Even after adding a 2017 Japan Foundation Award to his list of accolades, writer, translator and interpreter Frederik L Schodt remains grounded, hopeful of continuing to produce work that is simply “useful to people.”
Throughout his 40-year career in pioneering manga translations for the English-speaking world and in bringing unknown historical stories to life through books, Schodt has focused on communicating interesting and exciting ideas, people and things. Now, at 67, being useful is “one of the biggest drivers of everything” he does.
It was what spurred him, in 2016, to translate the widely acclaimed informational manga biography of Astro Boy’s creator, "The Osamu Tezuka Story." Though he says the original has been a valuable resource for undergraduate and postgraduate students of manga, the English translation is set to make Tezuka’s manga journey more accessible.
The book was a departure from Schodt’s usual style, too.
“I came through the heavy localization era and am partly responsible for it,” he said. “When I wrote my first book in 1983, I had 100 pages of translated manga in the back as a way to show how it could be done. It was flopped [images mirror-reversed across a vertical axis] and heavily localized. I thought we needed a book explaining the manga phenomena before manga could be published in English, and I just hoped people would read it,” he said.
Now, with a laugh, he says he’s “getting with the program,”— a nod to the growing demand for authenticity of manga in recent years. According to Schodt, many fans want English translations to be as close as possible to the original text, in a way that “would have been unthinkable 20 years ago.” Almost all manga in the United States is currently published to be read right to left.
In keeping with the change, the art in "The Osamu Tezuka Story" is also not reversed, and original onomatopoeia remains, with English micro-text added to the gutter of the pages to aid understanding.
But Schodt says the argument over localization and authenticity continues to divide both the industry and fan community. He points out that, although manga tends to be published right to left, the text in the word balloons is horizontal and left to right: the opposite way to that of Japanese versions.
While moves toward “authentic” manga might benefit publishers in cost-and time-reduction, Schodt warns that it can “limit the market” and “create a ghettoization.” Completely localized manga, on the other hand, once “reached a broader audience,” including “older Americans who are not young manga anime otaku fans.”
Still, bigger challenges remain for the manga industry. On his October trip to Tokyo to pick up the Japan Foundation Award, Schodt noted almost no-one reading manga on the trains, even on their smartphone, which he believes is “a huge change from 10 years ago.” Since a peak in manga sales in the United States in 1997, he has seen a decline, with publishers in both countries facing issues such as the cost of printing and distribution, online publication and piracy.
“Manga are in a transition period,” he said. “It’s possible that manga will become like ukiyo-e did in the 20th century: they won’t disappear but the focus moves to something else. We are moving into a new world.”
With sales of publishing rights overseas becoming an increasingly important business as well as growing competition from Korean, Chinese and Western manga, Schodt says the challenge for Japan is figuring out how to adapt to the new world.
He admits that the popularization of manga — in part due to his making it accessible — has made his role as a manga translator “not so necessary anymore” but believes he can still uncover and translate things that are “particularly unique.”
It is the same mission that inspired him, as a Tokyo-based translator in 1977, to form a group called Dadakai with friends, to introduce manga to the West.
“At the time, there were all these books about Japanese business, tea ceremony, zen, quality control. I thought, wait a moment, Japanese people actually have a fabulous sense of humor and a rich popular culture. Why aren’t people aware of this huge manga phenomenon?”
Similarly, his books on unsung yet fascinating personalities have been driven by the “amazing things” they have done. “I want to make them better known; I feel like I’m on a mission,” he says.
Examples include his award-winning historical novels, "Native American in the Land of the Shogun: Ranald MacDonald and the Opening of Japan," which is based on a true story Schodt uncovered while researching early U.S.-Japanese contacts, and "Professor Risley and the Imperial Japanese Troupe," a book he penned to “answer questions I had, to learn and to share what I learned with a wider audience."
Both explore cross-cultural interactions between the United States and Japan, as does his translation, "The Four Immigrants Manga," which charts the real-life journey of Japanese immigrants in San Francisco in the early 20th century. Lauded as a major contribution to Asian-American Studies, the book is increasingly used as a teaching tool and was performed as a musical in summer 2017.
“It’s incredible; so well done,” said Schodt, adding that some people left the theatre moved to tears. After writer, composer and lyricist Min Kahng decided to make a musical based on the translation, the process was long and expensive but funding was secured and pilots got underway. Schodt helped bring the project to fruition by showing Kahng the sights where the story unfolded and acting as a go-between with the family.
While Schodt is most well-known for his contribution to the manga community, these other works have also contributed to his commendation as an Ambassador of Multi-cultural Exchange and, most recently by the Japan Foundation, for his commitment to intercultural exchange.
Schodt is very happy to be recognized. Raised in Norway, Australia, Japan and the United States and married to a a naturalized Chinese-American woman who speaks French and English and Mandarin, he says his “whole life has been about cross-cultural things” and he “lives in a multi-cultural world.”
“I’ve won a lot of awards — more than I deserve really. It’s a wonderful thing. I don’t tend to do anything that makes a lot of money but it’s just wonderful that people seem to like what I’m doing,” he said. “I think of [the Japan Foundation Award] as an encouragement to keep doing what I’ve been doing.”
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