Manga Pirates Are Having Trouble Going Legit

Art by Sam Woolley/March Comes In Like A Lion by Chica Umino, scanlation by Be With You Scans

Manga pirates have operated in the internet's shadows for decades, hiding from furious publishers whose translation efforts, pirates say, are shoddy, too slow or nonexistent. Now, as more pirates realise the potential value of their translation skills, they're poking their heads out from the underground and asking for legit work. But the financial impact of the piracy industry they call home is pushing them back down into obscurity.

NJT is a reformed pirate. In 2006, he founded the manga piracy hub, and four years later, the site welcomed 6.5 million visitors a month. For years in its forums, teams of Japanese translators would unlawfully scan, translate and disseminate manga to English-speaking audiences who could read that manga right on the site — and everything, including the labour, was free. Back in the mid-2000s, the aisles of Borders books were cluttered with teenaged bodies devouring manga such as Dragon Ball or Fruits Basket, but Western bookstores mostly sold the mainstream stuff. To get the lesser-known goods in English at a low price point, fans had to go to free sites such as MangaHelpers or know someone in Japan.

"It was one of the most-accessed manga sites on the internet," NJT told me over Skype this week. "We had the whole platform — translating, scan[ning], all in one community. If we were to go legit, we'd have a powerhouse to work with publishers for the greater good."

March Comes In Like A Lion by Chica Umino, scanlation by Be With You Scans

Why do scanlators do it? First of all, only about 100 manga are simultaneously published in English. And according to three scanlators interviewed, they're voracious manga consumers. Most asserted that they only work on projects without official or up-to-date translations. Kewl0210, who has scanlated Gintama, Jojo's Bizarre Adventure and March Comes In Like A Lion said, "My general goal is to allow things that likely wouldn't be readable to English speakers otherwise to have the opportunity to read them. Though there are some exceptions for me if I've done a huge amount of the series already and it gets licensed later and I just want to finish it." He added that "There are also situations where the official translations are just bad."

Over Skype, NTJ vehemently insisted that scanlators' work should be paid. He wants the illegal manga translation industry, which he's helped spearhead for a decade, to end. And right now, he's knocking on publishers' doors asking to let him help them end it. Publishers are hesitating to play ball, though. "I've spent the last three years working [with publishers] to get that happening and I haven't received a cent," he said. "If they want to fight against pirates, they have to beat them at their own game."

All scanlators interviewed said that working for an official manga publishing house in an official translator capacity is a far-off dream — no one had considered it in their younger years. Making a living translating manga never seemed like a real, attainable job.

"I might try to do it at some point," Kewl0210 said. "Right now, I have a full-time job outside of scanlating and don't really have time to do something like that, too."

Gintama by Hideaki Sorachi, scanlation by Hi Wa Mata Noboru

The manga translation industry's history is entangled with its pirates'. Just as the Japanese comics were slowly making their way overseas in the early '90s, diehard manga fans were simultaneously "scanlating" them. The term refers to the illegal, underground practice of scanning Japanese manga, translating it, erasing the speech bubbles, and replacing them with a translation. Back then, pioneering scanlators believed their favourite manga would never get official translations — or were angry at official translations' poor quality or awkward localisations. (For example, a lot of early translations replaced "ramen" with "spaghetti" or removed honorifics entirely, steamrolling the Japan-ness integral to several storylines.) So, in Internet Relay Chats (IRCs) and AOL Instant Messenger chat rooms, pirates constructed digital scanlation factories, impressively complex for work that went unpaid.

Now-quaint websites such as AngelFire and GeoCities hosted those scanlations at first, mostly of classics such as Ranma ½, Naruto, Love Hina or Dragon Ball. A lot of the time, these scanlations were rough. Several translations were amateur and efforts to redraw speech bubbles could be shoddy. In the early 2000s, "re-drawers" started filling in the space where a manga book was bound and scanned in the original artist's style. Manga scanlators such as Berserk's would complete severed limbs or blanked-out background scenery with stunning faithfulness:

Berserk mini-series by Kentaro Miura, scanlation by Evil Geniuses

Manga's American market value peaked in 2007 at around $US200 million ($260 million) a year. That's when, according to scanlation historian Gum, scanlation efforts increased twofold. Shortly after, the manga market crashed. In 2011, manga volumes published in North America plummeted from 1500 in 2007 to 695, possibly because of the collapse of brick and mortar bookstores (manga publisher Tokyopop shut down temporarily within months of Borders).

Publishers, for their part, pointed fingers at scanlators. Japan's Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry reported that 50 per cent of US manga and anime fans consumed pirated work. That's about $US20 billion ($26 billion) in damages, they estimate. Worse, it is manga artists who suffer the more dire repercussions of rampant scanlation — it's so harmful that, in 2010, Hellsing author Houta Hirano told his Twitter followers that he wanted his manga's scanlators to contract a disease so incurable that doctors would "shit themselves laughing" when they died.

Chara, who has scanlated March Comes In Like A Lion, says she definitely does "not view most scanlating and even a lot of fansubbing in the same vein as piracy". Despite the success of the manga's recent anime adaptation, there is still no official English translation. "The core intent of scanlating is to produce a by-fans-for-fans production, for no profit," she said.

JoJo's Bizarre Adventure by Hirohiko Araki, scanlation by Hi Wa Mata Noboru

In 2009, NJT received a cease-and-desist from Kodansha comics and obligingly wiped MangaHelpers clean. Now, its forums are still cluttered with translations for other pirates to use on their underground scanlation sites, but that's all. No slick inked pages, no drawn-over speech bubbles.

To move forward with his mission to make manga translation better, faster and more accessible, he'd have to work from within the publishing system. He wanted to revolutionise the English-language manga industry with his intimate knowledge of the underground scene. But he had to convince publishers that his operation was clean — and that he and his rag-tag gang of manga fans had something to offer.

Shortly after the takedown, NJT and a MangaHelpers associate emerged from Tokyo's Jimbocho train station donning suits and briefcases. From there, they walked to the offices of Shueisha, which has owned about 30 per cent of Japan's manga market. With a speech scrawled out on notecards, NJT tried to convince a dozen of the behemoth publisher's employees that he could help broker deals between them and his best pirate scanlator buddies to bring more manga overseas. He'd provide valuable data on American manga consumers. He'd share talent. Most importantly, he'd help Shueisha embrace digital publishing, MangaHelpers' greatest asset over its brick-and-mortar competitors. In the end, NJT says, Shueisha declined, citing his long resume of piracy.

For scanlators making the leap from the darknet to the mainstream, a few issues are at play. First of all, irreverence for the rule of law looks bad. But say that a publisher managed to look past that and offered a gig — most manga translation jobs are freelance. Despite their size, both Viz and Kodansha primarily rely on freelancers, although the smaller hentai manga site Fakku has staff translators. Payment for these translation gigs can be slim, so translators might want a full-time job, too. NJT said he's constantly fighting with publishers over his scanlators rates — and some ask his scanlators to translate entire volumes for $US500 ($651) (that can be less than $US25 [$33] per hour). But in Kodansha editor Ben Applegate's words, scanlators shot themselves in the foot here: "Whenever there's a large group of people giving away their labour for free, it's going to depress pay for those who are trying to do things legitimately."

Jenny McKeon

Few scanlators have found a way to market themselves to publishers, but those who are successful don't regret trying. Around 2010, Jenny McKeon, who was in university, was scanlating girls' love manga on an IRC for three hours each week. She was studying Japanese at the University of Massachusetts.

"It seemed totally impossible that any [girls' love] would ever get licensed," McKeon told me over Skype. It's a niche lesbian fiction genre that spans from topics such as the day-to-day of intimate female friendship to hardcore hentai.

Years later, McKeon entered the Manga Translation Battle, an official translation contest, which tasked her with My Ordinary Life's English rendition. It's a comedy about the mundanities and sillier moments of small-town Japanese life, and as a special challenge, it's full of Japanese puns. She won, and as a prize, she broke in: Her My Ordinary Life translation, published by Vertical Comics, made it to the New York Times manga bestseller list's number one spot.

McKeon's views on scanlation did a 180 after more and more manga publishers brought her on for translation projects. "If scanlators and the people who read them are also motivated by passion about manga, I think it'd be great (this sounds like a cheesy shonen speech, God, sorry) if we could work together to support creators, get the series we love licensed, and make the industry better, instead of viewing each other as the enemy," she told me over Skype.

Perhaps the greatest scanlation-to-riches success story is that of Fakku, the biggest English-language hentai manga publisher, which was originally a scrappy scanlation site. After founder Jacob Grady received a takedown notice from a huge Japanese publisher, he bravely reached out about negotiating a publishing deal. It worked. Now, Grady publishes manga such as Shoujo Material that he originally scanlated with a staff of full-time translators.

Fakku founder Jacob Grady with manga artists Bosshi and Toshio Maeda.

Today, Grady says he isn't against scanlating, but that the scanlation industry is moving toward above-board labour as fans' demands become clear: "I believe scanlation and fan-subbing have had a positive effect on the industry and have grown the market for anime and manga outside of Japan. That said, the reason scanlation and fan-subbing were necessary in the first place was because the market was not being served properly by our predecessors, but that has changed in recent years."

It's not just publishers who can make breaking in difficult. Although scanlators say they dearly love the manga they translate, sometimes, the fact that they have translated it illicitly makes publishers weary to spring for an official translation. It's a catch-22: Frustrated that English-speaking friends can't enjoy their favourite manga, scanlators will translate and disseminate it over the internet. And yet, perhaps if they had waited a year or two longer, a publisher might have picked it up, it might have sold some copies and, most importantly, the manga's artist could pad their pockets with fans' money. And perhaps they could have had a hand in translating it officially, with real financial compensation.

Kokou no Hito by Shinichi Sakamoto and Yoshirō Nabeda, scanlation by Hi Wa Mata Noboru

Twenty-seven-year manga translation veteran Matt Thorn, who has translated everything from Nausicaa to Ranma ½ and has never scanlated, alleges that if a manga has a good and popular scanlation, publishers will think twice about contracting translators and licensing it (representatives from Viz Media and Kodansha confirmed that scanlations are a factor in licensing decisions). Over email, she described scanlations as "a cancer in the body of global manga culture. Every scanlation drastically reduces the likelihood of a given title getting an official translation, because publishers are wary of trying to get people to buy something when they know there is a free alternative out there. Once a scanlation is put on the Net, it becomes a permanent fixture that not even the original scanlators can remove."

Recently, McKeon noticed that her official translation of Miss Kobayashi's Dragon Maid, which blew up after anime streaming service Crunchyroll simulcast the anime, isn't even on the first page of Google search results for a translation. (The only outlier from the list of scanlations is the manga's Wikipedia page.)

For his part, NJT is working to get publishers to pay translators livable wages for skilled labour. But he's had little luck. Eventually, NJT hopes to have his own platform where he can channel money to artists', publishers' and translators' hands, one that proves how big the demand for high-quality, well-translated manga is in the West. He wants to help make a Netflix for manga, explaining that "People want to purchase and pay for material. We just haven't provided a service appealing to them yet." The only way to beat pirates and support good manga is to provide a better experience, he says — one dedicated to timeliness, speed, quality, design, price and device access.

NJT's big task is to fight against the cultural tides he helped create in the first place. His pitch: "Who else is better to work with than the people creating this kind of industry for you?"


    I did a bit of scanlation stuff back in 2003 for a manga, I cleaned up the scans themselves and removed the japanese for someone to add the english in.

    Just looking up that manga now and it didn't get an official english release until 2009!

    if a manga has a good and popular scanlation, publishers will think twice about contracting translators and licensing it

    I think the problem with that is that aside from the smash hit stuff it's hard to figure out what will work when translated. It takes a while for the scans to gain popularity and for that news to reach the people licensing it out, so when it finally happens readers have to choose between legit purchases that put them two years behind and the scans that have been up to the month since the source material was released. When you're really into a story it's hard to resist jumping over to the fan translation. The large translators do promote stuff that's being translated from day one but it's still hard to feel secure investing in a manga translation.
    On the licensing side many people are willing to rush in and invest in a translation when the audience is so hit and miss. Especially with a lot of the more niche Japanese stuff. I mean would you back the new random slice of life stuff?

    In a perfect world I'd love it if Japanese publishers kept a raw text free version of the file and gave legit translation publishers access to that file at the same time the Japanese publisher gets it, but I don't think there's enough money there to support that sort of framework.

    As much as it has it's sucky parts the way it works now seems to be as good as it gets. Free workers translating anything they can get their hands on. English speaking readers get the widest range and while they take a few major hits publishers do benefit a little from an increased western interest. If they want to reduce the damage from that hit then they have to be willing to invest earlier rather than treating English speaking fans like an afterthought.

    The main problem with the argument that people should wait in the hopes that what they like will get translated is that you rely on the company to act as if they care about the consumers. Which is hard in Australia. Even if a "Netflix-like" service for translated Manga appears, what's the bet that it will take another 3-5 years to reach Australia, but with half the library?

    The first show I ever pirated was Doctor Who. After gripingly watcing the season reboot on ABC every week for a couple of months, the season finale starts. Such a cliff hanger! Daleks? A whole fleet? With The Doctor about to destroy half of Earth to stop them? What's going to happen next?!? So I google it, and not only has the next episode already aired in the UK, but the Christmas episode has too. Yoink.

    The first time I tried to move away from Anime pirating was when I heard about Crunchyroll. Small monthly fee, but all you can watch anime? Sign me up! Pick a favorite show, start the free trial, log in, search and... it's not in Australia. Alright, it happens. Let's try another. Nope. A third? Still nothing? Fuck that.

    Then Steam came along, and I could get games! Digitally! YES! But those prices man... But it looked like the American Amazon was selling digital copies of the game straight from the devleopers, so why not just do that? I remember when they finally restricted it so you specifically needed an American card with an American address attachd to it. I wanted the expansion packs for Civ 5, wanted to play it agin. On Amazon, it was on sale: Digital Download of the Game + Expansions for $12. Except now I can't buy it. Go to Steam: $50AUD just for the expansions.

    There gets to a point, especially in Australia, where you realise that companies don't just care about their profits, they straight up don't even care about the reasonable money I want to give them for a good product. So, if the "solution" to not having a good, digital service for English Manga is to stop pirating and wait, hope, that the publishers will respond... fuck that. I don't have faith in the current industries that offer similar services, let alone faith that a new industry will be less shit

      Oh they care about profit, they just don't see the reasonable amount you want to pay as being profitable.

        I just want to pay what they offer to people overseas. I want them to simply not actively block me out of that market

    I cannot help to notice a hard negative spin on the piece, starting by the constant use of the word "piracy" even when talking about the largely grey area of manga which would never ever be officially published overseas--especially back in the day.

    I can totally see how nowadays that an argument can be made that a publisher could be wary of releasing commercially a manga that has already been widely distributed for free. However, if we live in a time where a Japanese publisher would entertain officially publishing any given (non-super-mainstream) manga overseas is thanks to the seeding work that scanlations did for manga as a whole for over a good decade. This is undeniable and something that anime acknowledged and embraced.

    Fakku is not an exception because the scanlators were more "legit". It is an exception because the publishers (having, really, very little to lose, and at least a little--and potentially a lot--to win) decided to experiment with a non-orthodox partnership. Most serious scanlators (and their readers) very much desired and welcomed one of their series being picked up officially and immediately ceased scanlation and distribution... only to suffer bitter disappointment when the official product was subpar and didn't display even a fraction of the care and polish that people who never saw a cent put into their work.

    Unlike the anime industry, which has caught up with the times and is going strong even after the tacit demise of the physical media, the manga industry overseas is still functioning under obsolete and retrograde parameters and blaming its dwindling numbers on scanlations and /actual/ piracy. Not saying that those things do not present issues or challenges, but combating the systemic flaws that allow them to flourish and be a superior alternative is a better expenditure of time and money. Ask Netflix.

    Over the course of maybe 2 or more years, I painstakingly searched for scanslations of Hanazakari no Kimitachi e. It was a pain, but I loved the manga too much to give it up. At the first opportunity I got, I purchased the full set of translated volumes. Even before that, I bought the first and last volume of the series, in Japanese, despite not being able to read a word of it, I waited patiently for the chance to buy it. Same story for Hot Gimmick and Ouran High.
    There were other manga I'd read, but would drop if I didn't love the story. Similar to going to a bookstore and reading the first chapter or so of a book while browsing.

    There's no question that without the work of the scanlators there's no way we'd be getting official translations now. Scanlations and their popularity proved that the market exists, and to deride them now strikes me as pretty low: "okay, thanks to you we know we can make money here - now go away and never have existed". (for reference, I bought the official MK'sMD, and a lot of other stuff besides).

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