Ethics in Manga Fandom: I Was a Teenage Scanlator

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Gravitation, グラビテーション, Gurabitēshon, yaoi manga, Maki Murakami, Gentosha, Madman, TokyopopIt all began in ninth grade with Gravitation. While I was worrying over my sexuality and identity as a young woman, I found how easy and sexy it was to escape into the pages of yaoi manga. A good friend of mine had a lot of it on her shelves and I scheduled back-to-back sleepovers at her house so that we could read and giggle over them together. Beautiful, feminine young men falling in love was almost as good as beautiful, masculine young women falling in love to my mind, and I could not get enough.

Then it ran out. There were no more slightly lewd scenes to blush about in her home. We made our way to Barnes & Noble, but there is only so much hiding and reading in the aisles a teenager can do before being kicked out of that esteemed house of capitalism. Manga is incredibly expensive, especially to teenagers who don’t receive allowances. My local library had nothing to offer me, and neither did the city library that supplied books to my smaller town. I was jonesing for my fix and asked everyone I knew if they had a geeky sibling/friend/dealer that could hook me up. No luck.

I took to the internet with my woes. Surely 4chan, highly cultured information source that it is, could help me out. It was there, between the massive amounts of porn, trolling, misogyny, and cat videos, that I learned about scanlation. According to Wikipedia, “Scanlation (also scanslation) is the scanning, translation, and editing of comics from a language into another language. Scanlation is done as an amateur work and is nearly always done without express permission from the copyright holder. The word scanlation is a combination of the two words scan and translation. The term is mainly used for Japanese comics (manga), although it also exists for other national traditions on a lesser scale. Scanlations may be viewed at websites or as sets of image files downloaded via the Internet.”

There were dozens of these sites. All I had to do was type “yaoi” into my Google bar and any number of almost-illicit stories were readily available to me. It was heaven, for the first few days.

Antique Bakery, 西洋 骨董 洋菓子店, Seiyō Kottō Yōgashiten, yaoi manga, Shinshokan, Digital Manga Publishing, scanlated page

Antique Bakery scanlated page — now available from DMP

Then I began to be bogged down by the terrible translation on many of the websites. These were not established publishing houses, like the ones that had given me Gravitation and Antique Bakery, these were just people sitting at home doing this because they loved manga and wanted others to have access to it.

I emailed in my application to several different scanlation sites, with a cover letter that mentioned: “I’ve never done any professional editing, but I find the grammar in most of your scans so atrocious that something must be done.” Wonder upon wonders that I didn’t hear back from most of them. (Luckily I’ve learned to be less of a jerk since high school.) One site did contact me though. They made it clear that scanlation was a volunteer process, that I would not be paid, and that I would need to pick an alias, which would be credited for the editing. A lot of scanlators pick references to manga, something out of Japanese culture, or something out of comics. I, being the most pretentious teenager of all time, decided I’d be “Lenore.”

For the next three months I would receive emails with zip files from the website full of translated dialogue. Without looking at the illustrations, or having almost any idea about what was going on in the scene, I would clean up the misspellings, unwieldy grammar, and general awkwardness. Every scanlation site does things differently, and the technology used for scans has become cheaper and more accessible since I did this work. At the time it was explained to me that it was just faster if I made each sentence make sense on its own instead of “wasting a lot of time” reading each page closely. Many sites now give their editors access to the image files as well as the text. I sometimes wonder if they were afraid I’d make off with the scans and start my own site. A month or two into volunteer editing I learned that there were other sites that shared the images, but I was too loyal to leave the site that had given me so much power. Then the site closed.

There are a lot of people who do not think scanlating is ethical. After all, it is very similar to pirating books and comics. After one person gets ahold of the work, they share it with the rest of the world for free. The store, artist, publisher is only getting the single sale, not profiting from the hundreds or thousands of people who are actually reading it. However, most of what you can find on scanlation sites has never been translated into English before. By “stealing” this work (a lot of Scanners actually buy the original copy from Japanese sites), translating it (for free), and hopefully finding someone to edit it (for free), the work is reaching a huge audience it wouldn’t have otherwise. Unfortunately, not all Scan sites have hearts of gold and some are also pirating in manga that can easily be found in English on Amazon, or alternative bookstores. Basically, there are sites doing the “good work” of sharing obscure manga you cannot purchase in English, and those that are sharing manga like Nana that could easily be purchased at many chain bookstores. Such was the case with my site, and they were forced to shut down when they refused to delete some of their uploads. (This, of course, is what I was told by my editor at the time in a mass email to all of the Scanlators. His name was “AngelPrice” and we spoke rarely.)

So Bad! Manga by Aihara Miki, example of scanlation ethics, hosted on mangahere ethics in manga

An example of scanlation release ethical guidelines, on a scanlation website

A 2010 Publisher’s Weekly article by Kai-Ming Cha outlines the debate over the ethics of scanlating. “Vertical Inc., a small U.S. publisher responsible for bringing manga’s founding father, Osamu Tezuka, to the U.S., is adamant about piracy. “It’s obvious to us,” said Vertical marketing director Ed Chavez. “We’ve noticed that when [Tezuka’s] Black Jack was on the aggregator site, our numbers have taken a bit of a dip.” Conversely, Chavez said, when the [scanlation]aggregator has removed the books (after numerous requests from the publisher) “the numbers go back up.” Indeed, Yen Press publishing director Kurt Hassler is also convinced that scanlation aggregators are hurting his book sales and also noted that sales of Yen Press titles found on scanlation sites go back up when they can get them removed from these sites. “It’s quite a coincidence,” Hassler said.”

Manga publishers also often have to crack down on fanfiction, called doujinshi, which uses copyrighted manga characters and stories to turn a profit without getting permission from the original creators. (I mean, imagine someone writing a fanfiction about Twilight and then that getting published as its own series of books, and then turned into movies, all the while never paying Stephanie Meyer- wait a minute…) There are scanlation sites that specialize in just doujinshi and these are often under attack for piracy as well.

After the site was shut down I just never got back into scans. It had been great experience for learning how to edit enormous amounts of text in-between classes, or at night when I should have been studying. It led me to feel a lot more confident about my ability as an editor and I was appointed as the school newspaper’s Editor-in-Chief the following year. Which, arguably, eventually led me to WWAC. For those individuals who are interested in manga and editing, Scanlation sites are often looking for editors, or individuals with minor Photoshop skills for the photo editing aspect.

For me my love of Yaoi died away long ago, but I have been known to pick up Gravitation from time to time.

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Editor of Games Section. Expert on chronic/terminal illness. Collector of Illness Comics. Chicagoan. Jewish. Gay.

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