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Scanlation Nation: Amateur Manga Translators Tell Their Stories
from The Comics Journal #269
By Dirk Deppey
Posted July 13th, 2005
A scanlated panel from Old Home no Haibane Tachi Volume One, a self-published doujinshi by Yoshitoshi ABe -- yes, that's how he capitalizes his surname -- that would later form the basis for the animated series Haibane Renmei. 2005 Yoshitoshi ABe

Long before Japanese pop-culture artifacts like anime and manga were a cultural boom in America, they were a cult among a very select group of diehard fans. Anime fandom seems to have come first. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, anime videos began trickling into the United States, where they turned into an instant obsession among small groups of anime and science-fiction fans. Accurate histories of this phenomenon are rare; few people seemed to be taking notes at the time. In one of the few comprehensive accounts of the rise of anime and manga fandom, Watching Anime, Reading Manga (Stone Bridge Press, 2004), the writer and longtime Japanophile Fred Patten offered this eyewitness account:

The first fan club devoted especially to Japanese animation was the Cartoon/Fantasy Organization, which began in Los Angeles in 1977. By the end of the decade, West Coast fans were bringing their tapes to fan conventions all around America. The first 'Japanimation' screenings at fan conventions were generally scoffed at as curiosities. But during the 1980s the video rooms grew to become a standard fixture of convention programming.

With the advent of personal computers and software capable of crude video-editing, such as Video Toaster for the Amiga platform, a new wrinkle was added to anime fandom: fansubbing. Fansubs are anime videotapes that had been subtitled via computer by amateur groups of Japanophiles, and it eventually grew into a complex and organized endeavor, with separate group members responsible for translation, proofreading, timing (to ensure that the subtitles appear when the dialogue is actually spoken) and video production.

As with anime, so too, eventually, with manga. In the late 1990s, the Internet offered new possibilities for fans of Japanese culture to congregate and share materials, but bandwidth limitations initially prevented the online distribution of fansubs. Manga was another matter; image files took far less server-space and download time than did full-length cartoons, and soon groups of people were beginning to gather into online groups to produce the manga equivalent of fansubs. Thus were scanlations born.

Again, accurate histories are hard to come by, but the Journal contacted five scanlators via e-mail, and asked them to describe who they are, how they came to the scanlation hobby, and what their world is like.

Lost in Scanlations

Scanlations sit in a legal gray area. Since most ethical scanlators restrict their efforts to manga that hasn't yet been licensed for English-language release, and withdraw their efforts if this status changes with a given work, the translations they produce don't technically interfere with anyone else's ability to legitimately profit from the manga in question, and for this reason both American and Japanese publishing houses have generally turned a blind eye to their efforts. With manga's increasingly lucrative moneymaking potential, however, the manga industry has correspondingly become more concerned with the protection of intellectual property. For this reason, all but one of our subjects -- hereafter referred to as Haneoka, MegKF, Stephen and Eroica -- declined to be identified by name, and have instead opted to communicate through pseudonyms. Only Jill Schlicher was willing to go on the record under her own name, and even then only because she had gotten out of the scanlation game altogether to better concentrate on her college studies.

So how does one become a scanlator? "I wish I could say that creating scanlations was something I had thought out and had decided to do, but I can't," said MegKF. "What happened was I found Chinese scans of the manga Hana-Kimi (before it got licensed by Viz) and I found some translations for it as well. I really loved the manga, it was already being scanlated by a couple of other groups, and decided it was too hard to read the translations and then look at the scans. So I decided to just insert the text onto the scans in Microsoft Paint. It then seemed unfair to me that I should have these scanlations, not very good but still readable, and not share them. So I asked for help in the IRC channel I was usually in and they helped me share them."

For Schlicher, who reads Japanese fluently, it was a desire to help others experience her favorite manga. "There was a fan site, several years ago, that I would check for the newest information about a manga series I read, Hanazakari no Kimitachi e (often translated as For You in Full Bloom or The Flowers Bloom for You). As I recall it, someone posted there, searching for a translator for scanlations and the rest just followed naturally from there. I ended up doing perhaps 15 chapters of the series as scanlations."

Haneoka asserts that this sort of motivation is common. "Like myself, people became interested in manga series that weren't available in the US. They could buy the Japanese volume, but what good did that do when they didn't have a translation? And if they did have a translation, it was quite a pain to refer back and forth from the Japanese graphics/text and a separate English translation. Dedicated fans of a series also simply wanted to share great manga with other people."

Stephen hesitated before joining a scanlation team. "I began translating manga and putting text scripts on a website while I was in high school, to improve my reading and translating capabilities. At the time (2001 or so), I heard about the budding 'scan translation' scene and, frankly, thought it was egregious. I was working to provide for those who had already bought the books, and considered the act of giving people the 'full package' nothing more than simple piracy. It wasn't until a group contacted me to ask about using some of my work in their scanlations, that I really considered what it meant to me. In fact, if they hadn't approached me regarding what was at the time my most mature and intellectual project, I might have refused and ended all consideration. After tentatively joining the group, I quickly saw many positive aspects to the activity and never looked back."

Ethical Considerations

Each of the scanlators with whom the Journal spoke indicated that they are conscious of the ethical issues related to what they do and take the matter seriously to varying degrees. "I wouldn't try to scanlate a manga series that has been picked up for release in North America," Haneoka told the Journal. "First of all, a lot of personal time and money goes into scanlating a series. When the purpose is to share a manga with an English-speaking audience, then that goal will be better accomplished with an official publisher, and your own personal energies and money are better spent with an unlicensed series."

Eroica's team has already ceased production on one project after it was licensed by a legitimate publisher. Not only was no harm done, but Eroica takes credit for raising the title's profile sufficiently enough to get it noticed. "I do think it's a good achievement that some of our projects got licensed," he said. "They wouldn't have been if we didn't bring it to entrepreneurs' attention. We encourage fans to buy licensed version. I think the fans should definitely do that, since yaoi is not yet as popular and stable as shoujo or shounen manga, so they definitely do need the initial support."

There is not, however, agreement as to where ethical lines should be drawn. Stephen told the Journal, "You'll probably find a range of answers on the definition of the scanlators' (or fansubbers') code of ethics, from those stating that a scanlation should help a manga get licensed, to those stating that a scanlation should only be distributed until the official book hits the stands." Stephen himself takes artistic as well as ethical considerations into account. "I don't have any interest competing with other scanlators to bring something popular (and probably already licensed) to a starving horde of fans; I would rather focus my efforts on bringing to light the estranged corners of the medium and showing what incredible depth the world of manga has to offer. To that end, I avoid 'competing' with a publisher who might take a chance on a lesser-known (but high-quality) manga, and see it as a chance to expose something even more unique or exciting. It also means I don't have much tolerance for those who wander into my website/forum/channel looking for the latest blockbuster Shonen Jump manga, rather than expanding their horizons."

The Pecking Order

The scanlation scene is a social one, though the vast majority of contact between scanlators takes place online. "I have a lot of contact with other scanlators and scanlation groups," said MeganKF. "Several people on my group's staff also work in other groups. And I do a lot of joints so I get to work with other groups. I've also assisted other people when they started their own groups."

Other scanlators avoid the scene altogether. Haneoka declares herself to be too busy for socializing -- "My group is really small and our project isn't that popular," as she puts it -- while Schlicher said, "I'm afraid that the only other scanlation-related person that I contacted was my source for the scanlation that I did."

For those who do actively communicate with other scanlators, the inevitable cliques form. As Stephen noted, there's a pecking order: "You have a few prestigious 'old guard' groups that have been active for several years, a few newer groups that have risen to prominence through lots of hard work, and numerous fringe groups that often leech off the success of a particular manga by attempting to undercut other groups and rack up quick download numbers for the win. Because many of the flash-in-the-pan groups are only concerned with the most popular manga, we (the Old Guard) have chosen to pursue series that are more culturally or artistically significant (for the most part). You can probably guess from my tone that there is much derision flung in every direction by every player in the scene. The Old Guard consider the newer groups to be trend- or fame-whores who jump on a bandwagon to milk the download numbers and pad their Net-egos, and the newer groups consider the Old Guard to be bitter losers who just aren't popular any more. I don't follow the politics too much any more, but I can say that Mangascreener has rather close ties with other 'original' groups like the Band of the Hawks, Omanga, and Snoopycool, as well as a few smaller groups like Kotonoha that focus exclusively on artistically progressive and overlooked manga."

Creating Scanlations

Like fansubbers, scanlators tend to organize themselves into groups and distribute the workload to produce better-translated manga at a faster pace. Eroica was originally born in Indonesia but was living in Japan when she took up the hobby. "I started the scanlation project with two good online friends," she said. "We share the same interest and view in manga (in this case yaoi/shounen-ai) and I could get any manga we would want to do."

"It would be very hard to do a manga scanlation without other people," said MegKF. "I was pretty lucky when my scanlation group came into existence. My first project was already very popular online, and a couple of people volunteered to translate it almost immediatly after I started asking for help. There are a lot of jobs in a scanlation group, there are scanners, translators, editors, proofreaders and quality controllers, who all have to work together to make a scanlation possible. Most people came into my group after seeing me ask for help on my website or in IRC."

Schlicher worked with a single partner: "The girl who had contacted me regarding the scanlation project was the one who acquired the manga from the monthly magazine that it was published in and she would scan it, then send me the raw images. After this, I would clean up the images, convert them to black-and-white as necessary and adjust the brightness/contrast levels until they looked rather like the black-and-white versions that you see in published volumes. I translated the words and sound effects as accurately as possible (lucky for me that there are not nearly so many sound affects in dramas than there are in, say, action comics) and would erase the original text to format in English writing. All of this was carried out using Metacreations Painter, after which I would send the edited images back to my source, who would post them on her Web group."

"What is interesting is that there are many, many people working in these scanlation groups, and it takes up an incredible amount of work to put out a single chapter," Haneoka told the Journal. "And they all do it for free. That is an incredible amount of passion."

Eroica agrees with the sentiment. "The process takes a lot of time and energy. Scanning, cleaning scans, editing, putting in text, playing with SFXs, translating, editing translations -- and we do that in our free time!"

Expressing a Love of Manga

Scanlation isn't simple piracy -- not always, anyway. Sure, there are some scanlators who continue releasing work even after a series is licensed, but for many, it's about sharing their favorite manga with other fans of the form, exposing non-Japanese-speaking readers to stories they might otherwise never get to experience. As Stephen puts it, "For the readers of prestigious comics magazines like The Comic Journal, who consider themselves to be connoisseurs of comic art and find little to be excited about in the current English manga market: Keep in mind that what is currently available is much like the American superhero-comic scene. There are certainly worthwhile examples of the genres that are prevalent in English today if you know where to look, but the full breadth of what is out there in Japanese is immense, and it may take some time for truly advanced examples to see the light here."

Schlicher agrees: "Like most other branches of publishing, it is unfortunate that acquisition editors for comics have to pick works that they believe will sell, which are not necessarily the best which are available. There are many great series that are not commercially available in the States, but if somewhere some small group of fans really love it, it can become accessible to others who may not be able to read Japanese and may not even have ready access to Japanese bookstores where the raw comics could be bought. It may be illegal and offensive to some companies, but I do think it's actually more likely to be beneficial to them in the end by promoting an interest in comics and related merchandise. And for big companies and small fans alike, that really is a lovely thing for everyone."

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