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December 11, 2009

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Fan subtitlers deliver online flicks super-fast to Chinese viewers

AFTER graduating this June, Mikty started working at a Japanese company: During the week she's a diligent rookie; on weekends, she indulges her passion - translating and subtitling Japanese TV dramas and variety shows online, for free.

She's a fan subtitler, head of a team, and makes possible the many fansubs, or online videos subtitled by fans.

Mikty is among thousands of Chinese online video subtitlers who toil in obscurity and without pay or real-life glory, but they love doing it.

Though they themselves don't make money, the availability of their fansubs makes pirating easier.

"Prison Break," "Lost" and "Gossip Girls" are among the most popular US dramas that subtitlers deliver fast to Chinese viewers.

A whiz-bang, fast-and-dirty translation/subtitle job can take as little as four hours. That means if a drama airs in the United States at around 9am Beijing time, Netizens can download a fansub as early as 1:30pm. They may not be very good, but they get the idea across and speed is everything.

Because of copyright issues, Mikty and other subtitlers decline to be identified or interviewed in person and won't reveal their online IDs.

Shanghai Daily interviewed subtitlers for this article on QQ, a Chinese instant messenger, or on MSN.

Mikty also won't say anything about herself because she doesn't want to expose fansub groups or be criticized for trying to make a name for herself.

"They'll think I'm doing this to gain fame for myself, which is totally stupid. I don't want to lose my reputation online," she tells Shanghai Daily via QQ.

Fansub refers to fan-subtitled movies or TV programs. Fansubs originated in the West in the 1980s with the explosion of Japanese anime.

Fansub groups work in many countries, but they are mostly considered heroes who toil without public recognition, known to appreciative fans by their online names.

Considering the sensitive copyright issues of the original programs, fansub groups keep a low profile.

In China, the story is complicated. American, Japanese and South Korean dramas all have big fan bases in China and dozens of fansub groups specialize in different languages and genres.

Each group consists of as few as a handful or as many as 100 members and their works are easily found on popular Chinese downloading sites.

Pirated DVD makers also take advantage of these free fansubs, which has made piracy cheaper and easier.

Though subtitling is a labor of love for most, who receive no pay, they definitely make pirates richer.

Many groups insert a line in the online video saying, "This work is for educational use only, Please delete within 24 hours after downloading."

But it's just a line.

"It's frustrating. We do it for fun and for free, but they use our efforts to earn millions and people blame us for piracy. And we become the ones chased by authorities," says former subtitler Zhang, a graduate student in Australia.

Zhang was once a core member of YDY, the largest fansub forum for American TV dramas. During its peak in 2007, the forum had around 200 members and released 20 subtitled episodes every week.

Zhang adds that many large fansub forums are alerted by authorities every few months "not to release unhealthy or harmful content on the Internet."

When they get these warnings, the fansub forums usually wait a few days before releasing new work. Each time there's a crackdown, some forums are blocked or closed down.

As of last night, quite a few major fansub forums in China have suspended operations in response to what appears to be a periodic crackdown.

Some fansub teams have disbanded, Shanghai Daily has learned.

Some major movie-downloading sites, such as BTChina, are blocked.

Zhang, feeling anxious and insecure, quit the forum two years ago for fear of being exposed. He was initially reluctant to accept an online interview from Shanghai Daily. He finally accepted (after learning this reporter is a friend of a friend) but wanted to make sure "it's not a trap by cops or others."

'It's a laborof love'

Jessica, a fashion magazine editor, is a big fan of South Korean dramas. She joined a major Korean fansub group last year to help formatting and uploading the finished videos. She also started taking Korean lessons around the same time and now can help translate some easy dramas.

"I do this entirely out of interest. It's a labor of love," she says. "Formatting and uploading are real boring technical tasks, but I even upgraded my computer to work faster at my own costs."

Jessica says she spends more than 10 hours on it every week and "it's totally free."

Like many others, she joined to get an insider's account on the forum so she can download any drama at any time at a high speed. Other users face limitations.

Many fansub group members are students, freelancers or young white collars who don't go out much.

Without knowing each other in real life, they are connected by the forum and contact each other through QQ or MSN. Since they join for interest and work for free, it's easy for them to quit, and many do.

"The members change all the time. It's rare to see anyone to stay for more than two years," says Zhang.

He says many students quit after graduation when they go to work and get too stressed on the job to do any subtitling in their free time. Some don't like the dramas any more. Some just disappear.

Forum organizers never worry about losing members because it's easy to find fresh blood, he says, especially for larger and more famous forums.

"People consider it an honor to join well-established groups - it's proof of their capabilities," he says.

But it's not easy to join. Applicants have to register on the forum and translate a short video as a test.

Some well-established sites even require applicants to state their reasons for joining and warn them: "You need a lot of leisure time and sense of responsibility to join." How They Do It

Watching a drama episode usually takes 45 to 60 minutes, but the process of making a fansub usually takes four to 10 hours, and involves five to 10 people.

First, they download the raw material from overseas Websites or from their overseas members who record from TV and upload online.

Some overseas members also upload the closed captions, or subtitles, of the dramas to make it easier for the translators.

One person is responsible for timing the drama - to put the subtitle of each line in its right place and at right time on the screen. An episode usually contains 300 to 800 lines and the group leader assigns them to three or four translators.

One or two quality-checking members, with higher language levels, will edit the translations. After timing it again, the video is transferred in various formats and uploaded to the forum.

Popular dramas get more than 100,000 downloads within hours after they are released on the site.

With dozens of fansub groups in China, a popular drama often has a few different versions of translation by various groups. They try to differentiate themselves by typeface, name of their group, quality of translation, and, most important, the speed.

"Speed isn't everything, but without it you can't succeed," says Mikty, the experienced member for a Japanese fansub forum. "We have three rivals for all the popular Japanese dramas. And we lose thousands of visitors if we come out a little later than the competitors."

This isn't only about a feeling of achievement - it's directly related to their financial support.

Although members work for free, servers and sites require costly maintenance. Smaller forums, requiring a few thousand yuan for annual maintenance, survive on donations from members.

This is not possible for larger forums like Mikty's, which needs about 250,000 yuan (US$36,560) every year. Instead, it makes money on advertising. And ad revenue depends on clicking rates - which depend on fast delivery of fan-translated flicks.


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