How Japanese animation actually reaches audiences outside Japan has been a major topic in anime studies going back to the field’s earliest days, such as with Jonathan Clements’ essay “The mechanics of the US anime and manga industry”, in Foundation: The International Review of Science Fiction, 64, 32-44 (1995). Interest in this topic surged in the mid-2000’s, as Western scholars were being introduced to anime – in many cases by their own students – and even by their own children, and as anime fans moved on from high schools to colleges and graduate schools, and were able to publish their own work. Some examples of the seminar research on the relationship and the conflicts between anime creators/producers, anime distributors, and anime fans that were published around this time include Anime fans, DVDs and the authentic text (Laurie Cubbison, The Velvet Light Trap, 2005), Anime fandom and the liminal spaces between fan creativity and piracy (Rayna Denison, International Journal of Cultural Studies, 2011), Dark energy: What fansubs reveal about the copyright wars (Ian Condry, Mechademia v. 5, 2010), and my own Fighting the fan sub war: Conflicts between media rights holders and unauthorized creator/distributor networks.
The structure of the relationship, and the actual technological affordances that have directed it, have changed significantly since then. And so, it is particularly interesting to see a new publication that sets out to “examine recent systems, both legal and illegal, of North American anime and manga distribution” and positions itself specifically as a follow-up to 2005’s Of otakus and fansubs: A critical look at anime online in light of current issues in copyright law and an evaluation of whether the arguments that Jordan Hatcher presented in that article can still be used to understand “the relationship between fan translator groups and licensed distributors of anime and manga” in the present.
Tremblay, Alyssa (2018). Found in translation: Rethinking the relationship between fan translation groups and licensed distributors of anime and manga. The Journal of Fandom Studies, 6(3), 319-333.
…it is possible that fan translation groups will become obsolete, perhaps to the benefit of all parties.
As with much of the other previous writing on the nature of this relationship, a key question that Tremblay asks can be rephrased as “why do fansubs exist?” And one of the article’s strongest and most welcome points is its ability to present the solid statement that “fan translation [is] a practice born of consumer desire and perceived necessity, rather than creative or transformative expression.” This is in fact similar to the one that Sean Leonard made, also back in 2005, in Progress against the law: Anime and fandom, with the key to the globalization of culture, that fansubs are best seen as complementary or prerequisite goods that fill a particular niche and meet a particular need – until that need can be filled in a better and more efficient way by the market. With this in mind, the author then moves on another statement:
…the persistent practices of fan translation groups offer both proof of and solutions to some of the issues plaguing English-language anime and manga distribution, offering a distribution model of their own shaped directly by fan desire that is increasingly being adopted by industry players.
Found in Translation, p. 320.
Supporting this requires identifying the issues that the “practices of fan translation groups” arose in response to. Among these are “deviations from the original content” – or rather, particular translation and adaptation strategies, “inflated costs”, and significant delays between when a title was first aired or published in Japan, and when it became available to non-Japanese audiences. Going from the essentially descriptive part of the article, and on to the analytical, the question it actually poses is:
…could a change of business tactics help the North American anime and manga industry free itself as hostages to the fandom? The answer appears to be yes, provided those new tactics are modelled from those already employed in fan translation circles.
Found in Translation, p. 328
To illustrate this, Tremblay uses the example of the manga and anime series Tokyo Ghoul – with the anime licensed for Western release and made available to Western audiences at the same time as it aired in Japan, “with the aesthetics of fansubs largely replicated” – achieving the overall effect that “the English-language anime industry at last became viable competitors to fan translation groups.” On the other hand, this was not the case for the original Tokyo Ghoul manga – the first English-language graphic novel edition of it did not appear until June of 2015, a full four years after the series began publication in Japanese.
One somewhat ironic – if inevitable – thing about this article is that recent as it is – the author accessed some of the websites in its the references section on November 4, 2018 – it is already rather dated. Fan translation groups translating anime and manga from Japanese and into English will not “become obsolete”; they largely already have, at least for anime. Granted, for manga, the argument is possibly harder to make, just because the volume of manga that never receives any kind of official English translation is still so large, but even the “time delay” factor that Tremblay identifies as one of the advantages that fan translators have over official manga publishers is largely disappearing, such as with the recent launch of the Shueisha Manga Plus service and Viz Media’s Shonen Jump website, both of which offer access to English translations of new manga simultaneously with their Japanese release. On the other hand, fan translations from Japanese into English are by far not the only kinds of fan translations that exist. There is already a growing body of scholarship on fan translation activity in China – such as Xiao Liu & Gabriele de Sita, Chinese fansub groups as communities of practice: An ethnography of online language learning (in the 2014 essay collection China Online: Locating Society in Online Spaces) and especially the recent monograph Copyright and Fan Productivity in China: A Cross-Jurisdictional Perspective (Singapore: Springer Nature, 2017), and applying Tremblay’s analytical approach and arguments to this setting can be valuable.
There is one more element in this article that I found particularly noteworthy. Much of the scholarly discussion about fan activities and practices instinctively presents them as acts of resistance – perhaps with the implication that it is their status as acts of resistance that makes them worth examining and even praising. Tremblay, however, takes the time and makes the effort to point out that in of themselves, fan practices are not necessarily subversive or anti-authoritative. Yes, they can have subversive or anti-authoritative effects, but those effects are rarely, if ever, fans’ main goals. This, too, I think lets this essay add a valuable dimension to the study of fan translation groups in the anime/manga space – that can be extended to the study of fan translation groups in other spaces, and then, to the study of fan groups and their interaction with media producers, more broadly.
If you are interested in contributing a similar review/response essay on a recent piece of article-length scholarship on anime/manga or a related topic, animemangastudies.com continues to welcome such submissions.
Your essay should be approximately 750-1000 words in length, and can take the form of a review or evaluation, an appreciation, a direct response, or even a challenge. Recent journal articles on anime/manga are listed in the Annual Bibliography of Anime and Manga Studies. Many of the individual articles are available online in open access, and if you would like to work on a response to one that is not, and do not have access to it through your college/university or through a public library, let me know, and I will provide a copy. You can send your submissions, proposals, questions, comments, etc., to me at firstname.lastname@example.org