Heisui’s Thoughts: Subtitles Don’t Write Themselves

Heisui's ThoughtsOther

As a long-time drama fan, I’ve developed a pet peeve: people who demand fast subtitles and feel entitled to them!  Especially people who feel entitled to free fan subtitles!  Impatient comments on dramas are common.  Usually the comments go something like this:

  • Please sub.
  • Where are the subs?!?!?
  • The subs are taking forever!
  • Hurry up!
  • The subs are so slow!
  • I love this show, but the subbers are taking so long!

I understand the sentiment behind these kinds of comments.  It’s hard to be patient when we can’t wait to see what happens next.  We all want to see the next episode of our favorite drama as soon as possible.  We all wish that subtitles would come out sooner.  And almost everyone has resorted to watching a raw, unsubbed episode while waiting for subs. 😛

Here’s the thing: Subtitles don’t write themselves.  And fan subbers are working for free, on their own time.  Leaving comments asking for subs or complaining about how long it’s taking doesn’t make the subtitles get done any faster.  And yes, you can wait.

Push-back arguments

I have seen some commenters try to justify their demands for subtitles.  Arguments include the following:

  • I paid, so I should get subtitles.
    • If you are paying for subs done by paid employees, then that’s valid.  But if the subbers are volunteers, then they’re paying too–in their time and work.  The amount of time and labor they’re putting into the show is likely worth way more than the subscription fee.  Say you’re paying around $9 per month for a subscription.  This would probably cover the pay for about one hour’s worth of work for one person.  Imagine how much it would cost to pay a whole team of subbers to do a drama that is 20+ episodes long.
  • The subbing team picked up this project, so they have to finish it.
    • Guess what, they have other priorities and commitments aside from subbing dramas!  They cannot necessarily put everything else on hold to finish up a show.
  • Subbers should either finish subtitling the entire show, or not subtitle at all.
    • Since when was this an all or nothing ultimatum?  If fan subbers are subbing on their own time, then it’s up to them to determine when and how much to sub.

Misconceptions about Subtitling

It seems to me that many people simply do not know how subbing works.  There are a fair amount of misconceptions going around, which may influence people’s demands for subtitles.

  • Subbing doesn’t take that long.  A 45-minute episode shouldn’t take so long to complete.
    • If you’ve ever tried subbing, you’d know otherwise.  Translating is only one part of subtitling a show.  It also includes uploading, splitting and encoding videos, subtitle timing, translating, editing & checking subtitles for consistency, creating a master list of common translations, coordinating with other subbers, AND MORE.  And if the drama has a lot of complicated language such as historical or technical terms, translating may be even more difficult.  On top of that, speed also depends on how many people are on the team, how much time people can commit, what skill level people are at, etc.
  • My “subs please” comments will encourage subbers to sub faster because they’ll see that many people want more subs!
    • If anything these comments can end up sounding discouraging, impatient, and ungrateful.  Why not discuss the drama instead of how slow subtitles are?
  • Finding people to sub is easy!
    • Getting people to sub–and commit to sub a whole show–is difficult, especially for dramas that are not as popular.  It is particularly harder to get volunteer Chinese subbers than Korean subbers.
  • These are just little comments.  They don’t really matter and won’t have a bad impact.
    • All of these comments create a combined effect.  It can be hard to stay motivated while working on a big subbing project.  Would you feel more motivated to sub by comments saying “SUBS PLZ” or comments saying “Thanks for the hard work”?
  • I can’t volunteer to help out with subbing teams.
    • Two big arguments people make is that 1) They don’t have the time and 2) They don’t know the language.  However, chances are, there are plenty of ways to help that do not involve translating.  And even if you can’t do any of these things, or don’t have the time to, the least you can do is appreciate the subbers.
  • All drama sites create the subtitles themselves.
    • Many drama streaming sites rip subtitles from legal drama sites or from fan subbers.  Not only are they taking subtitles from others, but they are also making ad revenues off of them.

How this affects you, the viewer

Most of my points sound oriented towards the subbing side of things.  “Please understand what subbers go through!” is what I’m saying.  But, let’s talk more about the viewer side of things.  Here’s the bottom line: impatience, frustration, complaining, and the like, will not benefit subbers, nor will it benefit you.   There is no point in spending your time feeling impatient, demanding subtitles, or refreshing the page 100 times.  It’s not going to help you feel any better, nor is it going to help you get subtitles any faster.

To sum it up: a friendly reminder to viewers

I do not wish to point fingers at anyone.  Instead, I hope that this post can clear up some of the misconceptions surrounding fan subbing for dramas.  I hope that I have adequately expressed just how much work and effort goes into subbing.  To sum it up, be patient.  Remember that you can wait, and that your comments do have an effect.  It’s up to you whether your comments have a positive or a negative impact both on yourself and on others.

Gee heisui, YOU aren’t out there subbing!

I rarely ever talk about it here on my blog, but I have been a volunteer on Viki for many years now.  I am not fluent in Mandarin but I have still been able to contribute to many projects.  I worked on titles that I really wanted to watch and bring to other people, such as Nirvana in Fire and even Legend of Zhen Huan.  I have come across other drama bloggers who volunteer there too.  I speak here from experience.

Tips for subbers

  • Don’t expose yourself to negativity if you don’t have to.  If possible, don’t read the comments.
  • Politely request that viewers do not comment asking about when subtitles will be done, etc.
  • Post updates on the front page.
  • Post a FAQ (or a link to a FAQ) that explains the subbing process, upload schedule (if there is one), and any other important things.  If you have a small subbing team, say so, so that viewers know what the circumstances are.
  • Choose your battles wisely.  You do not have to engage a negative commenter.
  • If you are very much motivated by appreciation and encouragement, turn to your subbing team for a source of encouragement.  Celebrate all the progress you make on your project and give yourself a pat on the back.
  • Don’t take it personally.

Are you or have you been a fan subber before?  What was your experience like?  What would you want to tell drama fans who don’t have subtitling experience?  What tips do you have for subbers?

(c) My Drama Tea


I'm heisui, an Asian drama blogger and the creator of My Drama Tea. I love stories and writing, so I watch dramas and blog. I especially have a penchant for Japanese and Chinese dramas, and those hidden gems that are waiting to be discovered. Oh, and I'm Legend of Zhen Huan-obsessed!
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  • As a long time drama fan I completely back this article. Free fan subs really don’t write themselves. In my early drama days when I got impatient I took it upon myself to start learning the language. Now most of the time I don’t need subs lol. It’s called being proactive people. But I digress

    Subbers are like a gift from the gods. If it weren’t for them would not be able to begin to understand or even find these shows anymore.

  • I have to add that Viki is deleting the fanchannels. Not sure if you heard the news. But heard from some viki volunteers that there won’t be anymore fan channels. Fans were upset that Legend of Chusen has to be stopped.

        • Which is really frustrating, because all Viki really cares about is going head-to-head with DramaFlu for SoKor dramas. Everything else is pushed aside, and we all know rich and wonderful dramas are found all over the world.

          • It’s great you’re working on Thai dramas! Segmenting is such a time consuming process, but of course very important. Lately I feel like there’s been more of a push to promote select c-dramas, but Korean dramas are still the main priority. Perhaps another factor is that as more k-drama fans start watching c-dramas, they expect that c-dramas will be subbed just as quickly as k-dramas. Which isn’t the case.

            • Weeeell, I’ll be honest, I recently dramarathoned “Love O2O” and “Boss & Me”. LOL. Those were my first two Cdramas this year. SoKor dramas have been a bit disappointing recently.

  • Oh wow! Didn’t know that you worked on viki projects sometimes. Definite kudos to you for putting yourself out there despite not being familiar with the language! 🙂

  • Great article!

    I am a segmenter / editor, predominantly for Thai dramas. Depending on a segmenting platform, it can take two to three passes through a drama to complete the timing and make sure the subs are understandable and smooth. A lakorn episode averages 100 minutes, with around 30 episodes, so it is a very big time commitment. We wouldn’t do it if we were fans ourselves, and, trust me, we can be every bit as impatient as anyone else.

    I am self-learning hangeul, and I started watching Asian dramas by way of South Korean productions. I chose to work on Thai shows because they are grossly underappreciated by platforms like Viki, but have a viable and growing international fanbase. I do not have the ability to translate, but through my efforts (and hours), well-subbed dramas become available.

    And yes, a “thank you” goes a lot farther than a “gimme”. ^^

    ~ Shuk

  • That’s the bad thing about volunteering. Fans demand for sub but on the company’s view if the whole series doesn’t get subbed their business will go down. Supply vs Demand! Fans really want to watch the dramas but the subbers can’t sub fast enough. Volunteering can be good or bad for the company. Volunteer worked hard but volunteering too much can be bad since it’s hard work without being paid. There are different views on this take.

  • THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR WRITING THIS. I’ve felt many of the same frustrations about fansubbing (especially regarding cdramas), and ungrateful viewers are one of the reasons I’m really starting to dislike Viki, even though I think the concept of the site itself is great. You can only see so many “subs plz” before wanting to tear your hair out.

    The two most amusing (and annoying) viewers are
    (1) the ones who ask “Where are the subs?” (as if the subs are lost and just need to be found)
    (2) the ones who claim they don’t have time to help out (but surprisingly have time to watch the drama and nag fansubbers)

    I always tell viewers that even if they can’t understand the language, timing/segmenting helps immensely because pretty much anybody can do it. Timing cdramas and twdramas is not even that hard because there are Chinese hardsubs that tell you when people start and stop talking — it’s just time-consuming.

    Also, wow, I had no idea that Viki was starting to delete Fan Channels. Yikes. They better up their licensing game then.

    • Thanks for that link to that great post! I agree, the nagging comments can easily get tiresome. I eventually got to the point where I decided to not read the comments so that I could (hopefully) volunteer in peace. Yes, many fan channels have been taken down, including the fan channel for c-drama Hua Xu Yin. :'( It’s discouraging seeing all that hard work go down the drain…especially for long dramas.

      • The hard work is still stored out there, and you better believe that if Viki gets any of these “deleted” dramas licensed, they will pop up like daisies, with your subs in all their fantran glory. They are making sure (1) they don’t anger the content owners, but (2) will still be able to monetize our hard work.

  • Heisui, this is spot on. I’ve subbed and segmented just a little on viki, and you are right – it is hard, and takes a long time. I am not a native speaker of Chinese, and so for me to even begin to translate and sub, I have to listen *very* carefully and listen over and over again to make sure I get it right. I can segment more easily, as it doesn’t depend on understanding the language so much. Even so, segmenting still takes a long time to do it right. When people complain about the subtitling, I think it is so rude. They either don’t understand how much effort goes into it or don’t care. I’m just thankful that the shows are available to watch; I really enjoy many of them, and they’ve helped me improve my Chinese a lot.

    For me, when one of the shows I’m following isn’t being subtitled that quickly, I just look for another show to watch until it is ready – there are plenty out there. There’s no reason to be demanding or rude to people that are volunteering their own time and expertise. Recently, there was a notice sent out on viki from one of the language moderators about people complaining about the subbing on one show – don’t remember which one right now. I had to respond to her and give some encouragement, as it really bothered me that people would actually complain to the point that the volunteers were affected so much.. I hope people would think a little more before they write demanding or rude comments – as you said, it doesn’t help anyone.

  • Thanks for this post. I never understood the sense of entitlement in those people who demand subtitles. People should be grateful there are subs at all in the first place. Without them and those who upload the videos, we wouldn’t be able to enjoy the variety of dramas we do today. I think the relative ease with which we are able to access these dramas has made a number of viewers complacent and ungrateful, that they forget these uploaders and subbers are doing this out of goodwill. It’s really unfortunate and does nothing to help the situation.

  • This is a great post. As a long time drama watchers, I am annoyed that some have zero tolerance and empathy demanding so much from subbers. They have no idea how it was 10 to 20 years ago. So spoiled! I really appreciate the work all volunteer and paid subbers do. It’s not easy and the work is time consuming. My husband has done some of subbing work for documentaries; and my SiL is a professional translator/interpreter. Chinese to English language is particularly tough to translate.

    I always hate reading comments. All the nags about too slow and yada yada are really annoying. Thanks for the post.

  • This is indeed a very great post Heisui! Thanks for all the work that you’ve done too. I used to be in an independent subbing group that subbed Thai Dramas back in the 2009-2012 period. Since I only knew about 40% of the Thai language (which was comprised through years of watching), I couldn’t really contribute as a translator and helped out as an editor/timer/uploader/designer. The subbing group I was in went on a hiatus and during that time, Viki started to become a popular subbing platform. Though this was good, I saw that many independent Thai subbing group started dying off since subs for certain dramas were picked up by fans on Viki too. I was happy to see that Thai dramas were finally getting some recognition or spotlight to the world. It’s a pity though that I started disliking Viki once some fan channels started getting removed or deleted… and now I kind of lost interest in Viki even more. I feel for all the contributors who lost all their hard work since my group also went through the same.. but with youtube. Though it was great subbing for fans to enjoy.. running into certain comments like you posted above.. can urk the subbing team somewhat in losing motivation or interest. Fans should realize that subbing isn’t a priority from the teams (especially all the work we have to go through)… it’s a special privilege they get that we’ve given them… but some just don’t know how to appreciate it. Sigh. Hopefully fans will come to realize it one day and see how hard and time-consuming the process really is.

    • It is discouraging and a big loss whenever a subbed show gets removed. I understand why some people may shy away from fansubbing when they can’t be sure that their work will live on.

  • As I am starting to have experience with blogging and dealing with viewers, I totally agree. I take on recap/review projects because I really wanted to, not just because people are begging for it. And actually, the fact that people are rushing me to do them makes me unhappy. I can’t imagine how worst it is for subbing! Thanks for this beautiful post!

  • I’m always grateful when fellow subbers or just logical people take the time to explain the complicated and tedious subject of subbing. So thank you for writing this. Having worked both with a subbing team and on my own I can honestly say that both come with their challenges and both take a ton of time.

    Working with a team is often subject to many different people’s schedules. If one member, say the translator, drops the ball, the timer, the editor, the encoder all get stuck. Then it would probably take many emails and days of communication and re-negotiation. Independently, it’s just the time needed to do all the roles. Even worst if you’re a perfectionist (many fellow subbers I’ve come across often are!) I even get people who ask for lower quality (aka briefly translated etc) subs just so that they can have it quicker. I understand how frustrating a wait can be, but subbers have their own brand of integrity too.

    I think different subbers vary, but personally for every 10 minute clip I work on it takes me about 4-5 hours to fully complete and get uploaded. That is if I’m fluent in the language. If not, it’s days of flipping through various dictionaries to make sure that certain words are translated perfectly and make sense grammatically and in context.

    I also want to point out there there are times when people comment really nice things but it’s easy to tell the motivation behind it. I’ve had so many comments saying, “Thank you so much for your subs, thank you for your hard work, can’t wait for the subs to come faster please.” – Thanks for being more polite but it’s still being demanding. Especially when it comes every couple of days.

    The tips for subbers you posted are totally spot on and very helpful! For me, I tend to set my own goals. If I know I’m busy, I avoid subbing long form series. I make it clear from the outset if I choose to, for example, just sub a BTS or episode too. Communicating with other independent subbers can also be useful. Sometimes people just don’t like the chore of being part of a team, but between the both of you you could probably come up with a partnership that works for a project or two and that could ease some of your burden.

    Also definitely can’t say this enough!! A simple ‘thank you’ or comment goes a long way with bloggers, subbers, community contributors 🙂

    • Your comment helps explain the process in more detail too, which is great! You’re right, the length of a drama is very important. It’s hard to finish a drama that has tons of episodes. For c-dramas this is often the case; on top of that they have back to back airing schedules so there’s no time for a break.

      I agree about the comments that start out nice but end with something about the speed of the subs. They end up going into the SUBS PLZ category even though they started out with a ‘thank you’.

  • It’s extremely difficult to find people that know Chinese and English well enough to sub accurately. Especially since most Chinese dramas are historical drams with a very, very traditional vernacular that most English speakers who know a little chinese can’t possibly understand. Think Shakespeare.

    Chinese language is extremely complex, has a lot of dual or even triple meanings, literary and historical references throughout regular sentences, and period specific terms.

    Most ppl that speak english well enough to write, probably dont know Chinese well enough to even understand completely what’s going on. It’d honestly be kind of overreaching to think that someone who hasn’t grown up in Chinese culture, speaks mandarin fluently, and have extensive knowledge of chinese history and literature could even begin to sub accurately. It’s hard to have that AND be perfect in english too.

    That’s why there are very few chinese subbed dramas and the ones that are subbed are often poorly done.

    I would love to help sub but I have no idea how to edit videos.

    • There’s actually a decent number of people who might be fluent enough in Chinese and English to do the fansubbing – but these people generally would not bother to fansub, because they don’t need subs to watch the shows. 🙂

      I only started fansubbing to pay it forward for all the kdrama subs that I inhaled, but I’m nowhere near fluent enough for historical dramas, but it takes way too much time and with work commitments these days I haven’t subbed in a couple of years, so I want to appreciate those who have the tenacity to continue the seemingly thankless task of fansubbing for so many years.

  • Such a good post. As part of the Jdrama minority (we may be small but we are supe hardcore) I know how frustrating it is to wait for subs or have an awesome series just stop on the second to last episode never to be picked up again but we alwas need to remember that people do this out of love for the genre and we should br.thankful. if i were single and 10 years younger i’d be subbing Jdrama like a boss.

  • Kudos to you for this righteous & compassionate post. While slowly making my way through Zhen Huan Zhuan alongside your recaps/reviews of that drama, I’ve actually felt irked and indignant on your behalf when readers were like “when o when are you gonna write about ep. 76??” I know some were probably loyal readers and meant but still. It’s always hard to remember that other people’s time can be exactly as scarce and precious as our own.

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