‘Scanlators’ freely translating ‘manga,’ ‘anime’

by William Hollingworth

Kyodo News

LONDON (Kyodo) “Manga” (comics) and “anime” (animation) are being brought to a wider audience by fans who are distributing their own translations and performances on the Internet, according to new research by a British academic.

Lee Hye-Kyung of the University of London says the process shows the new ways in which Japanese popular culture is being disseminated in the age of globalization.

But she believes there is a potential for conflict in the future if Japanese publishers decide to take legal action against unauthorized translations distributed by fans based in the United States and Europe.

Lee, who has just finished researching the phenomenon known as “scanlation,” in which manga is translated into other languages by fans, presented her findings at a recent seminar in London on the globalization of Japanese brands.

She found that overseas devotees of Japanese animation are also translating anime and producing subtitles for distribution over the Internet. The same process can be seen with popular Japanese literature.

The first step in scanlation involves a manga fan getting hold of the latest comics from Japan. The fan scans the pages and sends the images via e-mail to a translator. The translated work is sent to a proofreader before a “cleaner” removes the original Japanese from the speech bubbles and inserts the translation.

The translated version is sometimes sent to a quality controller who examines it before release on Web sites, from where it can be downloaded for free.

Lee says there are probably in excess of 1,000 scanlation groups worldwide. Many are based in the United States, where the practice originated in the late 1990s.

She said scanlation represents a different kind of relationship between publishers and those copying their work.

Whereas the music industry has tried to clamp down hard on illegal file-sharers, the manga industry has yet to take any legal action.

Lee said she had spoken to one Japanese publishing house that was not particularly happy about the unauthorized translations, but the industry has yet to engage in coordinated action, with many publishers seeing scanlation as an overseas phenomenon.

Lee believes disputes could arise in the future and some believe they could be triggered if the manga market becomes more lucrative overseas. It currently attracts a relatively modest audience in comparison with other media.

The lack of legal threats could have something to do with the way in which the majority of scanlators operate, as Lee discovered in her research.

For example, scanlators will try whenever possible to buy a copy of the original work and, if and when the Japanese original is translated, they will generally stop scanlating that particular work.

However, Lee did find during her investigation that some scanlators continue to translate a comic series even though they are aware the work will be published in English in the future. This was the case with the “Naruto” martial arts fantasy comic series, when fans were impatient for the official translation.

Lee told the conference that many scanlators possess a “missionary zeal” to share manga on a nonprofit basis. The motivating factor for many scanlators is to try to encourage publishers outside of Japan to license work and translate it into European languages.