Writer, translator and Japanese pop culture expert, Frederik Schodt was writing about manga and Osamu Tezuka when many of us were still watching the Flintstones. Schodt has written a number of books on Japan including Dreamland Japan, The Astroboy Essays, and the reference book on Japanese comics that has become somewhat of a bible, Manga! Manga! The World of Japanese Comics. Last year, Schodt was lauded by the Japanese government with two awards: the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold Rays with Rosette, and the International Manga Award, given by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Both were for his achievements in helping to popularize manga overseas. Schodt has continued to be an active translator of manga for publishers in the U.S. His most recent project, with long time partner, Jared Cook, isPlutoby Naoki Urasawa. Schodt took a moment to speak with PW Comics Week on how he got started in popularizing manga in America, the changes and challenges of translating manga for Americans over the past 20 years, and his thoughts on reading manga right-to-left.
PW Comics Week: Your first book, Manga! Manga! The World of Japanese Comics was published back in 1983. What made you want to write about manga? What was your entry into the medium?
Frederik Schodt:It’s a fairly long story. Around 1977, some friends and I—two Japanese friends and an American friend—started translating manga in hopes of getting them published. It was way too early. We didn’t get anything published.I realized later on, that before trying to translate manga, there was a need for a book that explained manga as a phenomenon before any could be translated and published.
That was the impetus behind Manga! Manga!.Around the same time, Project Gen had been translating Keiji Nakazawa's Barefoot Gen, and along with my friend Jared Cook I was involved in translating volume two of the series. Gen was arguably the first Japanese manga book translated and published in the English market, but the numerous translators who worked on it were volunteers. It wasn't a vanity project, but it wasn't done on a commercial level at all, and it was hard to sell.I realized then that it was too early for the US market. People had no idea what Japanese comics were. It was hard for them to grasp. People were not even eating sushi on a broad level. It’s been gratifying to see how many people have read Manga! Manga!.I’m suprised that it’s in print and that people are still reading it.
PWCW: You’ve written subsequent books about manga and Japanese pop culture. Did you anticipate the popularity of manga or Jpop in the US?
FS:I never dreamed Japanese pop culture would become as popular as it has in the United States, Europe, or South East Asia. But I always hoped it would. The hidden motive for me behind writing Manga! Manga! is that I’ve always been interested in drawing more attention to popular culture in Japan. In the late ‘70’s and the end of the 1960’s, the focus in the U.S. was on the high arts and literature of Japan. When I wrote Manga! Manga! I was interested in the disconnect between this vital, strong, popular culture and humor in Japan—a lot of what I saw—and the outside perception of the Japanese as automatons, salary men. Manga! Manga! was a fascination with what normal people were doing.
PWCW: What do you think of manga’s presence in the U.S. right now?
FS:I think it’s a wonderful thing. It’s a unique thing for the U.S. as well. America, for the last 150 years, was so focused on itself and on its own culture, or in an earlier stage of it history focused on England or Europe. For the 20th Century, the focus has been on our own culture to exclusion of others. So this fascination with a culture so different—and so similar—that’s on the other side of world is an interesting phenomenon to me. Many cultures have a vibrant pop culture, Bollywood, Bande Dessinée (French graphic novels)—but the US doesn’t have the same focus on themat anywhere near the same level of the manga movement in the US. We don’t see huge conferences on Bande Dessinée or Bande Dessinéecosplay. I would love to see conferences on Bande Dessinée—in NYC would be a great thing—but[the focus is on]a very different culture on the other side of the world.
PWCW: You are currently translating Pluto for Viz. You’ve also translated properties for Dark Horse like Astro Boy . What are the differences in translating manga now versus translating manga back in the 1980’s? Are the challenges the same? Have they changed?
FS: I translated Plutowith Jared Cook. He’s a long time partner of mine in translation and we finished the translation last summer. I love the series. I translated the entire Astroboy series for Dark Horse. I’ve written a whole book on Astroboy. I knew aboutPlutowhen it was still being serialized in Japan and thought it was a fabulous work. I’m impressed with what Urasawa has done with it. To take one episode of Astroboy and turn it into this adult story relevant to us today is quite an achievement.
Translation itself has changed in a lot of different ways. The technology has changed a lot. Everything is done on a computer. When I was first translating, nothing was done on computer. Nobody had a personal computer. Now there’s Photoshop and all sorts of things. You can send manuscripts and digital images back and forth. The physical labor has been changed. The world around manga has changed. Now there are two and a half generations in America and Europe who have a lot more knowledge of Japanese culture. It comes not just from manga but from anime videos. A lot of young people in their 20’s were raised on [My Neighbor] Totoro and [Hayao] Miyazaki videos. They were a surrogate parent. Kids were parked in front of Miyazaki videos. These aesthetics are familiar to them.
There is less of a wall in translating the manga now. In late 70’s and early 80’s, we had to worry about, “Will American’s know what a tatami is? Do they get the chopsticks thing?” That wall has disappeared for Japanese society. Most Americans are familiar with sushi. We don’t need to tweak the translation for them to understand it.
Now there’s a whole generation of manga fans who prefer to have their manga not flopped [reading right-to-left as in the Japanese originals]. They want to read it as close to the original. The right-to-left format has taken over; that’s an interesting phenomenon in and of itself. I’m not sure that publishers switching over to the right-to-left format is good for manga overall, but I think it’s interesting. In 1978 or 1983, there’s no way in the world anyone could publish manga in English reading right-to-left.
PWCW: Flipped or unflipped?
FS: It is an impediment in itself if you want to expand manga outside of its fan base. I have mixed feelings about manga flipped. I have been translating manga longer and more continuously than anyone else in this country, so I have been involved in all aspects; non-flopping was this perfect storm of interests that converged from the hard core fans who want their manga as close to the original as possible; publishers in the U.S. who found it more convenient because it costs less money to not flop pages; artists in Japan who reached a point in the publisher world where they have so much power, wealth, and social power that they could dictate whether they wanted their work flopped or not. It became easy for publishers to go for the non-flopped option—because they had a fan base that preferred it non-flopped. So there was a movement towards a more authentic experience—but very duplicitous in a way. It preserves the idea of original manga but disturbs the flow of the reading. Because it is in a hybrid, unorthodox format, it’s harder to get people not in the manga scene or part of the fandom to read it. This will probably be solved by a virtual or e-reader where people can read manga page by page, in the direction of their choice, by simply pushing a button."
PWCW: The process by which manga is made in Japan - has that changed in the past 20 years?
FS: The manga industry in Japan right now is going through tough times. When I was writing about it, manga sales were going through the roof, and energy in the manga industry was tremendous. Now manga as a huge phenomenon and industry in Japan dwarfs that in other countries. But in 1995,1996, it peaked and has been on a downwards slide since. Sales of the [anthology] magazines are not good. Tankoubon sales have stabilized. You don’t see people reading manga on the trains anymore. That’s a huge change from the 1990’s. People aren’t reading anything on the trains. At least, there’s no print or magazines on trains. Now they’re on their cellphones, listening to music, reading or sending texts. Maybe they’re reading on their PSP’s or Gameboys but there is a huge shift in how people spend their time and their discretionary income. It’s been caused by technology. Cellphones dominate people’s lives. Economics and the declining number of children in Japan means far fewer children. Manga has expanded beyond kids to be on the same level as novels and films, but most of its readers are young people and that audience has shrunk.
The media in America discovered manga five years ago. It’s like ukiye-o [wood block prints] where Americans were studying them but in Japan, they were at the tail end of their boom period. Manga’s boom period in Japan has already happened. Manga are not going to disappear, but they are on the cusp of a huge transition. Most of the trends in the U.S. publishing world haven’t yet hit Japan. The e-books thing—Japan is quite a ways behind there. Where will manga go? Everyone is trying to figure that out now.