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March 11, 2013

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Young linguists write pirated film subtitles for fun

A STRANGE mixture of emotions welled up within the young man when he saw his friends watching the latest Japanese animation with all subtitles translated by him and his teammates.

The 22-year-old Shanghai office worker felt proud that his hard work and nickname, "Yoshiko," appeared in the video that would be viewed by tens of thousands of people.

But he dared not share the happy moment with his friends or relatives, because the video was a pirated one.

Yoshiko is among thousands of subtitle translators with hundreds of subtitle groups in China - often praised as "unsung heroes" by netizens for quickly supplying them with translations of the latest Japanese animations and American movies and TV shows, all without charging a penny.

Not only do viewers have no idea about their true identities, but they also know nothing about their joy of sharing, and their fear of getting caught for their "gray area'' activities.

Some subtitle translators choose to remain hidden for fear that one day police may come knocking for translating pirated versions of videos. The country doesn't have any laws banning people from making subtitles, but questions are sometimes raised about whether subtitle translators have violated film producers' rights.

"The first rule - well actually there's no other specific rules in our group - is that you don't talk about the subtitle group," said Sunny Wang, 20-year-old university student with a "secret" group that he said had translated David Fincher's movie "Fight Club" and some American TV series.

"It is a joke. But still we live by the creed to keep it low-key, since no one wants to catch the attention of the government or video producers. We want no troubles over copyright issues," said Wang.

"In the real world, I would never reveal that I am a subtitle translator," said Yoshiko, His group, DYMY, was started eight years ago and has 30 members.

Most subtitle translators are students or office workers with a passion for animations or movies and also time on their hands. Some majored in Japanese or English at universities, others learned on their own.

"It is a stereotype that subtitle translators are indoorsy young men and women. In fact, we are just normal people gathering together for our common hobby," said a man surnamed Yi, founder of the Shuguang subtitle group, which has about 150 members.

The members have regular parties on weekends, and some members date and become couples, Yi said.

Despite the fun, concerns over copyrights are always present as China tightens up on pirating videos, such as shutting down major free-download websites.

"Subtitle groups are eager to let more people know them, but they dare not engage in high-profile promotion," said Yoshiko. "Today I may stand in front of media cameras, and tomorrow I might be sued in court."

Yi said he has never heard of any subtitle translators getting sued or caught, except those working on pornographic videos.

"We make subtitles simply because we want to learn, make friends or love some specific animation or its character. Few give much thought to copyright issues," he said.

The future for subtitle groups is worrisome as currently many major video websites are buying video broadcast rights directly from Japanese and American producers, Yi said. Some say they are authorized to use official subtitles.

"One day the subtitle groups might disappear as the audience no longer need them when they can directly watch the official translated versions," Yi said.


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