Today anime and manga have entered the global mainstream. You can stream simulcast subtitled shows on multiple streaming services. Cable and satellite channels air anime regularly. When you go to a normal bookshop you’ll find volumes of Naruto and Bleach manga lining a shelf. Digital manga is taking off too, thanks to services like Crunchyroll and Amazon Kindle.

Which means that if you’ve become and anime or manga fan in the last decade or so, you might have no idea what a fansub or scanlation is. That feels incredibly weird to say, because fansubs and scanlations have been a core part of anime fandom for decades – especially when it comes to fansubbing, which stretches back to the 80s and perhaps earlier if you look at single historical examples.

While you’ll be perfectly fine if you just stick to the mainstream anime sources, I think it’s important for modern anime fans to know how one of the most powerful forces for driving anime fandom functions.

Charlotte Anime

So, What’s a “Fansub”?

If you haven’t figured it out, “fansub” is short for “fan-subtitled”. In other words, it’s a subtitle translation of an anime done unofficially. The people who make fansubs do it for the love of it. They take “raw” anime episodes or films and then painstakingly translate and redistribute them. Why would anyone do this? Well, to understand that, you need to know where you’ve come from.

The Dark Ages of Anime in the West

If you go back to the early 80s you find that anime was basically not a thing at all. In the United States this was actually a willful act by Japanese animation companies. They tried to set up shop in the US in the late 70s, but there just wasn’t a viable market yet, apart from a very small hardcore fanbase that traded bootlegs on VHS.

So as we entered the 80s it really was in the hands of fans to get anime from Japan stateside and either learn the language or ask someone who did speak Japanese to translate it. The fanclubs that grew from this core fandom were the incubator for modern fansub groups. What they were doing was technically illegal, but since the Japanese studios had no stake in the US market they basically ignored fansubbers for the most part. Fansubbing was also essentially impossible without the advent of home VCR systems. VHS and Betamax tapes were the first media used for trading fansubs.

The Time of Advocacy

While fansubs themselves were a moral and legal grey area, anime fans campaigned for official licensing in the US almost non-stop. I joined the anime fan-movement in the early 2000s and even then very few anime got licensed in the West with official translations. The stuff we really wanted to see would never be translated at all unless the fandom itself took on the job.

We spent a lot of time writing petition letters to the local cable companies or trying to convince local distributors to license these shows. For the most part this was to no avail, since that critical market mass simply wasn’t there. We established anime clubs to raise awareness of the medium. Inevitably what we screened in these clubs were fansubs. If it weren’t for fansubs, it’s safe to say, the mainstream entertainment of anime in the West as it is today would either have taken much longer to happen or would never have happened at all.


The Impact of Fansubs

Apart from making anime visible and popular, fansubs have had more far-reaching effects on the industry. For one thing, the best fansub groups have set the standard when it comes to translation and subtitle quality.

Back in the early days, official subtitling would be ugly, ham-handed text stuck at the bottom of the frame. Fansubbers turned this into an art. Elaborate karaoke titles for opening and closing themes almost definitely come from fansubbers. Subtitles arranged in various places to denote meaning and color-coding to make it clear who is speaking are other things we saw in fansubs first. Cultural notes? They were definitely in fansubs first, as my disappointing official DVD copies often showed in the early days. I also believe that modern streaming TV and services like Netflix and Hulu were also shaped by fansubbing. We were “binge” watching and getting our entertainment “on demand” when Netflix was still mailing people DVDs.

There are some more lighthearted side effects of fansubbing too. For one thing, few groups could agree on how some names should be translated. So often character names would be inconsistent between different subbing groups. A lot of people stuck to the wrong name if they saw it first!

Fansubs as a Moral Grey Area

The biggest controversy about fansubs is probably when it comes to copyright. If you watch fansubs you’ll note they all come with clear warnings that they should never be sold and that you should delete if the show in question is ever licensed in your territory. There has always been a sort of unspoken agreement between the Japanese studios and fans in the West that they’d sort of ignore fansubbing. Indeed, copyright conflicts have been extremely rare in the history of fansubs.

In fact, many former fansubbers have gone on to work for local companies that officially license anime. This doesn’t mean that Japanese studios were happy that people were violating their copyright, but without any actual direct losses I doubt it was ever worth pursuing fansub groups.

For what it’s worth, I and just about every fan I’ve known did in fact go out and pay for their favorite shows when licensed. Of course we watched a lot of stuff we didn’t feel was worth paying for, but the best studios got their money in the long run. If you look at how much Western fans have expanded the anime industry, it’s insane. Today the global anime market is worth almost $18B. The demand for anime is so high that all animation studios are fully booked years into the future.

Fansubs Today

I’m sort of sad to say that the days of fansubs are coming to an end. There are still fansub groups out there, but there’s no real incentive anymore to do it. Just about every show airing in Japan is getting professional translation. Selling anime to fans is much easier thanks to streaming services too.

It’s gotten to the point where some people have started to complain about the declining quality of anime. Of course, this is not actually true. It’s just that even fansubbers only expended energy on the better shows of the day. Now the mediocre and downright bad stuff is made available along with the rest, creating the illusion that there’s more bad anime around.

Only the most obscure titles aren’t translated anymore. So fansubs are dying simply because it’s “mission accomplished”. Not a bad thing at all.

Ace Attorney

So What About Scanlations?

The West is a mirror image of Japan when it comes to the relative positions of manga and anime. While manga is more mainstream in Japan, here it’s anime that’s more widely known. That hasn’t stopped a parallel fan translation industry from springing up for manga.

As the name implies, people scan pages of the original Japanese manga and then digitally replace the Japanese writing with an English translation. This is actually quite a bit harder than translating a spoken show, since reading and writing Japanese is a good deal harder than speaking it.

Ironically, now that anime is mainstream and fansubs are winding down, scanlations are getting more popular. There’s just too much manga (most of it very niche) to translate, and people now have a greater interest in manga thanks to anime. It’s a self-sustaining cycle, it seems.

That being said, mainstream manga are getting officially translated and sold in the West. It’s even easier to get electronically. Amazon will sell you manga on Kindle, and Crunchyroll includes a manga app as part of their subscription.

The Fans Made This

New anime and manga fans are certainly very lucky to get into the medium at a time when it’s more popular than ever. What was a niche hobby just a decade ago is now, well, just something we watch.

That’s exactly what fans over the last four decades wanted to accomplish, and they have! That doesn’t mean we should forget what they had to do in order to make it so. There were plenty of times over the years when it was pure fan dedication that kept the Western anime market alive. For that I salute those brave fansubbers from times gone by.

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