A Japanese Poetry “Slam” in English

By Avery Fischer Udagawa, Bangkok

Ready to whack a waka?

A new game gets children and adults doing just that!

The waka is a classical poetry form that predates haiku by nearly a thousand years. Poems in the form have a syllable count of 5-7-5-7-7 in Japanese.

The Ogura Hyakunin Isshu is a centuries-old collection of a hundred waka by different poets, compiled by Fujiwara no Teika (1162-1241). During the Edo Period (1603-1868), this collection begot a popular game in which a reader chants each waka, and two players vie to be the first to slap a card printed with only the waka’s last two lines. The object is to slap and get rid of all the cards on one’s own side; winning requires not only knowing the poems, but also memorizing card placement and avoiding penalties for mis-slaps.

At advanced levels, Hyakunin Isshu karuta—or karuta, cards—is a sport of sharp listening, lightning-fast movement, and “reading” one’s opponent as well as the cards. The official game in Japan features player rankings, mastery levels, and tournaments; the top tournament, held at New Year’s time, decides male and female national champions.

High schools may also field karuta teams for group competition, as dramatized in a teen manga series—and movies, anime and novels—called Chihayafuru. The first 17 volumes of the manga by Yuki Suetsugu are out in English translation by Ko Ransom, published by Kodansha Comics.

A montage of scenes from the Chihayafuru movies (Toho Co., Ltd.)

Now Peter MacMillan, translator of the Penguin Classics edition of the Hyakunin Isshu, has developed an English version of the card game, illustrated by Yasushi Yokoiyama and manufactured by Kawada, makers of the Nanoblock®. MacMillan’s game soft-launched at the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo, which hosted a mini high school tournament in January 2017.

After hearing MacMillan speak this month at Japan Writers Conference 2019, I asked my husband and our daughters, aged 8 and 11, to try the English game at home. It was a hit! (Pun intended.)

Being familiar with the Japanese version of the game thanks to Chihayafuru, my family couldn’t help but notice a few differences. The cards in English are horizontal, not vertical. They feature illustrations of the poems, while the original playing cards show only words. In addition, the Whack a Waka cards feature modern English renderings of poems that we were used to hearing in classical Japanese, which confused us at times.

On the other hand, the translations helped us better understand the meanings of many poems. And as in Japanese, the game provided an active, engaging way to share poetry together. The girls especially loved it when my husband and I squared off in the game and “sent” romantic waka to each other (“sending” happens when a player slaps a card on the other person’s side and then gets to pass away one of their own).

Privately, I enjoyed knowing that the girls were learning aspects of Japanese aesthetics—such as evanescence, exemplified by references to falling cherry blossoms—without us saying a word. MacMillan’s prize-winning literary translations made for a game refreshingly different than Uno, Guess Who? or Yahtzee.

If you’re looking for an unusual gift this holiday season, Whack a Waka may be right! If you’re giving it to a devoted reader, also include the anthology for quiet contemplation. Some poems take on a new life on the page, where they can occupy more than the five lines allowed on the cards.

Peter MacMillan shows his twenty-five line translation of the waka Ashibiki no by Kakinomoto no Hitomaro (662-710), which refers to the long tail of the copper pheasant. Japan Writers Conference 2019, Meiji Gakuin University, Tokyo.

See also SCBWI Japan at the Japan Writers Conference.

You’ve Got Mail and #WorldKidLit

By Avery Fischer Udagawa, Bangkok

For years, I’ve had a penchant for quoting You’ve Got Mail, the bookish Nora Ephron flick that features Meg Ryan as Kathleen Kelly and Tom Hanks as Joe Fox. Last week, I turned my tendency into a post at Cynsations, the children’s literature blog of author Cynthia Leitich-Smith.

An excerpt:

But “You’ve Got Mail” has stayed with me for another reason—the Kathleen Kelly line, “When you read a book as a child, it becomes a part of your identity in a way that no other reading in your whole life does.”

Spoken to Joe Fox to explain why children’s books (and a good children’s bookshop) matter, the line also explains why children’s books in translation matter: They get read in readers’ formative years.

Children’s literature not only adds to or stretches readers’ conceptions of themselves and the universe, but it shapes those conceptions early.

I go on to say that, at a time of pernicious nativism, children’s literature must grow more international. Why?

Because books form children. Children form tomorrow’s world. We want them to know and love it like Joe and Kathleen adore the West Side.

I long for more Japanese (and every other language’s) kidlit in translation! For a look at how this relates to caviar garnish, cappuccino, sushi, Fox Books, and the Shop Around the Corner, swing by the post at Cynsations.

How Takami Nieda Came to Translate GO

By Louise Heal Kawai, Tokyo

In June 2019, teacher and literary translator Takami Nieda gave a fascinating talk to SCBWI Japan on her translation of Kazuki Kaneshiro’s Go: A Coming-of-Age Novel. She has now followed this up with a wonderfully informative essay for TranNet.

This account of how she got started on her literary translation career is essential reading for those who wonder how to get into the field. I was moved by how she championed Go, a book she loved, and fought to get her translation funded and published; and also by how she manages to combine her career in translation with one in teaching. Her passion for both shines through. A highly recommended read.

Opening of Takami Nieda’s August 2019 essay for TranNet. Click to download full text in PDF.

Japanese Children’s Literature in Focus!

By Andrew Wong, Tokyo

Word is out. Since May 2019, the Japan Times has been running a year-long series on Japanese children’s literature to cover this rich subsection of Japan’s literary landscape, which is also steeped in visual history. That this series follows last year’s GLLI series on Japanese literature in translation is surely welcome news to Japanese publishers and translators alike.

Here is the full list of posts in the series (will be updated as posts go live):

Takami Nieda On Bringing GO into English

Takami Nieda (holding her translation of Go by Kazuki Kaneshiro) after speaking to SCBWI Japan on June 22.

By Andrew Wong, Tokyo

On June 22, 2019, translator Takami Nieda dropped by in person to share her seven-year journey of bringing Kazuki Kaneshiro’s young adult/adult novel Go to English-language readers. The evening began with the opening basketball sequence of an award-winning film based on Go. In this sequence, the term “zainichi” sets the tone for high-schooler Sugihara’s raw, roller-coaster story of love and life.

A third-generation Korean Japanese himself, Kaneshiro positioned Go to explain itself to its original intended readership, the Japanese. So there were few difficulties, Nieda noted, in providing background information—something a translator would often have to add. Nieda did point out some challenging terms she dealt with like oyaji, which she translated as “father” sometimes and as “old man” at other times; ofukuro, for which she chose “mother” over “mom”; and the rhythmical puzzle posed by a reworded version of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA.”

The novel’s short time span means Sugihara, a high school student, stays safely within the YA category as defined in the Anglosphere, but the gritty, edgy, often violent original is not considered a YA work in Japan. Coupled with the fact that a title like Go isn’t exactly easy to spot in the digital abyss, we appreciated that, by adding a subtitle to the English-language edition, publisher Amazon Crossing may have helped more readers of YA to find the book. (The book now sells in English as Go: A Coming-of-Age Novel.)

Nieda shared some of Go’s reader figures, which demonstrate its broad appeal: readers above 25 are spread over several age categories. However, while digital downloads have been strong, the title has lacked presence in English-language bookstores. So Nieda went on to talk about other roads for Go to travel, including as a text for studying the relationship between Korea and Japan. (It has won a Freeman Award for Young Adult/High School Literature and also has clear uses in university classrooms.)

There were concerns over the weight of some violent sequences, but those were assuaged by the idea that some sequences could actually be perceived as physical manifestations of affection.

Very early on, Nieda quoted Chimamanda Adichie to remind us of the danger of a single story, and on closing she again drove home the need for stories from diverse perspectives. Certainly an inspiring message for creators of children’s works in SCBWI Japan!

An additional write-up of this event by writer Cam Sato appears at the SCBWI Japan main blog.

Takami Nieda in Tokyo on June 22, 2019

The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators presents

Translator Takami Nieda on the YA-Adult Crossover Novel

Time: Saturday, June 22, 2019, 6:00-7:30 p.m.

Place: Tokyo Women’s Plaza, Audio Visual Room B

5-53-67 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo

(near the United Nations University; map)

Fee: SCBWI members 800 yen; nonmembers 1,200 yen

RSVP: To reserve a place, email japan (at) scbwi.org by Thursday, June 20

This event will be in English.

Takami Nieda’s translation of Go: A Coming-of-Age Novel by Kazuki Kaneshiro, has won acclaim in the US as adult fiction—and a Freeman Award for YA/High School Literature. What has made it strike a chord with readers in two traditionally distinct categories?

Nieda introduces a searing story of anti-Korean discrimination in Japan, which features two teens and is by turns romantic and violent, not unlike Romeo and Juliet, the source of its epigraph. Nieda discusses the translation issues she encountered, the experience of working with a crossover book, and her hopes for Go’s future.

Kazuki Kaneshiro graduated from Keio University. In 2000, he won the Naoki Prize for Go, which tackles issues of ethnicity and discrimination in Japanese society. The novel’s film adaptation went on to win every major award in Japan in 2002. Many of Kaneshiro’s works have been made into films or manga, and Kaneshiro has been adept at working synergistically across multiple formats and genres.

Takami Nieda was born in New York City and has degrees in English from Stanford University and Georgetown University. She has translated and edited more than twenty works of fiction and nonfiction from Japanese into English and has received numerous grants in support of her translations, including the PEN/Heim Translation Fund for the translation of Kazuki Kaneshiro’s Go. Her translations have also appeared in Words Without BordersAsymptote, and PEN America. Nieda teaches writing and literature at Seattle Central College in Washington State.

japan.scbwi.org

Creative Exchange in Tokyo on May 25, 2019

SCBWI presents

Creative Exchange in Tokyo

Time: Saturday, May 25, 2019, 6:00 p.m.–8:00 p.m.

Place: Tokyo Women’s Plaza, Conference Room 2

5-53-67 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo

(by the United Nations Universitymap)

Fee: 500 yen SCBWI members; 800 yen nonmembers      

RSVP: Reservations required. To reserve, email japan (at) scbwi.org by Wednesday, May 22. Please state in your email if you would like to reserve a critique slot and in what category.

This event will be in English for writers and translators; English and Japanese for illustrators.

Please join us for the May SCBWI Japan Creative Exchange in Tokyo. Sign up in advance to bring your children’s or YA work-in-progress to share with the group for constructive feedback. SCBWI Japan Creative Exchanges are open to published and pre-published writers, illustrators, and translators (Japanese to English) of children’s and young adult literature. SCBWI members will have priority for the critique slots.

What to prepare for the Creative Exchange:

For MG and YA Fiction Send up to 2,000 words of a novel or chapter, per instructions received after making your reservation.

For Picture Books Illustrators: bring 1–5 copies of a dummy or story board; Writers: send a picture book manuscript (recommended: fewer than 800 words) per instructions received after making your reservation.

For Translations (Japanese to English picture book, MG or YA) Send up to 2,000 words of a story or chapter, per instructions received after making your reservation. Bring the original Japanese book if possible, especially for picture books.

Attendees without manuscripts, dummies or storyboards are welcome to participate.

japan.scbwi.org