Sunday, July 11, 2010

the golden age of scanlations

Once upon a time there were people who loved Japanese comics SO MUCH that they would, on their own recognizance, take the original Japanese comics and translate them into English! All by themselves! And then they’d distribute these translations to the world at large, unconcerned with things like “copyright” or “trademark” or “intellectual property”. Of course this whole business has generated a lot of press lately because of the amazing ability of the vast computer networks that surround us all to transmit and distribute information faster than human minds can even conceive. And to think the doomsayers and pessimists always assumed the assault on mankind would begin with killer robots and death rays!

This may astonish today's computer-enabled youth, but scanlations existed long before cheap terabyte drives and broadband connections. In fact these stone-age “scanlations” didn’t need computers at all!

This advertisement appeared in the BOOKS NIPPAN ANIMATION FAN CLUB NEWSLETTER (vol 4) from sometime in 1985. Is this the first attempt at wide distribution of a possibly unauthorized translation of Japanese manga? Could be. Translator and Gunbuster star Toren Smith was always ahead of the curve; he went on to build a career out of authorized, licensed Japanese comics through his Studio Proteus organization.

(alternate Art Frahm cover available upon request)

The prototype scanlation seen here appeared as a companion booklet to the official Shogakukan release of Urusei Yatsura volume 1. You’d simply hold the UY manga – purchased through Books Nippan, of course - in one hand and the translation booklet in the other, and through a complicated mental process not fully understood by our top scientists, the meaning of the Urusei Yatsura story will become clear to you.

One wonders just how popular this particular marketing plan was; Viz would begin publishing officially-licensed Urusei Yatsura in English in a few years. Shogakukan had already released several volumes of Urusei Yatsura in a dual-language format as an English-language teaching aid. Or as a Japanese-language teaching aid, these things swing both ways (these handsome sepia-tone tankubon were also produced for other series, including Sasuga No Sarutobi).

Rather than a strictly commercial product, these 80s UY scanlations were a more upscale form of the ‘translation packets’ being distributed by various fan organizations throughout the 80s. Anything that would fit onto photocopier glass was Xeroxed like crazy – song translations, possibly inaccurate episode guides, character sheets, articles from trade publications – if it was about anime it got distributed, copyright and original intent of the author be damned. It is with this blithe disregard for intellectual property that anime fandom first established itself upon our shores, a mark of Cain that all must bear in shame and/or glory. Of course, the way I figure it, anime fans spent 20 years producing and distributing pro bono advertising for Bandai, so it all evens out in the end.


Anonymous said...

I don't know that it is appropriate to call what Toren did an early form of scanslation. What a scanslator produces can be described in two ways. It is both a translated version of an original manga page (i.e., the original Japanese art plus its dialogue and/or sound FX translated into the target language), and that original manga page itself.

The second description might seem redundant, but the point is that a scanslator is doing at least two things for which they have not received permission; it is not simply a matter of "no one has announced a licensed English version yet;" one would also have needed to get permission from the Japanese owner if all one wanted to do was simply scan and distribute the original pages completely untranslated.

The important point is that Toren did neither one of these things; he did not distribute an unauthorized reproduction of the original manga art, nor an unauthorized reproduction of the original manga art plus translation. Instead he designed a translation guide that was only useful if you bought an authorized copy of the manga--in other words, it could not be used as a substitute for a legitimate purchase, as scanslations are.

I don't think this can be seen as exploiting some sort of loophole; after all, it would have been perfectly possible for Toren to have actually done something like a scanslation, by using the translation to letter a copy of the tankobon via white-out or paste-up, and then xeroxing the result and distributing it (and, as you know some people did this back in the 80s and 90s), but again, the guide as designed was only useful if you actually had a legitimate copy of the Japanese edition.


ezBlogger said...

I wear my "mark of Cain" proudly! LOL.

Scanlations can only go so far. There are untranslatable (or at least very hard to translate) issues with each project; the Japanese language being what it is. Urusei Yatsura has a ton of issues, and these guys were apparently clever enough to use the time-tested strategy of simply ignoring them all. LOL.

Dave you have a really great collection of stuff.


Anonymous said...

Which guys are you referring to in terms of ignoring translation issues, Rick? As you can see, the Shogakukan edition of Urusei Yatsura offered alternate translations of phrases, whereas in their translation guide, Toren and Miyako Graham made an effort to render such things as puns in equivalent form; for example, "chopper" for "deba" which can mean both "protruding teeth," and "knife" in Japanese. I don't think either version simply glossed over the issue.


Chris Sobieniak said...

Still, not a bad article Dave, I enjoyed reading on what I missed from those times.

owiasjee said...

really i like this blog and ilike japanese.

d. merrill said...

I didn't mean to imply that Toren and Miyako were infringing or unauthorizing or doing anything wrong. It's just that "scanlation" is the only lede I have, and by God I'm gonna use it!