Veteran translator Matt Thorn has been involved in the so-called manga revolution from its earliest days—he started translating for Viz in the 1990s—and now he is the editor and translator of Fantagraphics' manga line. Matt remembers when manga publishers had standards, and translators made good money; his top price was $17 per page. "Mind you, there was no shortage of enthusiastic otaku willing to work for peanuts," he writes. "It’s just that no respectable publisher ever seriously considered hiring such people unless they proved themselves, and even then they were paid a decent wage." Then Stu Levy came along.
TokyoPop changed that. Why pay six bucks a page when there’s this kid here who will do something vaguely resembling a “translation” for five bucks a page? Or four? Or even three?
I was stunned when I first heard that there were kids at TokyoPop working for three bucks a page. That’s not even close to a living wage.
The practice was cynical on many levels. Obviously, it was exploitation of the translator. But it also revealed a contempt for the reader: These kids can’t tell the difference between good writing and bad, so why pay more for better writing?
Before Tokyopop's "100% authentic manga" format change, manga volumes were bigger and more expensive. There were also standards for translators and editors, and Matt describes the sort of screening and feedback that were involved. Bringing the price down to less than ten dollars a volume helped make manga a popular phenomenon, but the tradeoff was lower wages, which in turn resulted in lower quality work. And it wasn't just Tokyopop—Thorn says that while Tokyopop was the lowest payer, they helped depress wages for the whole industry.
The Digital Manga Guild is the logical conclusion of this: Digital Manga is signing groups of "enthusiastic otaku" and paying nothing up front; if their books make money, they will get some payment on the back end.
Scanlators, of course, make nothing at all; they work for love, not money, and one of the justifications that scanlation readers use for their habit is that fan-translators do a better job than those who work for commercial publishers. Hearing that Tokyopop was paying bottom dollar for its translators makes this argument a little easier to believe.
Addendum: Read the comments section on Kate Dacey's post for a description of life at Tokyopop from freelance editor Daniella Orihuela-Gruber, as well as a lively discussion of whether fans would rather have their manga cheap or good.