People Sure Like to Romanticise Fan Translations


People sure like to romanticise piracy. This was something that occurred to me after I published an article a few days ago called Explaining the English Light Novel Boom with Bookwalker Global, which didn’t mention piracy at all and yet sparked controversy on the subject anyway. As many of the comments argued, fan translations have played a part in popularizing light novels in English translation. Why didn’t I mention their existence?

In truth, I didn’t set out to snub fan translation in that piece. It was simply the case that the people I spoke to at Bookwalker Global did not mention it. The article was not intended as a comprehensive overview of the light novel industry; it was meant to showcase Bookwalker Global’s perspective on the subject. I thought that their views would be interesting because a) They’ve recently jumped onto the English light novel bandwagon with a clear rationale for doing so, and b) They are deeply connected to the Japanese light novel market.

Fan translations were clearly not relevant with Bookwalker Global’s choice of exclusive titles. Neither The Combat Baker nor The Ryuo’s Work is Never Done! had English fan translations when these releases were being decided, nor was there much hype for them on English-language social media. However, people still wanted me to talk about fan translation anyway. I suspect that they wanted me to romanticise their place in history.

As someone who used to be a fan translator, I do not think that I helped “build hype” for the series I worked on in any tangible way, as much as I wished that was the case. Rather, anime adaptations did most of the work. Most of the audience for the fan translations came while the anime aired and left very quickly afterwards. Even at the peak of their popularity, the audience was still niche. What percentage of these relatively small numbers were converted to paying customers of the official releases in the end, I cannot say.

I have the stats to support these opinions, at least in regards to my own projects.



The Oregairu fan translation reached its peak in 2015, when the second season of the anime was airing. Although the site reached over 2 million views, most of the translation was spread over many pages, so the “visitor” counter is a more accurate reflection of how many people actually read the translation. It’s not a bad number until you remember how many people watch the anime. The access counter for the first season of the anime on KissAnime is over 6.5 million. When the view count on a single anime pirate site vastly outweighs the number of people who accessed the LN fan translation, you know that fan-translated light novels are not that popular, even though the content is free.

The light novel fan translation did worse when the anime wasn’t airing. The Oregairu anime first aired in 2013, so there was already some demand for a fan translation, but the site only began receiving regular updates in 2014. Even though the fan translation was active a whole year before the second season of the anime started airing, it only received half the number of unique visitors in total (125,060). That is how much of a difference anime makes.

Note that the translation was taken down after the light novel was licensed, so we’ll have to use a different example for what happens to a series after the seasonal hype is over.



In 2015, I released a translation of Qualidea of Scum and a Gold Coin. This translation received 23,624 unique visitors. How many people read every single chapter? At most, 330 people. That’s the number of hits for the least popular story-related page. Meanwhile, the first page received 6,676 views. There’s a clear decline of interest as the novel progresses, with each page receiving significantly less views than the last.

In 2016, the Qualidea Code anime started airing, and while it’s not a direct adaptation of Qualidea of Scum and a Gold Coin, their stories are somewhat related. The light novel fan translation received an upswing of views accordingly. In 2016, there were 37,877 visitors. Even then, only around 1,000 people must have read the entirety of the story on the site. There were also 2,868 clicks to the PDF file on Mediafire. That’s about the extent of the novel’s reach, even at its peak.

In 2017, the site has only achieved 4,400 visitors so far. That’s obviously far less than half of 2016’s numbers, even though the year is more than halfway over. The series was never very popular with readers to begin with, but the site is now even less popular than it was in 2015. Qualidea of Scum and a Gold Coin had very short legs as a novel.

More Data

The Henneko translation was first released a year after the anime finished airing, and has only declined in popularity since.


There’s a similar story for the Aldnoah Zero extra novel. (It’s not technically a light novel, but it was posted on a website for people who like light novels and anime. Also, it was uploaded after the second season of the anime aired.)


The conclusion here is clear: light novels without an anime don’t get many unique readers who actually stick with the story. Honestly, I’ve written fanfics about light novels with more reach and longevity than a fan translation.

It is also worth noting that Baka-Tsuki, the site that used to be a centralised hub for fan translations in English and other languages, has been declining in readership over the years. According to Alexa, its global rank is now 41,752th; it is 711 positions lower than it was three months ago. Light novels are getting more popular, but the novels that people apparently want to read are not on Baka-Tsuki.

These days, a lot of fan translations are posted on separate WordPress or Blogspot sites. There are not many aggregate sites that introduce readers to a diverse range of translation, so you have to search for each fan translation on Google by title. Unless you know the title from somewhere, you’re probably not going to stumble upon the series.

Within this niche and insular world of fan translations, the most highly-discussed titles are usually web novels. Many of these are machine-translated, ensuring that the updates are frequent and regular. The regularity is what maintains interest among the hardcore readers, although I imagine that the writing quality is off-putting to people outside the niche. If these fan translation sites were to release their stats to the public, it would not surprise me if their first chapters had high bounce rates.

For all of these reasons I would personally not assume that highly active fan translations would cultivate paying customers for the official translations. There is still plenty of demand for light novel translations, but fan translation is only one of many factors that could explain it. It is a factor that I believe has been overstated by the light novel community online. My perspective comes from talking with publishers, as well as my personal experience as a fan translator.

Further reading: This post by an editor of Kodansha comics, this interview with a former Tokyopop editor.

Before I conclude this post, I’d like to mention a few things. Firstly, my argument that the positive effects of light novel fan translations have been overstated is separate from any argument about the morality of piracy. Nor am I commenting on the effects of anime fansubbing and/or piracy. It’s a different ecosystem, and one that I know less about.

Secondly, Sam Pinansky from J-Novel Club has gone on record stating that fan translations are a “major factor” in their licensing decisions. Sam has been highly active in light novel communities, even hosting an AMA on the light novel subreddit, which leads me to believe that he deals with fan translations differently than other publishers. I have no reason to believe that this approach doesn’t work for him. But it doesn’t appear to be the consensus among manga and light novel publishers these days.

The debate about whether fan translations do more good than harm is ongoing, but let’s not romanticise light novel fan translations in this debate. When it comes to English licenses, they’re hardly an important factor for most publishers.



  1. This article was very enlightening. Not only your examples with the Oregairu, Qualidea and HenNeko Statistics were very informative, but it was also interesting to learn about YenPress’s opinion on Light novel fan translations. Thank you.

  2. Seems like an aggregate site would help novels get more of a reach, but beyond that I dont think there are even many who truly stick with the novel even post anime after a few chapters or so. I think perhaps the release situation with the LNs from fan translators (some seemed to release chapters like once a month at best) can be a part of why the declining numbers happen. Also I think we hear it all the time, people just dont follow up on the anime adapted novels post anime. I think its the nature of the media that also can be a reason as I think people stick with manga’s more and longer post anime than they do with LNs.

    I tried the machine translation route and it was terrible, I dont see how any but the most hardcore can do it, especially when there is so much detail in just word choice or even character expression in novels.

    I do with at least that sometimes actual licensors do get some that arent anime, but then I battle with myself in wanting some that did become anime, why no one has Heavy Object, or Anti Magic Academy 35th Test Platoon is a mystery to me :(

    • Thing is, there are aggregate sites. Aho-Updates was around for a while but it’s dead now. There’s also, but it’s mostly for Chinese novels. (Which, honestly, appears to have a bigger fanbase in English than Japanese light novels.) There’s nothing like those anime streaming or manga scanlation sites, though, where you can easily find pretty much everything in a single place.

      Also, not all light novels that get an anime do well. It depends on the popularity of the anime too. And it’s better to have the books published before or during the anime’s airing time, because otherwise, as you can kinda see in this post here, the hype dies really fast.

  3. Sam has been at the digisubbing forefront since mid 00s when he was head honcho of an anime fansub group. Of course he’d be a bit more sensitive to every event that happens in piracy land. The books that don’t get printed will always be more sensitive to any digital release.

  4. > Many of these are machine-translated, ensuring that the updates are frequent and regular. The regularity is what maintains interest among the hardcore readers, although I imagine that the writing quality is off-putting to people outside the niche.

    Honestly, machine translations are pretty off-putting to a lot of us in the niche as well. Fan-translations are really declining as fewer translators are doing actual light novels, or even speak either English or Japanese. It’s kind of disgusting honestly that fan-translations are being more driven by profits instead of putting out quality releases. This is why the only stuff worth reading lately is licensed stuff.

  5. there are actually novels that got licensed before being aired into an anime like Danmachi, and Rise of the Shield Hero and novels with fan-translation that are not being animated yet but got licensed like Psycome. Heck it wan’t even anime that made me read light novels but manga of Madan no Ou and Mahouka when anime wasn’t even aired. anime was a big part of it but the infulence of fan-translation cannot be denied.

    • With Danmachi and Rise of the Shield Hero, people following the Japanese market closely could have anticipated that they would get turned into anime because they’re quite “hype” titles. So it wasn’t necessarily the fan translations that could have attracted interest from publishers.

  6. Fan translations are more a symptom of popularity, not a cause. But the level of activity is a decent correlative to later sales potential, hence me using it as one data point in licensing decisions. I never said that I felt fan translations of any particular series helped grow it’s popularity in the west. That is sometimes the case but sometimes not.

    My overall thesis on the subject is that fan translation has a macro effect on overall readership size of a particular medium but a negligible or minus effect on the readership of any particular series due to dilution.
    It seems self contradictory but it’s not.

    • Thanks for the clarification. Although you didn’t say that fan translations are responsible for the popularity of light novels, I was worried that people would use what you did say to support their exaggerated claims about the importance of fan translations. IMO piracy is pretty inevitable (a symptom not a cause, as you say) but it doesn’t need to be validated when the data doesn’t point in that direction.

      • I am wondering where your vehemence comes from to make sure that fan translators who think they are doing the industry a favor by doing what they are doing change their minds. You seem to be angry at them self-justifying their “work” with, to borrow a phrase, “alternative facts”. But would you rather they just do it for patreon money, or internet adulation, or to spite the man?
        When I was fansubbing many years ago I believed that some of what I did influenced the industry for the better, and when I stopped it was in part because I felt such activity wasn’t needed anymore for anime with the explosion of legal anime streaming.

        I guess what I’m trying to say is, don’t attack people who truly believe they are doing the industry a favor, because they will realize the truth on their own soon enough if they have the passion and drive. The talented ones can be pro translators, and even the ones without talent can help turn their readers toward legal sources.

        It’s the people who don’t give a damn about the industry or health of the market in the first place that are the problem.
        The altruistic (if misguided) fan translators can easily be turned into market influencers and a positive force as long as they aren’t constantly told how terrible they are and how their work is so harmful.

        My philosophy on how to treat fan translators that actually care as this transition period to legal releases continues can be summarized with one word:

        Otsukaresama deshita.

        • I’m not attacking fan translators. I didn’t think of them as the target audience for this post. It’s mostly aimed at the readers.

          As a matter of fact, I’m still friends with the folks at Nano Desu. Nano has told me that fan translation is mostly just a hobby for him and he has no interest in getting into the industry side of things. I think that’s fine. A lot of people do it to practice their Japanese. Others want to share their favourite series while it remains unavailable. There are plenty of motivations to take up fan translation beyond “helping the industry”.

          And I actually think that these are good reasons to do fan translation. On a personal level, fan translation is something that has benefited me and I don’t regret doing it one bit. I just can’t hold pretensions that I did good on a greater scale.

          I’m not interested in becoming a pro LN translator, but I do retweet the recruitment notices from LN and manga publishers from time to time. I think it’s good to draw attention to legal channels where fans can translate for their passion. It just wasn’t the focus of this particular article.

          • Arguing to someone who reads fan translations of (web) novels, the vast majority of which have no official release, will inevitably reduce to “then how can I read XXXX?” and you’ll be left with no answer other than “read something else that’s officially available”, a known losing argument. Any argument that ends with “this content is not for you” helps to embitter potential consumers against “the industry”.

            As has been proven 100s of times, the only way to change consumer behavior is to make what consumers want available in the way they want to consume it at a reasonable price. Whether it’s music, tv shows, anime, or books, no “anti-piracy” marketing campaign has ever done an iota of good, compared to industry catching up with consumer behavior.
            The majority of web novel translation readers actually think it’s 100% legal because the original Japanese web novel is also posted for free. You can serenade them with the intricacies of copyright law all you want and it won’t matter.

    • I missed that. The fan TL wasn’t around when I was first investigated the title after its Kono Light Novel ga Sugoi! win, and it almost certainly emerged after Bookwalker Global negotiated for the book’s English release (likely months before the official announcement), so I doubt it was a factor either way.

  7. As a big fan of data it was nice to see someone support their argument with facts. Instead of just feelings or opinions.

    Thank you for an informative article. I learned something new today.

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