meet the fan translators helping break down language barriers in pop culture
We talk to the generous fans bringing communities closer together and making different cultures increasingly accessible.
Photography Scott Kowalchyk / CBS
“I’ve been a fan of Korean drama since I was in junior high, but at that time I only knew a few Korean words,” says 23-year-old Nadia. Her situation will be familiar to anyone who’s found themselves trying to sing along to a K-pop song, watch an episode of Netflix’s Japanese reality show Terrace House without staring intently at the subtitles or figure out the plot of an anime without working knowledge of the language featured.
As globalisation and the internet continue to break down barriers in our increasingly boundaryless world, it’s easier than ever to dive into the music, films, TV shows, and literature of other countries – often without having to make a conscious decision to seek them out. But without being fluent (or even the slightest bit proficient) in the necessary vernaculars, it can be tricky to fully connect with whatever cultural export you’re trying to get to grips with.
Enter fan translators -- groups of pop culture enthusiasts putting their devotion to good use by helping make their fellow devotees feel included in their respective worlds. They are the bridge between the curious and their curios, providing subtitles, interview translations and cultural context so that everyone can enjoy the trove of content on social media, YouTube and beyond, regardless of their backgrounds.
Nadia is a prime example of this phenomenon. Based in Jakarta, she works in finance by day but translates content into her native Indonesian for the globe-conquering K-pop band BTS in her spare time. Like the band, she’s part of a seven-strong team who call themselves INDOMY (a portmanteau of Indonesian and ARMY, the BTS fandom name). It was the idol group who inspired her to begin learning Korean properly, because she wanted “to know what they say and understand their lyrics”. She learned the language through their songs and live broadcasts on the Korean live-streaming service, VLIVE, and bolstered her grammatical knowledge through YouTube videos and other websites.
“When I read something funny or informative, I want my fellow ARMYs to laugh together with me or understand the info,” she says of her reasons for sharing her translations with other fans. “I want them to understand because just watching BTS content can help cheer you up.”
While Nadia says she translates whenever she has time, there are other fan translators who dedicate the equivalent of a full working week to their hobby. Jeremy “Deathblade” Bai now makes a living from translating Chinese wuxia novels, but initially started out as an uncompensated fan translator. “There was a period of time in which I was translating about 30 hours a week, plus working another full-time job, plus I’d just had a newborn baby,” he explains. “I honestly don’t know how I did that. It was exhausting!”
It’s not just Asian culture where fan translators are a useful presence. SKAM, the Norwegian teen drama, became a word-of-mouth hit thanks, in part, to viewers sharing English translations for it on platforms like Google Drive. It’s a practice that has continued with each remake of the show from a different country. When a Dutch version, SKAM NL, was announced, fan Esther knew that she wanted to be involved in a similar translation effort. “It’s not just consuming content,” she says. “You’re experiencing it and you’re engaging with it in real-time. We can see how teens from all over experience their lives and we get to contribute to that a bit by translating it.”
Esther set up a Tumblr page for the show while it was still in pre-production and contacted people she’d seen talking about it online about forming a team. Later, they accepted applications and chose people based on experience and skill. Today, they make up a team of 11 translators (including one member from the original SKAM translation group) who all pitch in with translating episodes, clips, and social media messages. “I really like the feeling of being part of a community now that I’ve joined the team,” says 18-year-old student Tijne, who joined the Dutch group in April. “I feel like people are much closer together in such a community,” Esther adds. “It’s a ‘by the people, for the people’ thing.”
There are more benefits for fan translators than just making new friends or the feeling of bringing people together. As well as being able to do translating as his sole job right now, Jeremy has also written a book, Legends Of Ogre Gate, that he says came about through translating. Nadia, meanwhile, used her Korean knowledge to get a position as liaison officer for the Korean volleyball team during the 2018 Asian Games.
Jialing, a 22-year-old student of Chinese-Indonesian background, is part of an international team who translate interviews given by rising Chinese actor Qu Chu Xiao into English. He also works on subbing interviews for the Chinese talent show Supervocal, which sees opera, bel canto, classical, and musical theatre singers compete against each other. Working on these projects has allowed him to “make peace with myself and accept my roots, which I despised while growing up,” he explains. “We’re kind of the minority [in Indonesia] and the government even put a ban on Chinese language and culture back in 1966. We had to change our Chinese name to a more Indonesian name, were forbidden to speak the language and couldn’t celebrate any festivals.” Although the ban has been lifted, he says racism is still present in the country.
As with anything in life, there are downsides to translating too. There isn’t much room for mistakes, as Nadia points out, because they could lead to misunderstandings – something which could be potentially damaging for an artist or show’s reputation if spread as fact, as things can be online. Nearly everyone mentioned in this piece mentions the attitudes of some fans, particularly Jeremy, who says he’s received a ton more criticism since becoming a professional translator (and an online personality in the wuxia novel world).
Fan translators might, on a surface level, be a generous bunch who selflessly sacrifice their time for the enjoyment of others. But they’re also actively changing pop culture, making other cultures more accessible to a wider audience. Laura, another member of the SKAM NL team, hopes they can also reshape the balance of entertainment itself. “Media has been so saturated with American and British shows that we don’t get to appreciate all the work done in other countries,” she says. “By creating an international fandom for shows from countries other than America or the UK, it will eventually allow for like-minded shows to be made in other countries.”
“I think it’s great that, through translated shows, people from different countries get in contact with each other and bond over such a beautiful thing as SKAM,” adds Tijne.
For Jialing, he’s noticed an increased interest in Chinese history and culture thanks to the work of translation communities. “More than anything, I think we are helping break the barrier on stereotypes people have about Chinese people and our culture,” he says, an observation that can be applied to many other cultures too. “A little less prejudice goes a long way.”