The Fans Behind The Viki Subtitles [Interview]

Pinocchio k drama korean viki eng sub english subtitles

If you’re a big fan of Korean dramas, you likely know about Viki, the user-based website where you can watch many of those K-dramas. But did you know that every show on Viki is subtitled by volunteers around the globe who work together to bring you the shows you love?

Earlier this month, Viki celebrated 1 billion words translated by fans with the hashtag #1BillionWords. To commemorate this occasion, we spoke to two of Viki’s top subtitlers. User Bjonhsonwon has worked on more than 99,000 subtitles and 200,000 segments on Viki since joining the community in 2009. Joysprite, on the other hand, is a relative newcomer who joined Viki in 2014, but she already has subtitled more than 72,000 lines in dramas.

1. Viki is a community-based video platform where you, the subtitlers, take on the role without any monetary incentive. How did you find your way into this world?

Bjohnsonwon: I have a strong love for Asian drama. While living in Hong Kong, I really enjoyed watching any Korean drama that was aired on local TV as well as the TVB dramas. Not being a native speaker of either Chinese or Korean, dramas were a great way to pick up some of the languages. I searched on the internet for different titles of Korean dramas I was interested in and came across Viki at the time. It was a great find. I spent my first couple of years on Viki as an observer thinking I didn’t have anything to offer as a contributor. Then I noticed segmenting. It seemed to be something I could see myself doing and enjoying so I randomly picked a CM [Channel Manager] and asked what to do to learn segmenting. Thankfully, the CM was very helpful and patient. He set me up on a fan channel to practice segmenting and subtitling where I could go at my own pace. I loved it right away and enjoyed the challenge.

Joysprite: I was looking for a new drama to watch, one that was light and fun, and I found “A Witch’s Romance” online. The only place to watch it was Viki. I enjoyed the show and was intrigued by the fact that all the subtitles were created by Viki volunteers. The subscription program was very reasonable, too. As I continued to watch dramas on Viki, I investigated editing, which is my forte, and I started my first volunteer editing on “Marriage, Not Dating.” Since that time, my edited drama list has grown really long.

2. What keeps you motivated to continue subbing show after show?

Bjohnsonwon: I never get tired of working on projects on Viki. There is a variety of shows now and quite a range of things contributors can do from subtitling, segmenting, managing, or even page design. Over the years of working with different people on Viki, I’ve got to know a lot of good friends. Being able to work with them and getting to know new friends is a great motivator — not to mention knowing that I can say I had a part in bringing the subtitles of some great shows to others who wouldn’t have the chance to see them in their own language. Additionally, using subtitles also allows people with hearing conditions to follow the program and understand what’s happening. Alongside the subtitles, there is now a range of specialized technology, such as these tv ears digital hearing aids that can be connected to the TV, making it easier for people with these isolating disabilities to feel included. A lot of hard of hearing people do enjoy to listen to the audio at the same time as reading the subtitles, so by using both of these techniques, more people are now able to watch and understand programs that they wouldn’t have previously been able to.

Joysprite: The fact that there are always more new dramas waiting to be subbed, edited, and released keeps me moving forward. I watch as I edit, which is quite handy—two birds, one stone.

3. How does it work when you’re subbing videos? What are some challenges you face as individuals?

Bjohnsonwon: I mainly work on live dramas as a segmenter. We’re the first to get to work on the drama once it’s uploaded. We go through and decide where subtitle boxes should go and make sure they’re timed well and a good length so they can be read easily by the viewers once subtitled. As a segmenter, one of the biggest challenges is deciding where to make a cut when the speaker is talking rapidly and it’s hard to make out where there might be a break. Another difficult place is when there’s a lot of noise in the background or many people talking at once. These are challenging places to decide what would be important to translate and include so the viewer can know what’s going on. After the segmenting is complete, the episode is then opened up for the English subtitlers to work their magic. And I really do think it’s magic. To be able to translate and keep the meaning as close as possible to the original is a very special talent. We have some excellent volunteer translators that have my deep admiration.

Joysprite: When I go in to edit an episode of a drama or variety show, I start by checking to make sure everything is close to 100 percent complete, then I post in Team Discussion that I’m about to do an English edit and I post again when I’m done. The challenge I face as an editor is getting the word order sorted for English viewers without losing the charm of the language itself. One of the compliments I’ve heard about Viki regularly is that we tend to keep things like family titles like oppa (“older brother” for a woman) and ajussi, (“older man”) and many of the subtitlers and translation editors are good about adding editors notes that explain idioms and references to stories or events. It makes watching a Viki subbed and edited drama more culturally enriching. I love it.

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4. Each show on Viki has a sub team with a comical or pun-based title. How do these teams work? Who picks their name?

Bjohnsonwon: Choosing a name can be a fun part of starting up a new team. Every team tries to come up with something catchy or descriptive to call themselves. Often the CM will ask team members and even followers of the channel to give suggestions. These are compiled and then voted on to see what was the most popular choice. There has been some really creative names.

5. What are easiest/hardest types of shows to work with? Have there any been any near, or actual, disasters?

Bjohnsonwon:The easiest shows for me to work on are melodramas. They’re usually straight forward and spoken in modern language so [ they are] easy to follow. The hardest to work with is reality shows. These are really challenging. There’s so much going on at once with several people talking at once and words flashing on the screen, all needing to be subtitled. But there’s only room for so much at a time. It can be very challenging to decide what to include that will give the viewer the most information possible without being overwhelming.

Joysprite: Romantic comedies are the easiest. They seem to have simpler vocabulary that is of a lighter nature. Medical, legal, and scientific dramas are much harder because of the terminology. Historical dramas are also challenging because of archaic terminology and keeping track of dozens of historical characters.

7. How does it feel to know that you personally are helping fans from around the world view their favorite shows?

Bjohnsonwon: It’s a wonderful feeling to know that, as a team member, I’m having an active part in making a drama available to others all around the world. I’m still in awe when I think about how many languages a drama can get translated into and how many people will be able to now understand the dialogue. The first live drama I worked on, I kept looking at the number of followers growing everyday and seeing it grow by thousands. I took a lot of pride in knowing I had a small part in making that happen.

Joysprite: I feel very excited and happy that my efforts, along with those of the rest of the team, to produce a quality English project make it possible for translations to be made in many languages and allow people from all over the world to enjoy shows that they might never be able to enjoy otherwise. The world just keeps getting smaller and smaller, which I think brings us all closer together.

8. What are some of the difficulties when translating?

Joysprite: From an editor’s point of view, the biggest issue in translating is skill level with the original language and English. If you have excellent skill in hearing our own language, but your English isn’t good enough to fully express what you hear, it can limit your subbing a bit. On the other side, you can have excellent English, but if your skill in the original language isn’t high enough you can make mistakes that create confusion. This is why translation editors who are fully fluent in both languages are golden. Not all shows have a translation editor, but I guarantee they make big difference, especially in the harder dramas like medical, legal, and historical.

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9. Do you have any memorable moments from subbing?

Joysprite: Whenever I think of the most fun I had working on a drama I always think of “Pinocchio.” Sometimes a team comes together and just gels, and the “Pinocchio” team was like that. Everyone showed up to do their jobs, made sure they followed the rules outlined in Team Notes, and rocked the segmenting, subtitling, and editing. From upload to release was almost always under 24 hours, and often 16 hours or less. The viewers were a lucky bunch indeed, as they got near instant gratification every week.

10. As Viki moves to create its own content, what role will the community of subtitlers play?

Bjohnsonwon: I’m excited to see Viki growing with more and more content available. There’s so much out there now from so many more countries than just Korea. There’s even dramas and movies from South America and Europe, not just Asia. I’m really excited to see there are now licensed dramas from Hong Kong’s TVB. TVB dramas are very hard to find, but now available on Viki. I don’t know what the future holds for Viki and its many Qualified Contributors, but the one thing that makes me keep wanting to come back to Viki is I feel a part of a family here and that I have a place where I can make a difference and feel my contribution matters.

Joysprite: Viki creating it’s own [drama] is a very exciting step forward. The best part is that, within the Viki community, there is a huge pool of knowledge and expertise with the potential to generate new and innovative ideas and assist with project development. And of course, I have no doubt that once the content is created the segmenters, subtitlers, and editors will come. It’s the Viki way.

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