By Avery Fischer Udagawa, Bangkok
At SCBWI Japan Translation Day on October 22, 2016, Ginny Tapley Takemori presented a workshop on translating excerpts from literature for young adults. One passage was a paragraph from Hotaru no haka (Grave of the Fireflies) by Akiyuki Nosaka (1930–2015), and portrays a war orphan living in Sannomiya Station, Kobe, after the end of World War II.
Prior to Translation Day, five translators submitted renderings of this paragraph. Their renderings were then blinded for critique by Takemori in a full session.
Two of the submitters and Takemori also tackled a paragraph that follows this one, which comprises a single long, highly challenging sentence in the original.
Below are the original passage and five translators’ versions, the final two of which have the further paragraph (not given in Japanese). Below that is Ginny Tapley Takemori’s rendering of both paragraphs.
This passage may disturb young children.
[Source: America hijiki, Hotaru no haka by Akiyuki Nosaka (Shinchosha, 1968). ISBN-10: 4101112037]
Seita sat hunched over against a pillar outside the beachside exit of Sannomiya Station, buttocks pressed to the floor and legs stuck straight out before him. The glazed tiles of the pillar were chipped away in places, exposing the concrete underneath. Though his skin had been burned by the harsh sun, and he had not bathed in nearly a month, Seita’s hollow cheeks were pale and sunken. In the night he watched the silhouettes of men who brandished fire and cursed like raiders swelling with arrogance, and in the morning he watched the children walking to school as though nothing had happened. Those with khaki-coloured uniforms who carried their belongings wrapped in white cloths were from Kobe First. The ones with satchels were from public junior high schools. The girls from Kenichi, Shinwa, Shoin, and Yamate all wore loose-fitting pants and middy blouses, but you could tell them apart by their collars. They passed Seita by in an endless stream of legs. Most did not even register that he was there – those who noticed a strange smell and glanced down gave a start and hurried to avoid him. Though it was only a few steps away, Seita no longer had the strength to crawl to the bathroom.
Along the government railway line on the ocean side of Sannomiya Station, slouched against the exposed concrete of a pillar whose tiled surface had crumbled away, Seita sat with his backside on the floor and his legs splayed out before him. Despite long exposure to the burning sun and not having bathed in nearly a month, his sunken cheeks were sallow and ashen. At night he stared at the silhouettes of the men who made bonfires and cursed loudly like bandits, animated by the arrogance in their hearts, and in the morning he watched other children heading off to school as if all were right with the world: Kobe Middle School Number One with their white and khaki bundles, Municipal Middle School shouldering school knapsacks, the girls from Prefectural Number One, Shinwa, Shoin, and Yamate all wearing loose workpants and sailor tops differentiated by the shape of each school’s collar. Among the endless stream of legs passing by there were those who, glancing down upon detecting a whiff of something foul, hurriedly leapt away to avoid Seita, who by now lacked even the strength to crawl to the nearby bathroom.
Leaning slumped over on the beach side of the Sannomiya Station on the Sho Line against a pillar whose tiles had come off to reveal the bare concrete, butt to the floor, legs sticking straight out in front, completely sunburned, Seita’s emaciated cheeks only became paler, although he hadn’t bathed in almost a month; at night he watched the silhouettes of the men building a bonfires like bandits and shouting curses, perhaps out of pride in their agitation; and in the morning the khakis, whites, and folded cloth bags of Kobe 1 Junior High, the backpacks of the municipal junior high, and top of the prefecture Shinwa, Shoin, and Yamate students he could tell apart by the shape of the sailor collar over their monpe work pants; people in the never-ending crowd of legs passing by who looked down at the bad smell they wish they hadn’t noticed hopped, flustered, to avoid him; already, he didn’t have the strength to crawl even an inch to a better place.
On the side of the railway ministry’s Sannomiya station facing the ocean, the tiles were peeling off a concrete pillar. A boy sat under it, hunched, ready to fall over anytime. Butt to floor, legs stretched out, at the mercy of the sun, unwashed for nearly a month. Seita lay, cheeks hollowed, sunken, pale white. In the night, he sat gazing out at silhouettes of men who, as if aroused by their memories, swore like bandits, shrilling at the top of their voices, cracking like bonfires. In the morning, students passed by on their way to school as if nothing had happened, Kobe middle schoolers in their khakis and white cloth bundles, municipal city schoolers with their backpacks, and the Prefectural First, Shinwa, Shoin, and Yamate girls differentiated by the collars of sailor-styled uniforms worn over their working clothes. Endless pairs of feet would move along normally, until a nose caught the odor that brought their eyes down to their feet, then they would jump frantically aside, away. No morsel of strength was left in Seita to crawl to a place away from those noses or eyes.
Children, homeless and orphaned, sit at every 3-foot wide pillar, leaning in what felt like the bosom of their mothers, in the train station. They gather here because it is the only place they are allowed to enter. Or maybe because they longed to be among people, like it used to be. Or perhaps because they could always have water. Or in hope of that someone who would give them something to eat. The black market under the railway tracks at Sannomiya station began in September, from a cup of caramelized sugar water dished straight out of an oil drum going for 50sen each. Soon there were steamed potatoes, steamed cakes made from potato flour, rice balls, glutinous rice cakes, fried rice, red bean soup, steamed buns, udon, tempura rice, curry with rice, cake, rice, barley, sugar, tempura, beef, milk, canned fish, shochu or sweet potato liquor, whiskey, Japanese pears, large summer oranges, rubber boots, bicycle tyre tubes, matches, cigarettes, workman’s two-toed shoes, diaper covers, military blankets, military boots, military uniforms, half boots. An alumite lunch box of barley, freshly-packed in the morning by the wife is a “good ten yen, just ten yen.” A weary hand reaches down to remove a shoe, dangle it on one finger, and offer it instead for “how about twenty, twenty yen.” Seita first wandered in, lured by the smell of food. In time, he would find a space the size of a single grass mat to peddle old clothes. Selling off his late mother’s kimono, the inner dress, sash, and outer collar, which had all faded away while soaking in the water in a bomb shelter, he managed to somehow buy food to survive for two weeks. He then sold his school uniform, which was made of good cloth, those cloth bindings from the calf to the ankle, his shoes, but certainly not his trousers? As he dithered, he gradually came to spend the nights in the station. Families with young boys would return from evacuation in full celebratory color, carrying school bags packed with a mess tin, kettle, and metal helmet. Cloth bags dangling, evacuation hoods still neatly folded within. They probably gave out emergency rations in the trains. Relieved to have come thus far, they would leave behind steamed bran cakes for him, strings undone, like some unwanted baggage. A sympathetic soldier back from the frontlines or an old lady who took pity, reminded of her grandchild around the same age, would place a bite of leftover bread or pan-fried soy beans wrapped in paper a polite distance away, like they would in an offering to Buddha. Seita took these gratefully. Now and then, the station master would try to drive him away, making him get up, but the reserve MP manning the ticket gate would stand up for him. We do have lots of water, he reassured. Once he got back, he just sat. Two weeks later, he could no longer get up.
Seita sat on the floor of Sannomiya government railway station, the side toward the ocean. His back sagged against a pillar whose tiles had peeled off, exposing the concrete, and his legs splayed out before him. The sun had roasted him. He had not bathed in nearly a month, and his emaciated cheeks hung hollow and pale. At night, he watched the silhouettes of furious men who lit bonfires and cursed like bandits; in the mornings, he watched students commute to school as if everything were normal. Students in khaki who carried white cloth bundles headed to Kobe Middle School Number 1; students with leather backpacks went to Municipal Middle School. Girls bound for Prefectural College Number 1, or Shinwa or Shoin or Yamate, wore monpe pants and sailor tops whose collars told them apart. In the endless stream of legs were those that jumped away, owners’ eyes averted, upon smelling Seita’s stench. He had not the strength to crawl to the toilet nearby.
Children like him sat in all directions against the three-foot pillars, as if the pillars were their mothers. They had come because the station was the one place where they were allowed, or because they could be near people again here, or because they could drink water, or because they hoped for a handout when someone dropped his guard. As soon as September came, a black market had opened beneath the railroad tracks, beginning with a spot where people paid fifty sen for a cup of sugar water drawn from a steel barrel. Soon there were steamed sweet potatoes, sweet potato flour dumplings, rice balls, daifuku dumplings, fried rice, rice flour dumplings in red bean sauce, manju dumplings, udon, tempura rice, curry rice, cake, plain rice, barley, sugar, tempura, beef, milk, canned fish, shochu liquor, whiskey, pears, sour oranges, rubber boots, bicycles, tire tubes, matches, cigarettes, cloth work shoes, diaper covers, military blankets, military boots, military uniforms, military half boots. A man would hold up some barley meal in an Alumite lunch box his wife had packed that morning and say, “How ’bout it, ten yen?” Another would remove his worn shoes and hold them up by a finger, saying, “Hey, twenty yen, hey, twenty yen.” Seita, lost and drawn in by the food smells, had laid out his dead mother’s under-kimono, obi, false collar, and waist strips for under the obi, all with the colors run and faded due to getting wet in an air raid. These sold for enough to feed him for two weeks, and then he had sold his middle school uniform and gaiters. By the time he was starting to hesitate, wondering if he could really sell his pants, he had begun to spend nights at the station. Families with children sometimes returned by train from bombing evacuation sites, their air raid hoods still folded in canvas bags, their rucksacks holding ration kits, kettles, steel helmets; dressed in their best, they carried the steamed rice-bran dumplings seemingly distributed for emergencies in trains, which they would decide they no longer needed and give Seita to lighten their loads. Or a demobilized soldier or an old person with grandchildren his age might take pity on him. They would leave their items softly a distance away, as if offering them to the Buddha: leftover bread, roasted soybeans. He would receive the gifts gratefully. Sometimes a station employee would chase him off, but a military police reservist at the wickets might knock the employee down and protect Seita, saying they at least had plenty of water here. In that way Seita had put down roots. Two weeks later he could no longer stand.
Translation by Ginny Tapley Takemori
In the mainline Sannomiya Station, bayside exit, Seita sat slumped against a column, its tiles peeling off to expose the bare concrete, with his bottom on the floor and both legs stretched out straight before him. He was sunburned to a frazzle and hadn’t washed for almost a month, yet his emaciated cheeks were sunken and pale. Come nightfall, he gazed at the silhouettes of men conversing rowdily with excessive bravado as they warmed themselves around the watch fire like bandits. In the morning he saw children his age heading off to middle school as if nothing were amiss, khaki-clad boys with white bundles from the top prefectural school and those with satchels on their backs from the city school, and girls sporting sailor blouses over their baggy wartime pantaloons, the folds of their collars indicating whether they attended the prestigious prefectural school or one of the three expensive private academies. The legs of the unseeing crowds filing purposefully past jumped to avoid him only at a whiff of his stench. But Seita no longer had the strength to crawl to the nearby toilet.
War orphans clustered around the base of each of the solid meter-thick columns as if finding in them motherly protection, having gathered here perhaps because it was the only place they were allowed in, or because they yearned to be among the crowds of people, or because here there was water to drink or some hope of scraps of food being tossed their way. Already by the beginning of September someone had started selling burned sugar dissolved in a drum of water for fifty sen a cupful under the railway arches, and almost overnight a black market had sprung up offering steamed sweet potatoes, sweet potato dumplings, rice balls, rice cakes, fried rice, bean soup, bean jam buns, noodles, tempura and rice, curry and rice, and then cake, rice, barley, sugar, tempura, beef, milk, canned fish, rice liquor, whisky, pears, bitter oranges, gum boots, bicycle inner tubes, matches, cigarettes, rubber-soled work shoes, nappies, army blankets, army boots, army uniforms, army boots. Men stood holding out the aluminium lunchboxes of barley rice their wives had packed for them just that morning “Yours for ten yen, yours for ten yen!” or dangling their tired old shoes in one hand “Twenty yen, how about it? Twenty yen!” Drawn singlemindedly by the smell of food, Seita had stumbled aimlessly in and sold the underkimono, sash, collar, and waist tie that were the only mementos he had of his mother from the flooded air raid shelter, the colours faded and run, at a second-hand clothing stall consisting of a single straw mat spread out on the ground, and had thus somehow managed to keep the wolf from the door for a couple of weeks—then went his rayon middle school blazer, gaiters, and shoes, and while wondering whether he could go so far as to sell his trousers, before he knew it he had become a nightly fixture inside the station. Here a boy with his family apparently returning from evacuation to the countryside, fully decked out with his air raid hood neatly folded and placed over his canvas bag, his mess tin and kettle and steel helmet attached to his backpack, left Seita some mouldy ricebran dumplings, no doubt emergency food prepared for the train journey and now it was no longer needed, discarded to lighten the load. Others—a kindly soldier returning from the front, an elderly woman with a grandson his age who took pity on him—left crusts and roasted soybeans wrapped in paper placed quietly at a safe distance, as if making an offering to Buddha, which he gratefully accepted. From time to time he was shooed away by the stationmaster, but the adjunct from the feared military police guarding the ticket gate sent the man sprawling, protecting him, and there was always enough water, so having found some comfort he settled in and put down roots until one day a couple of weeks later he could no longer stand.