Beware of dubious anime subtitles on Netflix

By | September 6, 2019

Ironically, the Japanese form of entertainment that I had consumed the most in my early years of studying Japanese––anime––is now among those I consume the least. But still I like to watch an episode every once in a while, sometimes even an entire series.

Recently I had an opportunity to get a Netflix subscription on a discount so I went for it. I was surprised to see there is a large number of anime series, the wide selection going far beyond the ones everybody has heard about (Naruto, One Piece, etc.).

Last week I found a random series with a futuristic setting and decided to try watching one episode. To be honest, the first episode was pretty mediocre, with the high-quality CG failing to make up for a derivative story that seemed very similar to other series of movies I’d watched.

But this article isn’t really about that series in specific, it’s more about the potential lack of translation quality in the subtitles of anime series on Netflix.

I can generally handle watching most anime without subtitles, but sometimes I’ll watch with English subtitles on, especially if the series has a lot of difficult terms or topics. While this reduces the value of watching as listening practice, it does allow me to sometimes learn some new words, and gives me information about how certain words and phrases can be translated.

When watching this series I alternated my focus back and forth between listening the spoken audio and reading the subtitles, and for only a small number of lines did I spent much mental effort trying to evaluate the translation. But for those that I did, I started seeing a pretty disturbing pattern.

In Japanese we have the terms chokuyaku (直訳) and iyaku (意訳), where the former is a literal translation and the latter a translation that attempts to convey the overall meaning and nuance, focusing less on individual words and grammar. Whether a passage is best translated as a chokuyaku or a iyaku depends on many factors, including subjective elements of style.

Several of the subtitles I evaluated in this first episode were clearly not chokuyaku translations, since their meaning deviated far from the literal spoken lines. Technically they would be classed as iyaku, but in a few cases the meaning seemed to be so different that is was shocking. In one memorable case the line seemed to actually use knowledge of an action that actually hadn’t occurred yet, essentially giving away information (a few seconds too early, but still). In other cases, while the translation vaguely fit with the topic at hand, there seemed to be key words missing from the translation.

Ultimately, I’m not going to declare that this series was horribly translated; even if there were mistakes, the translation was better than nothing. And to be able to say anything with any certainty would require spending a lot of time going back and comparing line-by-line, and thinking how better translations could be done. That’s why I am omitting the name of the series in question.

But after seeing several dubious translations in a short ~30 minute episode, a red flag came up that perhaps the translation quality of anime series on Netflix are not quite the quality I had expected. To give a comparison, some time back I had seen a bunch episodes on Crunchyroll, and while there was occasionally mistakes or odd translations, there was nothing this bad. Watching this episode on Netflix actually reminded me of the good old days where anime was still not yet mainstream and unofficial translations were the norm, so it wasn’t uncommon to find translations that got the gist but omitted key details.

Please note that I am not advocating against watching anime on Netflix. It seems like a great service so far, but if you are watching anime on there either shut off the subtitles, or if you turn on subtitles don’t make any assumptions about quality.

If you know any anime series on Netflix that have particularly well-translated subtitles, please let me know in the comments.

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