Hobby or Profession: Translating Less-Popular Manga

Digital Manga Publishing has announced a new publishing scheme called Digital Manga Guild. The idea is that none of the people involved in producing DMG products – translators, letterers, editors, Digital Manga Publishing or the original license holders – will take any upfront payments. Everyone will take a percentage cut of sales (what percentage has yet to be stated; I’m assuming “pretty small”). DMG works will be sold as electronic files (i.e. no hardcopies, at least according to the plan as announced so far).

On the one hand, plans like DMG could lead to manga translators (and anime subbers?) having a similar problem as college professors (more on that below). On the other hand, I wonder if this signifies a realignment of the industry. The manga and anime audiences have not been expanding for awhile now, meaning that economies of scale aren’t going to kick in and knock DVD/book prices down any more to open up a bigger, more frugal audience. At the same time, the recession has made many people reconsider how willing they are to regularly spend $10 or more on a book that they might finish reading in twenty minutes. On top of that, five or ten years ago the market was more unified in its interests than it is today. A lot of the consumers who bought Sailor Moon and Card Captor Sakura when they first came out are now interested in josei or seinen works like Butterflies, Flowers or Emma, but the newer, younger audience that became interested in Naruto and Fruits Basket isn’t necessarily ready for works that mature. (This is not to say that no one will read all of the above; I have. It’s just that there aren’t enough of us to sustain an industry.) The industry is at a crossroads. It could try to grow its audience more, although how is not clear and there haven’t been any big titles out of Japan to spark interest like Sailor Moon or Naruto. Alternatively, it could focus on retaining its current audience, but the pitfalls of that approach are apparent from looking at the American comics industry, whose struggles are legion and whose most recent successes lie in the movies, not comics. Given the major problems with both of these options, companies like DMP are getting creative.

That brings us back to the Digital Manga Guild, which is an attempt to monetize something that already exists. Whether it succeeds is, as I see it, entirely dependent on whether it can get people to pay for scanlations. Personally, I wouldn’t, but I’m a bit of a Luddite in that respect – I don’t use Itunes, and I’ve been known to pay extra to have a hardcopy of a software program mailed to me after I downloaded it just in case. (Actually, I’m a bit surprised they’re trying to get people to buy the files instead of having them ad-supported. If they were ad-supported, they could snap up OneManga’s and MangaFox’ users like that. Of course, there is no proof that anyone behind either of those sites ever made any profit.)

But I digress. The manga-reading audience seems to be divided into two groups: casual readers, who will follow one or two series on their own, might pick up more volumes at their local libraries and occasionally go to a convention or dress up as a character for Halloween; and the more hardcore fans, who will follow many series over the course of years or even decades, go to multiple conventions regularly or one (preferred) convention religiously, join clubs, make art, learn Japanese – and translate or edit manga for scanlations. These fans often spend a lot of money on manga and anime, and rarely see any money come in for all of their efforts. Fans also have more particular interests. Every so often they are chastised because their consumption habits are supposedly destroying the anime and manga they love. They’ve seen dozens of high school romance comedies with pretty art and cute leads who initially clash but eventually blah blah blah, so they need more intricate plotting in order to get behind a series.

The Digital Manga Guild says two things to these fans. First, it values their work. Some commentators and some members of the industry have openly derided scanlators for low-quality translations and argued that scanlations hurt legitimate sales (with little and contradictory proof). By embracing scanlators, DMG is also getting seriously good press as far as a portion of its audience is concerned. Second, it sounds like DMG titles will be precisely the sort of little-known, smaller audience works that the current publishing scheme simply cannot adapt to America. Publishing them would require too much outlay with too small an audience to make a profit. By going digital-only AND paying everyone based on sales, DMG simultaneously widens the pool of potentially-adaptable works and lowers the price-threshold for publication. This is an interesting and canny move, even if it ultimately doesn’t work out.

What caught my interest about DMG, though, is that this move keeps reminding me of the rise of adjunct professors at colleges in the U.S. For decades we’ve been over-producing Ph.D.’s, so colleges moved to paying incredibly low rates to “part-timers” to teach classes and thereby combat steadily decreasing state and federal subsidies. This had the effect of making the higher education industry appear healthy on the surface despite deep and long-standing problems. In the manga translation industry, I think it might have the opposite effect.

To be clear, in both cases these developments are negatives for the people being adjuncted. The difference is that I am not persuaded that adjunctification of some kinds of manga translation would necessarily be a net negative. When you adjunct-out your professoriate, you lose a lot of the less-tangible benefits of full-time professors that only become obvious when a student wants to meet with a professor who is only on her campus for the hour before class every week, or when a student who graduated a year ago needs recommendations from professors who are no longer working at that campus and didn’t leave forwarding addresses, or when new curricula need to be designed but only one, overburdened full-time professor knows what the new transfer requirements for English 101 are. Professors also need to be extremely timely on a regular basis. Given forty homework assignments, they must grade and comment on them all quickly. Someone fitting a class around their own job, or trying to fit five classes in at once, will have trouble with all of that.

In contrast, part-time translators, given the large number of capable translators we already see doing it on a regular basis, merely bring the problem of continuity.* That is, if we translate oshare ningen as “Stylish” in episode/chapter one of Princess Jellyfish, we need to make sure that it’s that way in the next chapter/episode as well. However, in the past, the assorted hardcopy publishers haven’t exactly set a pristine example here either, so I don’t see this being more of a problem in the DMG model.

Absent the problems I’ve pointed out with higher education, a supplemental, online manga translation industry driven by part-timers could open up new manga possibilities for older readers who want more mature works as well as other niche groups (like those interested in BL, horror, pornography and yuri) who would not likely see many manga in print that fit their interests. This would entice those groups to continue or even deepen their involvement with manga, in turn opening up new revenue possibilities for manga translation companies like DMP.

It all turns on the fact that this variety of manga consumption is a hobby. Some hobbyists are incredibly keen on it, it’s true, but it is a hobby, in the same vein as model trains or the Society for Creative Anachronism. It is very, very rare for people in this sort of hobby to make a living on their related activities, and those that do (such as costume designers who sell at Renaissance Fairs) rarely make princely sums. Those who have managed to create or work in companies like Viz and Tokyopop can attest to how difficult it is to get such a career – but they also make decisions about what manga to translate based on print audience considerations. The sort of translation that we’re talking about here involves little-known works that only dedicated fans would search out – and that is very definitely “hobby” territory. Since it seems that the initiative is aimed at those works which would not otherwise be published, I’m inclined to view this new initiative as an innovative way of returning some money to those hobbyists whose work contributes to the hobby. The trick is how it develops from here. If we start seeing the further adjunctification of those translators working on bestsellers like Alice in the Country of Hearts then I’ll start to worry.

*Before anyone argues, my opinion about the quality of scanlation versus hardcopy translations is that there are good and atrocious examples of both, but that the best scanlation translations are usually at least as good as the published versions, if not better.

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4 comments on “Hobby or Profession: Translating Less-Popular Manga

  1. This is a little besides your point, but you left out some of the tangible benefits of part-time professors, at least in some situations. A part-time professor who has a full-time job in a relevant field can often bring more current information or additional insights about that field than a full-time professor. Furthermore, what a graduate loses in a letter of recommendation can be more than made up by the connections a part-time professor might possess. For example, when I took tax-accounting, the professor was a full-time employee of the IRS, and could help good students to get jobs at the IRS.

    • Adjunct professors in specific situations can have a number of benefits for students; another potential benefit is breadth. Departments in my field tend to lean towards certain specialties – classical versus modern Japanese history and literature, for example. In a department with a decidedly classical tilt, an occasional adjunct who specializes in the twentieth-century can help round out students’ educations and better prepare them for working after college. That is more or less what the adjunct system was created for: retired professors with useful knowledge who would just take up the occasional course because their knowledge was too useful to let go.

      The reason I focus on the negatives is that we don’t have a system that involves almost-all tenured, permanent professors with the occasional adjunct to round it out. We currently have a system with tons of adjuncts who work full-time, but split that time between multiple campuses, and a shrinking full-time, single-campus professoriate. Getting recommendations may not seem like a big problem, but far more students in a class will need recommendations than will be directly connected to a job by the professor. Advising is another common concern, particularly for community college students who want to transfer to four-year institutions. They have to take very, very specific classes in order to get any credit for their degrees, and an adjunct who is on multiple campuses for one or two courses each simply won’t be able to keep track of the different degree schemas. That isn’t to denigrate adjunct professors by any means, that sort of work generally just isn’t in their job descriptions.

      To some extent this varies by field – I’ve heard business schools are more likely to have businesspeople taking on the occasional course – but the overall trends are clear, and do not bode well for either students or teachers. The consequences are bad for the country as a whole. In that respect, adjunctification is a very bad thing.

      • It took me a while to get back to this.

        I’ve been through community college, and in my experience the full-time, worked-at-the-same-campus-for-twenty-years faculty were not a great deal of help in managing transfer schemas either. Nor do I think they could – there are many universities, and they tend to change their requirements often, and I could only get clear information after persistent inquiry. I think the 4-year universities are largely to blame for the transfer mess – but that is a different topic.

        Perhaps it is due to different experiences, but at the schools I attended I don’t think the adjunct professor situation went too far. In fact, during the budget cuts, it was the part-time faculty who got fired first, leaving the core tenured professors behind (who became overworked, but that is a different problem).

  2. Thanks for this interesting perspective on the DMG and the opportunity it presents for manga fans and readers in general. It’s so refreshing to read a blog post that recognises that people who scanlate are not simply ‘pirates’ seeking to profit from copyright infringement.

    There is another factor that will determine the Guild’s success: how many scanlation groups come on board. If DMG is successful in snaring enough scanlation groups, then the number of releases available will fall and more will eventually pay to read manga via legitimate means.

    For now, the focus seems to be on single volume BL works. From my understanding of the video on the site, DMG wants groups to work on a package of five volumes a year – making it impossible for groups to select individual titles. So there is a dilemma for fans right there – scanlate for DMG with deadlines and an uncertain return on manga (some of which they may not like) or continue scanlating for zilch while retaining the freedom to work at their own pace and pick whatever titles they please. DMG’s proposal isn’t exactly an offer a fan can’t refuse.

    However, if DMG can get the most prolific BL scanlation groups on board – and there are only a handful of them anyway – they could go a long way to gaining a monopoly on BL manga online.

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