American writer, translator and interpreter Frederik Schodt has always been inspired by the complexities of language. However, the 67-year-old uses a fairly straightforward term to describe what modern-day U.S. fans of manga might think of him today, saying they might “hate” him.
Schodt has made a name for himself over the past four decades by translating the works of such luminary figures as 漫画の神様 (Manga no Kamisama, “God of Manga”) Osamu Tezuka of “Astro Boy” fame. He was invited to Tokyo in October to receive the 2017 Japan Foundation Award for his significant contribution to the understanding of Japanese culture.
The trip marked a return to a city Schodt first visited more than half a century ago, when he came to Tokyo in 1965 at the age of 15 as a son of a diplomat.
After graduating from an American school in Tokyo and returning to the United States, Schodt came back in 1970 to study Japanese intensively as an exchange student at the International Christian University in Tokyo. He returned as a postgraduate specializing in interpreting and translation in 1975, and went on to work at Tokyo-based translation and interpreting services firm Simul International — “translating everything: government documents, speeches, boring things, fun things” — before returning to San Francisco in 1978, where he has been based ever since.
Schodt had always wanted to do “something with language” professionally, but a manga-related career was never planned.
“I loved manga but there was no way to make a living (with it),” he says. “Even in 1971 I was thinking, ‘I wish I could study it in university,’ but in those days, there wasn’t such a thing.”
These days he makes his bread and butter by providing interpretation services specializing in IT, and he loves writing — he’s authored eight books, but he is most recognized for his numerous manga translations, including Masamune Shirow’s 「攻殻機動隊」 (Kōkakukidōtai, “Ghost in the Shell”).
Schodt started working on manga translations during his time at Simul. A group of friends in their 20s (another American and two Japanese) who called themselves 駄駄会 (Dadakai) went to Tezuka Production, the manga god’s office, to seek permission to translate the first five books of 「火の鳥」 (Hi no Tori, “Phoenix”) — an epic manga masterpiece that had captivated Schodt ever since he first encountered it as an exchange student.
The members of Dadakai — a reference to Dadaism and the kanji 駄 (da), used in だじゃれ (puns), だだをこねる (to whine) and だめ (no good) — were Tezuka fans and expressed a desire to introduce his work to the West. Schodt admits his Japanese at the time was “pretty good” but underlined that with a caveat.
“Language is difficult,” he says. “I’m still learning a lot — even English.”
Permission was granted to translate the manga, with no requests other than to “do a good job” and “be accurate.”
“I think they were surprised anyone would want to translate Japanese manga then,” Schodt says. “It was a different world.”
The team submitted its draft by early 1978 only to find that Tezuka Production would sit on it for 25 years. Indeed, it wasn’t until 2002 that Viz Media in San Francisco first published the work.
“We were too early,” Schodt says.
Undeterred, he published “Manga! Manga! The World of Japanese Comics” in 1983.
“I thought it was too early to publish manga,” he says. “The first thing we needed was a book about manga, so I wrote that.”
The introductory book, which these days is a must-read for students of manga in the West, is an extensive account of the genre’s history, its themes and styles. Schodt ended the book with 100 pages of his own translations, including a 26-page excerpt from the Dadakai-translated “Phoenix.”
Pointing to one of its pages, Schodt recalls asking Tezuka to redraw a character because he knew the scene wouldn’t work for a Western audience. Set in eighth-century Japan, the sequence shows a fictional character come out of 東大寺の正倉院 (Tōdaiji no Shōsōin, a treasure house at Todaiji Temple) to tell real-life imperial scholar 吉備真備 (Kibi no Makibi) his dream about the Phoenix.
“It’s a very beautiful sequence (and) very philosophical, but Tezuka liked to put gags in serious parts of the story,” he says. “He did that a lot and fans loved that. In this scene, he places (fellow manga artist) Shigeru Mizuki’s ネズミ男 (Nezumi-otoko, the rodent-like ‘Rat Man’ from ‘GeGeGe no Kitaro’) instead of the historical character that should be there.”
Tezuka graciously accepted Schodt’s request and redrew the character.
The above anecdote perhaps provides an insight into Schodt’s laborious efforts to introduce a foreign cultural medium to Western readers at a time when the Internet wasn’t widely available and people had no access to Adobe design suite.
The technical process involved in reproducing the manga titles is mind-boggling. First, Schodt had to create a photographic image, then “flip” the pictures, 反転 (hanten) or 逆転 (gyakuten) in Japanese, to create a mirror image so it could be read from left to right. Then, he had to manually erase the Japanese in text balloons and paste English into them. He would also redraw the background onomatopoeia in English.
These techniques eventually laid the foundations for U.S. manga publishing, but Schodt, who admits to being “partly responsible” for the localizing process, says “Hardcore American manga fans now would probably hate me for this.
“(They) don’t want the pages localized anymore. They don’t want the art touched at all. It’s a different world,” he says, explaining that U.S. publishers now cater to those who want “authenticity,” with as much Japanese texts as possible.
“The world of (manga) translation has changed today. I’m not necessary for most of that,” Schodt says, noting how “scanlation” (“scanning” and “translation”) by fans online has largely affected the world of publishing.
Last year, Schodt translated a 904-page manga biography titled “The Osamu Tezuka Story,” something he says he has been “recovering from” for much of this year.
With 2018 marking the 90th anniversary of Tezuka’s birthday, however, the manga translation master can surely be expected to find his services in high demand.