in Language & Culture, Language Technology, Technology

We’ve previously written about how difficult it is to translate Japanese text using machine translation services – even Godzilla himself couldn’t overcome Google Translate – and we’ll be returning to Japan (or, at least, the collision between Japanese Media and American audiences) for our latest survey of how generative AI is impacting the world of media. Specifically, we’ll be looking at how this technology is challenging the Anime market – the country’s famous animation export, beloved by millions of fans worldwide. Some of our readers may be rolling their eyes, but it cannot be overstated how much of a media juggernaut this media sector is, being valued globally at an eye-watering $32 billion dollars in 2023, and with some projections saying the industry will hit $60 billion by the end of the decade.

One of the largest players in this space is Crunchyroll, a streaming service devoted entirely to Anime content. It has 13 million paying subscribers and was acquired by Sony in 2022. Sony soon merged it with one of its major competitors, granting it an even larger market share. But in February, Crunchyroll President Rahul Purini set off a firestorm online by telling The Verge that the anime streaming service was experimenting with using AI language models to generate real-time subtitles for its Japanese-language content. This was, understandably, a tall order – Japanese is notoriously hard for machines to translate, and the dialogue in Anime programs isn’t as simple as one might think, with vast amounts of context being required to translate for a range of audiences across all knowledge-and-experiences properly.

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This wasn’t strictly a matter of cutting costs. Rather, Purini and his team wanted to combat piracy, as the auto-generated subtitles would make it a larger hassle for illegal downloaders to share copyrighted content. However, the company acknowledged that pirates would eventually use AI for the same purposes. Couple that with the medium’s history in the United States – where eager fans would learn Japanese to create unofficial subtitling tracks in the era after the establishment of the home video market but before the medium became a part of the balanced American media diet — and you have a recipe for a media company potentially embracing new technology with diminishing returns at the expense of its expert translators and subtitlers, possibly enabling pirates to claim that they have better versions of translated content available – and for free.

It took a month, but the company walked back his statements, with an executive telling The Verge that “[q]uality is of paramount importance for us, and if we find out the technology is not to the level that it can create the best subtitles we want for our fans, then we will wait until the technology gets there. And if it never gets there, then it never gets there.” With that, fans and linguists breathed a sigh of relief.

It’s not impossible to imagine a day in which AI-generated subtitling becomes the norm, and, indeed, it may become a valuable asset to those working in the media translation space rather than a replacement. But anyone who has turned on the auto-generated captions on a YouTube video understands that it is still in its imprecise infancy – videos are error-strewn if the speaker has so much as a hint of an accent, and the hearing-impaired, the very audience whose access to these captions are the reason that they exist in the first place. Smaller content creators may not think they have the resources to craft captions or provide translations for their content properly and will have to depend on this inaccurate technology to give their audience something resembling it. Still, those with dedicated followings and income streams should consider working with a qualified LSP for their captioning and subtitling needs.

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An LSP like CSOFT guarantees its clients a seamless and understandable end product that meets their customers’ standards, keeping the viewing experience as painless and immersive as possible. We can help you meet your audience’s high expectations (though no one is immune to criticism from a fanbase with the exacting standards that your average Otaku has) and bring in new viewers or readers to enjoy your content. So don’t wait another week to discover what happens on a brand-new episode of Translation Struggles Z – get in touch today and find out how our services can do what AI doesn’t. See you, Space Cowboys.

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