x News
x About
x Meetings
x Join
x Schedule
x Officers
x Committees
x Members
x Events
x Public Relations
x Meeting Archives
x Contact
x Site Map
x What is Anime?
x What is Manga?
x Otaku Dictionary A-K
x Otaku Dictionary L-Z
x Subtitled and Dub
x Fansub
x Conventions
x Con Items Guide
x Links to Anime Sites
x Where is Bloomsburg?
x Fan Art
x Fan Fiction
x Fan Plushie
x Fan Motivational Posters
x Club Pictures
x Convention Pictures
x Facebook Page
x Twitter
x Discord
x Husky Sync
x My Anime List

This information is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia articles "Fansub".


A fansub (short for fan-subtitled) is a copy of a foreign movie or television show which has been subtitled by fans in their native language. It is most commonly used to refer to fan-translated anime videos that are shared amongst other fans.

Evolution of the fansub

Fansubs originated during the explosion of anime production during the 1980s in Japan. Relatively few titles were licensed for distribution in foreign countries. This made it difficult for anime fans to obtain new titles. Some fans, generally those with some Japanese language experience, began producing amateur subtitled copies of new anime programs so that they could share them with their fellow fans who did not understand Japanese. In an attempt to avoid ethical and legal problems, fansubbers adopted the practice of distributing their works at zero profit.

In the earlier days of fansubbing, the distribution media was VHS tapes. Such copies were notoriously low quality, time consuming to make, expensive to produce, and difficult to find. A limited number of copies were made and then mailed out or distributed at local anime clubs. Fans could purchase fansubs at a modest cost or could contact clubs who would record the material on their own blank video cassettes.

That all changed with the introduction of digital fansubbing. With the advent of widespread high-speed Internet access, desktop video editing, and DVD ripping, the original process has largely been abandoned in favor of digital fansubbing (digisubbing) and electronic distribution of the resulting digisubs. This has allowed fansubbing to transform from a slow and tedious task that generates a low quality preview of an attractive show to a cheap, easy, and quick way to create a high quality and high availability alternative to an only-slightly-better quality official DVD copy, although some groups release HD quality fansubs.

However, a majority of fansubs are encoded at distinctly less than DVD quality, often featuring fewer channels of sound and less picture quality since many stem from TV recordings. Even fansubs based on Japanese DVD rips have less quality. The primary reason is file size: 175 MB, 233 MB, and 350 MB are generally treated as the "standard" sizes for a fansub file because they divide evenly into 700 MB, the size of a typical CD-R. DVDs usually feature data sizes of over a gigabyte, giving them superior quality. However, since most digisubs now use a better MPEG-4 compression, in comparison to the MPEG-2 compression used by DVDs, the difference in quality is becoming less noticeable despite the smaller filesizes.

Digisubs are now of such quality and free accessibility that the incentive to upgrade to a legitimate copy once a title is domestically licensed may be severely diminished. Economic instabilities in both the US and Japan have made it hard to gauge the precise consequences of digisubs on the commercial industry.

Some in the anime community argue that digisubbing has distorted the original fansub culture and transformed it from a respected practice to nothing more than pirating for cheap entertainment. Others defend fansubbing as a clear benefit to the anime community as well as a benefit to both the Japanese and domestic anime industries, pointing to several historical examples where fansubs have helped Japanese companies earn publicity and money.

Early fansubs

Early or "traditional" fansubs were produced using analog video editing equipment. First, a copy of the original source material, called a raw was obtained. The most common raw source was a commercial laserdisc. However, a commercial VHS tape or even a homemade recording could be used as well, though that would entail a lower quality finished product. A translated script was then made to match the dialog of the raw video. The video script was then timed. Timing is the process of assigning a "start time" (Synch-Point) and "end time" for each line of subtitling; this determines how long a given subtitle would remain on the screen. Timing a script was usually done in conjunction with computer software designed specifically for that purpose. The person performing the timing would watch the source video and would assign the appearance, changing, and removal of the subtitle text using a computer. The two most popular programs used in this process were JACOsub (on the Amiga) and Substation Alpha (on MS Windows). Once the script was prepared and timed, the next step was to produce one or more masters. A master was a high quality copy of the finished fansub from which many distribution copies could be made. The fansubber would playback the raw video through a computer equipped with a genlock in order to generate the subtitles and then overlay them on the raw signal. The hardware of choice was an Amiga PC as most professional genlocks were extraordinarily expensive. The final output of this arrangement was then recorded. The master was most often recorded onto SVHS tape in an attempt to maximize quality, though some fansubbers were forced to use inferior but less expensive VHS. Once completed, the master copy was then sent to a distributor.

Fansub distributors (who delivered videos to fans) were usually separate from fansubbers, who did translations and produced masters. Since most members of the fansub community did not want to profit from their activities, fansubs were usually not "sold". Typically, a fan who wanted copies of a given program would mail blank VHS tapes to a fansub distributor, along with a modest payment for shipping expenses. The distributor would then record copies onto the "customer's" blank cassettes, and ship them back. Alternatively, a fansub distributor might sell copied tapes outright, but at a low price which was intended to be exactly enough to cover the cost of blank cassettes and shipping.

This style of fansubbing was quite cost intensive for the fansubber and the distributor. The raw usually was purchased at a high price; nearly all Anime Laserdiscs (or tapes) cost more than $50, and many cost more than $100. It would not be uncommon for a $50 Laserdisc to contain just 30 minutes of video. Obtaining quality raws for a series of moderate length could cost over $1000. As well, many fansubbing groups paid professional translators in order to generate the script. Then, expensive video equipment was required: Laserdisc player, PC, genlock, and recording deck for producing the master; subsequently two or more video decks were then needed for producing distribution copies. Professional grade video hardware such as players, recorders, and editing decks was extremely expensive; easily into the thousands of dollars.

The video quality of early fansubs was not good. The high cost of equipment forced most fansubbing groups to use less expensive but inferior quality consumer grade electronics. Even when a high quality LD source and professional grade hardware could be used, the final fansub was at best a third-generation copy. In reality, most fansubs in circulation were fourth or fifth generation copies, and were not made on professional equipment. Thus, in practice quality was usually very poor, though the actual localization and translation were closer to a professional level than those found in modern fansubs.

Modern fansub techniques

Modern fansubs are produced almost entirely on computer. A raw is still required, but unlike the fansubbers who relied on laser discs, most raw sources comes directly from recordings off Japanese TV, which are widely available via Japanese peer-to-peer programs. While TV recordings are now the primary type of raw used today, rips of region 2 DVDs are also used. For older shows not available on DVD, some modern fansubbers use computers equipped with sophisticated video capture hardware to get digital copies of older analog media (laserdisc or tape) to work with. With new High-Definition televisions fansubs have been completely revolutionized.

Once the video is in the computer it can be edited and subtitles applied with minimal or no loss of quality, compared to the playback-recording cycle required in traditional fansubbing. However, a majority of the encoding formats used generally cause some loss of quality versus the original broadcast or DVD. A relatively inexpensive PC can perform all of the manipulation necessary, without the need for expensive and complex devices such as editing decks and a genlock.

Translation is usually done solely by listening to the recording. While commercial releases will often have access to the scripts, fansubbers have to translate by ear. This can sometimes lead to mistakes or unclear spellings of names. The latter is most common with shows that use Western names. Because of Japanese pronunciation and ambiguities in the katakana characters, names like Alice can sound or be spelled like "Arisu" - which can be misheard as any number of Alice alternatives. This can lead to different fansubbing groups using different spellings. A famous example is Winry Rockbell from Full Metal Alchemist, who was spelled as both Winry and Winly by different groups due to the Japanese equivalence of L's and R's.

After translation is complete, the subtitles are written and timed, and then often checked for errors (quality control, or simply QC). There are several methods of subbing currently used.

"Hard" subtitles, or hard subs, are encoded into the footage, and are thus non-optional. In the case of hard subtitles a video editor (commonly VirtualDub) uses an AVISynth script to load the raw video file and the subtitle file (created by the translators) then the video software applies the subtitles on the video and captures video with the subtitles "burned" in.

"Soft" subtitles, or soft subs, are subtitles synched to the spoken dialogue which are not encoded into the footage itself but kept in a separate file or contained separately from the footage but stored within the same video media file. Since softsubs are kept separate from the video stream they are optional and can be switched off or even edited to the user's preferences. With the correct media player or an auxiliary program softsubs are superimposed on the footage and appear indistinguishable from hardsubs. Subtitles are traditionally done hard, but as of 2006 several major fansub groups are using softsubs. Since modern video media can contain multiple softsubs some groups release fansubs with several translations into different languages, or differently styled subtitles to fit different preferences.

The internet allows for highly collaborative fansubbing, and online fansubbing communities are able to release a fully subtitled episode (including karaoke with translation, kana & kanji for songs, additional remarks and translations of signs) in less than 24 hours after an episode is debuted in Japan.

The resulting fansub is a computer video file, with the companion sub file in the case of soft subs. It can be copied to CD or DVD media for physical distribution, but is most often distributed using online file-sharing protocols such as BitTorrent and by file-sharing bots on IRC. This allows modern anime fans to download the finished product at no cost to themselves or to distributors.

Distribution and playback

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, fansubs in electronic form were primarily distributed much like VHS tapes: via mail on CD-R's. Many fans did not have high speed Internet and were unable to download large files. It was from this practice of mailing on CD-Rs that sizes such as 175 and 233 MB became standard sizes for files. Many of the early electronic fansubs were made from regular VHS subs. In the case of Sailor Moon, the primary fansub in distribution today is based on VHS fansubs made almost a decade ago.

As of 2006, most fansubs are predominantly distributed through BitTorrent and IRC channels. Anime fansub news websites provide information about fansub releases. The video files are usually encoded in either DiVX or XviD video codec, and one of many audio codecs. Because of a growing de-emphasis on CD-R or DVD-R distribution, the only 175/233 file size standard has become less frequently followed. An appropriate video and audio playback codec needs to be installed on the computer for proper playback. In addition, many of the video files use special multimedia container formats such OGM and Matroska. Special decoders need to be acquired for these formats as well. One main benefit of using Ogg media and Matroska multimedia containers is that it is possible to create a single file that has DVD-like features such as different audio tracks as well as different subtitle tracks and chapter support. At the same time, these multimedia containers can be demuxed back into their individual files, the individual files can be altered (for example, fixing a misspelling in the subtitles), and then remuxed back together.

Legal and ethical issues

Fansubbers have traditionally held themselves to a common code of ethics. Historically, the key points have been:

  1. Fansubs are made for fans, by fans, and not for commercial purposes. Therefore, fansubs should never be sold for a profit. They are either given away or sold for exactly the cost required to make them (usually, the cost of a blank cassette plus shipping expenses). Many fansubs contain subtitle text that reads "free fansub: not for sale or rent" that pops up during the video, in order to discourage bootleggers from violating this rule.
  2. Most fansubbers only work with material that has not been licensed for domestic release in their country of distribution. If a domestic company licenses a given title then fansub production and distribution of that title stops. An exception, for some, is made when the licensor intends to heavily edit the content without releasing an uncut version, as is the case with 4Kids Entertainment. However, this only constitutes a very small portion of licensed products, few of which are titles which are overwhelmingly popular with fansub communities to begin with.
  3. There is an expectation that if a given fan enjoys a show, then he or she should buy the official domestic release if and when it becomes available.

It is true that many fansubbers abide by this somewhat relativistic code of ethics when deciding what shows to bring over. Indeed, it can be justified as the free distribution of something that no one has claimed the right to sell (in a particular region and/or country). This is true for all unlicensed anime, but most predominantly for anime that has not been recently released. Legend of the Galactic Heroes is one such anime and an enormously popular show in Japan. Originally airing in 1989, this show went on to have a 110 episode main series, a 53 episode OVA series, and three movies. Even so, the potential market for such an 'old and outdated' anime is understandably small. Many fans of anime are attracted by bright flashy animation, smooth character design, modern themes, and current popular trends. Many fansubbers justify their distribution of several popular, but older and unlicensed titles by saying that they are not, and probably will never be, sold in the United States for a profit. Likewise, some fansubbers work with niche titles that are also unlikely to see a domestic release.

Supporters of fansubbing point to an alleged positive impact it has had on the anime industry through its function as publicity. There have been several shows that were at first overlooked for US distribution, only to be picked up later when fansubs helped create a buzz about the franchise. One example of this was Azumanga Daioh, now released by ADV Films. At A-Kon 15 in the summer of 2005, an ADV founder admitted that they thought Azumanga Daioh would not be initially popular in America. ADV subsequently decided to license this title after witnessing its popularity in the fansub community. Other shows that were made popular through fansubs include Flame of Recca, Kodomo no Omocha, and Bobobo. The former two went unlicensed for many years, the latter for a couple, before attracting the attention of US companies due to the series' fanbase. This is highly controversial; however, as many titles are licensed prior to their airing in Japan and some popular fansub titles remain unlicensed.

In recent years (after digital distribution) the code of ethics has fallen into disregard. Fansub producers focus on new and flashy releases which are sure to be licensed, and often multiple groups work on the same series at the same time as a competition, rather than to encourage domestic licensing. Many fansub groups are devoted not to letting people see a show which they won't be able to see at all, but simply to see it now, and for free.

Detractors of fansubbing counter by pointing to an alleged "dark side" of fansubbing. While many fansubbing groups stop distributing a show it is licensed, some continue long afterwards. Shows licensed by 4Kids, for example, are considered by some to be "not truly licensed," due to the company's refusal to release unedited versions of their properties. Fansubbers have been the lone source of subtitled versions of several 4Kids shows, including Tokyo Mew Mew, One Piece, and Yu-Gi-Oh!. An older example is Sailor Moon, which was initially licensed by DiC. No uncut or subtitled version was ever released by DiC, prompting some fansubbers to distribute their own. It wasn't until 2003 that commercial subtitles of the first two seasons appeared; no commercial release of the fifth season has ever been made. However, all of Sailor Moon has recently lapsed into being unlicensed, making fansubs the only available source of the show for fans. There are other examples, such as Samurai Champloo or Ghost in the Shell, which were fansubbed after they were licensed by respectable domestic companies (Geneon and Bandai respectively) who later produced accurate subtitled DVDs of the shows.

Extraordinarily long productions like One Piece, Naruto and InuYasha are also known to be distributed by fansubbers even after a license is announced. Even after the official licensing of Naruto that came around the release of episode 124, fansubbing groups still distributed the show. Cartoon Network is now airing the first few episodes while fansub groups release up to episode 197 and beyond. While it is still true that native language dubs of shows are usually more popular, especially for anime geared at younger audiences like Naruto, up to 250,000 people download the current Japanese episode every week online. Naruto and Inu Yasha were released on uncut subtitled DVDs but even then, the fansubs continued.

Other shows like Sailor Moon and Fist of the North Star (also known as Hokuto no Ken) have only been partially released in the United States. As mentioned above, 'Bishoujo Senshi Sailor Moon Sailor Stars', the final series in Sailor Moon, has never been released in the United States because of ambiguous sexual overtones that distributors fear would be 'offensive' to parents. Fist of the North Star saw an initial short release of its long series, stopping production at episode 36, but failed to release the other 73 episodes in the primary series, or even start the 43 episode sequel. These marketing concerns for distribution companies create a grey operating zone for fansubbers. While on the one hand it is true that products like Fist of the North Star are released and licensed in America, only part of the series is available. A fan willing to buy the whole series would find it impossible, likely prompting fans to opt out of supporting companies that fail to back their own products.

In the end, there is no clear ethical resolution on the matter. Whether fansubs are now beginning to hurt the market cannot be judged for certain, although more and more companies are speaking out, and there is a growing section of fandom arguing against them and their viewers for not contributing to the shows they claim to support. Their past role as advertisement cannot be questioned. It is suggested that series without fansubs do tend to be ignored by western markets, suggesting that fansubs are still important to generate anticipation for new Japanese releases in the US and Europe. Others argue that this is just a result of fansubbers translating shows that are sure to do well in the U.S. anyways, and ignoring the ones that wouldn't. On the other hand, growing resentment among fansubbers towards the professional community does threaten to imperil the once-comfortable gray area that fansubs occupied. As DVD rippers become more common, more and more US distributors are becoming decreasingly tolerant towards the fansub community.