This is a concept, I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. Fan translation, I think anyone from the Death Note era of anime and manga remembers the iconic line of “All according to keikaku” with the translation note at the bottom reading “(TN: Keikaku means plan)”. It’s a fun little bubble of fandom that exists not only because of imperfect translation, but fandom dedication. It sounds dumb but 2006 was a strange time for anime and manga fans because it was right around the time that officially licensing anime and manga really took off.
However, that’s an anime fan translation reference and something I personally, haven’t consumed in many years. Given that many anime are subtitled in mere hours after the Japanese premiere and the dub only a few days later, I’m not aware of any anime fan translation teams.
So my mind started turning around this idea, with the August 2020 news that kissmanga, was shut down for pirating. I won’t lie, I used their services. Never endorsed or encouraged people to do there, but I will admit I was a come and go type. Sometimes you really want to be on the pulse for a series no matter what.
Kissmanga, was in fact illegal as stated a billion times before. But it was a really interesting case for manga since the website illegally hosted a few variations of manga. The first was re-uploads of digital manga that are/were fully licensed but behind a paywall. There were also a variety of titles that were manga volumes scanned from library collections (the library stamp at the bottom of the pages were always strange to see). There were even cases of out of print manga being scanned and uploaded after it’s licensing distributor went defunct by a dedicated fan. Lastly, and what I consider the bulk of their former catalogue, was an conglomeration of fan translation or more commonly scanlator works.
For this blurb of mine, I’m going to go a bit in depth about what also goes into a fan translation of manga, i.e. scanlators so we’re on relatively the same page. Scanlators is a term that combines the two terms ‘scanning’ and ‘translator’, and usually refers to a person or group of fans that take the original manga, scan, translate the work from Japanese to their target language, and upload the work. While this is a brief summary of scanlators, there’s much more to these groups then just doing an unofficial translation and uploading it online.
In most cases, there’s a team of people working on this project, just like official licensing groups. There is someone who gets the source material, a printed volume, digital release, etc. There is another who then scans and uploads the pages online. There is then another person who cleans up of the scan; sharpening images, color adjustment, covering or clearing the original text so the translation can be added. There is another individual who obviously, translates from original language into the target language. (For this case and in this article, we’ll say the original is Japanese and the target language is English.) Another person who then types out and inserts the translation onto the scan, and sets it in place. There’s also proof readers, translation proof readers, quality checker and more. Depending on the group, some members double up on roles and in truly dedicated cases one person might do it all, but the point is; a lot of work goes into these unofficial releases.
These scanlations are done largely for free. The old-skool ideas of for fans, by fans. There’s been some changes in recent years with a bit of funding here and there. A few groups do have modest, and largely transparent patreon or ko-fi funds. Mostly these are done to host the website where they post their fan translation initially, and covering the cost of obtaining the original materials. Kissmanga, for clarity, is not where these groups upload their materials in full first. Kissmanga was more or less a catalogue that would gather all these fan-translations from their various spaces and host them in one place, nothing more.
With all that outlined, we can get back to my blog title: In the modern era of manga; where do scanlators belong?
Let’s talk a bit about the legal limbo of fan translations. I’m not a lawyer, so some of my verbiage and knowledge may be incorrect but work with me here, fan to fan. If I am completely and utterly wrong, please correct me with a source and I will amend the offending statement. To my knowledge, there’s nothing illegal with translating something from one language to another. I myself do it quite often when practicing my Japanese skills.
There is some legality changes when these translations are made available online to any degree. To my knowledge, unlicensed works being translated from Japanese to English are okay so long as the translator does not receive monetary benefits for producing said work, nor do they impact the sales of the original. Obviously, the translator also needs to state clearly and precisely that they do not own the rights to said work in any capacity, nor claim it as their own.
Copyright is a whole different ballgame, I’m not going to even attempt to articulate here. It’s not necessarily complicated, but it can be difficult for people to navigate without proper knowledge. Like yours’s truly. Most manga have copyrights held by the author, artist, and publishing house and violating it is a big no-no. You can work your way around it depending on situations and circumstances, but again I’m simply not knowledgeable enough to get specific here.
The second issue, and the one that gets more press is licensing. What that specifically means, to my knowledge is that the licensees (original manga artist/company) get to leverage owning the intellectual property (the manga title in question) to create branded products (English language volumes) for a specific period of time. Once the rights to create this product (English language manga) have been secured, the producer (publishing companies) can manufacture said goods and in return pays the licensor (mangaka, Japanese parent company, etc) a royalty for it’s use. I.e. It’s the way that mangaka’s get their international paycheck made out to them.
Large in part, it seems the obvious answer is that scanlators often exist before a title is officially licensed. I know for a fact that I saw scanlators of both The Girl from the Other Side, and Sweat and Soap floating around right when those titles were initially released in Japan. The fan translators for the titles, translated up until the title was then licensed in English. Both teams announced that they had been/were the unofficial translation, and now that the series was getting an official license they would no longer be producing their unofficial version. Both teams were also nice enough to state which companies had picked up the Japanese to English license, and when the initial first volume would be launched.
I don’t think it’s unreasonable approach for a variety of titles. In fact, I’d say even in 2020 this is still a pretty common occurrence in the manga realm. Scanlate the title until it’s licensed. Not everyone who enjoys manga can read it in Japanese, and for scanlators a lot of them really are dedicated to the franchise and translating as a hobby. It’s also an unofficial gauge for true interest in a title before a publishing company picks it up. A titles that sells a million copies in Japan, or is written/drawn by a popular mangaka is an easy sell to an international licensor. An obscure indie title that may not have made it’s way into popularity, yet, is harder to gauge. Seeing if fans are already following it, and making a decision off that I don’t think is a bad thing. If it gets more mangaka’s paid, and keeps everything above board that’s all well and good in my non-manga book.
So in a certain capacity, scanlators are needed significantly less in the modern era. The days of manga being a weird backwards book from Japan, in a back corner of a comic book shop, are largely over. There’s a huge market for manga, and a variety of distributors and publishing companies, not only in English but many languages now available for consumption. And in researching a bit, I actually found out that manga has been being officially licensed and distributed way longer then I thought, starting back in 1975. Please check out this link for more details, as it’s fascinating to read.
That doesn’t mean that the current licensing is without it’s flaws. With accessibility, comes other issues, obviously not every single manga titles ever is going to be licensed. Just like not every single English-language comic will be licensed and released in Japan. It’s just not possible especially given the sheer quantity of stories being produced. Similarly, there are the debates of why certain titles never get translated despite their popularity, are digital releases only, etc. This particular Manga Answerman article, gets more in depth and has better targeted answers to these questions then I will go into here.
That being said, where do the scanlators fit now into modern manga society? I think that scanlators have to recalibrate their efforts. I’ve seen many groups adopt the above mentioned, ‘scanlate until licensed’ approach to their projects. You might not get credit for the translation, or making it popular. But at least you get the gloating rights to say you knew about the series before it was licensed.
That being said, there are some rumblings of fan translations verses official version causing tensions. I haven’t seen any of this recently (in the past three or so years) but I do know it was much more of a thing back in the day. I will never forget the fights if the InuYasha fox spirit should be written as Kirara or Kilala.
Did we ever make a decision on that by the way?
In regards to that, I would like to briefly lord over the monolinguals that translations are not objective, but in fact fairly subjective in fictional media. There can be multiple translations of a word, or phrase and all of them are accurate. Which one best suits the character or circumstance, largely depends on contextual considerations. Someone with a professional background and education in Japanese language and culture is probably going to be more accurate then your friendly neighborhood weeb using google translate, and prior subtitled anime translations as referances. That’s just my opinion though, and I will get off my soapbox here.
In my research, it’s been noted that many wanting to break into the translation business start out doing scanlator work on the side. A lot of the OG scanlators later got picked up by Viz Media, Yen Press, etc since they were familiar with the output and expectations for a good release. I mean, there’s also an official Manga Translation Battle that’s been hosted by My Anime List for several years to help scanlators get legitimized, and publishing companies find new talent.
Of course, there will always be those niche in a niche series that for whatever reason will get get touched by a publishing company. Scanlators with those particular interests, should they play it fair and smart should be able to still translate and share those long passed over works. Scanlators mostly have pretty solid ethics, so I think most would respect the wishes if their work was discovered and requested to be taken down.
Additionally, should scanlators have the time it would be interesting to see what they would do with titles that were once legally licensed, but now aren’t. Admittedly, this would require someone with legal background in both copywright as well as licensing to cut through some red tape in regards to these titles, as it could be an absolute mess if done wrong. But… my mind specifically eying both Cipher by Narita Minako and Swan by Ariyoshi Kyoko which were licensed by CMX Comics back in the day for this sort of treatment. I think both of them got around their mid-way story, before DC Comics shuttered that branch and the licenses for both properties expired. As of writing neither title has been picked up by any other company. I would love to see how a scanlation group re-working these titles, making the images more crisp, updating slang and etc. Especially since the going prices for the few copies of the English-language volumes are upwards of $30 per volume, and with the incomplete story.
Scanlators, to my knowledge also occasionally dive into other areas of scanlating. I knew of (back in the day) of groups that scanlated artbooks, magazine articles and other related medias. So these groups aren’t disappearing from the internet so much as branching off into other areas of scanlation that are a little less restricted by legal red tape. So they’re not being completely driven out of the fandom, but are more likely to be adjusting and adapting to new materials and ideas.
Scanlators do still very much belong in the manga community. Without them we most likely wouldn’t have the access, legally or otherwise, to as many titles in English as we do today. They are are an undervalued, and often under appreciated part of the fandom. They commit to a labor of love, doing a lot of heavy lifting to make things accessible to fans world-world. Be sure to give them a thank you every time you enjoy their efforts.