Translated Japanese works and their success

Over on ANN there is an article about how major publishers, both in the US and Japan, are, from the article “forming a coalition to combat the “rampant and growing problem” of scanlations — illicit digital copies of manga either translated by fans or scanned directly from legitimate English releases.”

They are going to protect their IP, just like many other companies, software, books, etc, are trying to protect them from piracy. I don’t view traditional scanlation the same as software or book piracy, though an argument could be made. I also say traditional scanlation, but by that I mean “fan translated”, and not the English scans.

A little history is in order. The Anime and Manga industry in Japan is huge. I’m also going to throw in Light Novels. Those are all things I’m incredibly familiar with. Yes, I’ve read more scanlations, seen more fan-translated anime, and read more fan-translated Light Novels (and other non-officially translated works) than anything else. I’ve seen less American TV than Japanese TV. I understand a decent amount of Japanese from these fan translations.

I’m part of a group of people in America who like these foreign works. There are a sizable number of them as well. But it’s a small, small number compared to the rest of the population. And it’s only in a certain demographic. It’s overwhelmingly under-35 male. Its very niche, though the efforts of Cartoon Network (before, not so much now), and Crunchyroll (I say that just to say it, because I don’t care about CR, even though I have an account), have tried to expand the market.

It’s not very elastic. Its been a niche in America for a long time. And it will keep being a niche in America, for a long time, for several reasons. Reasons that have nothing to do with its success in Japan, reasons that have nothing to do with the large fan followings that are so enamored they will freely translate works.

It costs a lot to translate works that only have a niche appeal. I was surprised to read that above article, not because there is anything wrong with them going after the websites (though I hope they only go after the websites, and not the scanlators who are doing the publishing companies job for them, cheaper than them, and frankly, in better quality than them), but because just a couple weeks ago I saw an article about a manga translator shutting down. Not enough interest, not enough profit in translating everything. I’ve searched for that article and cannot find it.

There was a company that licensed a bunch of light novels (Zero no Tsukaima, specifically), and was going to bring them stateside. That never went anywhere. That was a year ago? Two? Cannot even recall their name! Meanwhile, there is an active site doing translation, that abides by US publisher’s requests to quit their work when a novel is released in the US.

They aren’t competing, they are just releasing works that have no equivalent at their own expense in hopes of bringing these works to a bigger audience. An engaged, active, and quirky audience.

Yes, this is a niche. Yes, marketing to niche’s is a great way to make profit. But you have to abide by the niche’s rules in order to get their money.

I’ve read sanctioned, US approved, legal works. I’ve seen official translations, heard official dubs, and read professional translations.

They have all fallen short in content, story, localization, and price, for my niche. I won’t watch an anime on Cartoon Network – edited and dubbed. I wouldn’t read an official manga – different publishers have decided to either change the way you read it (fortunately most don’t – I’m used to reading right to left), edit it (though not anymore, it has gotten better), or localize it – except del-ray. When thinking about this, I came across a good forum post here.

They are right, the Del-Ray stuff is good. They don’t translate sound effects, and leave in original japanese with translations in the back pages – good job! They also seem to localize less. Localization is a bane on the anime industry. It’s unfortunate, because the only way to actually dub something in English is to localize it. Several Japanese jokes make zero sense when faithfully translated. Except, I prefer it that way. I’m part of the niche, which means I already know what the jokes mean for the most part. I don’t mind if there is some inconsistency for those who don’t know about the meaning, since the fans, the people more likely to buy these works, know them already.

And that post brings up another point. Manga is cheap in japan. It’s the equivalent of $5. Due to translation costs and being part of a niche that naturally has less members, US companies have to charge more. I’m not saying they should charge less, because they cant. But it takes me 20 minutes to read a 195 page manga. That manga might cost between 9 and 15 dollars. For 20 minutes. I can download a bestseller on Kindle for $9.99, which will last 3-8 hours. Or one of the numberous $0.99 promotional books, or the $2.99 up-and-coming indie author’s book.

I like manga. But I could live without it, permanently, if I had to pay $11 for 20 minutes of temporary enjoyment. That’s not all! Almost all manga is serialized! The one-shots are the only things that last only 195 pages or so. But take something like Naruto, Bleach, etc. 30+ volumes? Ending where? After 60+ volumes? Hajime no Ippo is over 800, and still going! That is over 60 volumes, over 70 volumes! $700 for 35 hours of reading. Without color!

This isn’t the publisher’s fault. It’s the fact that it’s a foreign work, designed for a foreign audience, trying to make inroads in a separate culture. Those of us who are fanatical enough to read this work don’t make up a large market. Even less of us are willing to pay for it because of the price of translating, localizing, and importing it. There are anime sets that cost hundreds of dollars to buy locally. And they give about 16 hours of enjoyment. Most anime, however, are less. 13 episode series are becoming more common. I see fewer 26er’s. And less 52er’s. Anything up to that size is likely a serialization that will go for longer anyways.

So what is the solution? Price and convenience beat illegal works. But I’m concerned for the market itself. If I’m becoming a minority, then that’s great, because I have standards that aren’t being fulfilled by official sources. Most of the stuff I’ve read has never been, nor ever will be, translated into English. That’s a bigger problem than scanlations of works that have been translated, which then has its own host of problems.

I don’t know what the solution is. Would I buy manga? Not likely. It takes up too much space, isn’t good for re-reading due to length, and is too expensive. If it was cheap, online (downloadable), and filled with a huge assortment, there might be a change of mind.

But at the end of the day, it’s successful in Japan. Does that mean anything to us in America? Well, lets put it this way: one of my favorite authors and his books are all in Chinese. No one in the Western world has heard of him. But he’s a Chinese bestseller. Only one of his books has ever been translated by a professional. The others were translated by fans. The one done by a professional wasn’t nearly as good as the one done by fans. Sure it was more “technically correct” and the grammar, spelling, and word translations were more accurate. But it didn’t feel the same as the rest, which had been done by different people. The influence of the Chinese author was seen in the fan translations. They also translated every word. The professional had a different voice. And purposefully left out huge blocks of text. The only official translation is abridged! even at hundreds of thousands of words. It took 10 years to translate that ONE book, by the way. Is that cost effective? For a great work, by a bestselling author, that no one in the West has ever heard of, that only appeals to a Chinese audience since his works take place in China, does it make sense to even try bringing it overseas? It’s not valuable or appealing except a tiny niche. Nobody in the next 5 or 10 years will translate the other works.

And Manga translation began with that mindset: nobody in the USA or otherwise will translate this for 5 – 10 years. And even if they do, will there be a market? Is real-time translation an option? Will it be affordable? And that’s all I have.

It’s a touchy subject. There isn’t a real answer, right now. But I think that the US companies ARE getting closer. These are all today’s problems. But they are getting closer to yesterday’s.

1492 words I could have used in a novel.

About James Ashman

I write books of the fantasy, heroic, and adventure types. So far. I'm an author who loves fantastic stories.
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