Time for another one of those posts where I talk about the challenges facing other digital media in order to draw a comparison to e-books. In this case, I will be talking about the comparison of “pirate” media to commercial media, and the conundrum of competing on quality. It will take a little time to work around to how this relates to e-books, but bear with me.
This weekend I was at VisionCon, the closest thing to a true SF convention that Springfield, Missouri has been able to host yet. Its guests this year included animé voice actors Richard Epcar and Samantha Inuoe Harte (pictured at left), and one of the things Epcar mentioned during his panel was that animé was having a harder time finding an audience now because online fansub distribution meant that people who downloaded the animé didn’t want to buy the commercial product anymore.
As a long-time viewer of fansubs myself, I had my doubts about this, but upon thinking about it have begun to suspect he might be right—but not for the reasons he thinks. And this was brought home to me when I saw the first few episodes of a yet-to-be-released commercial dub of a recent series—then watched more of it as the fansubbed versions that are still available for streaming at a number of sites on-line. But to understand, a quick lesson in the history of fan-subtitling is in order.
The Origins of Fansubbing
In the early 1990s, when I first got into animé, fansubs were multi-generational VHS copies of animé that someone with a genlock device had copied off of laserdisc onto VHS masters. (Shows could also be subtitled from off-air recordings, but that meant starting with several generations of quality loss, so it usually wasn’t done.) They got translations, then went through and superimposed subtitles over the picture essentially by hand, then people circulated the tapes.
Of course, even then there was a debate over the morality of it. One of my favorite never-ending arguments was the discussion of whether it was “right” to charge copying fees to recoup wear on equipment from copying tapes for fansub requesters. Advocates of the practice pointed out that if they wanted to keep copying tapes, they needed to be able to afford to repair the equipment they used. Opponents seemed to feel it was somehow all right to make free copies of someone else’s work if you were sure to barely break even or even lose a little money in the process, and they argued their cause with all the fire and certainty of college students out to change the world for the better in an incredibly tiny way.
It’s strange to look back on it now, because it really was a different time then. The Japanese studios mostly didn’t care about consumption of their product outside of Japan—they made it for Japan, and really didn’t give a darn whether anyone else liked it or not. But starting in the eighties and really taking off in the nineties when I first came to it, college students seeking something new and different began exposing other college students to animé—and when those first few generations of students graduated, they went on to found animé import studios, importing and localizing it (mainly for the consumption of subsequent generations of college students because most people still didn’t know or care what animé was outside of colleges).
And in those days, by distributing imperfect copies of the shows, fans could build a market for the commercial versions with better subs and much better quality than the hazy, blurry, copies of copies of copies that tided them over until someone could monetize it. And of course most operations stopped distributing their fansubs when said commercial versions were available. Indeed, if it hadn’t been for fansubs helping to build an audience, the American companies could never have existed in the first place. And most Japanese animation studios were pretty tolerant of fansubbing, since they could afford to be—they weren’t directly selling to us, so it was no skin off their noses whether they “lost potential sales” over here or not.
The Digital Present Day
But over the intervening decade or two, a number of things changed. One of them was that animé started catching on as those former college students were finally able to catch the attention of cable networks and big studios, and more American import studios began going into full partnerships with Japanese animation studios, actually co-funding overseas projects with Japanese studios for simultaneous release in America and Japan instead of just buying a license after the fact. And Japanese studios started thinking more internationally once their eyes were opened to the fact that people actually did want to buy their products overseas.
However, by far the biggest change can be summed up in the word digital. Just as the DivX format made it possible for people to rip and share DVD movies over peer-to-peer, it also made it possible to share copies of fansubs. Furthermore, digital TV transmission and hard-drive video recorders meant that shows recorded off the air would be crisp and BluRay-perfect—and the same advances also meant fansubbing could grow beyond merely putting words along the bottom of the screen.
Modern digital fansubbing would make a professional subtitler of the 1990s stare in slackjawed envy. For one thing, they use smooth, anti-aliased, easy-to-read fonts—a lot better than many of the fonts that show up on subtitled DVDs. But that is only the beginning.
The best digital fansubbing operations, such as the Detective Conan Translation Project, go beyond just translating what is said and in fact translate and replace as much text shown on the screen as is possible, and do it in such a way that it appears the text was put there from the beginning. If a newspaper is shaken or crumpled, the replacement English text moves or deforms right along with the paper. It’s frankly rather amazing—all the more so in that it only takes about a week or so for each new Detective Conan TV episode to get this treatment after it airs in Japan!
Are Anime Companies Behind the Times?
And that brings me back to the newly-released (but made in 2009) animé series I saw premiere at VisionCon—one that will not be out commercially for another month or so. The dub was decent work, and didn’t make me cringe the way some dubs had. I wouldn’t mind watching the entire series that way, but for one thing.
And that thing was, it was obvious that the professional company that would be releasing it over here had not bothered even to translate, let alone digitally replace, any text on the screen. Any time characters looked at their cell phone, or read a newspaper, or saw a sign—even one that was important to the plot!—it was left untranslated, meaning that viewers were left wondering exactly what those signs said. (Of course, I don’t know if they were subtitled during the subbed version, since I didn’t see that—but if they translated the signs with subtitles there, they could have used a second signs-only always-on subtitle track to translate them for the dub too.)
Then when I wanted to see how it came out and turned to the streaming version of the fansubs that were out already, I discovered the fansubbers had translated those things. The streaming versions I watched were lower quality, but I have little doubt that if I sought out the originals on Bittorrent, they would be in the same perfect digital quality as the versions that company is releasing commercially. And if I didn’t care about not having dubs, I could probably be satisfied with that.
Of course, animé fansubbers now, as then, usually stop distributing their subs once the series they subtitle are commercially licensed—but nothing ever goes away on the Internet, and even if the subbers stop distributing, other sites will still host the media for streaming and they’ll still float around forever on Bittorrent—as was proven by the way I was easily able to find a streaming version of that not-yet-commercially-released animé with just a little googling. Thus, the low-quality copies that used to serve as a promotion for the real thing are now equally-high-quality with often better localization, and can serve just as well as a replacement for it.
And here is where the e-book comparison comes in, because we’ve heard many complaints about the shoddy quality of editorial proofing for commercial e-books, notably Kindle editions. In some cases it seems as if they were simply put through an OCR script and then posted the way they were. But on the other hand, a lot of pirate scanned e-books have been painstakingly proofread and corrected by the scanners, or by people who got them after the scanners released them. You commonly see “version” notifications on some of the more popular titles, indicating how many times the files have been revised. After all, pirated e-books are released in digital, editable formats, and many people take the time to do just that.
Why are animé companies so far behind the times in the translation work they do? How can an operation like DCTP, made up of fans and hobbyists, produce high-quality localization work that far outshines them? You would think that anything within the capabilities of these fans should be even more possible for a commercial company that built its business and reputation on translating these works. (If not, then it should hire them!)
Of course, DVD players (and, for all I know, Blu-Ray players) can’t show subtitles that look as perfect as the ones digital fansubbers use that are rendered into the picture, and subtitling even signs could be distracting. But there’s no reason these companies couldn’t go in and do the same sort of digital replacement that fans could, on the original media that they then dub or sub. A sign is meant to be read, and a sign in English would probably be less distracting than one in Japanese that would leave the audience scratching its head. It might involve replacing the original Japanese text, but then, it’s meant for viewing in an English-language region anyway.
By the same token, why do publishers continue to let these low-quality e-book scans slip by them? They proofread and edit texts after the authors submit them, after all—it doesn’t seem like the process for proofreading a text after it’s been converted to an e-book should be all that different.
In both cases, these are industries that complain they are having their lunch eaten by pirates—but if they are, it is not simply because the pirates post for free what the industry sells, but because they do a better job of it. It brings to mind Valve founder Gabe Newell’s 2009 keynote about video game piracy in which he suggests that pirates are beating video game companies on service as well as price, pointing out that they have already spent a great deal of money on being able to play the games at all so it’s not as if they can’t afford to pay for quality.
In some cases, as with Detective Conan, there is no commercial alternative—Funimation stopped adapting the TV series (known in America as Case Closed) after the first 130 episodes because it didn’t do well on TV and apparently wasn’t selling well enough to continue.
I wonder if there’s some kind of market opportunity here. I’d happily pay a monthly fee to watch Netflix-style streaming of high-quality animé fansubs (and even dubs, if available) of series such as Conan if it meant that money would go back to the creators of the products. It doesn’t seem to be in the offing, however.
Of course, one difference between the two industries is that proofreading e-books properly doesn’t require anything like the same level of technological expertise as replacing signage. So the only hurdle to clear there is simply sitting down and doing it.
In both cases, the publishers of the media could stand to learn from the people distributing it illicitly. Though it’s not clear whether they ever will.