Home Manga and Light Novel Industry Needs to Embrace Fan Translation — Not Fight It

Manga and Light Novel Industry Needs to Embrace Fan Translation — Not Fight It

Anyone who has followed a manga or light novel series knows the pain of waiting for official translations. This sometimes involves fans waiting weeks or even years for more installments of their favorite stories to get translated. In these cases, as well as cases where the official Japanese version comes out well in advance of translations to English and other languages, many find themselves turning to translations done by fans, sometimes returning to read the official translation when it comes out and sometimes sticking with the usually faster release schedule from fan translation.

Right now there is a clear divide between official and unofficial channels, one even further solidified by matters of legality and copyright law. Keep in mind that here I don’t want to talk about leaks (releases of the original work before it’s officially available); they present a separate issue. This is purely about translations and their speed and quality, along with the legality issues. These things make the divide seem insurmountable. I think there’s room to integrate the two, however, and create some great opportunities both for fans and the publishers who currently protect their profits and safeguard intellectual property.

The Pros and Cons to Readers and Publishers

From the perspective of the reader, fan translations have a lot of benefits with few notable trade offs. While the most popular manga series out there frequently get Japanese and English releases simultaneously, a lot of the non top sellers, and the majority of light novels, do not. And even top-selling series getting simulpubs is a relatively new phenomenon. Now, there are incredible services like MANGA Plus by SHUEISHA which publish multiple translations of manga immediately. Before those, fan translations allowed people to read weeks in advance. Not only did this keep many series alive, but it’s likely one of the primary reasons many series enjoyed such a committed non-Japanese fanbase to begin with. Fans then and now get the benefit of expediency and only sacrifice some image quality and ease of access; oftentimes fan translations come as captions to images of the raw Japanese or crudely pasted blocks of text on a page rather than a smooth reading interface. For many series, fans also gain access to a lesser-talked-about advantage to fan translations: getting a translation from Japanese (usually to English) from a translator who actively participates in the community, often justifying and explaining their translations with detailed notes and responding to inquiries from those who challenge those translations.

Rather than taking place within the confines of a publishing company away from readers, fans can gain a lot more trust in a translator who feels more like a fan. And, because fan translators as an aggregate offer multiple translations of the same works (those who debate vs battles will debate about which translation is valid before even starting to debate which of two characters would win in a fight) they tend to be more amenable to alternative translations, improving the overall experience by socializing the translation process. They not only do this amongst themselves but also for the official release. To use Jujutsu Kaisen as an example, the iconic “Nah, I’d win” callback panel only came to the official Viz manga translation because of the work and credibility of a translator named Lightning, who has worked on both official and unofficial translations. Mushoku Tensei and Classroom of the Elite underwent intense localization changes in official translations of their novels, leading to fans more aggressively pushing the unofficial translation so much so that the official versions from Seven Seas Entertainment were re-evaluated and re-issued respectively.

© Gege Akutami/Shueisha/JUJUTSU KAISEN Project

Nowadays, translation and localization are not only becoming a more corporate process but sometimes a markedly less human one as well. AI is a powerful tool for quick translation, faster than a human, and can make use of actual human translation to improve upon itself and pump out hundreds of languages for a story in quick succession. Even more, AI presents itself as even cheaper than the often shockingly low wages translators can earn. When it’s not AI, translation still occurs outside of the watchful eye of a reader, meaning they are asked to put their faith into something they can’t see. And since the official translation process isn’t socialized as much, it’s easy to instead instinctively trust the process you can see unfold over a series of tweets or Reddit posts. This isn’t to say that official translations are inherently worse though. Official translations through official licensors and publishers come with well-put-together apps and sites on which to read. They also come with the cooperation of the author, who is obviously the ultimate source of credibility for the work and can comment on the localization process. Some of the very people who are lauded as fan translators even go on to work as official translators. And having a tight network of people with professional experience is good, especially since it allows fans who would otherwise work for nearly nothing to enter those networks and be compensated for their work.

Publishers are faced with the prospect of losing valuable revenue to fan translation services and go after piracy when they can. Most upsides to a fan reading an unofficial translation are downsides to whoever offers the official one, at least from a profit perspective. But, as we see with a variety of popular manga and light novels, unofficial translations often come faster than the official ones. So how should the industry respond?

Having Your Cake and Eating It

Why not have both? I think it’s entirely possible for the industry to make use of fan translation rather than fight it. The two principal advantages unofficial translations tend to have are translating sooner than an official channel (if an official channel ever comes at all) and having a translation process that more intense fans can engage with directly. For official channels, there’s no profit incentive to translate unpopular things and they can’t sell a product while making the quality sacrifices that some random website can. The model for how they might integrate fan translation could be a monetized service similar to Genius for music or Community Notes for Twitter. Both of these have systems that make use of user feedback to give more baked-in credibility to people who are consistently rated well. Valuable, strong translations would be recognized by fans. In turn, those valuable, strong translators could be paid for producing semi-official translations ahead of official releases, hired to work on the official release, and altogether serve as a sort of bridge between publishers and readers. Retaining this valuable part of this industry is important too; official translators and paid unofficial translators should be compensated fairly.

While the idea sounds far-fetched, platforms like WEBTOON already make use of a form it. To me, a process like this brings a piece of the translation process normally reserved for the unofficial sphere into the official sphere. If the industry pays closer attention to fan translation ahead of the official release, they can improve upon it and take the community’s perspective into account. Given they have a closer connection to authors and therefore authorial intent, they can directly note where they depart from the other translations. Socializing more of the process builds more trust in the official translation, and blending the official and unofficial opens both sides up to money they otherwise wouldn’t get at all. Not every author is going to be open to a service like this, but that’s okay. For one, the most popular series out there are starting to get English released at the same time as the official Japanese, at least as far as manga is concerned. Secondly, I’m sure that many authors will appreciate their work being translated when it otherwise wouldn’t’ve been or being translated into lesser spoken languages so even more people can enjoy it.

© Yamada Kanehito, Abe Tsukasa /Shogakukan / “Sousou no Frieren” Production Committee

Realistically, unless translation from official channels gets much faster with no trade offs in translation quality (both the text and, in the case of manga, images, and lettering), fan translations are here to stay. And no crusade against piracy or enforcement of copyright is going to fully push it down. For what it’s worth, AI probably won’t either anytime soon; people still have a lot of distrust for anything AI-generated, no matter how good the underlying model is. Ideally, we wouldn’t live in a world where money and profit determined what got translated and what didn’t. But unless capitalism collapses tomorrow, that’s unlikely to change in the short term. While cash remains king, collaboration with fan translators provides the industry with a way to integrate what currently only exists illegally and (hopefully) fan translators with a way to get compensated and recognized in official ways.

Featured image: © Hiromu Arakawa/SQUARE ENIX

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