Saturday, January 15, 2011

Collectr's Curmudgeonly Guide to Editing

This is intended to provide a summary of the editing principles that I use. It is not a prescription for editing style. Style is personal and idiosyncratic; I would not presume to dictate to others. Rather, it attempts to codify the rules I follow when editing anime, in the hope it will help others improve (or at least help them understand why I rip their scripts to shreds during QC).

What is Editing?

Editing follows translation (and timing, usually) in the fansubbing process. The job of the editor is to render the translation in English that is natural, flowing, and consistent. The editor alters the translated dialog’s form but must not alter its meaning, which can be rather tricky, given the fine nuances of both Japanese and English.The editor may do other tasks as well. For example, the editor may style the script, assigning typographic styles (such as primary, overlap, thought, flashback) to individual lines. This may be done by other members of the team, such as the timer or a separate stylist. The editor also looks for lines that violate spacing conventions (for example, take three lines, or overlap signs) and may either fix them or report them, depending on his or her skill level.

Basic Style Decisions

Before editing a series, the editor, working with the translator and the rest of the team, needs to make basic stylistic decisions about the subtitles. These include:
  • Japanese or Western name order. Japanese (and Chinese) name order is family name followed by given name (last followed by first); Western name order is given followed by family. Using Western name order in subtitles when the audio uses Japanese name order can cause cognitive dissonance because the written and spoken words disagree. In general, use Japanese name order for shows set in Japan or China; use Western name order for shows set in the West.
  • Honorifics or no honorifics. Japanese has a rich set of honorifics that distinguish rank and degrees of closeness. English has few equivalents. I prefer to preserve honorifics, because of the extra information they convey, but many people find them distracting. In general, use honorifics for shows set in Japan or China; omit them for shows set in the West. If honorifics are omitted, do not attempt to render them in English, except for obvious cases (e.g., -sama as “Lord” or “Sir”).
  • Formal language. Almost all subtitles are dialog, and dialog is almost always colloquial and informal. When native English speakers talk, they use contractions, simple words, connectives, and so on. Unless the translator specifically indicates that a character is using formal speech, formal language should be avoided.
  • Dialect language. Japanese has several dialects; for example, Kansai (the dialect of Osaka) is sometimes used for comic effects. In addition, the difficulty that foreigners have in speaking Japanese properly is often parodied with broken speech. I don’t favor trying to render these in English dialect. Kansai is not the equivalent of an American southern accent, and an American (or UK) regional dialect will be meaningless to people who don’t live in that country.
  • Archaic language. Sometimes a show may contain lines in archaic Japanese (Omamori Himari, for example). I don’t favor trying to render archaic Japanese as archaic English (thee/thou/wouldst/ etc). It’s difficult to get right, unless you’re Shakespeare, and it slows the viewer’s reading speed and comprehension. Making the language formal (e.g., no contractions, longer words) suffices.
  • US or UK rules. Unless there’s a specific reason (e.g., the show is set in the UK), US rules should be followed for spelling, grammar, vocabulary, and punctuation. I would not attempt to edit a show to UK rules, as I would not know the fine points.
  • Swearing. Japanese anime can contain a fair amount of swearing (for example, Durarara!!). The team (or the fansub group) needs to decide in advance whether swearing will be reproduced, exaggerated, or toned down. Yoroshiku Fansubs has a policy of no swearing, and all the usual G-rated alternatives are used instead.
  • Hesitations. As in English, Japanese dialog often includes hesitation and bridging phrases that indicate hesitation rather than any specific meaning. These can be sounds like “ah” or “uh” or full-blown words like “eto.” You need to decide upfront if these will be included in sentences, so the timer will know. (I prefer to omit standalone sounds, unless they are semantically significant; for example, “uh” as an answer to a question should be translated, perhaps as “yeah.”) If they are included, you need to decide which ones will be translated and how. For example, “eto” is usually translated as “Um” or “Umm.” Spelling needs to be consistent throughout the series.
  • Compiling a style guide. Even for short series, I find it helpful to compile a style guide at the outset. This usually includes the decisions made about the choices I’ve listed, as well as the names of the principal characters, translation of common phrases, and so on. I’ve published the style guide for Saiunkoku Monogatari Season 2 as an appendix to this blog entry.

Specific Style Issues

  • Quotation marks. The US rules are online at
  • Commas. Lots of wars are fought over commas – whether there are too many or too few. I tend to use common sense, but I do have a few rules that I like:
    1. In a list with three (or more items), I put a comma before the “and”. For example, “Larry, Curley, and Moe went to see the circus.” This is sometimes called the “Oxford comma” and is entirely a matter of taste; but the subs should be consistent.
    2. Compound sentences – that is, two separate sentences connected by “and” or “but” – must have a comma before the conjunction. For example, “Larry went to the circus, but Moe went to the dogs.”
    3. Compound clauses – that is, a sentence with one subject but two verbs – must not have a comma before the conjunction. For example, “Larry went to the circus and bought popcorn.” If there’s a long audible pause, and you want to put it a comma, see if you can rewrite the sentence to include a second subject, making a compound sentence.
    4. A subordinate clause at the start of a sentence must be set off by a comma. For example, “Because you asked, I’m not going to tell you.”
    5. A subordinate clause at the end of a sentence may or may not be preceded by a comma. In theory, the comma isn’t needed, but if there’s an audible pause, I tend to put one in.
  • Ellipses. Ellipses are the most abused form of punctuation in fansubs. Almost every show I watch has too many of them. Ellipses have a few very specific uses:
    1. To indicate an incomplete thought or sentence. For example, “Even though I…” They should not be used to indicate that the speaker’s tone of voice has trailed off. The audio track suffices for that. Another way to state this rule: if the sentence is complete, no ellipses.
    2. To indicate a very long break in a sentence. For example, if the line “I came here, but I was too late” has a very long audible pause between the clauses, replacing the comma with ellipses is appropriate.
    3. Lead-in ellipses are used only in one specific case: where a sentence is started by one speaker but finished by a different one. For example, John: “She wanted vanilla…” Jane: “…but you bought chocolate.”
  • Semicolons. I avoid them in dialog like the plague. In normal speech, how can you tell a semicolon from a full stop? Does the speaker provide some sort of visual cue? Just say no. There is one exception: a compound sentence where the second clause begins with "however" of "therefore" rather than "and" or "but." In this case, a semi-colon is appropriate. However, I usually separate the two clauses with a full stop instead.
  • Stuttering. Subtitles usually reflect audible stutters by repeating the initial letter of the line. Personally, I prefer to repeat the initial sound. For example, “I-I don’t know what you mean” but “Th-That’s not true.” There's no need to keep repeating the initial letter or sound if the speaker says it more than once.
  • Comma splices. Never join two complete sentences with a comma, even if the pause between them is small. If the speaker is expressing a single thought, try to rewrite the spliced sentences as a sentence with compound clauses. Otherwise, use a period between the sentences.

Awkward Japanese Constructions
  • Active and passive voice. Literal translation of Japanese tends to produce a lot of passive voice sentences, because the subject of the sentence is often implied. However, in English, use of the passive voice is considered poor style, particularly in dialog. If the script contains passive voice sentences, see if you can change them to use active voice instead.
  • Impersonals. The same issue tends to produce a lot of impersonal sentences as well (“It seems like…” or “There was…”). Again, it’s better style to change impersonals to normal sentences, if possible. Sometimes I will change “It seems that <subject><verb>…” to “Apparently <subject><verb>…” but don’t overuse this.
  • “X is the one who y…” This is another common construction that is less common in real English dialog. Often enough, the “is the one who” can be removed without altering the sense of the line.
  • Run-on sentences. As in real-life, anime characters tend to join separate sentences into one continuous sentence with “and” or “but” or other connectives. They also pile subordinates clauses on top of each other in dizzying profusion. Unless this is a deliberate stylistic choice (as in Gosenzosama), don’t hesitate to cut up a run-on sentence into multiple shorter sentences. You can also reorder subordinate clauses for clarity or promote them to full sentences, as needed.
  • Lost pronoun references. When dialog is discussing two (or more) people or things, the editor needs to pay careful attention to whether the referents for all pronouns are unambiguous. For example, if two men are involved, a sentence like “He gave him his sword” becomes unintelligible. You need to resolve the ambiguity by promoting the pronouns to names as necessary, even if the name isn’t mentioned in the Japanese dialog. A variant of this problem arises when a sentence begins with an impersonal (“It’s likely that…) and the direct or indirect object is the pronoun “it.” Eliminating the impersonal will clean up this issue.
Appearance Issues
  • 3-liners. A subtitle should never occupy more than two lines; otherwise, it blocks too much of the screen. If a subtitle is too long, try to condense it to two lines. If that’s not possible, work with the timer to split the line at an appropriate point. As a last resort, consider compressing the font width with a {\fscx} typesetting tag.
  • Interference with signs. A subtitle may interfere with a sign. Even if the sign is left untranslated, it’s good style to move the subtitle out of the way. One possibility is to reduce a two-line subtitle to one line via splitting;another is to make a small adjustment on the vertical positioning of the line. Sometimes, the line has to be moved to the top of the screen with an {\an8} typesetting tag.
  • Interruptions. Interruptions should be indicated with an elongated dash (alt+0-1-5-1 on a Windows system) and not with two dashes or ellipses. If the selected font doesn’t support special characters, a normal dash can be elongated to the right length with a {\fscx250} typesetting tag. If there's text after the dash, the dash needs to be "closed" with {\r} to restore normal spacing.
  • Intra-line breaks. The standard subtitle processor has a default way of breaking lines that makes the top line longer than the bottom. This is almost always right. However, sometimes this causes the connective of a subordinate clause, or the subject of the second part of a compound sentence, to be on the top line by itself. If this bothers you, insert a hard line break (\N) to force the break where you want it. Be careful that the second (bottom) line does not end up looking absurdly long.
  • Line-time versus read-time. English translations of Japanese sentences can end up with more words than the original. In addition, anime characters tend to speak quickly. The result is that a subtitle may take far longer to read than the time it is actually on screen. This forces the viewer to pause and rewind. That’s bad. Accordingly, the editor needs to test each line to see whether it can be read in the allotted screen time. I find this particularly difficult to do, because I’m a fast reader. If a line is too long, see if it can be shortened, or the wording simplified. Too much compression can alter the meaning, so this has to be done with care.
Specific Words and Constructions

This section is a grab bag of problems that I’ve encountered as an editor or, more frequently, as a QC.
  • Common Japanese words. Some Japanese words and phrases turn up all the time: hai, masaka, gambare, baka, yoroshikune, etc. Using the same English translation all the time (yes, could it be, do your best, idiot, nice to meet you) can make the dialog boring and repetitive. Look at context to see if alternate meanings or phrasings might make sense. For example, “masaka" can also be translated as “perhaps,” “maybe,” “is it possible” and so on. “Hai” can be rendered as “yes,” “sure,” “all right,” or “okay.”
  • Common English words. Certain English words show up in scripts with great frequency as well, particularly just, really, and too. The editor needs to be aware of overly frequent repetition of these words and either eliminate them or replace them with alternatives. For example, “too” can sometimes be replaced with “also” or “as well.”
  • Third-person instead of second-person references. Japanese is short on pronouns, so dialog often contains third-person references, like a character's name or relationship (e.g., brother) when in English a second-person reference (“you”) would be used instead. Unless the third-person reference is intended for comic effect, this should always be cleaned up during editing.
  • Line to line repetition. If characters are conversing about a subject, they may tend to use the same word frequently. This can sound really bad in English. Unless the repetition is a deliberate echo — e.g., “I bought a really good ero-manga.” “Ero-Manga?” — try to vary the term being used. The online Thesaurus is your friend.
  • Consistent tenses. In general, any related lines of dialog should use consistent tenses. If the subject is in the present, use present tense for everything; if in the past, use past tense. Often the violations are very subtle, e.g., shifting from past to present perfect and back again, or present to present progressive.
  • Conditional tenses. The English subjunctive tense is a swamp all to itself. The subjunctive is used for counterfactual or hypothetical statements, e.g., “I wouldn’t do that if I were you.” The formal grammar of the subjunctive can sound very wrong to the ear: “If I be wrong about this…” or “If he own the issue…” In general, I try not to be didactic about the subjunctive, as few readers will be aware of proper form, and the weird cases, like “I be…” will stop the viewer in his or her tracks.
  • Parallel construction. Parallel construction means using the same forms in differing clauses of a compound sentence. A simple example would be “He went to the countryside and was picking peaches.” The first verb is simple past, the second is past progressive. For parallel construction, they should be the same: “He went to the countryside and picked peaches.” If the second action is incomplete, then a simple past verb like “began” or “started to” keeps the construction parallel: “He went to the countryside and began to pick peaches.”
  • “Is adjective” versus verb. Where possible, simplify the construction “x is y” to “x verb-form-of-y”. For example, “We weren’t knowledgeable…” to “We didn’t know…”
  • Is “none” singular or plural? Actually, it can be both. “None” is typically used with an “of” clause (e.g., “none of them”). If the word referred to is plural, “none” is usually considered plural as well. For example, “None of them were aware of the need for secrecy.”
  • “Since” is not always a synonym for “because.” “Since” can also denote duration. If there’s any possibility of confusion, use “because” instead.
  • Assume or presume. While these have effectively become synonyms in American English, I still prefer to make a distinction. I use “assume” when the meaning is “making a guess or hypothesis” and “presume” when the meaning is “doing something beyond my place.” (Think of the difference between “assumption” and “presumption.”) So Stanley’s famous line should have been, “Dr. Livingston, I assume?”
  • Alright is not all right. I don’t care that “alright” has become acceptable in modern American spelling. It looks wrong to me, and I always fix it.
  • OK is okay. It’s acceptable either to use the two letters or spell the word out. I tend to spell the word out, but that’s just me.
  • Firstly is not first. In enumerating a list, the proper usage is “First, blah blah blah…” and not “Firstly, blah blah blah…” Again, this is just my preference. “Firstly” is a legitimate word; I just don’t like it. If a plain “first” doesn’t seem right, there’s always “in the first place” or “first of all” as alternatives.
  • Engrish. Japanese anime frequently contains borrowed English words, for example, “chance” and “pinch.” While it’s nice to retain these words in the translation, it’s not a requirement. “Pinch” (meaning a bind or dilemma) is borrowed from UK English and is rarely encountered in US usage. It should be rendered in appropriate language.
  • More rarely, anime will contain complete English sentences, usually read phonetically by the voice actor. This can result in horrific grammar and, sometimes, unintentional hilarity. (In an episode of Aoi Bungaku, a line that should have been “Pork is my favorite food” was read as “Cock is most favorite food.”) The editor should clean up the “Engrish” into intelligible English, even if this causes some dissonance between the audio and the subtitles. Alternatively, don't subtitle the “Engrish” at all.

Literalism and Localization

[Disclaimer: There is no right or wrong on this topic; I’m merely talking about my personal preferences. I have the highest respect for the translators at Keep, gg, and Crunchyroll that are cited as examples. Their choices are just as valid as mine.]

No topic excites more controversy in editing than literalism – faithfulness to the original Japanese spoken dialog – versus localization – rendering the Japanese into recognizably American speech. As can be seen from the previous discussion, I’m not in favor of literal translation, because the idiosyncrasies of Japanese grammar and word usage make for unreadable English. At the same time, I’m not in favor of excessive summarization and the substitution of American slang for recognizable Japanese phrases.

A simple example comes from Skip Beat. Kyouko’s friend and rival is named Mouko, and Kyouko always refers to her as “Mouko-san.” In the Crunchyroll subs, this is changed to “Whinerella.” This joke conveys Kyouko’s view of Mouko, but it distorts what’s being said. –san is a respectful prefix; Kyouko is not dissing her friend to her face. (I think that many Crunchyroll subs are overly localized.)

Another simple example comes from Nyan Koi. In one episode, a cat complains to the hero that “You chose a girl over a cat.” In gg’s version, this becomes “You chose a ho over a bro.” It’s a nice throwaway joke, but it’s both wrong in tone and incomprehensible outside the US.

A more complex example comes from comparing Keep’s Nodame Cantabile to Frostii’s (Froth-Bite’s) and C1’s versions. [Full disclosure: I edited the C1 version.] I don’t question the accuracy of Keep’s translation, but I find it too compressed. This can be justified by the rapid speech patterns of the characters – compression helps reading time – but the obvious differences in complexity between the spoken Japanese and the rendered English bothers me a lot. Other viewers disagree: Keep’s version has the highest rating on AniDB.

There’s no absolute right or wrong for this topic. The translator, editor, and fansubbing team have to decide where they want to be on the spectrum from literalism to localization, guided by a sensible regard for flow and comprehension.

Thoughts for Further Study

There’s still no better starting point for understanding the finer points of style than William Strunk’s and E.B. White’s The Elements of Style. Even though it’s almost a hundred years old, and based on UK rules, it still can teach any aspiring editor basic rules of good composition.

Lynne Truss’ Eats Shoots & Leaves is an entertaining look at the use and abuse of punctuation, but I personally find her approach too rigid. It also uses UK rules, which doesn’t help where US usage varies, such as quotation marks. The Web contains a plethora of pages on grammar and punctuation rules.

You can often find advice on specific issues by formulating a query to Google. For example, I found the rules for “none” with this Google query: “none singular or plural.”

Finally, study and practice are essential to improving editing skills. Any script archive should contain the original translation script and the final released script, often with intermediate versions and quality-check reports. Study the changes that an editor makes, the reaction of the quality checkers, and the final reports. Alternately, start with the original translation, edit it yourself, and see where you diverge from the final result. Feel free to ask questions. Most editors don’t bite; or at least they don’t bite all the time.


Appendix: Saiunkoku Monogatari 2 Character and Style Guide

Episode Titles

Episode titles are capitalized, e.g.,

If Winter Comes, Can Spring Be Far Behind?


All personal suffixes are left untranslated and start with a -:

-roushi            (old teacher or old master)

All location suffixes are left untranslated are are appended to the place name directly, following Japanese practice:

shuu               province
gun                county

So, Sashuu (Brown province) and Koringun (Korin county).

Brother and sister (nii-san, nee-san) are translated and not capitalized, even in direct address. However, if they are used as part of a name, they are not capitalized, e.g., Shuurei-nee-san rather than sister Shuurei.


Kiyou              the capital city
Sekiei             mountain village, site of a parasitic infection
Sairi              a fortress on the way to Sekiei


Long Japanese o (ō) is rendered as ou.
Long Japanese u (ū) is rendered as uu.

So Kō Shūrei becomes Kou Shuurei.

Name order

All names are in Japanese order, family name first, then given name, with a space in between.  If a name includes a title, then the title is capitalized and follows a dash; so, Kou Shuurei but Sa-Taiho and Hei-Taishu.

Kou (Crimson) Family

Kou Shuurei        our plucky heroine
Kou Shouka         Shuurei's father
Kou Reishin        Shouka's middle brother,

                   minister of Civil Affairs
Kou Kurou          Shouka's youngest brother
Shoukan (Barahime) Shouka's wife, Shuurei's mother; deceased
Yurihime           Reishin's wife,

                   younger sister of the previous Emperor

Shi Seiran         retainer to Shouka,

                   second elder brother of Emperor Ryuuki,
                   true name Seien
Ri Kouyuu          vice-secretary of Civil affairs;

                   adopted by Reishin
                   Reishin would like him to marry Shuurei

Shi (Purple) Family

Shi Ryuuki         current Emperor, youngest of six brothers;
                   in love with Shuurei

Ran (Blue) Family

Ran Shuuei         general of the Shaorin army,

                   fourth of five brothers
Ran Ryuuren        youngest brother, flute playing eccentric
Ran triplets       head of the family,

                   all go by the name of Setsuna:
                   actual names are Yuki, Tsuki, and Hana
Gyokoku            wife of Yuki
Ran Jyuusan        sister, candidate to be Ryuuki's concubine;
                   also known as Jyuusan-hime

Kou (Yellow) Family (yes, it's confusing to have two Kou's!)

Kou Kijin         minister of the Treasury

Sa (Brown) Family

Sa Enjun          titled Sa-Taiho,

                  one of the three top palace officials
Sa Sakujun        Enjun's middle brother
Sa Chuushou       Enjun's younger brother
Sa Kokujun        Enjun's youngest brother
Sa Shunki         Enjun's granddaughter
Sa Soujun         Enjun's oldest grandson

Hyou Eiki         Enjun's wife

Hyou Family

Hyou Riou         head of the Hyou family
Riou              his son
Hyou Ruka         Riou Sr's sister, supposedly 80 years old
Hyou Ren          Ruka's son and the leader of Jyasen-kyou

Palace Characters

Shusui            Shuurei's servant at the palace
Kourin            servant to Eigetsu
Shou Yousei       titled Shou-Taishi,

                  one of the three top palace officials;
                  one of the Sai Hassen (the sage of Shi/purple)
?                 titled Sou-Taifuu,

                  one of the three top palace officials
Tou-roushi        a palace doctor
You               a palace doctor,

                  one of the Sai Hassen (the sage of Kou/yellow)
Hayumei           a junior official in Civil Affairs
Ryo Anjuu
Riku Seiga        a joukan who tries to steal Shuurei's research

Sa Province (Sashuu)

Rou Ensei         assistant to Eigetsu
Meishou           leader of the outlaws known as Satsujinzoku,

                  the Killing-Blade Outlaws
Shourin           leader of the Condors
Youshun           younger brother of Shourin
Sai Shou          head of the Merchant's Guild in Kinka
Sai Shin          military commander in Kinka
Sai Rin           twin sister to Sai Shou
Tei Yuushun       newly appointed Prime Minister to the Emperor
To Eigetsu        one of the governors of Sachuu
Yougetsu          the spirit inside Eigetsu

                  (also known as Byakuka, one of the Sai
                   Hassen, the sage of Haku/white)

Heki Family

Heki Hakumei      palace official
Heki Karen        his sister, friend of Kochou
Banri             Karen's son  (uses the alias Heki Yuukoku)


Kai Yu            governor of Koku Province (Kokushuu)
You-sensei        a palace doctor; also one of the Sai Hassen
Doushu            doctor who treated Eigetsu; deceased
Shuuran           girl from Sekiei village
Shin Suou         proposes marriage to Shuurei

                  on orders from his father
                  also called Tan-Tan

                  (raccoon in Japanese is tanuki)
Shin Ensai        Tan-tan's father
Kochou            a courtesan,

                  secret boss of the red-light district
Rakan             a gang boss in Kiyou
Jin Shiba         Juusan-hime's first love,

                  and head of the gang of assassins;
                  known as Shun


Ri-bu            Civil Affairs department
Ko-bu            Treasury
Sai Hassen       Eight Sages of Sai
                 (Sen is closer to hermit,

                  but the Hassen are clearly
                  not in retreat from civilization,
                  so sage works better than hermit)
Sendou-kyu       residence created for the Sai Hassen


  1. I know I may not have read all that but I can tell you always know how to put a smile on my face, Collectr. Keep up the good work. (Koro)

  2. As usual Collectr, you are verbose and condensed at the same time. An intriguing feat of no small measure.

  3. Astounding. Quite a one-sided barter from where I'm standing. Perchance, are you an English major?

  4. No, I'm a computer engineer. But back in the Dark Ages, when I went to college, I was a liberal arts major.

  5. That's hardcore, but you have to be if you're an editor. The advice about getting agreement on editing issues before you go forward is invaluable. Thanks for putting this out here!

  6. YuSaKu wants you.
    In his channel.