Content warning: This post contains quotes of and links to offensive language, including homophobic and racial slurs, the type of posting you’d expect to find on 4chan and other bowels of the internet. They are reproduced uncensored for historical and archival purposes.
Translation is a difficult task, but at the crux of the matter is a simple question: should I translate so that my audience better relates to the material, or should I translate to capture the literal meaning of the words? Nowhere else is this more hotly debated on the internet than among non-Japanese speaking anime fans, who have never come to an agreement.
Some argue that localization, i.e. translating the work to entertain an Anglophone audience, sullies the beauty of source material. Others say that literal translations are boring, and if you want to truly understand the characters’ dialog, you should just learn Japanese.
There are awful localizations, such as the infamous 4Kids “jelly donuts” dub of the original Pokémon, and there are awful literal translations, such as the the oft-memed “all according to keikaku” line from a fan translation of Death Note. [Translator’s Note: Keikaku means plan.]
The Japanese language features many characteristics that prove controversial among anime fans and amateur translators, and bickering between the two poles never ceases. Should meaningful honorifics such as -san and -kun simply be left in the subtitles? Should untranslatable phrases like “itadakimasu” not be touched at all, or explained with a translator’s note?
The argument could go on forever, and like with most things, the answer is probably somewhere in the middle. However, during the humble infancy of fansubs, translators tended to prefer literal translations.
But during the late 2000s/early 2010s, a clique of anime fansubbers decided they’d had enough with the tendency against localization, enough with the pretentious and catty nature of established fansubbers, and even enough with the anime industry itself.
One group in this clique, formed in 2005 and known as [gg], would go down in anime fansub history as the kings of “trollsubs,” highly localized subtitles that were often completely incorrect, but hilarious nonetheless. These subs may not have captured the meaning of the words, but they captured their essence. And more importantly, they were funny as hell.
Other groups would follow in their digital footsteps, such as CoalGuys, now defunct, and Commie, who is still around today. But for now, let’s focus on [gg].
I’ve managed to track down an 8-year-old interview with Koda, the creator and head honcho of [gg] on the /r/anime subreddit. Within the thread she explains the history and motivations of the group in its early years, as well as her group’s general philosophy toward fansubbing.
The group started out relatively ‘normal’ with a meticulously done fansub of the 2005 show Pani Poni Dash!, an anime that was so complex and rife with Japanese pop-culture references that the episodes would come with .pdfs chock-full of translator notes.
“[gg] started off as a generic idealistic young fansub group that did xvid/hardsubs and literal [translations] and uh we quit caring about all of that and now we’re pretty much subbing shows people in group want to sub and we’re sharing them with other people. I think this is a healthier attitude.” Koda explains on Reddit.
But Koda was a trailblazer, and had absolutely no respect for the traditional ways of fansubbing. Even in the early days, there was a certain penchant for experimentation and deviancy.
As TheFluff, one [gg] member puts it in a 2010 blog post recounting the history of the group: “At this early stage we can already see all the defining characteristics that gg as a group would have later; most of them are probably just reflections of koda’s own personality and characteristics. The disrespect for established authorities, the embracing of new technology and new tools (h264-only softsubbing was pretty much completely unheard of at the time; as far as I know gg was the first non-DVDrip group that did it), the trolling, the subbing of odd ‘pretentious’ and artsy shows that nobody else was paying any attention to etc etc.”
TheFluff further details the beginnings of [gg] in the same blog post:
“This [early] incarnation of gg is now known as proto-gg; mostly because it eventually turned into a pretty normal fansub group among other fansub groups. Personal conflicts between koda and the main translator, Eliza, as well as the former’s eventual refusal to put up with the latter’s annoying habit of refusing every single editing change and leaving everything as really messy and unreadable Singapore-influenced English eventually made koda ragequit and go play MMO’s instead. The group stumbled on as an average-to-shitty fansub group among other average-to-shitty groups for a while but eventually collapsed sometime mid-2007 because Eliza quit and gg just wasn’t the same without koda,” TheFluff writes. (Koda would later return.)
It would take a few years for [gg] to morph into the trollish form that made them famous, and it all began with their fansub of Code Geass: Lelouch of the Rebellion, a show that spawned dozens if not hundreds of memes on the /a/ – Anime and Manga board of 4chan. Partly due to the self-aware absurdity of the show itself, and partly due to the utterly unpredictable trolling shenanigans of [gg].
Koda writes on Reddit: “Like, I don’t think [gg] was very well known until Code Geass. We were the only group subbing it for like 2 months. So if you were watching Code Geass, you knew of [gg]. And since Code Geass was popular, we got popular/well known too.”
[gg]’s propensity for mischief would continue with the release of the sequel to their original claim to fame, Code Geass: Lelouch of the Rebellion R2. As TheFluff notes once again in his blog post, “I was eventually rescued by the sudden appearance of Code Geass R2 in April 2008. CGR2 and gg went together like fire and gasoline since the entire show was basically a gigantic troll. It was a meta-comedy, where the greatest fun came by watching the reactions of people on the internet; hence, simulwatching it on Sunday mornings was absolutely hilarious for multiple reasons.”
[gg]’s fansub of Code Geass R2 features one of the group’s most famous gags, an over-the-top translator’s note appended to a scene of chess.
Now, it must be said that “trollsubbing” is perhaps an inaccurate label for what [gg] set out to do. They weren’t necessarily trying to prank viewers, it was more of a knowing attack on the legitimacy of the anime fandom and fansubbing community. TheFluff closes his blog post with a manifesto of sorts that states this quite emphatically:
“A common attitude is to just dismiss everything gg ever did as ‘trolling’, but that’s just proving that you don’t GET gg or what it stands for. gg very rarely did something just for the plain shock value; almost every ‘troll’ gg has ever done has at least had the side effect of making a point. Oversubbing things ‘for the lulz’? Criticism of fansubber flock-of-sheep mentality. Hilariously overdone karaokes? That’s gg’s way of saying ‘hey faggots look how dumb this is’. The entire Gundam 00 S2 ep 20 project was an attempt to make certain fansub groups that took themselves way too seriously realize just how fucking ridiculous they were. Overlocalization? An attempt to make people realize that hey maybe leaving Japanese words untranslated isn’t that cool, after all. A big part of the reason gg liked Geass R2 so much and that it suited the group so perfectly was that Sunrise was doing things the exact same way as gg were doing them: they were trying to make people realize just how ridiculous anime is (a vast majority of the viewers missed the point). Yes, a lot of this was indeed done mostly for fun, but there was almost always a bigger purpose behind the ‘lulz’. You could almost say gg did META-FANSUBBING. Where is your god now!?”
We’ve gone over the beginning history of [gg], but this is just the tip of the trollsub iceberg. CoalGuys, a fansub group led by a half-African American, half-Japanese man known as Jaka (at least he claims such heritage here, so don’t get mad at me for his gratuitous use of the n-word), would quickly follow [gg]’s path of hyper-localization and make quite the name for themselves.
There was often overlap between CoalGuys and [gg] as far as staff went, such as Koda’s presence on certain projects, but that’s a bit too ‘in the weeds’ for this article.
CoalGuys became so ubiquitous with trollsubs that the group was a constant target of ire from fans of more literal translation. Perhaps their best work was the subtitling of the 2010 show B Gata H Kei, a raunchy anime about a girl trying to lose her virginity. The below image demonstrates just how far CoalGuys’ subs would deviate from other translations. (You can find the full version of the picture here.)
What felt so liberating about CoalGuys’ subtitle work at the time was that it just fit with the anime. A risqué sex-comedy HAS to have mature language and edgy comedy, right? So why not just do it? This philosophy on fansubbing successfully tapped into that sense of [gg]’s meta-humor, almost as if to say: anime sucks, so let’s treat it with the clownery it deserves and at least make it funny.
And in the end, isn’t the gist of the dialog communicated anyway?
Like other trollsubbers at this time, it was no secret that CoalGuys was essentially against the anime industry itself, especially official English translations and releases. Fansubbers provided their work for free, and took great pride in this.
On the CoalGuys webpage, Jaka highlights a 2010 blog post written by the President of Bang Zoom! Entertainment, Eric P. Sherman, entitled “Anime – R.I.P.” In the piece, the president of a company that provides official licensed releases of anime in the United States complains that “if people don’t resist the urge to get their fix illegally, the entire industry is about to fizzle out… Anime is going to die. Unless YOU change. Right now. Stop stealing. If you have committed theft, robbery, shop-lifting, or just ‘downloading some stuff through torrent reactor,’ then just stop doing it — now.”
Jaka responds to this doomsday scenario with some choice words:
“I pretty much agree with this and I am very proud to say that I’ve been a part of killing the industry, the R1, at least. 60 years later, on a Saturday morning, I would reminiscent about this as my grandchildren are watching cartoons on TV, and I will proceed to tell them how about how the non-existent Japanese Cartoons from my age were so much deeper and so much more attractive. Feels good, man.
“After reading 3 lines of this butthurt wall of tl;dr, I didn’t feel bad for them at all. Perhaps if they were a little smarter and realized the market is dying and not try to be so clingy of it, they might not need to be in the situation they are in now. Oh wait, smart people won’t be working in this piece of shit industry in the first place. Hahahaha, disregard that, I suck cocks.”
Jaka, much like [gg], also hated other fansubbers. According to him, all fansubbers hated other fansubbers, but you get the sense his hate was a bit more pure. Jaka launched a fiery rant against the community itself (consider this your gratuitous n-word warning if you follow the link), where he writes that “[Fansubbing] is not fun at all because fansubbers themselves take away the fun. It is more of a competition and trollfest rather than trying to bring out subs to fans…
“Most people (including me) find it more fun to ruin other groups and bash the fuck out of them than to actually sub something, because that is the definition of ‘fansubbing’ nowadays. That’s why you get lazy fucking groups who takes weeks to get an episode out, while as the whole process takes less than 24 hours. Guess what they’re doing? Discussing how other subs suck (I do that sometimes too and I enjoy it; feels good, man).”
There’s another post on the CoalGuys blog that just tears into every fansub group at the time, which you can read here.
Suffice to say, anime didn’t die in 2010, though many suspected it might. This death drive fueled a lot of trollsubbers, who were driven by nihilism just as much as elitism. Jaka hosted an enlightening IRC interview in 2010 with an official anime translation contractor, Sam Pinansky, that delves into the rivalry/hate between anime companies like Crunchyroll that actually buy the rights to shows, and rippers and fansubbers that just steal the work product.
Jaka: We also have noticed from the question about those ripping groups, you sound like you have a grudge against them. Is there really that much hate for groups such as Commie/HorribleSubs/etc?
Sam: Uh, well their stated purpose is to “piss off Crunchyroll”. I can’t jab back? Trust me, CR knows about them and if they ever get bought out by a company with a legal department, the hammer will fall.
Jaka: What do the Japanese think of the rips?
Sam: You mean like Horriblesubs?
Sam: I know an industry guy in Japan who wants me to give him the names and addresses of the members of the group so he can pay for local thugs to “break their knees”. The rips and illegal sites they want stopped, immediately.
Pinansky also prophetically predicts Crunchyroll’s future success and the resurgence of the anime industry.
Jaka: Back to the general view… Hm, what do you think about the anime market “dying” as some call it? In Japan, that is.
Sam: It’s a cycle like any other. But this time things will look different on the other end and no one knows exactly what.
Jaka: Do you have confidence that it will climb back up in the future?
Sam: Sure, because anime is deeply ingrained here no matter what people think. The old fashioned animation studios might be gone, but new talent with new tools will appear. And comiket and that side of creativity is still going strong despite the bad economy. The main thing that might not come back are the big old fashioned Japanese company dinosaurs. But the art will still be there, maybe hidden for a bit.
This brings us to the third aforementioned trollsubbing group, Commie Subs, started in 2009, who focused on directly stealing subtitles and video rips from Crunchyroll and then editing them to their own liking. As the group explains on an old about page, “Our main focus is ripping Crunchyroll subs, shoving them through a fine mesh, and chucking editors around until the subs appear somewhat decent. Read: Yes we edit the damn script, there’s nothing to whine about because you won’t be able to tell a difference between us and a normal fansub.”
Commie responded to the above interview with Pinansky in a blog post. “Just to clear shit up. ‘Commie’s stated purpose isn’t to ‘piss off Crunchyroll’ (I always thought it was capitalised ‘CrunchyRoll’, but meh). In fact, I don’t even know what our purpose is. I think like, we encode shit, and since it doesn’t take much more effort, we’d might as well put subs on it,” the author writes.
Commie denies wanting to destroy Crunchyroll by ripping their subs and raw video files (they did this under the separate name CommieRips), so perhaps they didn’t share the same naked hatred toward the anime industry as others. Yet they did have the same love for over-the-top localization, at least for the subtitles they didn’t just rip from Crunchyroll.
Still an active group, their ironic tagline “Americanized crap for xenophones” should explain it all. Commie didn’t just innovate in localization though, they were also celebrated for their wizard-like typesetting abilities, especially their release of the 2014 anime Nisekoi.
This piece cannot possibly cover everything, such as Duwang, a group that subtitled the 2012 release of JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure in the style of an earlier fail-translation of the manga. Or ReinWeiss, a group that would take [gg]’s subs and intentionally horrifically de-localize them as a meta-joke. The world of trollsubbing was once vast and prolific, but nowadays in 2020, it’s a lost art.
With the anime industry and Crunchyroll specifically chugging along and capturing more and more intellectual property, there’s very little desire among fansubbers to continue. The scene is essentially dead, with the vast majority of active groups just focusing on encodes and rips.
For a time, however, there was a band of mischievous digital goblins that fought against the norms of the anime industry, and their legacy is best reflected in the growing tendency for Crunchyroll to prefer localization. While they may not have succeeded in bringing the anime industry to its knees, at least we no longer have to deal with random Japanese words and flat-sounding literal translations cluttering our screens.
And I really can’t thank them enough for that.