A Scanlating Darkly

Much like other industries, the comics world has been trying to crackdown on illegal digital copies of its work; with varying success.  More recently, Japanese and American publishers of manga have joined forces to create a coalition against some of the major agregators of what are commonly referred to "scanlations."     Unlike American comics, "scanlations" are scanned comics with added translations (often added by the person who is scanning or a community of manga readers/translators).  These have become popular enough (or the fear is that they will be) that the publishers are trying to crackdown on published and copyrighted works; particularly those that are in the process of being translated (or have been) and published in the US.

The discussion here isn't going to focus on the rights and wrongs of acquiring/offering digital content or profiting off things that aren't technically yours to begin with.  Rather, I think this situation is an interesting example of users laying claim to their cultural product and making it meet their own needs.  Similar to viewers writing into a TV show or even, people taking up fan-fiction; this seems to be a fan-based initiative that while is dubious because of the questions around digital content still exhibits a fan culture striving to provide more cultural capital for its participants.

The Economic Forces Behind Scanlating

The more interesting element--at least for this examination--is a subculture that is trying to meet a demand that the markets are not meeting.  That is the scanlators themselves have come into existence because the market itself was lacking. For a long time, translating was a tedious and cumbersome process that took time, money, and education.  And due to the temporal issues of the publishing industry, companies in the US, were slow to release material in relation to the demand.  Besides the issue of translating, there’s formatting (early manga in the US and even some current manga is publish in standard Western format which requires performing a new lay-out), marketing, and the mere fact that most publishers are limited to release a certain amount of books each month (that is, due to staffing, resources, avenues of release, and financial abilities of the readership, a company is restricted to somewhere between 6 to 20 or so books a month).  Compared to how much manga has been published and continues to be published monthly in Japan, publishers have only released a mere fraction of it and most of it, only what is perceived as commercially viable.

But the scanlators provided a much desirous opportunity for manga readers whom in my observations, tend to be voracious readers.  In fact, I see the trading and high consumption often associated with American comics in the 1930s-1950s, manifest in manga readers today.  It makes sense too since like those comics of yesteryear were not seen as “commodities” as they are perceived by many today, but rather, desired to be read.  Additionally, given that they are bound, there are more resilient and lend themselves to be, um, well, lent.

The scanlators in some ways remind me of the idea of around cognitive surplus that in years past might have been under-utilized before the Internet age or generated into other creative endeavors like fanzines.  They are using a variety of skills and resources afforded to them and building an international community focusing on their particular hobby; and though the legal issues and concerns and issues around that are still being sorted out, the means of active engagement seems rather impressive.  It shows that these people have not only an active role in their interest, but in proliferating that interest and helping others learn about it.  


Where else do we seen groups like the scanlators bridging the gap between production and consumption of a particular interest/hobby/activity/etc?

Besides financial, what other concerns might people have about individuals (read: nonprofessionals) performing this kind of work?  Is there something about it (or the arguments against doing it) that suggest other perceive threats by groups like the scanlators?

When we look at a finished “product” such as a scanlated manga series; whose is it?  The original artist/author?  The scanlator?  The reader?

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  1. Honestly, I find all this hubbub over scanlation to be tedious and, quite honestly, ridiculous. While I admit that it certainly does detract from publisher profits, but in many cases, to be honest, it’s their own damn fault. They can’t expect sympathy when, for example, they stop distributing a beloved series in English, and just sort of sit on the license, thereby not allowing other companies to pick up the slack. Or, for another example, if they are taking an unreasonably long time to translate the material into English. A few weeks, maybe a month or two at most, is a reasonable amount of time(in my opinion; after all, they’re just translating it, not writing the damn thing themselves). In addition, sometimes the official translation of a manga is not up to snuff. Often times, censorship will completely wreck important imagery(an example: in the Fullmetal Alchemist manga, Greed is strapped to a slab of stone in the shape of a cross, and immersed in a deadly substance. In the English version, Viz, fearing the religious connotations this contained, changed it into just a slab.), and the rest will be wrecked by attempts to make the content more relatable to western audiences(ie, names are changed from Japanese ones to English ones, even if the setting is still Japan(I’m looking at YOU, 4kids), various in-jokes and references to Japanese culture are either removed completely or replaced with something similar that americans would relate to. This can have disastrous results.).
    As for the legality of the practice, who’s to say? Are the scanlators really hurting anyone? What if no one is distributing the property in English? How can anyone make a valid argument against scanlation then? Answer: they can’t, plain and simple. It doesn’t lessen the owners’ ownership of the property any more than, say, a television adaptation would(honestly, less so). But who am I to say? I’m certainly no copyright lawyer, that’s for sure.;

  2. The emergence of digital media since the Internet boom has been outstanding. Information that only a select few knew can now be spread to the world in seconds. With all this knowledge and opinion out on the Internet people can get many different views on a particular subject. All forms of entertainment have been adapted to the online world for better or worse. The problem with this is people download copies of comics or movies. Many of these downloads are free and no one is profiting off them, but it is still technically illegal. When I was younger I loved wrestling and at these wrestling events people would trade tapes. These were tapes of wrestlers from all over the country that they liked. These tapes were all recorded by the fans themselves and were technically illegal. But they were a great form of publicity for these little known wrestlers. The same comparison can be made to theses manga comics. If a publisher does not put the effort into translating these comics for its American market somebody will. These manga producers should use this to their advantage and start digitalizing and translating their own comics. Apple did this with their Iphones. People hacked the phone and made it multitask and have folders, Apple realized this and made these same improvements for their next software upgrade.
    The concerns the companies have with people doing these translations are what if they translate it wrong. The story could come out completely different if someone just makes up his or her own story. After the scans and translations are done these products are still legally the publishers. When you buy something you agree not to distribute it. The Internet has really pushed this issue but in reality it is still not your work. Blogs and sites like that are mainly opinion based which is not breaking the law. With that being said I have many digital copies of comic books that I downloaded. But more often than not I have purchased the comic after reading it because I liked it so much. So was I stealing it from someone, or was it just free advertising for the publisher?

  3. First things first… are scanlations legal – strictly speaking, no. Neither, for that matter, are they strictly speaking immoral. Yes, scanlations technically violate copyright laws, but many of these scanlators do this work for free, on their own time, and don’t charge a cent for their work (note that I say ‘many’, not ‘all’). And in many cases, these ‘illegal’ distributions of work serve as free advertisement for the author’s works, and some scanlators actually encourage their readers to support the series by purchasing the official printings of the work. But, I digress. On to my next point.
    Many of these scanlations release the work as the author meant the work to be seen. American influence on foreign comics and animation does not have a history of open-mindedness and understanding. Many comics are horrifically altered when officially translated, toned down or outright censored to appease American sensibilities, sensibilities that are incredibly out of date and overly sensitive. Language, drug references, and sexuality are only some of the topics that are changed. In some cases, entire characters, or even stories, are changed because of these edits. Scanlators, unbound by these censors, are at complete liberty to display the work as is, without needlessly changing things.
    I also agree that the poor speed of official translations don’t do anything to aid the publisher’s cause. The average manga volume reads around two hundred pages, and an author can produce that many pages in two months, it shouldn’t take anywhere near the three or four months that some of these books are spaced apart just to translate them.
    In brief, scanlations can expand readership, avoid horrific censorship issues, and are released at appropriate rates. All in all, I say that they should stay.

  4. As someone that is an avid supporter of media being cheaper or free even I have to say that these could be great thing to get stuff that we wouldn’t normally get here in America. Some of the issues that are brought up in this argument is the whole they are changing some of the writing that is in them. This has always been an issue in foreign imports and always will be. You can’t translate something word for word especially with anything being translated from mandarin it just doesn’t work perfectly. They fact that people would make a big deal over this boggles my mind. If you look back in history to the era of silent films this whole translation and censorship problem was way worse than the small issues you are talking about. I will reference on translation in particular and that is the movie Metropolis that movie in its original German form was around 150 minutes long but it was cut in half for the American audience. That is huge compared to what you guys are talking about so consider these translation great translations. Oh and on the whole is it piracy yeah it is but who really cares.

  5. Personally I’m all for scanlations. It’s true that they could cause a problem for the companies as a whole, but I don’t think that they are losing that much. Scans are nice when you want to catch up on your readings and don’t have the money for it and there are also scans that you normally wouldn’t find normally at a bookstore or a comic book shop. I read a manga called “Worst” and there are only 3 volumes of the book that made it into America. The problem with it though is that it’s just not popular enough and the later volumes probably wouldn’t be seen in the U.S anytime soon. With scans though there’s probably somebody out there like me that want to continue on the mangas and this way usually works out. From what I’ve been told though that they have to get their scans from somewhere and I’m pretty sure that someone has to buy the original book. At that point they would have to rip up the book page by page, scan it, clean it up, and then translate it. I don’t think the respective companies are losing a lot of money. Personally if I like the comic and read it online chances are I’m probably gonna go out and buy it when I have the money, but in the mean time I’m just going to read it online. Personally nothing beats owning the actual copy of the comics or mangas. It’s always nice to have the actual thing in front of you. It’s a shame that they are laying down the law and a few sites have been shut down. I normally go on www.onemanga.com, but they shut down the site. Still though there are plenty of sites that have the mangas I want to read. It’s just a shame that they want to shut down something that helps out people like us. At the same time though can you blame the companies?

  6. From a consumer and non-producer/creator's point of view, I see the free distribution of material to be a bonus, an act of kindness from various individuals. I do not believe that the person/people distributing the material should not be making money or financial gain off of the translations or sharing. I can see the need for the translations for foreign texts and if there aren't any responses to the demand for translations or if it is taking an extremely long time for the translation, that it's fine for fans to bite the bullet and translate the comics themselves. In one sense they are getting a creator's work out there in other countries and promoting their work which can lead to profit for the author or artist. Music, movies, and shows are also examples of copyrighted material that are downloaded, then uploaded to various sites and sharing engines for public distribution. In the case of scanning and translating manga, a major drawback is of the translator’s credibility in the case of his or her knowledge of the language and slang. They may be translating the material incorrectly or adding their own tweaks which can change a narrative even if just slightly. They are in effect sharing work that while they have contributed to in terms of translating, are only claiming they have translated but not added or detracted from the narrative which is not always true.

  7. I do agree that scanning manga and translating them into other languages for people without access builds a sub-culture. The legal ramifications of translating this manga and distributing it for free online are of little concern to me. Why pay for something when it is three clicks away? With music, it is really easy now to download CD’s for free. I don’t necessarily think downloading CD’s for free is all that bad. The artist receives only a tiny percentage of the cost of each CD. As long as people pay to go see the artist when in concert, in which they receive a much larger percentage, I am ok with it. If you can play any song for free on YouTube, why is it all that different to have a recording of it?
    The idea of developing a sub-culture as a spin off of a sub-culture is an interesting one. While fan fiction and commenting on television programs are certainly fine examples, I think that fantasy football is just as big. Football has been around for almost one hundred years and in that time, little has changed. Since the early nineties, the concept game of rotisserie football has been played. Each team owner takes a player in the NFL and adds them to their rosters and gets points based on what they do on the field in a given week. Fantasy football is like scanlators in that fans have taken a product and tweaked it in a way to make there own. People who are unable to read Japanese are able to read manga because it has been translated. People who have no idea about players on other teams in the NFL are able to learn them through fantasy football. It is easy to see the idea of sub-cultures spawning off of other sub-cultures in practice.

  8. The only concern I would have with this sort of translation and rearrangement of manga is that the people doing these unofficial scanlations would misinterpret or mistranslate a piece of the work. While this doesn’t seem like a huge deal, it can severely change the meaning of a work if the scanlator doesn’t appropriately translate or arrange a comic in the correct way. This can harm the author’s reputation as well as his vision for what the comic should be like. It can completely ruin his message as well as completely ignore some of the subtle aspects of the writing in the comic book, such as puns and other plays on words. Further, in rearranging the word balloons to accommodate the English language, it can ruin a manga’s page layout and any message the author might have been trying to send with the placement of his word balloons. These aspects, while not immediately obvious, are important in that they are all part of a comic’s or manga’s message. The entire page is important when looking at comics, whether it is the arrangement of the word balloons or the actual writing inside of them. When non professional personnel translate and arrange manga, it can lose meaning that was originally there.


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