Manga refers to comics and graphic novels from Japan. Like anime and Japanese games, manga has a large following outside of Japan. Many non-Japanese manga fans read “fan translations” that are available on the internet without being sanctioned by the relevant rights holders. This situation persists even though more popular manga series, translated into English, are regularly officially licensed and available for purchase or streaming outside of Japan today than in previous decades.

I recently published an article about organizing RSS and ATOM feed collections. In that article, I argued that feed curators should consider purpose – why they are collecting and organizing feeds – before settling on a system for doing so. I noted that purpose applies as well to other tech questions. Purpose is also important in the context of commercial endeavors. Let us consider the case of a Japanese manga publisher that wants to ensure that people outside of Japan actually pay for manga under its umbrella instead of downloading unsanctioned fan translations.

On April 2, 2024, Automation West published an article titled New manga platform stirs controversy with botched machine translations. TO Books, a Japanese manga publisher which has the rights to many popular manga series, has an online manga streaming platform called CORONA EX which was first made available in Japan in 2022. For a monthly fee, subscribers can read manga on CORONA EX without actually purchasing the series (I assume one can use its website or an app but note that I am not familiar with the particulars).

On April 1, 2024, TO Books announced that CORONA EX is now available in English. Now let us take a minute to consider purpose – why a Japanese publisher would make its manga streaming platform available in English. One purpose is obvious: Money. If people subscribe to the manga streaming service, the publisher collects subscription fees. This service fills a niche. Some people who do not collect physical manga may prefer paying a small monthly fee (the fees are usually less than the price of a single volume of manga) to read many series. Some people who like a series may later buy the physical volumes or other related merchandise.

I see a second purpose beyond the obvious for a Japanese manga publisher making its Japanese streaming platform available internationally. There are some fan sub-first readers who may always stick with fan subs (so long as they are available). Fan subs are usually free and some people may insist they are actually better than the official translations. Others may have developed a decades-long habit; however, there may be a certain percentage of thesefan sub readers who would be willing to switch to paying the publisher when the option becomes available. That is, TO Books could, in theory, convert some people who had previously been reading unsanctioned scans of its manga properties for free into paying subscribers while also creating goodwill abroad by showing that it wants to make its properties readily available to English-speaking audiences.

Let us keep that second proposed purpose in mind as we learn more about how the English version of CORONA EX (note: I would have considered a name change) is actually being implemented. I quote from the Automation West article:

According to the official homepage, Corona Ex will provide overseas readers with manga translated by To Books’s publishing partners as well as manga translated using Google’s AI. The publishers caution users that ‘there may be errors’ in the machine translations and note that ‘bonus content’ such as afterwords of manga will not be available on the platform.

At least some of the manga on CORONA EX will not be translated by human beings – but by “Google AI.” The Automation West article notes some specific examples of the badly AI translated manga as well as some entirely untranslated sections. What will people pay for this wonderful service? I quote again from Automation West:

Corona Ex will be subscription-based, with a monthly fee of $4.50/month, which puts it significantly above platforms such as Viz Media ($1.99/month) or Shonen Jump ($2.99/month).

To recap: Corona EX will be more expensive than some services provided by other manga houses and it is offering – as of April 2, 2024 – bad and incomplete machine translations that were clearly not checked by human beings.

TO Books’ English language Corona EX service sounds like a scam – even granting its disclaimers that the machine translations “may” contain errors. In addition to sounding like a scam, I think it is dumb in light of my second proposed purpose for making Corona EX available in English. While it is possible that a good streaming service can convert some non-paying fan translation readers into paying subscribers – I will venture that Crunchyroll and similar anime streaming services have made paying subscribers out of many former fan-sub-only watchers (note that the question of whether Crunchyroll provides a fair deal to anime publishers is beyond our scope) – offering a borderline scam service for $4.50 per month will not convert anyone. In fact – it is the kind of thing that that may pop up as a justification for reading fan subs instead of buying or streaming officially licensed English-language manga releases. Note that my point here is not to defend posting copyrighted work online without permission or any of the reasoning that many may provide for preferring to read fan subs to paying the official rights holders for the works. My point is reality-based. Garbage Google Translations will fail to persuade the very people that TO Books may want to persuade to pay for its service and instead alienate people who otherwise deal in manga purchases in good faith. (Note that the fact that some rights holders may implicitly condone fan translations to some extent or another because they raise awareness for a property and may lead to merchandise sales is beyond the scope of this article.)

Throwing my cards on the table – I am not a manga reader despite being an anime fan. While I have read some manga series in part – see for example my notes on the A Sign of Affection manga in my review of the corresponding anime – it is not my thing and I have little investment – literally or figuratively – in the manga publishing situation. I nevertheless recoiled when I read about the initial implementation of the English version of CORONA EX. Far be it from me to tell TO Books what to do, but I would have recommended charging less and only making available manga that was translated by actual human beings who are fluent in both Japanese and English – perhaps slowly making more series available and raising the price in the future. Instead, TO Books released a product that would seem unlikely to attract or keep many subscribers at all while simultaneously serving as a talking point against official English language releases of manga generally.