Manga is illegal


When western fans are interested in a new manga, one question often arises: buy, or do you prefer to read scanlations? The manga, "Scanlations", which are unofficially translated by fans, are an attractive alternative to traditional book purchases. They are very easy to find online, free and readily available. There is only one problem: they are illegal. In this article, Janne Flintz and Nina Witzke deal with fan translations and present different approaches to create a legal space for online manga.

Technically, scanlations are in the same gray area as films and series that are uploaded to YouTube or similar sites for free use. And while uploading can have legal ramifications, consuming it creates more of an ethical dilemma. The draftsman (Mangaka) does not earn anything from it.
But scanlations are much more than just the illegal re-uploading of existing material. Unlike films that are recorded in the cinema or ripped from DVDs or BluRays, there is real work behind Scanlations because the fans do all the work that the official Manga translators have to do.

If you look at a credit page from Scanlations, you will immediately notice the following things. There is not just one person behind it, but a whole group. There are cleaners that "clean" the scanned manga pages, i.e. edit out disturbing spots and adjust the contrast, and redrawers that take care of retouching or redraw damaged elements. A translator does the same work that would be done with a commercial translation, and finally the whole thing is edited and put together by typesetters and then checked again for quality at the end.
There is a lot of work behind Scanlation - work that is not remunerated and done as a hobby or a love of manga. Many Scanlation groups accept donations to support their websites and work, but to call it a profitable business would be wrong.
Scanlation groups are also well aware of the legal problems of their work. They keep pointing out that their readers should buy the official manga as soon as they appear in order to support the author. Some groups such as sense-scans or maigo only ever offer the latest chapters on their website and delete them as soon as the chapters have appeared in a legally available volume.

Although scanlations are laborious work that does not pay off and carries the risk of legal consequences, the scene has been around for two decades, because it fills an important gap in the lives of fans that is often not covered by traditional manga publishers.
Unlike anime, which nowadays appear more and more simultaneously all over the world and have replaced subtitles by fans (fan subs), which were especially popular in the 2000s, the whole thing is a bit more complicated with manga. Manga still appear first chapter by chapter in Japanese magazines such as Shônen Jump, which are not distributed internationally. Only when a certain number of chapters have appeared are they summarized in a volume, the so-called tankôbon. In the Japanese market, of course. Licensing, translating and ultimately selling abroad can take months, if not years.

This leads to the problems that have created a felt need for scanlations in the western fan scene:

Not a legal alternative. Many manga are simply not legally available for purchase abroad. This is especially true if they are very old, deemed too obscure, or are side stories / short stories that traditional publishers ignore because they can't be sure that an investment in them will pay off. Fans who are interested in such works, either because they know of an author's recent series or have heard of them in some other way, have no legal option to purchase such manga. The Japanese version is only available in Japan, and even if you can get hold of it at a local Japanese bookstore, the language is too big a barrier.
In these cases, scanlations are felt to be indispensable for the fans, especially because groups often deal with special genres, such as LGBT + or very old or obscure manga, because the group members themselves are fans of these topics. Thus, scanlations fill a niche in the market that publishers either overlook or see as too risky or not lucrative enough.

Belated legal option. In the age of the internet and global fan communities, news travels instantly. When a new manga chapter appears, everyone immediately starts talking about the content, especially if something shocking has happened, like a plot twist, the death of an important character or a long-awaited kiss between the protagonists. If you don't read the new chapter fast enough, you will find out what happened as a spoiler. Because it takes so long for chapters to be combined in a volume and published abroad and scanlations often come out within days of the publication of a chapter, it is simply not worth waiting for fans if they want to take part in discussions in the fan scene. Even with very popular manga like Haikyuu !! there is usually a little over a year between the appearance of a volume in Japan and its publication in Germany.
Scanlations ensure that everyone in online fan communities can keep up and be part of the conversation.

Costs. Money is one of the main reasons fans turn to scanlations. A German manga ribbon can cost between 8-15 € and if you want to get a complete series, then you can get very large sums very quickly. Big titles like Naruto cost € 400 for three box sets. Even with a series of moderate length like Soul Eater, which has 25 volumes, you get 150-200 €. Since many Manga enthusiasts are kids or teenagers (or at least start passionate around that age), such expenses are next to impossible to manage. In addition, Scanlations allow readers to get an overview of the content, so that you can be sure in advance that you actually like a manga, instead of buying volumes that are then gathering dust on the shelf.
Most manga fans want to support their favorite authors and even if they use scanlations first, they often buy the licensed volumes afterwards over a long period of time and gradually build up their own manga library. The whole thing just costs time and money, which is difficult to reconcile with the rapid exchange of information in fan communities.

Availability. Just as eBooks are replacing traditional books for many readers, there is also a preference for the digital medium among Mang readers. Scanlations can be found via a quick online search and read immediately anywhere. It's a lot easier than carrying around a manga ribbon. In addition, manga can be read faster than pure text-based books, so you can quickly reach the end of a volume that you have packed for a long train journey.
The problem does not exist with scanlations. You have every manga available in its entirety on your smartphone or tablet, even those that you want to take a quick look at out of nostalgia or show friends. With traditional hardback issues, such things are much more cumbersome or even impossible.

Personal preference. Some readers find scanlations better than the official translations. This is particularly often the case when a manga has only existed as a scanlation for a long time and the readers have gotten used to the terminology — when an official volume appears, it may translate the names of organizations and the like differently. Some manga differ even in the title. Which die-hard fans then find annoying. The same applies to various translation decisions, where there are often many approaches from Japanese, especially in the way characters are addressed. If the Japanese –san or –sensei is left, or for example in Mr./Mrs. translated? It also happens that the first name is used instead of the last name in the translation, which is e.g. with Haikyuu !! the case is. This is then perceived by fans as annoying enough that they prefer to use scanlations.
Translating is not a job for which there is a perfect, right solution, neither in the commercial area nor in hobby translations. Because of the different approaches, official manga and scanlation are very different, and for some of the readership, scanlations are more personal as translations "by fans for fans" and are therefore preferred.

Whatever the main reason for fans to reach for scanlations, the fact is that there is a demand. However, it is also a fact that it is not always compatible with conscience - especially when not only the scanlation groups urge their readers to support official manga, but also ask some mangaka themselves not to distribute their works through scanlations. Mangaka in particular that are published in Shônen Jump have repeatedly appealed to international fans to wait for the licensed versions and not to redistribute their manga illegally.

But what can be done? What remedy can be found when scanlations are in such high demand and fill a clear niche in the market? In the last few years in particular, possible solutions have come onto the market: legal alternatives to scanlations.

Digital manga. This option is offered by publishers such as Yen Press, among others, which make it possible to purchase newly published chapters directly. A chapter costs just under € 2, which is a bargain for manga that appear monthly and could still be covered with a teenager's pocket money even with weekly manga. However, there is a disadvantage for those fans who would rather put the band on the shelf - they would have to pay twice: first the chapter, then later the band again. But the same problem arises when you usually just read scanlations. The fans who like to own the volumes have always invested the extra money and this alternative allows them to invest a little more in the direction of the mangaka.

"Netflix for Manga". Sites like Comixology not only offer manga chapters for digital purchase, but also a monthly subscription service that allows you to read manga from the existing catalog for free, as is the case with series on Netflix. At $ 5.99 a month, it's even cheaper. Crunchyroll now offers a similar service, with a premium account for € 5 per month access to both the manga and the anime offer. Just like scanlations, these libraries are available anytime, anywhere - just legally.

MANGA Plus. The publisher behind Shônen Jump and other popular manga, Shueisha, has created a site that is very close to Scanlations. As in the previous examples, it is a digital manga library, only in this case it is free. The catch is that MANGA Plus only provides the first few chapters of a series and the newest three chapters. This allows new fans to gain an insight into series and allows long-term readers to follow the latest events. With one click you can easily get to the shop, where you can order the actual volumes - which the reader is automatically encouraged to do, since MANGA Plus only ever contains a handful of chapters.

These new options are only available in English so far, but have already resulted in some sites, such as MangaRock, deleting all their scanlations and now offering an index that refers to a legal reading option for each manga. The market and the need are slowly starting to change.

Some fans hate scanlations, others love them - the fact is, almost everyone uses them. Scanlations offer many advantages and have filled a gaping niche in the market for a good twenty years. But manga has long ceased to be an obscure hobby; many titles are published worldwide, albeit with some delays. This will probably not change for the time being, after all, the publication route from chapters in magazines to volumes is firmly established in Japan and licensing and translation abroad takes time. Digital Manga can help and allows fans to enjoy many of the benefits of Scanlations, just legally and in some ways they have already changed the existence of Scanlation. After all, fans as well as scanlation groups want to support the authors of the works that they read and translate with such passion - despite all barriers.

Janne Flintz and Nina Witzke