A post from a twitter

…which is like a book from a footnote.

So a conversation on Twitter got me to thinking. This is not uncommon. The issue? Notes in translations and other works. The players? Myself, 8C, and LowOnHitPoints.

I won’t try to sum the whole thing up, but 8C started things off with the claim (quoted, I think) that notes during a fansub are an admission that the subber is a failure. Hyperbole, certainly, but let’s clean it up a little now that we’re not limited to the old 140. A note in a fansub fails in its very purpose because the point of the translation is to communicate the story / show / plot / what-have-you.

This claim isn’t too complicated. I joked about scholarly editors apparently being failures as well. LowOnHitPoints rejoined that he insists on no footnotes, even in something like Shakespeare.

There’s a lot more, most on their part – I was in class for part of the discussion. But here I am now. Woo hoo!

We’re actually dealing with two separate issues – translations and scholarly works. Obviously. But there’s a signpost for you. Footnotes during an anime sub can distract from the act of enjoying the anime itself. This is true, given that it’s a qualified statement. It can. Footnotes distract me at times, in all forms (book, show, whatever). But I always – always – prefer footnotes to endnotes. Most of the people I know prefer footnotes to endnotes. Endnotes are just sort-of useless. They have the information you need or want, but they’re somewhere else. So if you want to glean it for your phenomenological experience, during the act of reading or watching, you have to either wait until the end or go to the note right then. Most of us wouldn’t wind through a fansub to read a translator’s note at the end. Neither would most of us page through a book to read an endnote.

By the time you get to an endnote, then, your experience with the text is sort-of over. You can add to it, and maybe even rewatch / re-read it, but you’ll never get the same emotional response as you did the first time through. And your lack of knowledge of something will effect that.

My silly example on Twitter was Hamlet. LowOnHitPoints said he wouldn’t mind if he just missed a few puns or something. But the pun on the word “nunnery” is essential to plumbing Hamlet’s mental state. He tells Ophelia to go to a nunnery in the middle of a speech about both he and she are both horrible, sinful people. So we read the line and are content. He wants her to go somewhere clean and pure. Simple enough. Except during Shakespeare’s time the word “nunnery” was slang for a brothel. So he’s simultaneously telling her to go to a whorehouse – in the middle of a speech about how horrible and sinful they are. It’s a pivotal moment in the play. It helps explain why Ophelia kills herself (if she does – see the years of debate on whether she’s responsible for her death).

These, though, are scholarly footnotes. While my example is a translation aid, most scholarly footnotes aren’t so much. So are the two acts different? Yes, but not by much.

A translation footnote is theoretically meant to help one get what has been lost in the act of translating from one language to another. All translation is the act of producing another work. Works in languages are tied to those languages. It’s why I technically teach a translation of Waiting for Godot to my undergrads: the translation is in English, but the author made it. But he wrote the original in French and then translated it. So I’m not teaching the original, even though the author himself did the translation work. He created a new, second work, titled Waiting for Godot, that is really an adaptation of a French original. The act of translation is the act of adaptation. So the footnotes are in a weird position. 8C rightfully points to this fact when he says the translation is where that information is really supposed to appear. Theoretically, anything necessary to the work must appear in the work, or else it’s by definition not necessary.

Here’s my bold hypothesis: fansubbers aren’t only translating / adapting. Those who include translation footnotes are, in a sense, curating the anime in the same way Greenblatt curates Shakespeare. They are including information not vital to following the show, but vital to interpreting it. They are creating a scholarly document of sorts. This actually helps us understand the fansub wars, the bickering over groups, the long posts by subbers on their art and craft – these things are odd in the light of translations, as people usually only have preferred translations, not translations they go to war over. But scholars have scholarly editions they will bicker, backbite, and fight over. A professor once told me of an honest-to-God social snub he got at a conference because he went with one typical copy-text of a book over another for his scholarly edition of a work. Someone felt strongly enough about this to come up to him, in person, with friends, and call him out over it. Sound familiar?

I still haven’t really weighed in on the debate at hand. Translation footnotes during an episode? Yea or nay? I say yea. I take this form seriously, as I think most of us do who are bothering to do this blogging thing, and I don’t find footnotes intrusive – unless they’re huge, poorly typeset, or something else weird. I pick and choose when to read them, when I already know things (just like I don’t have to look at footnotes on the word “an” in a copy of Shakespeare’s plays any longer). I’ve done translation work myself in the past, in Japanese. I can understand others being distracted, though. What the debate has made me realize, though, post hoc, is that anime fansubbers aren’t engaging in the act of translation just as, say Seamus Heaney did when he translated Beowulf. They’re engaging in the act of translation someone like Greenblatt does when dealing with Shakespeare, or with Goethe – not only translating, but building an edition capable of supporting the scholarly debate and criticism that will rest on it in the future. Because at this point the fansubbers are working for the bloggers too, just as the bloggers are working for the fansubbers.

About these ads
Leave a comment


  1. So happy taking this off of Twitter and removing that blasted 140 character cap.

    First: fansubs. The problem (actual, not theoretical) is the poor use of TL notes. Example: using an acronym in the text and using a TL to show the full name, when the full name could have just been used in the text, either via direct substitution or via parenthesis after the acronym (so my eyes aren’t darting up and down to read the full text). Or, the more reviled sin, using a japanese word in the text and then using a TL to explain what it means, when that explanation could be substituted.

    Second: fansubs (theoretical). Fansubs, as I’ve implied above, aren’t using TL notes (when they do) to transmit extra data that couldn’t be wrapped up in the text (say, a long description on how the scene current is a reference to a piece of classic epic poetry), if not for the simple reason that anything too long to incorporate into the text proper would be something too long to read on the screen before the scene moved on. Thus endnotes, either downloaded with the file or hosted on a webpage. At this point, we can simply call these endnotes post viewing research / analysis, same as looking up a word you don’t know online or reading a (hopefully) informative post about the episode after the fact.

    With that out of the way, let’s look at the main focus of our debate: footnotes in fiction. Instead of nunnery, let’s substitute a different word to provide a footnote for: phenomenological. You didn’t provide a footnote yourself for that word. Why? You assume your reader knows this term. You assume your reader is in your field: we’ll say a certain analytical style of looking at anime. Do you assume that the Shakespeare reader has a certain understanding of poetic punning, that he could piece together what Hamlet was really getting at in that scene? How far do you go to open up the text to other readers outside your field? Do you footnote everything? Would you even be reading a book like Ulysses anymore, or would you simply be studying it?

    Me, I want to read Ulysses. If I come to love it (I did), THEN I want to study it. Then I will look up the “deeper meanings” behind passages after the fact. Footnotes dirty up the text; they take me out of the reading (sometimes). Once a reading has been completed and a studying begins, then endnotes (whether literally notes at the end of a book or analysis of book 1 (Ulysses) through another book) work even better then footnotes, for they do note have brevity or spacial concerns. However, if you are not interested in the text as a read and want to study it from the get-go… well, your different then me and thus will come to a different conclusion (pro-footnotes).

    Finally, I’ll make a note on non-fiction footnotes, not translation footnotes but further information notes. Why not just trouble yourself a bit by writing the footnote within the text. I mean, I’m going to stop reading the main text, read the footnote, and then come back to the main text anyways, so might as well do a nice clean job of working the digression into the main text.

  2. Cuchlann

     /  30 March 2011

    But I always read Shakespeare for fun, before anything else. Studying everything comes later church my hypothesis is that fansubbers are making certain kinds of notes in the same way an editor does: for you to use upon rewatching, just as you say you use footnotes afterwards. Most people don’t tend to bother with endnotes unless they already have an idea what they’re looking for, while a footnote, on the second time through, could spark an idea.

    I do have to call you out on implying anyone who likes footnotes doesn’t come to a text to enjoy it, only to study it. First, they’re the same thing. No one studies anything in these fields without enjoying them. Also, I and most people I know have no trouble ignoring a footnote when we’re desperately gripped by the story or what have you. I recognize many peole are distracted by them, certainly, I just want to point out that preferring to get notes simply, without flapping through the back pages of a book, doesn’t mean you’re not enjoying the book.

    So thats my defense of footnotes. Not that they really need it; they’re a personal preference. I do think footnotes in general can be more than a translator’s failure when viewed as an attempt to prime or prepare serious discussion.

    Also, my choice not to define phenomenology had more to do with the medium and the blog, rather than an assumption of the sort of audience reading. Most of my posts are in some way phenomenological, and I’ve defined it here in the past. Also, since it’s online, google is a moment away.

    Have I missed anything? (I’m on my phone at the mall.)

  3. A robust endnote (an essay / post) will provide more information than a meager footnote. If you like a work, you will go looking for further discussions (endnotes). That’s how people who would even be interested in footnote info react to something they like: to study it further. If you don’t want to study it further, you don’t want the footnotes getting in your way to begin with. If you really want to study it further, then footnotes won’t cut it. To me, they’re just bumps in the road during my reading. I want to engross myself within the text a certain way at first (read), and then a certain other way later (study). What it really is about is saving the digressions (bad word choice) for later.

    In anime, footnotes visually distract. That’s an issue. A big issue.

    And as I said before with anime, footnotes are (in the usual case; 99% of the time) a translator’s failure. Like you say, they don’t have to be; but they are. If anything, if a case came up where footnotes on a sub were not translation sins but actual meaningful extra data, there needs to be then two sub tracks, one with and one without, to capture the full audience.

  4. Cuchlann

     /  30 March 2011

    You’re right that a good essay can provide more info. I would say, though, that a good footnote isn’t meant to introduce that much information. Just a little bit, enough to add to your experience. They’re eminently ignorable if you don’t want or need the stuff, but great if you just want a little something. The essay is good to develop ideas. The most a footnote should do is track something over the course of the text (like if a pattern of images lie scattered around, the footnotes can point out each).

    You’re also entirely right that not everyone uses the translator’s note in the best way. What I’m thinking is that it’s been introduced as an option — and what that means is a lot of subbers will use it, since the form is there, to do other, less useful things. You’re probably even right to say most of them are using them poorly (I haven’t seen enough recently to know. Sigh.)

    I do love your idea of the two tracks, though. I’ll tell you, one of the things that just excites me is the future I envision now that I own a Kindle and they’re becoming almost-ubiquitous. I see a world where footnotes can be turned off and on with a setting in the menu — where I can turn them on if something puzzles me, and not have them on at all if I’m doing fine. Where there are levels of footnotes, so I can turn off the background information and leave on the definitions, or vice versa. And anyway, the Kindle’s integration with its on-board dictionaries make most definition footnotes redundant, unless it’s something too obscure for a general-use dictionary to have. Like I said, I admit footnotes can be distracting, and digital technology could allow editors, subbers, and all sorts of producing scholars new ways to deliver that information in increasingly customizable ways. The levels of notes is probably a pipe dream I’ll have to talk about at parties, but hopefully the on-off footnotes is something people will realize we want. Imagine, at least, the mark of a footnote on a word with nothing on the page. Move the cursor over it and the footnote appears on the bottom. Never select it and the footnote doesn’t appear — or waits at the end of the text. I’ve already seen some books where markers in the book take you to the note which is at the end of the document, with a mark to take you back to where you were. I want something, though, that works like the self-made annotations, where I never have to leave the page.

  5. I hear TL note and I think Rumbel’s releases of Gintama, where they felt it a good idea to point out every reference that that reference anime contained. The moments of victory for me came when I spotted references that Rumbel must have missed (since they didn’t post any TL note for them). I mean, in a situation like that, you either get the reference immediately or you don’t, and a TL note won’t make a difference. (Though a second track, for people who might want to look up what that weird bit of animation was supposed to be mocking and maybe check out that work, would be fine; I just want a track for me too, dammit: one clean).

    Multi-tracks could be used in so many ways with anime. For instance, one track could be “westernized” and the other could be for “weeaboos”, which I have seen before, rarely, though you would think it would be a good idea to grab the full audience out there.

    I like your idea of turning footnotes on-and-off and/or setting footnote “levels” in digital books… I love user options in general… it’s just that I have this certain affinity for paper…

    • cuchlann

       /  30 March 2011

      I thought I had that affinity as well, until I tried out an e-reader with a good e-ink screen. It reads the same way. Sometimes I read print books and think I’m reading my Kindle. I still like hard copies for books I particularly enjoy, but they’re, in a way, collector objects. Since my specialty for my comprehensive exams is 18th-19th century lit., I can get nearly everything on my Kindle for free, and that’s awesome too.

      Yeah. I own Excel Saga on DVD, and it has a track (formatted in a way similar to, but not exactly like, VH1’s Pop-Up Video, which is amusing) pointing out the references, in-jokes, and so on. I didn’t watch through those first time with the data track on.

      I haven’t seen any with the multiple levels of translation tracks, DVD or fansub. Do you recall where you saw those?

      • Frostii with their Blu-Ray editions of K-ON! (season 1). I’m not sure if they’ve done this with any other series, before or since.

      • Cuchlann

         /  30 March 2011

        Oh cool. I’ve been meaning to try that show. I’ll get those when I do.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 373 other followers

%d bloggers like this: