Valentina Ambrogio — professional English to Italian Translator, Localiser and Subtitler

Fansubbing: a treat or a threat?

Fansubbing: a treat or a threat?

Posted by Valentina Ambrogio in Subtitling 18 Sep 2014

Over the last few years, the fansubbing phenomenon has been thoroughly discussed among audiovisual translators. The main concerns are: can fansubbing replace the work of many professional and qualified translators? Is this wide-spread practice influencing the industry in terms of rates and quality standards?

A few facts about fansubbing

• “A fansub (short for fan-subtitled) is a version of a foreign film or foreign television program which has been translated by fans”;
• The first fansubbers translated Japanese anime and shared them with other fans who couldn’t otherwise have access to them;
• The first distribution media of fansubbed material was VHS and Betamax tapes, which were very difficult to find and were therefore very expensive;
• Modern fansubbing is called digital fansubbing (digisubbing) and, thanks to major technological advancements such as high-speed internet services, digisubs can now guarantee higher quality in a shorter time. [Source: Wikipedia]

Let me say something first. I watch fansubbed programs on a daily basis. I’m a TV-series addict and – if I don’t have to work, of course – watch at least three TV-show episodes a day. My partner, who is also on the dubbed-shows-are-not-the-same-thing team, prefers watching his favourite programmes in English, but still needs subtitles for a deeper understanding.

How fansubbers work

Fansubbers typically work in group. The workload is divided up. The final translation is then reviewed and one or two other people perform quality checks (mostly concerning synchronisation.)

Here is a small list of what I think are the pros and cons of fansubbing.


• Delivery time: a 40-minute episode is usually available 24 hours (sometimes even less) after it is broadcast abroad;
• Easier access: more people can enjoy their favourite shows without having to wait days or even months for the official dubbed/subtitled versions;
• Recent graduates/students: joining a fansubbing community might be a good way to put into practice what you have learnt during your studies. I strongly believe though that, in a résumé, this should be not listed as professional experience. I think volunteer activities or hobbies might be the right category. This is, of course, my opinion.


There is a general lack of quality as far as translation is concerned.

• Word-for-word translations are often the main course of action, also because fansubbers generally do not watch the video, thus losing many important references (gestures, inflections, context, etc.) given by the action developing on screen. This is particularly obvious in cases like this:

Dominion, season 1, episode 5 – David gives Claire a pendant, which once belonged to his wife. At a party, he tells her, “My goodness, it truly shines.” Here’s what the Italian viewers read and saw:


Back translation: “Gosh, you are radiant.”

If the translator had actually watched the video, he/she would have noticed that Claire touches the pendant right after David’s line, which also explained the use of the third-person pronoun. Let’s suppose the translator just made a mistake, then why hasn’t the reviewer done anything about it?

• Many fansubbers have quite a good grasp of the English language, others… not so much! Let’s have a look at this translation:

Under the Dome, season 2, episode 12 – Rebecca is a doctor and she really can’t understand why Melanie is sick. She is not ready to admit that there might be no scientific explanation. “I’m gonna find out why you’re sick”, says Rebecca, and Melanie replies: “”Not knowing makes you mad, huh?”


Back translation: “I didn’t realise you were so worried, huh?”

I suppose that in this case the translator just guessed the possible translation; maybe he/she didn’t have the original script and/or audio track. Maybe he/she just ignored the context and did his/her best to find a solution. I think it is inevitable to miss the general picture when the final translation is the result of the work of four or five people!

There are also other technical issues regarding subtitling standards that I have intentionally overlooked in the examples above, such as maximum characters per line, truncation, reading speed, interjections, repetitions, etc., which I do not expect them to follow for the only reason that they are NOT professional subtitlers.

Should fansubbing be seen as a threat to professionals or a treat for a wider range of viewers?

Unfortunately, the main consequence of fansubbing is that many people now think that subtitling is something anyone can do, that it is easy, so what would be the point of hiring a professional? Of course we know this is absolute nonsense. What happens though when a lot of international film festivals (this is very common in Italy) accepts only volunteer subtitlers? Or when a TV channel proudly announces that its programmes are now subtitled by one of the major fansubbing community in Italy? How does this affect quality standards?

In my opinion, fansubs are a real threat only when dealing with people who do not really understand what subtitling is. In terms of quality, there’s no contest. The importance of quality just cannot be underestimated and, in the long run, even those people who now think that subtitling – and translation in general – is just a piece of cake will change their mind.

What do you think about fansubbing? Do you agree with my view?

Leave a comment in the box below. I would love to know your opinion.

  • Alessandro September 18, 2014 at 11:52 am / Reply

    Hi, I am a fansubber and, even if I live in Italy, I refuse to see dubbed movies or fictions. As a fansubber, I also pay a lot of attention to professional subtitles in Italian (for instance, the subtitles of fictions on Sky). I have to say this: the community I collaborate with, Subsfactory, is made of people who love their hobby and who understand what subtitling is. We prefer a job well done rather than publish faster than others (of course, competition is important, but speed and quality are not friends). Details are important, and we usually discuss in a dedicated section of our forum the best solution for a translation. Our standards are based on professional ones, they are not invented. That said, I must say that professional subtitles, like the ones you can see in Sky or Fox, are largely worse than the ones made by fansubbers. They usually cut a part of a dialogue, sometimes cut some sentence because of “bad words”, or even worse, original sentences are completely misunderstood. If professional subtitles are so bad, in means people are paid to do a bad job. Therefore, I think it’s impossible to generalize. Fansubbers are not evil, they are not trying to eliminate professional job. The problem is when a fansubber site works for free in a professional situation, like a festival or something like that. But sometimes, professional jobs are really upsetting.

    • Valentina Ambrogio September 18, 2014 at 12:04 pm / Reply

      Thanks for sharing your opinion!
      I watch a lot of programmes subtitled by Subsfactory, and forgive me, but 80% do not meet official subtitling requirements. As for Sky, I agree with you. I have watched some episodes of The Big Bang Theory with my brother and the degree of quality is highly questionable, but this is not the general situation as far as professional subtitling is concerned.
      I admire fansubbers’ dedication and efforts, but the threat is not what you do, but “outsiders” who based on what you do for fun and for free are influencing the market and as a consequence the professional path of people who wants to make a living out of subtitling.
      This is, again, my opinion!

  • Alexandros September 18, 2014 at 12:43 pm / Reply

    I watch subtitled programmes too, because my English knowledge is inadequate to understand every conversation. I must admit that fansubs are very low-quality, except for rare cases (ItaSa for instance.) Other communities make more serious mistakes. This is not about being distracted, but not knowing both the English and Italian language. I’m not a language graduate and I can still tell that there are many mistakes. I appreciate their work and the time they spend for it, but like everything done this way, it can only be amateur work.

  • Am sure you know yet for all reading – this issue is not only relevant for translations needed due to language – issues of quality are also vitally important to mega-millions of us with hearing loss globally – one in five persons on average, yes that’s a huge audience. We want quality captioning (we want more than subtitles – we want every sound, and also all the words, no matter what language they are spoken in). On the theme of asking if it’s a benefit or threat – using fans/volunteers – it’s a good question and as you write – there are pro’s and con’s. For myself, one person only, I hope we never diminish the pool of trained and experienced professionals – we hope that increases! and that they maintain being paid fairly. At the same time, the need is huge, and volunteers/fans are surely allowed to offer what they can if it’s clear what the goals are, and if there is some “warning” that quality may not be as high as if professionally – created. LS/ (we don’t sell anything, we are volunteer citizen advocates and our mission is “inclusion of quality captioning universally.”

    • Valentina Ambrogio September 22, 2014 at 4:32 pm / Reply

      Thank you for sharing your view.
      I admire your work, really! You do something very special for HoH viewers. And I am genuinely not against the kind of work that you do as long as, as you said, “it’s clear what the goals are.”
      I am not against fansubbing per se. I am against those fansubbers who claim to be professional translators without proper training and qualifications. This attitude is doing some serious harm to the industry.
      You introduced yourself as volunteer stating that your goal is helping others, and this is just amazing!

  • Daniel September 25, 2014 at 10:33 am / Reply

    Wow, a professional subtitler watching bootlegged series with subtitles made by amateurs. Isn’t that biting the hand that feeds you on multiple levels? In my opinion, if we want to keep watching good-quality TV with decent subtitles, paying (or getting paid) a little money goes a long way!

    I once saw a ‘fansubbed’ film (my brothers are into illegal downloads) and some Dutch hack had translated the English sentence ‘We think you’re fucking awesome’ into ‘We vinden dat je geweldig kunt neuken,’ back-translated into English: ‘We think you can fuck brilliantly’. It made the film entertaining to watch, but it was by no means a substitute for an educated and paid translator.

    • Valentina Ambrogio September 25, 2014 at 10:46 am / Reply

      Dear Daniel,

      Thank you for commenting!

      I watch fansubbed programmes with my partner (as clearly stated in the post.) In Italy, 98% of programmes are dubbed, so if you prefer watching subtitled productions, your only chance is paying cable TV (which is not cheap) or download funsubs. That being said, when I am watching TV by myself, I definitely do not use fansubs.

      Plus, I’ll say this again, since my post is clearly misunderstood. Fansubbers’ dedication is admirable and as long as it is seen as non-professional work, it’s really OK. They enjoy fansubbing, so good for them. My point is: especially here in Italy, fansubbers often feel entitled to be treated as qualified translators, which they are not. My post only wanted to underline this point.

      There’s nothing wrong with fansubbing as long as it is not considered professional work.

      Thank you and have a good day!


  • Daniel September 25, 2014 at 11:49 am / Reply

    Hi Valentina, thank you for your reply. Here in the Netherlands we are spoiled with 100% subtitled foreign content. Together with the Nordic countries there exists a tradition of high-quality subtitling. In a way, you could see fansubs as way of desensitising viewers to quality productions. Because illegal downloads and streams are free, and so are fansubs, people will take lower quality subtitles into the bargain and get used to an inferior quality experience. Once broadcasters and festivals notice this tendency in their viewers, like you write in your post, they will start to wonder if it’s still worthwhile paying professionals. So, although there is nothing wrong with people wanting to create subtitles themselves, their distribution alongside unpaid, illegal copies can adversely affect the TV and film industry and our shared profession. Finally, to answer your question, yes, I think ‘fansubs’ are a threat to professionals, and therefore in the long run not so much a treat for viewers.
    Best regards,

    • Valentina Ambrogio September 25, 2014 at 12:04 pm / Reply

      Thank you for sharing your point of view and for taking the time to read and comment. I really appreciate.

      PS: I agree with you and I wish Italy understood the importance of good subtitling…

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