When I gave a presentation on manga scanlation at a symposium seven or eight years ago, scanlation or other forms of fan translation was a very novel phenomenon, which was unknown to academic researchers. However, the recent years have seen the increasing scholarly interest in the practice, culture and implication of fan translation. Fan translation is a work of love carried out by media fans who are motivated by non-commercial values and peer recognition. It is also a product of networked, collective efforts that rely on leadership, management and mutual commitment. The fan-translation community forms a field of cultural production, which develops their own, flexible understanding of copyright and shows impressive productivity. Often, researchers tend to focus on English-language fan translation of Japanese drama, comics and animation. Yet, the scene is much bigger and diverse. Some groups are local while some are global, working across different time zones, resulting in excellent productivity in terms of volume, speed and diversity. There are many fan groups who are devoted to translating and sharing South Korean popular audiovisual products, especially TV drama series. If their activities constitute global contra flows of culture, those numerous fan translators working on English-language (mainly US) content can be seen as bottom-up facilitators of US-led cultural globalisation. Boosting both mainstream and contra flows of culture, fan translation speeds up and complicates cultural globalisation.
The relationship between this practice and cultural industries is complex, ranging from direct competition to imitation and assimilation, and collaboration. One example of competition is manga fans’ creation of free apps for downloading and viewing scanlated manga on smart devices, before the industry conceived the idea. While this can be seen as free PR which benefits the industries, some section of the industries are taking a more negative view: Japan the manga and anime publishers tend to regard fan translation as piracy; some US TV producers have sued South Korean fan translators of popular US TV drama series. At the same time, the industries are making efforts to innovate their business model, by imitating fandom and its practices. A good example is Crunchyroll, a US-based video streaming website, specialised in East Asian TV shows, animation and comics. There are also some interesting developments, where fan community becomes a business and businesses feed on the free provision of fan translations. An excellent example is Viki that was created as an Asian drama translation website, which relied on crowdsourced fan translations. As it became more popular, the creators turned it into a commercial business by taking in venture capital investments. However, it still relies on fan’s voluntary translation of shows, indicating the rising issue of exploitation of users’ free labor and commodification of fandom.
It is also very interesting to note that fan translation is closely connected to ‘transnational’ cultural fandom. Overseas fans’ craze for Japanese and South Korean pop culture is well known and is summed up as the ‘Cool Japan’ or ‘Korean Wave’ phenomenon, where fans’ desire is not limited to a particular media genre or product but often overarches across different aspects of Japanese and Korean culture and lifestyle. This explains why the Japanese and Korean governments are keen to incorporate overseas fandom in their strategies that aim at enhancing the country’s international image, reputation and competitiveness. From this perspective, fan translation is seen as playing a key role in the transnational dissemination of these countries’ media culture and facilitate the transnationalising trend of their cultural policy.
Fan translation is a fascinating phenomenon where we can observe both convergence and conflict between fandom and business, and the unprecedented linkage between fandom and nation branding strategy. Investigating fan translation also allows us to understand some of new layers and mechanisms of cultural globalisation today.