Scanlators: Robin Hoods of fandom

The growth of the manga industry has lead to a rather interesting trend, in the efforts to spread their favorite works to as many people possible the most die-hard and loyal fans have taken upon the roles of scanlators (scanner/translator). To give a more precise definition, a scanlator is an individual or more commonly an entire group of people who voluntarily have taken upon themselves to obtain copies of various manga works, translate them and scan them to distribute them freely online for streaming and downloading. While the stereotypical perception of the comic book community may be to remain isolated from the world while shunning new members to the community, it seems that ardent manga fans have taken the opposite route by widely distributing many manga works in order to increase the fan-base. In order to fully understand this actually amazing phenomenon I intend to go over the core subjects pertaining to scanlating.

Convenience

Lets be honest, when most of us want something we want it readily available and immediately. This is the premise that allowed something as insanely gross as toaster chicken snacks to be marketed.

This is a thing.

Perhaps the most appealing thing about scanlating is the fact that its available on your computer at any time only a click away. Although the manga industry has been increasing in readership outside of Japan under normal conditions any dedicated manga readers would have to wait weeks, months or even years to receive updates from regularly scheduled manga series; compared to Japan where many series issue chapters out on a weekly basis.There are many factors that cause this but the most prominent one being manga licenses. Simply put not every manga series is available in every country, local publishers only carrying a tiny fraction of what is available in Japan. However this is where the scanlators come in, thanks to them many series that would of never been seen outside of Japan have become readily available via websites like Mangahere, Mangafox and Mangastream in many different languages. Yet there are undoubtedly many legal concerns in regard to this practice.

Legality

Obviously the first impression of this phenomenon is that it is assuredly illegal, manga artists have the right to translate, reproduce and exploit derivatives under Japanese law; which is also protected in foreign countries such as the US and Europe. Therefore most scanlators and websites that distribute their translations argue under the fair use clause of Copyright law. Certain conditions must be met however to ensure it properly meets the criteria for fair use:

  1. The purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes.
  2. The nature of the copyrighted work.
  3. The amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole.
  4. The effect of the use upon the potential market for, or value of, the copyrighted work.
Remember moments such as these are only possible thanks to the laws listed above.
Never forget that moments such as these are brought to you by the laws of our governing nation.

However a practice such as this can also be seen as synonymous with the controversial music sharing, which works under the premise of purposely stiffing the music industry in order to “combat” commercialism. Scanlating too can be easily distributed with the goal of allowing an enormous amount of readers endless use of free manga as a substitute to actually buying the works themselves. Although this sentiment is more or less true for many readers, this actually brings me to my next point in the code of ethics that many scanlators actually follow.

Ethics

You would think that with such an easily exploitable system such as this, that these scanlators aren’t any different from common bootleggers. However in actuality there are a set of unwritten laws among scanlators that really govern the entire process.

Just like the unwritten law of letting your opponent power-up their strongest attack.

Free distribution to support the industry

This may sound contradictory but scanlators offer free translated works in order to support the manga industry. Therefore it is a largely non-profit endeavor, with the only exception being accepting donations from dedicated readers to further their work. This follows their ideals of just wanting to share these wonderful works with as many people as possible, in doing so there is an ever-growing fan-base that may support the industry by buying various merchandise related to their favorite series; fans may even go on to buy the official works themselves.

Giving credit where credit is due

It would be inconceivable for scanlators to simply go about and post what are the hard-work and even the very livelihood of authors without establishing credit. Some scanlators work exclusively to translate and distribute works of a particular author just because they are a huge fan and want to promote awareness and support for their work. They additionally tend to further show their support by first buying the original work of authors to use for their scans and translations; this both supports the industry and assures the highest quality of scans.

Striving for manga licenses

As I’ve said the main goal for scanlating is to promote fans most beloved manga works, increased awareness of said titles may ultimately lead them to become licensed for official release outside of Japan. Because of this many scanlators actually promise to cease translating works once it has become licensed. Although various other groups may continue to translate works even after licensing, this is mainly because the convenience factor and time gaps between publishing.

To close my crash course in the process of scanlating I would like to leave you with a final thought on the manga industry’s reaction. While you would think the manga industry would frown on a practice that is openly giving away their products for free, there have actually been very few times where any such major disputes have occurred. Even for popular already licensed titles the fan-base is already so huge its difficult to tell if scalating have hurt sales, as people continue to buy the physical copies. Industries have even begun to use this practice as a means of testing the market, using scanlation sites to discover new titles.

Resources

  • Lee, Hye-Kyung (2009). Between fan culture and copyright infringement: manga scanlation. Media, Culture & Society, 31(6), 1011-1022, DOI: 10.1177/0163443709344251
  • Image credit to Ansatsu Kyoushitsu by Matsui Yuusei
  • Kame hame ha gif brought to you by user weatherproof of tumblr

  6 comments for “Scanlators: Robin Hoods of fandom

  1. jrandal2
    March 18, 2013 at 9:21 pm

    I wasn’t aware that manga “scanlators” stopped doing it after the manga’s received a license, that’s awesome! As always, the argument that putting something out there as a free item to encourage and promote the item is a good point that many people don’t realize. It’s also interesting to realize that many of the “scanlators” don’t receive credit for doing the translations, even if the authors of the original comic do!

    • Mamoru Fuun
      March 19, 2013 at 10:58 pm

      Well actually there is some credit given to the scanlators translations. Most groups have some sort of associated team name and they simply attach an unrelated page that lists credits overall to the group and the people (usually displayed as nicknames) and what specific jobs they did (eg. translating, page clean up, scans etc)

  2. Mary
    March 21, 2013 at 11:37 pm

    Thank you for posting about this, the subject of scanlations is very fascinating! But I think it’s also interesting to note what is translated in scanlations. While there seems to be a lot of structure as to how scanlations operate, especially in terms of legality and licensing, there are also ambiguous situations in which the reader may become confused. In manga scanlations, often times one must read from right to left, and this often is not denoted within the work itself, but websites such as mangafox do provide a the reader with the correct direction in which to read (however mangafox is not itself a scanlation group, it simply hosts scanlations). On the other hand, many licensed copies in the United States simply mirror the images in order to bypass potential misunderstandings. If they do not, they make it explicit within the volume of which direction to read. I have also noticed in a variety of scanlations that the translators do not tend to change sound effects. This may simply be due to the challenges of having to remove the text and replace it, so often there are notes within the gutters to inform the reader of the content of the page if they remember to include it, and often it can be hit-or-miss. Japanese also has family names listed before given names. Some scanlations preserve this to maintain the authenticity of the text, while others decide to swap it for the Western formation of given name first, family name last, and this often isn’t directly addressed. Another difficulty that scanlators face is cultural references. There are many words that do not directly translate to English, so explanations must be provided as to what “tanabata” might be, or that high school in Japan consists of only 3 years. I think it would be informative and revealing to read a scanlation side-by-side the same text in a published format.

    • Mamoru Fuun
      March 22, 2013 at 4:14 pm

      That to do list of items is really something that amazes me about scanlation. These are hefty tasks that aren’t merely just translating one set of text to another language. As you said there are many interpretations scanlators need to make when translating, one aspect I notice regularly being Japanese puns and colloquialisms. From my experience of anime and manga in general I can tell you that JAPAN LOVES TO MAKE PUNS. Sometimes these are simply cheesey word mash-ups that can be easy to understand but more often than not there is some lengthy explanation to a wide variety of these puns that frankly just goes beyond the scope of a casual manga reader. In order to best explain this to the readers they may leave a little footnote item in the gutters like with the sound effects explanations or some groups have even included a page with explicit detail on what this pun, phrase, saying etc. means. So I both applaud and pity scanlators for putting up with such a strenuous task.

  3. April 2, 2013 at 9:25 pm

    So what is the legal status of scanlation? You’ve presented the idea of Fair Use (which is from US Copyright Law, if that makes a difference), but does that really apply to the work of scanlators?

    • Mamoru Fuun
      April 2, 2013 at 11:47 pm

      Yeah I’m gonna be honest I’m not sure how to answer that. My opinion of scanlators till now has largely just been “Hey free manga!”, but I was aware there were legality issues involved with this practice. The article I read did bring up the fair use clause and how it related to that practice. Maybe I just didn’t explain it well enough. I have heard of manga websites that carried these illegal copies of works were ordered to be shut down. So maybe it’s more the sites that argue under the fair use clause and not the scanlators themselves; however some scanlators do run their own sites. Additionally I would just think it makes more sense to target the scanlators for legality concerns, they are after all the source of the “problem”. Sure they can shut down a website, but there are tons of manga sharing websites out there; wouldn’t be hard to set up a new one either.

Comments are closed.