Piracy Wars: Scanlating Licensed Series

Piracy Wars: Scanlating Licensed Series

It has been a while since I did an episode of my Piracy Wars series. However, I felt prompted to do so after an editor of a small, licensor complained about scanlations, aggregator websites, and their communities. I’m not naming the editor as that’s not the point. I have friendly relations with said editor and I don’t want this seen as an attack on them. This is me pontificating, as I’m want to do. 😉

NOTE: I am in no way endorsing scanlations, pirate aggregator websites, or the like. I personally believe that if there’s a manga (or anime) that you really like, you should support said title. And in my case, I hate how Fly Me to the Moon is being adapted by Viz, so I’m buying the Japanese tankoubon releases rather than the trash Viz ones, thus supporting Hata-sensei and punishing Viz.

So, onto the question — “what’s the point of scanlating already licensed series?”

Fruits Basket (2019) 15

Better Than the Official Adaptation

When it comes to scanlating a licensed manga series, there are a number of reasons people might feel compelled to do so. The main one from what I’ve seen is that the scanlators are unhappy with the official adaptation and doing what they believe is a better job. While the knee-jerk reaction might be, “Well, official localization has to be better than something fans do”, that’s often not true.

Many manga companies are no longer as averse to the use of Japanese honorifics as they were years ago. However, some still are for “not at all racist” reasons and that riles some folks. As such, the licensed title gets scanlated to include honorific usage. Whether that makes things better is subjective. But the scanlators feel it does make it better.

However, a more substantial issue is official adaptations rewriting things and changing things in the name of localization. Sometimes the adapter (which may or may not be the translator) takes it upon themselves to insert some political message not in the source text. Or they may rewrite a Japanese joke for some terrible, topical joke that will make no sense in a few years. Beyond this, an adapter might decide that what the Japanese wrote is “problematic” and so needs to be changed. That triggers folks and thus a scanlation effort begins.

Sadly, official adaptations have more errors than one would think. Even the best translator/adapters can make mistakes. However, when English publishers ignore reported problems and continue to make the same mistakes, scanlators may decide, “enough is enough” and start releasing.

Haiyore! Nyaruko-san Episode 04

Keeping Current with Japan

In modern times, there’s more of an effort to digitally release a licensed manga chapter on the same day as the Japanese release. However, there are many licensed manga series that only get an English release when the manga volume is released. Depending on the series, it could be months behind Japan. Naturally, many fans would want to know what is going on right now. Thus scanlators are happy to provide in some cases.

I know the glib response to this would be, “Well, you should just wait for the official release!” Yeah, antagonizing your customer base by telling them to wait will make them happy. I’ve no doubt that many folks who read scanlations to keep current with Japan also buy the officially licensed releases (unless said product is really bad). And it is only natural that for some series where there’s an ongoing story, fans would want to keep up with what’s going down in Japan.

When one is forced to wait for months, enthusiasm wanes. “Out of sight, out of mind” as the saying goes. And there are tons of other things battling for one’s attention. In my mind, keeping the fires of interest burning is very important. American streaming series have the luxury of constant marketing to keep the fires burning. For manga, unless there’s a simultaneous release of an English manga chapter with the Japanese manga chapter, there’s nothing to keep the fires burning. 😅

Lack of Funds

While I may be an old fart who enjoys manga, the target demographic for said works are usually young teens to early 20s. These are the folks the least likely to have any spare funds to buy manga. However, they are the ones most keen to read manga. And a lot of scanlators are usually in their late teens to early 20s. They do this stuff for free in their spare time while at college. Thus out of a motivation to spread the wealth, these folks may be more than willing to scanlate a title for the masses.

I know folks will say, “Well, if you can’t afford it, you shouldn’t be able to read it! Pay or else!” The irony here is that in my experience, most of the folks who’d say this are perfectly happy to demand free ‘X’ or free ‘Y’ for whatever reason. But in this case when the “free stuff for all” comes to manga, well, that’s a different tune. However, kids who hear someone tell them, “You should have X and Y for free. Screw the rich!” are not going to be open to the suggestion that there are exceptions to this rule.


Finally, the last reason scanlators might pick up a licensed title is to be a rebel. This is tied in closely with the previous entry. There used to be “I hate you!” scanlation groups who’d put out stuff just to give two middle fingers to the man. Today, I don’t sense that too much. Things are more, “Well, not everyone can afford to buy all this manga, so we are going to spread the wealth.”

Speaking of “I Hate You”…😁



Why Aggregation?

As I mentioned, the editor complaining about scanlations of licensed titles also voiced anger at aggregator websites. In my mind, I’m thinking, “Do you not understand the appeal of a website were ALL manga is available in a single location?” On the digital front, every manga publisher wants you to go to their website to read the manga they publish. But that’s not what customers want.

Right now, video streaming services are about to collapse. When it was just Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime, things were fine. Sure, everything wasn’t in a single location. However, if you had Prime for the shipping stuff, you also got them for streaming. So then you’d do Netflix or Hulu (or rotate between both). But now, everyone and their brother has a streaming service, demanding payment. The customer base doesn’t want that. Thus we’ll see more and more streaming services folded into something else. And I suspect that in the end, there will be two or three services left.

If a legitimate aggregator website came about with a wide range of plans to obtain digital manga from various publisher at one location, I’ve no doubt that said website would become massively popular and make tons of money for everyone. Unfortunately, this will never happen as publishers all want their exclusivity, consequences be damned.

Final Thoughts

To reiterate what I said earlier, I’m all for supporting good manga products from English licensors. That’s why I have bookcases full of manga books, and I even own some stuff digitally as well. I understand official licensors getting frustrated with scanlators. But as someone who sees both sides of the argument, I know the issue isn’t simply a matter of, “We licensed it, now you’ll buy what we produce and like it!” And to be honest, scanlators will never go away. As such, publishers should put out the best product they can and understand their customer base.

That’s my two cents. What’s yours?

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4 Responses to “Piracy Wars: Scanlating Licensed Series”

  1. anon says:

    I’ll never support official translation if they are just bad and directed to normies and xenophobes. Like literally all Viz, Denpa and Vertical releases. I hate americanized translations.

    That’s the same reason why I’ll never buy any Polish release. Redrawn sounds and other parts of drawings, altered names, swapped name order, replaced and removed honorifics, switched cultural references, censorship etc. No. Fuck this. They will never see my money for something like this. Especially that most fans are doing way better translations for free. I’d rather import things from Japan than pay to brainlets like this.

  2. Gamen says:

    To me translation is problematic no matter how you slice it. Do you localize, smoothing out cultural differences that are unnecessary to give the mainstream reader the tone the author intended? Or do you make a literal translation, leaving all the cultural references and baggage in, leaving foreign words and even parts of speech untranslated, doing only half the job of translation?

    If it’s an official, paid translation, you have to do the whole job. You don’t leave it half-unfinished and make readers that are paying for the whole job finish it on their own. Who would buy that? Not enough to pay for it. So you need to localize it so the general public can read it, and continue buying the series, and other series, so you can keep putting food on the table. Otherwise you’re stuck with a small audience of fans well-versed in Japanese culture and some of the language who don’t have to work to understand the literal translation.

    But on the other hand, readers are in theory paying for a translation that is true to the author’s words, not some fanfiction. At least that’s how it’s implicitly advertised. And that requires choices. Assumptions, really. Does the author care about this specific obscure/popular/familiar cultural reference, or do they only care that it is obscure/popular/familiar to the reader? Is this instance of casual bigotry supposed to be upsetting to the native reader, or was the native reader supposed to be blind to it? Will it be relevant in a future installment that only exists in the author’s head? Will it slow down the story to insert an explanation of this tradition, or do we replace it with a Western one, even though the character is Japanese and the story takes place in Japan?

    Reportedly, most manga and light novel translators have no direct contact with the original author. Any communication goes through several layers of management. A translator has no special insight; they’re just another reader with (hopefully) more experience in the original language and culture. All they’re doing is retelling the story they read in their own words. It’s completely contingent on their understanding of the story. They are at best just another fan. At best. So it’s the height of arrogance to then claim that the words they wrote are the author’s. It’s misrepresentation.

    And then there’s the scanlators. They’re no better. They’re often making the same claim, claiming that they’re the ones translating the author’s words faithfully. And so often they don’t know shit, even trying to pass off MTL garbage with a little editing to smooth out the nonsense as a real translation. Or they’re translating from the Chinese, adding another person to the game of telephone. The whole reason I went back and learned Japanese for real the second time was because of those frauds screwing up the series I was following (when they bothered to keep up with the raws). And that was before they started taking donations or even opening Patreons.

    Sure, there’s good scanlators out there too. But how do you tell? Learn Japanese and compare with the raws? What was the point then?

    So yeah, I don’t read manga in English that often anymore. I do still buy some; some series that I started in English and continue with it – after all it’s not like I was reading the “real” story to begin with – and then some published by JNC, who are probably the best of the bunch even if they’re not perfect. Mostly I buy my manga in Japanese, and read them on Niconico or Comic-Walker or one of the publishers’ own sites.

    And despite all of that, I still buy more light novels in English than Japanese. In the end I can’t read Japanese nearly as fast as I can read English, and that really hurts with light novels. I still pirate indiscriminately, so while I don’t have time to read what I pirate anymore, if I get suspicious of a light novel I can usually find the Japanese version and cross-check the passage. Which is not as much a waste of time as it would be with a manga. And of course a lot of light novels are more or less the same as what was published on syosetu so they can often be checked against the web novel as well without even having to look for a pirate copy.

    Point is, translation is inherently going to sabotage the author’s mainstream appeal, or misrepresent their culture, or misrepresent their story. It can even do them all.

    So while I do tend to get a little bent out of shape over scamlators (yes, SCAMlators) or overlocalization and whitewashing on occasion, most of the time I try to then step back and remind myself that “it’s a translation, it couldn’t be authentic if it tried” and “it’s just cheap pop culture, the translator wasn’t paid enough to try anyway”. ..and a few more things about how the anime industry doesn’t care about making anything more than cheap 12 episode advertisements. At most the only people who care are the author and his or her fans. Everyone else is in it for the money.

    (oh good, that’s only 2/3 as many words as your own post… even if it’s only relevant to the “Better Than the Official Adaptation” section)

    • AstroNerdBoy says:

      First, thanks for writing. I enjoy reading the thoughts of others.

      My philosophy when it comes to translations is accurate but readable. I know from my own Japanese classes back in the day that a room full of folks can translate a passage in Japanese and not say the identical same thing in English. And when I adapted the “True Tenchi Muyo!” novels, my only goal (after following Seven Seas’ grammar rule fixes) was to make sure things were accurate but readable.

      So yes, a literal translation of “Urusei” doesn’t work in English, but adapting it to say “shut up” and adopt the intention of the word in English does. I’ve never had a beef with that. What I do have a beef with is what I depicted in my review of Kodansha’s re-release of Negima! I show the scanlation, the original (crappy) Del Rey release, and then the correctly, retranslated Kodansha release. The scanlation and Kodansha versions are not identical, but they are the same (if that makes sense).


      I stopped buying Viz’s release of Hayate the Combat Butler because they eventually switched to a translator/adapter that just made up crap that wasn’t in the source Japanese. And this translator/adapter continues this crap (and worse) with other releases. I’ve no doubt that in this person’s mind, if the manga story needed to convey a threat, then as long as their rewrite contained a threat, what did it matter? And yeah, most folks aren’t going to know what the real threat was. At best, folks may scratch their head and think, “This threat doesn’t seem to match the character.”

      I reject this notion. While there will always be things lost in translation, it is an insult to the Japanese author to change what he wrote into something different. It should be as close as possible.

      Now, when it comes to Japanese terminology, things should be left untranslated if there’s not a correct English term. Usually, these are nouns. For example, for decades on end, the term “tidal wave” was used in place of “tsunami” as there was a notion that we can’t introduce some Japanese term into English (even though we do all the time). Scientist have long complained about this as a tidal wave is not the same as a tsunami. Thus today, we use the term tsunami (for the most part).

      Finally, there’s this when it comes to translation/adaptations.


      Anyway, I’ve got to get some sleep. But thanks again for writing!

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