Fan-translation and Its Bigger Picture

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.   


The quickest agreeing example I can use for Crunchyroll's embracing of their fandoms and practices is for Digimon Tri. When it was announced that Digimon (a popular show from the 90s) was coming back with its third incarnation but in the form of a theatrical movie, American fans (which is a pretty big fan base for he show) were immediately disappointed in not being able to view it. However Crunchyroll then made it possible for American viewers to watch as the day it is released in Japan, it is released on the site with English subtitles. Much like manga scantron sites as well as YouTube uploaders there are people that are very aware of intercontinental fandom that goes along with pop culture and will work as hard and as long as they can to make sure their content is available for others to read in whatever language is needed. Not only are these people potentially bilingual to do it, but they're giving up their free time to do so. I had not heard about US producers suing those that translated American dramas into their own language with subtitles and it really does stand to show the US could move forward with these ideas if it's a popular thing to have on YouTube and to share.

Fan translation certainly should be researched more. Not only in terms of the communities that come from it, but also to see the bigger picture of how it could be beneficial for multiple parties and not just the fans that are readily consuming it. It brings to mind what would happen if all of it were to be stopped.

This is a great post drawing attention to the complexity and diversity of fan translation and related activities. In my forthcoming post on Viki, I allude to some of these same issues, particularly the crossover between fan and crowdsourced translation. 

One issue that begs further consideration is that of cultural flows, counter flows, and the growing prominence of US content amongst fansubbing circuits. Even Viki, far more linguistically diverse than most fansub communities, is moving in this direction, having added some big US-based investors to its funding in 2013 specifically with the aim of growing US content on the site. 

A lot of current research into fansubbing in Europe, Asia and South America also confirms this trend, reporting on fansub groups that form around US TV shows like Lost, Supernatural, Glee, Game of Thrones, The Big Bang Theory and CSI. Often these same TV shows are available on commercial platforms; fansubbers try to beat their offerings, in terms of speed and sometimes quality. 

This increased level of fansub activity focused around access to mainstream US content, shows how subcultural or informal modes of media engagement facilitated through digital, networking technologes can end up mirroring or supplementing, rather than disrupting, industry norms, replicating rather than redressing language hierarchies and access gaps. 

Thanks for the comments. Yes, the issue of flows (which directions?) seems very important. I have not noticed that Viki is increasing US content! Perhaps we see two potentially contracting phenomena: the increase in the volume and speed of dominant flow + fans' free use and circulation of the dominant content without getting the copyright holders' authorisation. What does this mean for cultural globalisation and global cultural business...?   

Thank you for this post. Your mention of the symposium actually has me thinking about where the best conferences are to go to discuss translation studies. Translation is part of my research but not the whole thing. As such, as I present at more general media conferences. However, I find these papers often get put on more general panels and then when I or a colleague are presenting on fan translation we don’t tend to get good feedback. I think the SCMS fanstudies SIG is trying to do more of this, but as translation studies is part of global and crossover media, fan studies, platform studies, and audience studies, it seems hard to get a good conversation going. Likewise, the community is so dispersed across the world we aren’t going to the same conferences. I wonder if you or any of the responders have ideas for the best conferences or forums to present on translation studies. 

Yes absolutely, fan translation (and media translation as a whole) often sits awkwardly at general media conferences. I have presented at screen conferences, translation conferences and cultural studies conferences, and always seem to be positioned somewhat on the margins. That said, I have gotten used to this position and quite enjoy it. Translation is such an in-between discipline/discourse. Its about connections that are often overlooked in many disciplines, so I enjoy bringing these to the surface. I am hoping to make the NECS (European Network for Cinema and Media Studies) conference this year and I believe that issues around language and language transfer are often more prominent in the European context, considering its language diversity.

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