It’s kind of funny, though, that the best translators are the most liberal ones. Or perhaps it’s funny that some people don’t realize this?

      • Hogart says:

        > I didn’t feel the need to go into that much depth with good and bad liberal subbing.

        Heh.. I just talk a lot sometimes.

        > It’s kind of funny, though, that the best translators are the most liberal ones. Or perhaps it’s funny that some people don’t realize this?

        I think people who are into anime “now” forget why they got into anime in the first place. Nine times out of ten it isn’t because they thought “the way they’re kneeling around the table is quaint” or “that shrine for their dead grandma looked interesting”.. it’s because Hina kicked Keitaro into the stratosphere again, or Naota got ingested by a robot, or Goku and Freeza might actually throw a punch in this episode.

        • Riyoga says:

          Oh, don’t get me wrong, I’m extremely grateful for the contribution to the topic; I was just shamelessly defending my lack of covering it at all.

          “Or Goku and Freeza might actually throw a punch in this episode.”

          Ah, those were the days. Though I actually thought the Cell Games arc was the best. Still, nostalgia…

  2. Logopolis says:

    Trouble with the form of liberal subbing which replaces Japanese culture with American culture; I’ve never been to America and have very little interest in it, or knowledge of its playground games. Inserting “red light, green light” into the subs might work for you, but it would have just left me confused. Suppose an English subber had said “they’re playing Black Pudding”?

    It’s best for digisubbers to keep a focus on Japanese culture because it’s the one constant beyond language they can assume about their audience – if you’re watching anime, you probably have some interest in Japanese culture. An English-speaking person on the internet might live almost anywhere.

    • Riyoga says:

      The problem I have with people complaining about “Americanization” is that they’re inclined to think that their knowledge is common knowledge. It’s like when I saw someone say it wasn’t necessary to put a TL note for ‘baka’ because “everyone” knew what it meant already. Likewise, I’m fairly certain a good chunk of foreigners know what Red light/Green light is, just like how I actually do in fact know what Black Pudding is.

      If there’s something specific to Japanese culture that doesn’t have an adequate Western equivalent, I’m not opposed to leaving it and putting a TL note (I think I already said this). Don’t mistake this as me wanting to turn the script “American,” because a vague American custom that foreigners don’t know of is just as ineffective as the original Japanese one. There are plenty of Western customs that a lot of countries know about.

      It’s ultimately to appeal to the largest audience possible. Plus, subbers from various countries don’t mind catering to only their audience.

      It’s not so much a case of “liberal subs are ‘Americanized’ subs” so much as it’s the fact that a huge portion of fansub groups are American. It just comes with the territory. If Doki subbed liberally instead of literally, I wouldn’t complain that their subs are “Englishified,” they’d just be liberal subs from a specific country.

    • Hogart says:

      > “they’re playing Black Pudding”?

      That would be great. That’s the job of the translation. It’s not there to appeal to the entire English-speaking world, just it’s intended audience.

      We often forget this and become jerks, but it’s not the fault of the translation or translator. Another fansubber can re-localize these problems away, they’d just rather complain than do it.

      > t’s best for digisubbers to keep a focus on Japanese culture

      That’s just silly. If the Japanese viewer doesn’t care, I shouldn’t either. If it’s that important, in a show about giant robots fighting in space, then tell me. If it’s a trivial footnote, give me a note after the episode.

      And if it’s a show about ancient tea ceremonies, I should be expected to have a different level of proficiency than a kid watching Yu-gi-oh. Again, it’s the job of the localizer to know where this line is.

      An example is gg’s take on Fireball Charming. It’s excellent. It’s about two robots doing a comedy act, not a lesson in Japanese culture. I rarely have to understand something that only a Japanese person would catch, and gg knows this.

      > if you’re watching anime, you probably have some interest in Japanese culture.

      Wouldn’t that be nice? Unfortunately they don’t. They didn’t watch The Office or Life on Mars caring about the Britishness of it. They didn’t watch Crouching Tiger because they cared about Japanese culture, they watched it because it was popular and/or because it had really neat action scenes. Anime is the same. I like learning about other cultures, but that’s irrelevant for Cowboy Bebop or FLCL or most of the shows that got me into anime.

      • Riyoga says:

        ^ What Hogart said!

        …Yeah, that’s all I got. Not a very worthwhile contribution, but it’s my policy to respond to all comments even if it’s just a “thank you” or an “I agree.” It can’t be helped.

  3. feal87 says:

    Oh, it has been quite a while from when I last watched a sub, but if this is the case I’ll need to download all the gg subs of this season. Looks funny enough. :D

    • Riyoga says:

      They’re only meta-trolling for Hidan no Aria, all of their other releases are fine.

      The first half or so of the show they make fun of the concept of literal subbing, then they sub normally for one episode to troll the people who thought the next script was going to be Romanized Japanese, and their most recent episode gave each character a random accent. Kinji spoke in Old English, Aria was German, and Riko was a gangster.
      Many lulz were had.

  4. Nadja says:

    I can see why people want the literal translations, but that’s a lot more difficult for the translators. Plus, liberal subs can be really hilarious. If you understand a little bit of Japanese, you can make out when a translator makes a huge change in the subs. This is especially true for swearing. “Fuck” and “shit” cannot be translated into Japanese unless, of course, the anime character is actually screaming the english curse words themself, so it’s always funny seeing translators exaggerate the subtitles a little bit. The character cusses under his breath, “Kuso!” and the subs read “Fuck!” when the literal meaning is closer to “damn!” Sometimes, liberal translations can be a lot more fun, though I do believe that in some cases, it’s important to have a bit of knowledge of the Japanese language and culture, so that you can understand the exaggerations and other changes made.

    • Riyoga says:

      I don’t knock learning about the Japanese language or culture, I just think that it’s really dumb to learn either through anime. There are many, many more effective methods.
      I mean, sure, you’ll learn a bit of the culture and such through it (I know I have), but consciously watching a show with the intent of learning about either is just strange to me.

      Though it will always be difficult to sub comedy anime. Especially when they do jokes with the Japanese characters. gg is doing a pretty good job on Fireball Charming, though.

      • Nadja says:

        I’ve never thought ‘hey, I can learn the Japanese language through anime!’ I’ve been studying Japanese grammar and vocab for a while, so I can understand some of the Japanese and make a few fun comparisons. Anime can help when trying to listen to grammar concepts and how they’re used, but I’ve never gone to anime for education; it’s always because I think the show will be entertaining or interesting.

        Yeah, if you want to learn about Japanese culture or language, take out a book or look it up on the web. Anime isn’t completely reliable anyway, plus it’s meant to be enjoyed.

        • Riyoga says:

          That’s actually a good way to sum up my thoughts.

          “Anime is meant to be enjoyed, so stop bitching about how the subs aren’t true to the show’s origins.”
          Something like that.

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