Fanning the flames: fan translation and copyright protection

Many suppliers and consumers of translation will undoubtedly be aware of the recent upsurge in the process of what is now commonly referred to as “crowdsourcing” (literally outsourcing a (usually large) translation project to a very large number or “crowd” of translators). This translation and localisation strategy has notably been employed in the IT and technology sectors by global giants Adobe, Sun Microsystems and Microsoft, with a main focus on saving time as opposed to money.

What they might not be so aware of is fan translation, where the users or consumers initiate translations as opposed to waiting for the request to be sent out to them by an organisation. Fan translation has made its largest impact in popular culture, particularly with the fansubbing (subtitling by fans) of Japanese anime series and films into English. For weekly anime series popular outside of Japan such as Bleach or Naruto, subtitles are usually completed and uploaded just hours after the airing of an episode in Japan, allowing non-Japanese speakers to keep up with the latest storylines long before the series are dubbed and released abroad.

Fan translation has also made its mark on the domain of literary translation and the world’s most famous wizard. Fans of the Harry Potter series, impatient at the time taken for the official translations to arrive in their native countries, set about translating their favourite books themselves. Unofficial German, French and Chinese translations surfaced long before the official translations were released, and while the quality of these translations ranged from pretty poor to “semi-professional”, they proved popular enough to warrant the attention of author J.K. Rowling’s copyright lawyers: a 16-year-old French boy was arrested and held by police when a “pirate translation” of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows surfaced on the internet whilst the official translation process was still on-going, and legal action was taken against a group of German Harry Potter fans who began translating the fourth book in the series, posting their scripts online for free download.

This phenomenon of fan translation poses an interesting question: will translation copyright holders react in a similar way to fan translators as the music and film industries have reacted to other breaches of copyright in the form of file sharing, or will they instead embrace the devotion of fans to their favourite series and films by encouraging them to translate their cultural products within a more traditional crowdsourcing framework described above? As someone who has been a “consumer” of fansubs, I can testify that the quality of fansubs is of varying quality and consistency to say the least. I have also noticed a variance in the translation strategies used in the subbing of the anime show Bleach, depending on the subtitler, with some opting to retain transliterations of some of the Japanese words such as Shinigami while others have decided to translate the term as “Soul Reaper” or “Death God”.

Finally, while the issue of copyright may be more morally black and white and easier to regulate in regards to books and literature, fansubbing has arguably aided the success of Japanese anime in foreign markets, with one American distributor of manga considering so-called “scanlations” (translations of scanned manga content) to be “kind of flattering, not threatening”. If anime studios do decide to embrace fansubbing, then they should be aware of the potential benefits and pitfalls of crowdsourcing and of the importance of creating both correct and consistent subtitles.

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