Transcript: Manga Translates Infringement

Interview with Kae Winters, TOKYOPOP

For podcast release Monday, December 4, 2017

KENNEALLY: Dragon Ball, Naruto, and Golgo 13 – if you recognize those titles, then you may qualify as otaku, a rabid fan of manga, the quintessentially Japanese form of comics. Publishers like US-based Tokyopop have helped make manga a global media phenomenon. Fans, too, can take some credit, even if they don’t have the right to.

Welcome to Copyright Clearance Center’s podcast series. I’m Christopher Kenneally for Beyond the Book. Scanlation is a species of copyright infringement native to the manga world that has shaped the business for better and for worse over more than three decades. A portmanteau word combining scanning and translation, a scanlation is a fan-created translation of manga that first brought the form beyond the island of Japan in the 1970s. Then, in the early years of the 21st century, scanlations nearly destroyed the business.

Based in Los Angeles, Kae Winters works for manga publisher Tokyopop, handling marketing, social media, and event coordination. She grew up in the suburbs of London, where her love of manga inspired her to study Japanese at the School of Oriental and African Studies. Kae recently spoke about the industry effects of scanlation at the annual International Federation of Reproduction Rights Organizations conference in Tokyo. Kae Winters, welcome to Beyond the Book. Y?koso.

WINTERS: Hi, Chris. Thank you so much for having me.

KENNEALLY: Well, we’re looking forward to this discussion, because it is sort of offbeat for Beyond the Book, or at least off our usual beat, but one that incorporates a number of issues that we talk about a great deal – which is to say copyright and the digital revolution in publishing. So set the stage for people here when it comes to scanlation and its impact on the manga world. It began in the 1970s. In a sense, it was a way that fans helped to spread manga from Japan. What does it involve, and what was the technology in the 1970s?

WINTERS: Sure. Obviously, back in the ’70s, it was a very different beast. Manga really wasn’t known outside Japan, and there were some people that found it, thought it was this awesome new form of media, and wanted to spread it around the world. So they would, from what I understand, literally take these books, scan them. They would write their own translation for it and actually used glue and scissors to stick these new translations in the speech bubbles, scan it one more time, and hand it out in zine form. Of course, now it’s a very different beast. It’s all computers and digital editing.

KENNEALLY: Right. So in the 1970s, it was all by hand and very much a physical object. How did the manga publishers in Japan and ultimately elsewhere receive scanlation at first?

WINTERS: It’s very interesting. Scanlation happens in Japan, too. Obviously, there’s no translation involved. It’s literally just scanning and uploading for use. I know that the attitudes towards scanlation in Japan until fairly recently have sort of been that it’s not their problem. It’s an international problem. It doesn’t affect them, because it’s not their market.

In the early days of Tokyopop in the late ’90s and early 2000s, we actually had a much more lax view of scanlation. It was a way to see what fans liked, what kind of translation trends they enjoyed, what they wanted to see. For a while, it was almost used as a tool to help us decide which books we should be publishing.

KENNEALLY: That’s fascinating, because when we talk about piracy in publishing, it often is an indicator of popularity. The books that are the most popular are the ones that get pirated the most. So in a sense, you were able to look and see – using piracy as a sort of general term for unlicensed reuse of materials – that you could see what was popular and see that as kind of a metric of fan reception for a new title, for a character, for a series, and it was a great indicator there. It’s a tool, in a sense, for publishers at that point. But things changed.

WINTERS: Yes. Yeah, it definitely changed. In around the ’90s, it was very much still a fan passion project. It was done as a way to bring over titles that were still unknown around the world to the English-speaking world. But there was a sort of unspoken agreement between publishers and fans that when we picked up a title that we licensed that we were going to publish, the fans would then take it down from their website and put up a message saying, hey, guys, this has been licensed. Go buy it.

At some point, that changed, and suddenly people weren’t responding to these messages. They were ignoring these cease-and-desist letters that they were getting. And the titles were staying up despite being licensed.

KENNEALLY: And the people who were creating these scanlations – they went beyond just the fan, the otaku, as I used that Japanese word. This was really a business operation.

WINTERS: Yeah, that’s kind of where the change happened, was originally these sites were hosted by fans, run by fans. They were just complete fan websites. And at some point along the way, these sites became more about piracy. In the same way that you’ve seen BitTorrent sites for music and movies, these sites are often international. They’re sort of dotted all over the place in a way to try to circumnavigate copyright law. And they just don’t care. They’re in it for the advertising revenue. They don’t care about the fans. They don’t care about the publishers. They just want the money from the views.

KENNEALLY: Right. For publishers, it’s a real challenge, I would think, Kae Winters, because you don’t want to disappoint fans. Fans are obviously your market. What do fans tell you about scanlations? Do they think much of them? Do they recognize the challenge that they pose? How do they respond to scanlations themselves?

WINTERS: It’s very interesting. There are a lot of different reasons why fans read scanlations, and a lot of the time, I will hear from fans justification why they’re not part of the problem – why it’s OK for them to read scanlations, but everyone else should stop doing it. That can be anything from I can’t afford to buy the books. It can be I don’t want to wait for it to get published. I want to read it now. It can be I don’t know if I’m going to like this title, so I want to read it first, and then I’ll go buy it. There’s numerous motivations for it. I even heard from one fan that she dislikes the way a lot of books are translated, and she prefers the way that this particular fan group translates manga, so she only reads what they put out.

KENNEALLY: So it’s really a question of taste in some instances. And publishers like yourselves there at Tokyopop have worked hard to accommodate the fans in all of this, but there’s a point at which you really can’t accommodate every aspect of this, because it’s a business problem.

WINTERS: That’s right. We really do try to pay attention to what fans are telling us, to what their motivations are, because like you said, we can use it as a way to see what they would like, to hear from the fans what we could maybe be doing better, where we could improve.

For example, we work very closely with a number of libraries to try to get our books stocked in libraries so fans who can’t afford to buy the books can still read them legally. We work to put out free sample chapters online. We work closely with a number of reviewers, providing them advance review copies so that they can tell fans about the book ahead of time and tell them to pick it up. So we do try very hard to get around these reasons why fans say they read scanlations.

KENNEALLY: And, Kae Winters, I’m wondering about the print versus digital aspect of this. Many fans came to manga first when it was in its physical form, and then, of course, the digital world began to change everything in publishing, including manga. Where do things stand today? In the book world, we talk about how print has seen a resurgence. Has print done likewise in the manga world?

WINTERS: I would say so, yeah. I’m one of those purists who loves print books as well. There’s really nothing like holding an actual book in your hands, and it’s definitely still something people like. We try to make it attractive to people who want to buy the digital version or buy the print version. It’s very important to make a book that people actually want to have on their bookshelf, that they want to feel proud of owning.

KENNEALLY: When you mention purism, as I understand it, Tokyopop really was a pioneer in that purism, because one of the interesting things about scanlation is that if you take an original in Japanese, it’s read from right to left, but of course English and many other languages go the other direction. So there’s a flipping that has to go on, which means the artwork can sometimes be reversed, and that would have some impact on the impression left with readers.

WINTERS: Yeah, that’s actually – back in the old day, we used to flip our books. That was how we did it. Because in the early days, where nobody knew what manga was, the concern was, well, people are going to be confused if they have to read a book “backwards,” so we should flip it around. But of course, that then flips all the sound effects. That flips any text that’s in the actual image. That can confuse things. Characters that are right-handed suddenly become left-handed.

We also had a similar lesson when it came to how much we should Westernize a story. There are some things that are very intrinsically Japanese that people may not have known about. People may not have known what a bowl of ramen was. Do we just change it to something else? And along the years, we’ve changed our mind on a lot of that. Now, most manga is published in its original form. It’s right-to-left. And we have a little page in the back of the book that says, hey, stop, you’re at the wrong side of the book. It reads a different way here. (laughter) Again, that was very much a learning process, and that is the kind of lesson that we could learn from fans through scanlations, was, well, what do fans like? How do fans want to see these books published? And when we saw that they were not flipping these images, they were not Americanizing them, we realized, well, then I guess that’s the way we need to go.

KENNEALLY: It’s a fascinating story – as I say, a really interesting aspect of copyright infringement that’s native to the manga world, and we appreciate you sharing it with us. We’ve been speaking today with Kae Winters of Tokyopop, based in Los Angeles. Kae, thanks so much for joining us on Beyond the Book, and arigat? gozaimashita.

WINTERS: D?itashimashite. Thank you so much for having me.

KENNEALLY: Beyond the Book is produced by Copyright Clearance Center, a global leader in content management, discovery, and document delivery solutions. Through its relationships with those who use and create content, CCC and its subsidiaries RightsDirect and Ixxus drive market-based solutions that accelerate knowledge, power publishing, and advance copyright.

Beyond the Book co-producer and recording engineer is Jeremy Brieske of Burst Marketing. I’m Christopher Kenneally. Join us again soon on Beyond the Book.

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