Wendy Uchimura on the New Edition of The Great Shu Ra Ra Boom

By Avery Fischer Udagawa, Bangkok

The Great Shu Ra Ra Boom by Manabu Makime, translated by Wendy Uchimura, is a humorous YA novel that is also action-packed, suspenseful, thought-provoking, and full of tantalizing food. Set in the vicinity of a large and ancient lake northeast of Kyoto, it features two families with mysterious powers somehow connected to the lake, which have propelled them to prominent social status but also obliged them to deal with a generations-old conflict. The novel’s main character, a 15-year-old boy in one of the families, who comes to stay with his lordly cousin the same age—on the grounds of the clan’s main branch, essentially a castle—struggles to comprehend this situation while fitting in at a new school. I got to ask the translator, Wendy Uchimura, about her experience translating The Great Shu Ra Ra Boom, which came out for the Sony Reader in 2014 but got reborn in Kindle format in 2022.

Wendy Uchimura

Avery: Hi Wendy! What led to The Great Shu Ra Ra Boom getting launched in the Kindle format? Do I understand correctly that you got to do another editing pass to refresh it?

Wendy: It’s been on the cards for a long time from what I can tell. It’s just there are a lot of excellent books getting relaunched from the Shueisha English Edition series, so it had to wait its turn! And I did get to look at it again. It was strange delving into the story once more after eight or so years and quite daunting – I’m one of these translators who once I’m completely satisfied with how I’ve translated a work, I’ll release it into the world and let it make its own way. There will undoubtedly be a few flaws, but at least I can say I did my best.

So, I was nervous going back in, but it was like meeting an old friend that had just improved with time. Looking at it with more experienced translator and editor eyes gave me a new appreciation for what a great story it is.

Avery: If I’m not mistaken, all the lineages and powers and myths that come up in this book are made-up—but am I off there? Does Japan have real-life myths to do with Lake People who turned into powerful clans? Has the water at Lake Biwa been considered divine, and/or the lake associated with a dragon??

Wendy: Makime is amazing at building realistic worlds that are steeped in history, culture, and fantasy. It means that as you’re reading you can imagine these things happening as they’re not that far removed from reality and yet they go a step beyond. More than once while I was translating, I found myself checking the maps and topography of the area around Lake Biwa because I thought I could pinpoint exactly where the Hinode Castle was. Maybe I did! It made me realise too that there is a huge amount of mythology tied to water in Japan. It has the power to purify, provide life, and give rise to legends.

I didn’t know before translating this book that lakes have lifespans. Most of the lakes we know now are less than 18,000 years old. Lake Biwa is estimated at being more than four million years old! That’s a lot of history and you can’t help feeling that something that ancient must have mystical powers. It’s a fact that its shores have been inhabited since around 9,000 BCE and a great number of shrines dot the area. Who knows what type of people gathered there and what they did.

The island located on Lake Biwa and featured in the story is Chikubushima and there have been several water goddesses enshrined there. Originally the main deity was Azaihime-no-Mikoto, who protected wayfarers across the lake and later on, from the Heian Period, Benzaiten took her place, who is both a Buddhist and a Shinto deity, as well as being both a goddess of water and of knowledge. Although more associated with the island of Enoshima, legend says that Benzaiten married a dragon king with her residing atop the island and the dragon below. As the story unfolds, you can see how these myths are drawn on and flow into a more modern setting.

Readers might be excited to know you can go to that island and see the clay cups that play a small yet important role, as well as write a wish on them and throw them down into the waters of the lake, just like Ryosuke and Patter-ko did.

 

Avery: I relish how the book serves up humor alongside its drama. The Hinodes’ menu selections alone make for endless comic relief, from the abalone packed for lunch (and mistaken as a mushroom) to the French toast served (and stolen) in the Castle dining room near the climax.

Wendy: The mentions of food are wonderful, aren’t they? This again is an example of how Makime balances that line between fantasy and reality. There are almost urban myth-like stories in Japan of children appearing at school with their lunchboxes stuffed full of lobster and other delicacies, either by parents wanting to establish some kind of status for their child or just very overenthusiastic and doting grandparents. But here this comic effect is very much in matching with Tanjuro and building up the impression that he is indeed a lord. I love the contrast between his huge lunches and Hiromi’s paltry rice balls. The scenes in the castle dining room just get more and more extravagant too, especially the serving of noodles!

Avery: Under the surface, this novel touches on a range of social issues from shut-ins (via Kiyoko’s character) to environmental pollution (the litter in the lakebed) to the effects of social stratification (the Castle versus its depressed rural area; the Hinode ancestor’s entitled and tragic intervention in Old Gen’s life). Did you feel as you worked with the novel that it managed to bring up these difficult-to-approach issues precisely because of the author’s deft use of humor and drama? Were there ever moments when it was challenging to reconcile the gravity of the issues raised with the book’s rollicking comedy and excitement?

Wendy: I didn’t find any particular difficulty with the issues introduced and I think that is because the nature of the story and the humor carries across the messages without bordering on lecturing. I felt where it involved the characters, like Kiyoko’s social withdrawal and the treatment of Old Gen, there was sympathy and understanding for their situations. There’s a subtle use of the town as a representation of the separation between the different social levels and both the landscape and characters reflect the natural changes in thinking that occur across generations. The environmental issues are well addressed too and make us think. Water is a precious resource and needs respecting. Going back to my earlier point about the lifespan of lakes, it’s actually a scary thought that some lakes only exist for 1,000 years or even less, 100. That such bodies of water can be lost even within our lifetime should make us respect them all the more.

Avery: What is one scene or section that you felt particularly pleased about translating, and could you please walk us through why it stands out for you, and what challenges you faced when putting it into English?

Wendy: I have a constant reminder in my living room of exactly what scene stands out for me – a Carrom board. Just like Ryosuke, I had never even heard of Carrom until the scene where Kiyoko suggests playing it to take their minds off their impending fate. The scene has the four main young characters sitting around this mystery board with the game pieces being called specific names and moved across the board with particular hand movements. There are instructions available in English, but of course if you’re not familiar with a game, it’s really difficult to explain it using the correct terms and actions. I could really feel Ryosuke’s confusion because I was feeling it too! So I actually imported a Carrom board. It’s mentioned in the story, but it really is true that although Carrom used to be played across Japan, particularly among the upper classes of society, it is now confined to a small area of Shiga prefecture, so it wasn’t like I could just go to a toy shop or local Carrom club to look at one. My board isn’t lacquered or red though!

Wendy even has a dragon as her business logo.

Avery: I understand that your own family has some shared name-characters, like those that come up in the book. Would you be interested in talking about what your family’s shared characters are and what role they play?

Wendy: Yes. The characters in the book use shared kanji characters and elements related to water in their names within their families to signify certain meanings. It’s interesting how names can be used to convey connections. It does make it an extra challenge when translating, especially in this case where it’s an integral part of the story, but it’s also fun.

And in a strange coincidence, as you mention, my immediate family members have a shared kanji too – the character for dragon! Not me, of course, but my husband and two sons all have dragon in their names, so I like to think of myself as a dragon tamer!

Avery: Who would you most like to hand this book to in the English-reading world, and why?

Wendy: I think anyone who wants a glimpse into Japanese life and culture would enjoy this. It has something for everyone – fantasy, history, humor, cuisine, social issues, school life. It kind of covers all the bases for what you’d come across spending some time in Japan. OK, maybe not the bright red uniforms, horse-riding through the town, or something coming up out of the lake at you, but you never know!

And as always when talking about this book, I’d like to finish by giving a shout out to Keiichiro Ito, the designer of the cover for the English version, because where would a book be without its cover.

Japanese Children’s Books 2022: Now Online!

By Avery Fischer Udagawa, Bangkok

Every year, the Japanese Board on Books for Young People curates a list of fine new picture books, chapter books/novels, and nonfiction titles published in Japan. The books are described in English for reference by publishers and readers worldwide.

Japanese Children’s Books 2022 is now available to download!

Japanese Children’s Books 2021 and Japanese Children’s Books 2020 also remain online.

Listings from these and prior years are searchable at Japanese Children’s Books—JBBY’s recommendations.

These resources are useful not only for scouting Japanese titles to publish in translation, but also for finding books to buy for a Japanese-language section in a store, classroom or library when the buyer does not read Japanese.

Happy perusing!

A Conversation with Translator Takami Nieda

By Susan E. Jones, Kobe

Translator Takami Nieda is back with a new YA translation! At SCBWI Japan in 2019, she described the translation and publication process of Kazuki Kaneshiro’s GO (Amazon Crossing, 2018, Freeman Book Award winner). Here, she talks about her latest YA translation: Chesil’s The Color of the Sky is the Shape of the Heart (Soho Teen, 2022).

The source text『ジニのパズル』(Jini no pazuru / Ginny’s Puzzle) was nominated for an Akutagawa Prize in 2016 and stood out to Takami as one ripe for translation. Her depiction of Ginny, a conflicted Zainichi teen, lays bare the struggle many multicultural people experience.

Seventeen-year-old Ginny Park is about to get expelled from high school—again. Stephanie, the picture book author who took Ginny into her Oregon home after she was kicked out of school in Hawaii, isn’t upset; she only wants to know why. But Ginny has always been in-between. She can’t bring herself to open up to anyone about her past, or about what prompted her to flee her native Japan. Then, Ginny finds a mysterious scrawl among Stephanie’s scraps of paper and storybook drawings that changes everything: The sky is about to fall. Where do you go?

Ginny sets off on the road in search of an answer, with only her journal as a confidante. In witty and brutally honest vignettes, and interspersed with old letters from her expatriated family in North Korea, Ginny recounts her adolescence growing up Zainichi, an ethnic Korean born in Japan, and the incident that forced her to leave years prior.

Inspired by her own childhood, author Chesil creates a portrait of a girl who has been fighting alone against barriers of prejudice, nationality, and injustice all her life—and one searching for a place to belong. (Publisher’s synopsis.)

Susan: Given your translation of Kazuki Kaneshiro’s GO, Chesil’s The Color of the Sky is the Shape of the Heart, and your forthcoming Travelers of a Hundred Years (by Lee Hoesung) and Yubi no Hone (by Hiroki Takahashi), we are definitely starting to see a theme in the works you gravitate toward translating. Are you becoming something of a spokesperson for ethnic Koreans in Japan? Have you been noticed or recognized in that community for your work? Have you been called upon to explain their position at any venue in the US?

Takami Nieda

Takami: No, I haven’t, which is a good thing, as there are any number of scholars and ethnic Koreans who can speak to these issues more knowledgeably than I can. I am careful to point out that Zainichi is a term that comes with some controversy, and some might resist that category, which often conflates diverse Korean populations who identify not as Zainichi but as Korean Japanese or Japanese. For this reason, it’s important that they have the agency to decide how they choose to be identified. In the case of Chesil, she identifies as a third-generation Korean born in Japan, and I’ve not seen her refer to herself as Zainichi.

Susan: How smooth was the editing process of this translation? I am particularly interested in the fact that this was a novel marketed to adults in Japan and YA in English regions. Did you or the editor change the writing style to make it more appropriate for a teen reader? Did you know as you translated that it would likely be marketed for teens?

Takami: Soho Teen picked up the translation, so I did know going in that the book would be marketed as YA, but I wouldn’t say that I changed the writing style—maybe in a couple of places here and there. The novel wasn’t necessarily written as a YA but the prose is very clean and economical. I just translated the original text, which is juiced with this righteous indignation and energy and quite lyrical in parts, as it was. I might have had a couple of words like “bad apple,” which the editor pointed out as not age appropriate (or archaic). There was also a reference to Robert DeNiro, which the editor felt needed a little help for a younger reader to understand. Those small changes I’m willing to make, but it was important to retain Chesil’s voice and writing style.

Susan: I want to ask you a bit more about your decision (or your joint decision with Chesil) about gendered pronouns. How did you/she end up deciding on them? For example, on p. 7, “the wearer” of the dirty shoes is referred to as “he” and I wonder if that was specified in the Japanese source text.

Takami: There were several places where I thought there was an opportunity to reinforce a recurring theme in the novel by specifying gender. I thought that gendering the star, which Ginny has a conversation with, as “she” might suggest a bit of a sisterhood between them. Also, gendering the sky as “she” might suggest something about whose fall was being “caught” in the end. I asked Chesil what she thought about it, and she agreed to the first, but opted to keep the pronoun of the sky non-specific, so readers could make their own conclusions about the ending.

(The gender of “the wearer” wasn’t specified in the source text, but I went with “he,” but really by default.)

Chesil

Susan: You mentioned that it was a positive experience to get feedback from Chesil as you translated. Would you prefer to do all of your translations in coordination with the author in this way? Was it a totally positive experience, or were there times when your own idea conflicted with hers but you felt obligated to meet her request?

Takami: This is the first time I was able to consult the author, so it was very exciting. I don’t think Chesil got as many questions from her editor as she’d gotten from me, and she was incredibly patient to answer every last one of them. We communicated entirely over email, but it felt to me that Chesil really understood the translation was going to be its own thing apart from the source text and she was quite keen to learn through our collaboration herself. It’s truly a gift to be able to work with a writer who understands that about translation, and I don’t know if that will ever happen again. I hope so!

Susan: What was the most challenging part of translating this book? I imagine I would have struggled with romanizing the Korean names and making it clear that Ginny is Jinhee. Did you need to do much explicitation to bridge cultural gaps?

Takami: I tried to figure out the romanization on my own, then consulted Chesil to make sure that I’d gotten the names right. We also were lucky to have a copy editor who was knowledgeable in the Korean language and culture, so they pointed out one or two issues with regard to names. Thank goodness for copy editors!

It’s interesting that in GO, Kazuki Kaneshiro purposefully wrote the opening of the book as a way to educate Japanese readers about how the Korean population came to Japan during WWII and the complexities of their citizenship status, knowing that Japanese readers wouldn’t know anything about it. On the other hand, Chesil gave almost no explanation, assuming perhaps that enough people would know about them or that readers would do the research themselves. So, if it’s not in the original text, I try not to add too much expository explanation because that can often get unwieldly and oftentimes takes away from the moment the writer is trying to capture.

Increasingly, I find myself resisting adding anything too much to bridge cultural gaps. In many ways English readers need to get used to the idea that not everything is going to be explained to them or center their experiences and expectations. The writer has allowed them a window into their world, which can be an immense act of courage and generosity, so readers ought to be willing do some work on their own to understand a culture or history they’re not familiar with.

Susan: Do you do anything in particular to absorb current teen lingo to incorporate in your translation?

Takami: As a community college teacher, I’m lucky to be around lots of young people every day, which helps me maintain an ear for lingo. But because a lot of slang tends to be regional or niche, and certainly short lived, the most current lingo isn’t always the best choice in translation. I usually try to go with lingo that’s had some staying power and has been around for a while.

Susan: Was it your idea to change the book title in translation or the publisher’s? Though long, I like it better than “Ginny’s Puzzle” for an English-speaking audience.

Takami: The first editor Amara Hoshijo suggested the title because of the character Ginny’s explanation of the phrase Sorairo wa kokoromoyou in the book. Amara had also mentioned that longish titles were a thing in YA literature and was concerned that the original title might suggest a story aimed at a younger audience. Chesil liked the suggestion, so we went with that.

Jacket for The Color of the Sky is the Shape of the Heart (Soho Teen)

Susan: How has reception of this translation been so far? The theme of self-discovery and search for a place to fit in seem to be a universal struggle for teens (though Ginny obviously faces some extreme challenges). I imagine that this book would appeal to readers totally unfamiliar with Japan or ethnic Koreans in Japan.

Takami: Overall, the reception has been fantastic. Just as you’ve pointed out, many readers have noted the universal themes of identity and belonging, and have had their eyes opened to the ethnic Korean population in Japan. The novel packs a punch in a short 150+ pages, so I hope it will be taught in middle schools and high schools. I’d love to read some teen reviews of the novel as well!

Susan: This is perhaps a really insignificant question, but did you have any control over the fonts used in the hard copy version of the book? I quite liked the font used for handwriting and the chapter titles. (I missed this in the e-book!)

Takami: The typesetting was decided by the editing team and I’m rather fond of that font choice, too. You get the sense that you’re really reading Ginny’s handwritten journal entries as she tries to make sense of her past. I did request the Courier font for the screenplay scene between characters Yunmi and Jaehwan, because that’s the standard font for screenplays.

 

Takami Nieda reads from her work at the Sant Jordi USA Festival of Books, Roses, and the Arts.

Susan E. Jones, Associate Professor at Kobe College and longtime translator and teacher of translation, will serve as SCBWI Japan Translator Coordinator beginning in January 2023.

 

The Easy Life in Kamusari and Kamusari Tales Told at Night: A Conversation with Translator Juliet Winters Carpenter

By Deborah Iwabuchi, Maebashi, Japan

Juliet Winters Carpenter is well-known for her brilliant translations, and despite her “retirement” to Whidbey Island in the state of Washington, is apparently as busy and productive as ever. Fortunately for this blog, two of her latest books happened to fall into the young adult category, and she kindly agreed to be interviewed. The two books in the title here are also known as the Forest Series, Books 1 and 2. The back matter of the original Japanese version of Tales Told at Night included this snappy synopsis of The Easy Life in Kamusari that definitely serves for both:

A popular title portraying a laid-back youth in the forestry business!

Yuki is 18. After high school graduation, he plans to make a dubious living hopping from one part-time job to the next. But for some reason, he ends up in Mie Prefecture in the forestry industry. He’s out in the mountains without cell phone service! There’s nothing there but hills and dales! Can Yuki make himself into a forester? Pandemonium breaks out on every page of this story about Yuki and the unique people he lives with. (Tokuma Shoten)

Deborah: Juliet, this makes three books you’ve translated for Shion Miura. Can you tell us how you came to translate her books? Have you had any personal contact with her? Did you communicate with her as you did the translation?

Juliet: I came to translate Shion Miura because her novel The Great Passage was featured by JLPP, the Japanese Literature Publishing Project. I was asked to translate the first chapter as a sample for publishers, and a couple of years later, Amazon Crossing picked it up and asked me to do the whole book.

Shortly after the translation came out, just five years ago this month, I had the pleasure of doing a taidan or public discussion with Miura at Doshisha Women’s College of Liberal Arts, before a packed auditorium.

Poster for the event with Shion Miura and Juliet Winters Carpenter

She was fun and smart and I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. That is the only time we ever met in person. While working on Passage, I never did consult with her directly, but the editor and I communicated with her via her agent, mostly about big overall questions like how to present the crazy love letter at the end and whether to include an explanation of the ancient Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, which is alluded to so often in the book (in the end, at Miura’s request, I didn’t explain it). All other translation matters I handled myself. For the Forest Series, too, I worked on my own and didn’t consult Miura except to make sure I was reading people’s names correctly.

Deborah: Have you done books in the YA category before?

Juliet: I guess A Cappella by Mariko Koike (Thames River Press, 2013) could count as a YA book. It’s the story of a woman looking back on a major romance that ended tragically in her high school days, set against the backdrop of the counterculture student movement of the sixties. While that book captures “intense, heartbreaking love in adolescence,” as the blurb states, the Forest books are much lighter, more humorous and optimistic in outlook. I also translated “Fleecy Clouds,” a short love story by Arie Nashiya, for Tomo: Friendship through Fiction–An Anthology of Japan Teen Stories, edited by Holly Thompson (Stone Bridge Press, 2012). Both the Koike book and the Nashiya short story feature teenage girls, so having a male narrator in the Forest series was a fun change.

Deborah: As soon as I started reading The Easy Life, I was impressed by a couple of things. One was that you use Japanese words such as naa-naa, which was in the original title, and others, such as kappa and the totally inexplainable shirikodama—which you neatly described in a few words following. The other was the way Yuki spoke. You used a lot of colloquial American English in his narration, and it worked perfectly to express the 18-year-old cluelessness of the main character. This kept up all the way to the end of the second book. Yuki never got remarkably adult in the way he wrote, and the effect was hilarious. Did the way Miura write it transfer directly into your translation, or did you go about it in a particular way? What else did you have to keep in mind when the things that Yuki was narrating became more complicated—like all that information on forestry?

The turnout at the event

Juliet: Dialect plays a huge role in defining character and place, and it’s always a bit frustrating not to be able to share those differences fully with my readers; often the best you can do is suggest a certain flavor. Naa-naa works because it’s initially unfamiliar to Yuki as well, so we learn along with him what the word means, how it’s used, and what it tells us about his new community. I didn’t stick naa-naa into the translation every place it comes up in the original, of course. As you mentioned, it’s part of the original title, for example, but using it there in English would be mystifying. However, sprinkling the word in at appropriate junctures, as when Yuki utters it for the first time, worked really well, I thought.

Words like kappa (river imp) and shirikodama (the soul-ball located in the anus) are fascinating and help us to share in Yuki’s other observation about the village––that it’s a place where everyone seems to have “stepped out of a folktale.”

One of the things I played with was characters’ names. The narrator’s name is Yuki, “courage.” He eventually comments ironically on his lack of courage, but in English I decided to provide an explanation early on and squeezed in this sentence in the first few pages: “But I never was much for decisive action, even though my name means ‘courage.’” I also added a disclaimer for the name of the five-year-old boy, Santa, on its first mention: “As I eventually found out, ‘Santa’ is written with characters meaning ‘mountain man’; no connection to reindeer and elves.” I felt that Anglophone readers would be surprised at the Christmassy-sounding name, even if Japanese readers were not. (In Japanese, the visual impact of kanji trumps pronunciation, making it unlikely that readers would make any association with Christmas.) I was pleasantly surprised to find that much later, at the end of Book 2, they actually throw a Christmas party to please little Santa, and he even gets a letter from Santa Claus commenting on the similarity in their names!

I took some other name-related liberties. Yuki lives and works with a guy named Yoki, which means “ax”; that is kind of a cool name in English, too, so I toyed briefly with the idea of calling him “Ax,” but ended up keeping the original name despite the similarity to “Yuki.” However, Santa’s mom is “Yuko” in the original, and that was just too much. Again, as kanji trump pronunciation, the three names do not strike Japanese readers as all that similar, but written in the alphabet, they are too close for comfort. Yuko was rechristened “Risa.” I altered a couple of other names as well, hoping to spare the reader confusion.

As for Yuki’s way of speaking, it needed to sound young, urban, and contemporary, as different as possible from the villagers. I knew what I wanted him to sound like, and I enjoyed finding ways to do it. On his first night in Kamusari, he is served the exotic (to him) dish of wild boar stew. At first, I rendered Yuki’s comment literally: “I was eating wild boar stew.” The editor suggested cutting the line as stating the obvious, but I wanted to keep it because it reflects his amazement at his unfamiliar new surroundings. I came up with “I was legit eating wild boar stew,” which adds clarity to the moment and to Yuki’s persona.

For forestry terms, I searched online and read up about forestry all I could. At first, I intended to retain more Japanese technical terms, but since there were English equivalents, I dropped that idea. Forestry is forestry, and using Japanese terms didn’t seem to serve any useful purpose––except for those denoting which way a felled tree will land. The first time he hears them, Yuki has no idea what they mean, so I left those in Japanese and explained later with glosses. The most interesting one was shombentare, for a tree that comes crashing down straight forward. Shomben tareru is the verb “piss,” but I needed something more, so I expanded it to “piss-pants.” Soon after, Old Man Saburo comments to Yuki, “A shombentare will make you piss your pants, no mistake.”

Deborah: The details on forestry, the myths of the gods, and the elaborate customs of the villagers. I felt as though the book could be used as a text on traditional Japanese culture. Yuki was like a foreigner coming to Japan with no idea of how things worked. Then I thought of my Japanese friends in Tokyo who have had so little contact with the traditional side of things here. I’m imagining the Japanese readership learned a lot from these books too. Do you think Miura was writing to educate them on the value of life outside of the big city?

Juliet: I completely agree that Yuki is like a foreigner new to Japan, surprisingly clueless about all things traditional and highly skeptical of references to gods and spirits–until he isn’t. Of course, since many readers of the English edition will in fact be foreigners with no idea of how things work in Japan, that POV came in pretty handy. I am sure that these books do contain revelations for today’s Japanese, who have so little contact with or awareness of life in places like Kamusari. As Miura shows, villages are withering as young people depart, leaving no one to carry on the work of tending forests or growing rice. It’s heartening to see Yuki gradually falling in love not just with Nao but with all aspects of life in Kamusari, surrounded by lush nature, and to see his growing ability to respect and honor village traditions. Miura’s own grandfather was a forester, and perhaps these books are her tribute to him and his way of life.

Deborah: Did you have a favorite character? Were there any scenes that you particularly enjoyed doing?

Juliet: A lot of the characters appeal to me. One I particularly like is Noko, Yoki’s faithful dog. I was tickled by the scene where they restore Noko’s self-respect by staging a show for his benefit, allowing him to play the hero by “saving” Yoki. I love dogs and it was fun translating Noko’s thoughts, like this bit of Eeyore-like moping: Ah, it’s the young master come to call, I see. I’m sorry, but please just leave me alone. The scene adds a refreshing bit of humor, and it deepens Yuki’s––and our––attachment to the people and the place. As Yuki says, “Kamusari village, a place where grown men had in all seriousness just put on a show for the sake of a dog. A place that was growing on me more all the time.”

Deborah: Let’s talk about that festival at the end of The Easy Life. I really felt like Book 1 was a man’s book about men. Yuki worked with Yoki, who fooled around on his wife and could swing from tree to tree in the forest as he cut down trees with one hand tied behind his back, his loyal dog by his side. Then that scene of the big festival on Mt. Kamusari. It was so full of phallic symbols and testosterone, and it went on and on. What were your impressions while translating it?

Juliet: The festival at the end of Book I––whee! It’s pretty wild all right. And yes, unabashedly phallic. There actually are festivals that involve riding logs down a steep mountainside, going way back, so this is not just Miura letting her imagination run away with her. The ongoing Onbashira Festival is said to date back 1200 years to Heian times. [Note from Deborah: Go to the Onbashira Festival link and scroll down the photos. This is what we’re talking about here!] Miura ties many strands in the novel together in the exciting finale as goddesses hover over our hero and others, protecting them from disaster (lives are regularly lost in the Onbashira Festival). Yoki yields his position as medo––one supposedly having the right to sleep with a village girl of his choice––to Yuki, who has proved himself brilliantly. Cheered on by his teammates and surrogate family, Yuki uses his newly acquired status to work up the nerve to… ask Nao on a date. She agrees, but tells him not to get any funny ideas. So after all the high-flying shows of masculinity, it comes down to a simple, respectful request from a boy in love, and a cautious “yes” from a young woman still weighing her options, and still nursing a love of her own.

Deborah: Tales Told At Night is somewhat less about forestry and men, and more about the myths and practical applications of the mountain gods. Granny Shige comes to the fore with her computer skills, storytelling, and problem solving. Yoki’s wife Miho has tasks other than throwing crockery at her husband and making lunches. Nao, Yuki’s love interest, is a woman with a mind of her own. Any thoughts on the shift between the two books?

Juliet: Tales Told at Night carries on from there, giving us a deeper look at Nao, Miho, and Granny Shige, as you say, but not only them; we also get Old Man Saburo’s backstory, not to mention Yoki’s. We even learn more about odd Mr. Yamane. In general, the characters are deepened and the ties between them become stronger. I loved the midnight scene between Yuki and Yoki on the mountainside. Yoki tells about the tragic accident that killed so many villagers, including his own parents, and shares his regrets, while Yoki shares his fears about not really belonging, not having a tie to Kamusari as indelible as that of native villagers. It’s moving to see this pair of manly men open up to each other, reveal their frailties and vulnerabilities. Miura deftly rounds out her characters and makes them human, relatable.

That said, of the remaining characters, several remain less well defined. We do learn where Iwao lives and that he doesn’t like tomatoes, so I guess that’s something, but his poor wife doesn’t even have a name. Risa, meanwhile, remains a model wife and mother. I confess I wonder why she doesn’t have more children, since Santa’s only playmate in the village is Yuki, and depopulation is such a dire problem. She and Seiichi are well off, and they live in that big house. Anyway, it never comes up. Yoki and his wife are childless. In the movie version, Wood Job, they are trying to conceive without success. Somehow the overabundance of testosterone in the story doesn’t seem to be producing results!

Poster for the movie based on Book 1

Book 2 also shows Yuki’s progress in accepting village beliefs. When he hears about the deadly accident, he immediately says a quick, non-ironic prayer of thanks to the god of Kamusari for allowing Granny Shige to live a long life and watch over Yoki. In fact, there is a complete switch from Book 1. There Yuki was a skeptic who scoffed at the idea of children being spirited away, for example, claiming it was “unscientific.” But in Book 2, once Nao’s missing pen turns up, he becomes convinced that the god Inari can actually work wonders, only to have his teammates scoff and assure him it was just a coincidence. Miura turns things around nicely again, however, as Yuki learns that belief in Inari motivates thieves to repent of their actions and unobtrusively return “lost” objects. The old beliefs still have power to do good; the god Inari lives on in people’s hearts. And so despite his disillusionment (“like a kid who found out there’s no Santa Claus,” Yoki teases him), Yuki ends up replacing the worn-out torii at the Inari shrine in token of his gratitude. He has truly adopted village ways.

Deborah: Is there a Book 3 in the works for the Forest Series?

Juliet: There is no Book 3 in the works that I know of, but if one comes along, I am game to translate it!

Deborah: Juliet, you’ve been a translator for so long and your unending list of publications speaks to the fact that writers and publishers want you. I’ve read a number of your books and loved them all. Thinking about it, I feel that maybe your crowning skill is in how close you manage to get to your material and are still able to express it beautifully in English. I definitely get pulled into anything I translate, but then I have to take a step back when I’m finished so I can edit and smarten up the English. Once at an SCBWI translation event, the subject came up of whether to stick to the original text or adjust it to make it easier for an English-speaking readership to understand. You said you usually decided to trust the readers to figure it out—meaning you were true to the original. In my mind, I was screaming, “No! Don’t trust anyone!” but now ten years later, I’m wondering if that might actually be the key. Any thoughts on that?

Juliet: Thanks so much for your kind words. I confess when I translate something, I feel a little like Yuki, writing with potential readers constantly in mind yet half afraid no one will ever read what I write! It’s wonderful to be reminded that there are still real readers like yourself around.

As for your question about trust, I would say you trust not just any reader, but the specific one you have in mind, the one you are writing to and for. That reader won’t be the same with every project, but once you have settled on a reader, yes, you should show some trust! The reader isn’t a dimwit after all.

The translation process you describe is exactly the same as mine. Translation is a constant dance with the original, now drawing close to it, now pirouetting away, now coming back again. An endless dance. Maybe the goal is to hear the same music, dance to the same beat as the author. I take a kind of musical approach to translation in general––perhaps the real fruit of my piano lessons with the formidable Jasna Bjankini from sixth grade through twelfth. She urged her pupils to learn the music on the page so that it was in our bones, and then to express it with what she called “zambo”––an indefinable, elusive quality that gives zest and life to a performance, keeps it from sounding wooden or merely virtuoso. And if the music is in your bones, you won’t go off the rails (a performer’s worst fear).

An aside, my brother Glenn Winters, who also studied with Jasna and won numerous gold medals in piano contests as a child, is now a composer of opera among other things. I reminded him of zambo and he commented modestly, I only occasionally achieved it, though I tried. 😉

I would like to throw in a word of admiration for Brian Nishii, who performs all of Miura’s works so brilliantly for audiobooks. He does a wonderful job! His rendition of The Great Passage won an Earphones Award for fiction. Brian is a masterful narrator and it’s great fun to hear him bring characters and scenes to life. I urge people to give his work a listen.

Narrator of Miura’s audiobooks

Deborah: I listened to Brian Nishii’s versions of both The Great Passage and The Easy Life in Kamusari, too. Both were great reading experiences. I especially enjoyed the chapter about the big Kamusari festival. As Brian read it, I just closed my eyes and watched the scene play out in my mind. I found it even more fun than reading the text. (As of this writing, the audiobook version can be added for a modest price when you download the book on Kindle.)

Juliet, thank you so much for joining us here to share insights on the books and your creative process! I’m looking forward to your next translations.

The title that got Juliet translating Miura’s work

A Chat about The Cat Who Saved Books

By Andrew Wong, Tokyo

I gladly interviewed Louise Heal Kawai about The Cat Who Saved Books, her translation of a fascinating tale of a boy, a bookshop, and a cat, authored by Sosuke Natsukawa.

LouiseHealKawai

Louise Heal Kawai, translator of The Cat Who Saved Books

Andrew: Let’s start with how you came to translate The Cat Who Saved Books. Did you pitch it to a publisher?

Louise: Well I must admit that I didn’t pitch The Cat Who Saved Books. First of all, I was asked by an agent to do a sample translation in order to sell the rights. In case readers of this article are interested in those kinds of details, it was the Japanese publisher who paid me for the sample. It was quite a long one – the whole of Chapter 1 (not including the preface).

The agent kindly let me know who bought the rights, and I followed up with a couple of emails until finally they asked me to be the translator. In the past, I have had bad luck being asked to translate a book after doing a sample. In fact, woeful luck. I think this is the first time it ever worked out for me.

Andrew: That’s something I’ve heard before – being engaged for a sample translation doesn’t mean you eventually get to translate the entire work.

Louise: I have learned never to expect to be asked to do a translation after doing the sample. I do my best to follow up on contacts with publishers, if I can find out who buys the rights. I have had my heart broken many times, but I was persistent with this title and it eventually paid off.

Andrew: Persistence does pay (this time)! What did you feel reading the original? And what did you wish to convey in your translation?

Louise: I most wanted to convey the visuals that are so important in the original. My goal was to have the reader caught up in the quests as if they were there themselves. Whirling paper, booming music, falling books, the visuals were essential to capture. (I hope I was successful.)

Another important aspect of the novel is the author’s thoughts on books and reading. Rintaro, the cat, and particularly Rintaro’s grandfather all express ideas on the topic of reading which I guessed (correctly) would be quoted in numerous reviews. The original Japanese was beautifully stated so I had to be sure that I translated these phrases in a way that would appeal to the English language reader, hopefully sticking in their mind. I tried to take extra care with the wording. Again, I hope I was successful.

A word about “Books have a soul.” Of course the original Japanese was “心” (kokoro).  I felt neither mind nor heart were quite right here. I liked “soul” in this image of a reader leaving something in a book. It felt richer somehow.

Books have a soul.… 

a book that has been cherished and loved, filled with human thoughts,

has been endowed with a soul.”

Andrew: The atmospheres in both the bookshop and the labyrinths certainly drew me into the story, and that quote is an idea that I thought book readers would like to pass down to someone, like how Rintaro’s grandfather passed it on to him. When I went off to my local library, I found the Japanese original next to Natsukawa’s Kamisama no Karute series in the regular fiction section, not the YA section. It’s not uncommon to find young protagonists in novels written for adults in Japan, and it seems that he might have intended The Cat for an older audience. Did that impact your translation?

Louise: The issue of YA versus adult is interesting. Picador (UK) and HarperVia (US) were clear that they didn’t want to package it as a YA book. Both large publishers have YA imprints and it wasn’t those who had bought the rights, so perhaps the reason was as simple as that? Reviewers seem to be divided on the issue. I personally felt because of its subject matter (teens, hikikomori, friendship, adventure “quests”) that it was very YA. However I didn’t aim my language at any particular readership and just sought to translate the Japanese in the voices that I heard in it.

Andrew: As a nice segue into the voices in the book, I wanted to applaud your translation of “二代目” as “Mr. Proprietor” – it’s simply quite brilliant!

Louise: First of all – thank you. I found “二代目” (2nd generation) a challenge to translate. Obviously a direct translation wasn’t going to do it. I thought about the cat’s voice and the level of the language it used, and “Mr. Proprietor” came to me. It manages to say everything that the original does about the cat’s intentions for Rintaro, as well as being slightly sarcastic.

TheCatWhoSavedBooks

The UK edition and the original Japanese text

Andrew: The ginger cat, Tiger, who sits atop a pile of books on the English cover, along with Rintaro and Sayo are the three main voices/characters in the story. I just love Tiger’s voice. It reminds me of a certain sharp-witted lasagne-loving feline from a famous comic strip. What were your references for the style and tone of voice? What about the three men of the labyrinths – the collector of books, reader of books, and the bookseller – who were quite similar, yet unique, characters?

Louise: Well, I didn’t think of Garfield, although I know who he is. I haven’t read many of those comic strips. The thing I took most into account was the fact that (real) cats always seem a little arrogant and do exactly as they want. The voice was tough and not particularly kind in the original – telling Rintaro some uncomfortable truths. I was careful not to make it obviously British or American, so I purposely combined a little British sounding pomposity with a bit of the image of a wisecracking New Yorker from a whole slew of American sitcoms/dramas.

By the way, although I wrote in my translator’s note at the end that I had deliberately not given the cat a gender as the original never specifies, it was obvious from the language that the cat was supposed to be male. I also used that note to explain more about the phenomenon of hikikomori to readers.

About the translator’s note, I have asked many publishers if I may include one (and it’s usually declined) but this time I was offered the chance by the publisher so I jumped at it.

Andrew: The theme of hikikomori stays quietly in the background, so I certainly appreciated your note at the end of the book. Back to the story, Rintaro and his love for books and knowledge of their stories helps him debunk fundamental flaws in their reasoning, changing their relationships with books. As I read, I could not help but think of my own relationship with books. Am I done with a story after reading it once? Do I have the time and energy to read an entire book again? And what of those bestseller rankings and the talk of money and books?

Louise: I felt guilty about my own reading habits. I rarely re-read books myself and I wondered if perhaps I should. I wondered if I was the first opponent from the first labyrinth just getting through as many as possible. But the worst thing was the comments about storage of books. I would be ashamed to show my bookshelves to Rintaro for sure. So many improperly displayed books!! I think that the author’s depiction of the bookseller skewered the publishing industry rather perfectly and a little cruelly.

Andrew: And so we can imagine the bookseller in the third labyrinth rubbing his hands in glee with The Cat – it says “The International Bestseller” on the cover. Do you know how well it’s actually doing?

Louise: The UK edition might have been a little premature with that claim, but it is subsequently true. Before English I knew it had been translated into Italian, Turkish and possibly Chinese. Rights to about 30 languages were sold after Frankfurt in 2019 (including English) but since the English translation was published the number has now grown to rights sold or translations already out in 38 languages. There’s about to be a Croatian version done in relay translation from my English translation. (Andrew: Hooray!)

Andrew: And did it travel from the UK to the US? Or was it vice versa?

Louise: I was hired by the UK publisher but the US publisher was in a hurry to get their edition out before Christmas 2021 so their editor joined in when we were in the editing process. At first I was nervous that there might be too many conflicting ideas, but in the end it was great to have the double input.

Andrew: I’ve seen US and UK editions of some titles around and noticed some subtle changes, but I would really like to hear how things were tweaked for the two editions.

Louise: Changes made for the US edition were minimal – mostly spelling changes and some obvious vocabulary such as “senior” rather than “final year of high school” and “paraffin” for “kerosene”. We decided together not to change “bookshop” to “bookstore” as apparently the word has currency in the US for a smaller kind of shop such as Natsuki Books. I was so happy with that decision.

The Cat was the first time I had the opportunity to work on a US edition, and I had the final say on the edition, which I usually don’t.

I must mention that the ginger tabby on top of the pile of books is just the UK cover. I like it a lot but the US cover deserves a mention as it is by famed artist Yuko Shimizu and is gorgeous.

TheCatWhoSavedBooks--original

The cover of the US edition by award-winning artist Yuko Shimizu – from Louise’s SCBWI page

Andrew: Yes it is! And it’s nice to know you had the final say on the text of the US edition this time. To wrap up, do you have anything in the works?

Louise: I don’t have any children’s or YA titles in the works but Death on Gokumon Island by Seishi Yokomizo (the second book in Kosuke Kindaichi detective series) will be released at the end of June 2022. Another title by Hideo Yokoyama by the end of the year, and I’m currently working on two more classic crime novels.

Andrew: End of June 2022 is not far away! Thank you again for sharing your story with The Cat with us!

AFCC (Part 2): Translating the Picture (Book)

By Andrew Wong, Tokyo

Having previously joined a few editions of AFCC as an attendee, I was invited to contribute this time to AFCC’s first Translation Forum as a panelist on translating picture books.

Lined up alongside more experienced translators Ajia (English to Chinese) and Lyn Miller-Lachmann (Portuguese and Spanish to English), Helen Wang (Chinese to English) moderated a rich sharing session on how pictures, and sometimes the story, were changed in translated versions. From how a risque calendar was changed to a picture of a volcano in The World in a Second, how the plot was tweaked in The President of the Jungle, to how word rhythm and sounds were integral to translating Uri Shulevitz’s Dawn and Where the Wild Things Are into Chinese, and how representations were made diverse and appropriate in The World’s Poorest President Speaks Out, it is clear how much creativity and attention is put into transforming a picture book for a new readership. Involving not just the gatekeepers of the original, but also the agents, translators, editors, designers and everyone else working on the translated edition, it is a process that might bring a better picture book into the world.

transpicbook

  Clockwise from top left: Moderator Helen Wang, Ajia, Andrew Wong, and Lyn Miller-Lachmann

Before we wrapped up the session, Helen kindly gave us the chance to voice our wishes as translators and for picture book translations, some of which we can certainly work on together.

– Push the boundaries of self-censorship by publishers (in China)
– Use our voices to make the translator’s craft and its importance known
– More adults sharing the experience of reading picture books with children
– Acknowledge the author, illustrator, and translator in reading sessions
– #TranslatorsOnTheCover
– More translations (in the US) and more from the wider, less represented world
– Support translated books so there are more of them!

Other than the sessions in the Translation Forum, I was particularly interested to hear how some publishers were looking at diversity and inclusion, the situation with translation in Southeast Asia, and how stories were being told and retold in this part of the world where there are many linguistic and cultural bridges to cross and build. There’s much to catch at AFCC, so I’m grateful that most sessions are available on demand till the end of the month!

A handful of us from SCBWI Japan were involved at AFCC 2022. Read more in Avery Udagawa’s wrap-up at AFCC (Part 1): Shifting Perceptions.

AFCC 2022 (Part 1): Shifting Perceptions

By Avery Fischer Udagawa, Bangkok

The 2022 edition of the Asian Festival of Children’s Content unfolded in hybrid format—partly online, and partly in-person at Singapore’s National Library. I joined in online, and while I dearly missed traveling to the Little Red Dot, I enjoyed seeing several colleagues grace my screen.

From SCBWI Japan Translation Group, Singapore-born Andrew Wong (top right above) spoke about translating the The World’s Poorest President Speaks Out, edited by Yoshimi Kusaba and illustrated by Gaku Nakagawa, in a session on picture book translation. Emily Balistrieri discussed aspects of translating Soul Lanterns by Shaw Kuzki and Kiki’s Delivery Service by Eiko Kadono, the latter in a panel on the translation of humor, moderated by Holly Thompson. I spoke about “shifting perceptions” of translations in English-language children’s book publishing, so that more human languages can be preserved and represented. It was a pleasure to do the Q-and-A with moderator and fellow J-E translator Malavika Nataraj.

A benefit of the hybrid format is that ticket holders can view online sessions on-demand for a month. I am beginning to watch this conversation between Eriko Shima and internationally beloved Japanese picture book artist Shinsuke Yoshitake. I hope they will discuss why translators are not (yet!) credited on the covers of English-language editions of Yoshitake’s works. Here is a New York Times piece that came out on this subject (vis-à-vis adult books) just as AFCC ended.

Here’s to shifting perceptions so that many more international authors, illustrators, and translators can be embraced and enjoyed by young readers everywhere!

The Saga of Sweet Bean Paste: A Conversation with Alison Watts

By Deborah Iwabuchi, Maebashi, Japan

I first read Sweet Bean Paste, by Durian Sukegawa and translated by Alison Watts, in 2019. It was just after a string of deaths in the family and just before the pandemic. Recently I decided it was time to go back to the book and talk to the translator about it. After a re-read, I set up a video conference with Alison Watts and ended up glued to my seat as she told me about her life-changing experiences with Sweet Bean Paste and author Durian Sukegawa.

First of all, the book is about Sentaro, a man of about forty who has spent time in prison, is in debt, and works at a job he doesn’t particularly like. He makes dorayaki, sweet bean paste sandwiched between pancakes, and sells it from a little shop. The profits go to pay back a loan. His only pleasure in life is an occasional beer. One day, a woman named Tokue comes to call and apply for a job. She’s quite elderly and her hands are misshapen. Tokue turns out to be a former Hansen’s disease patient. Sentaro turns her down again and again, but her bean-paste making skills win him over. She cooks up huge batches of the bean paste for dorayaki as she teaches Sentaro how to make it too. The story includes the basic history of the treatment of people with Hansen’s disease in Japan, and takes the reader inside Tenshoen, based on Tama Zenshoen in Tokyo, a sanatorium where many people were forced to stay for decades even after they were cured.

Alison Watts, a translator and long-term resident of Japan, found Sweet Bean Paste in 2013 when a foreign rights agent working on behalf of Poplar, the original publisher, gave her the book to read.

Alison: I read the book and couldn’t stop thinking about it. I wanted to translate it, so I did a synopsis and sample translation, and gave it to the agent. After that I didn’t hear anything for a couple of years. Then in 2016, Oneworld Publications contacted me and I got the contract to translate it. They wanted me to consult with the author as well, but instead of contacting Durian by email, I turned up at a musical-dramatic reading performance he was giving in Nasu to introduce myself. He wasn’t even aware that a translator had been assigned, so it was a complete surprise to him. He offered to show me around Tama Zenshoen, which he said the French translator of Sweet Bean Paste also found very helpful.

(Deborah: For more on Alison’s meeting with Durian, see the story Alison wrote about it for the Words Without Borders website.)

Alison: After I got to know Durian, I discovered how his own colorful history led to writing this story. To start out, he wanted to go into publishing, but he was apparently barred from entering many companies because of colorblindness. He went on to run a bar in Shinjuku; did part-time work in production, radio, magazines; became a star on late-night radio giving straight, non-judgmental advice to teenagers; was a TV presenter; and was an agony uncle on a help line. He also formed a moderately successful punk spoken-word band, Screaming Poets, which broke up when one of the members was arrested for drugs. After that, he spent time in New York to take a break from life. There he studied English, sang in a band, wrote poetry, and was on hand for the devastation of 9-11.

Guitarist Pickles Tamura, Alison, and Durian outside the farm temple at the 2016 Nasu performance where Alison first met Durian.

After that, he came back to Japan and resumed many of his creative endeavors. The common thread in all his work, I think, is that he is on the side of the underdog and the powerless, those who don’t get their voices heard.

Durian had wanted to write about Hansen’s patients after the law enforcing their isolation was repealed in 1996, which made their situation more widely known, but he didn’t feel qualified. Then quite by coincidence in 2006, some former Hansen’s disease patients came to see a concert he gave, which resulted in his getting to know them and going to Tama Zenshoen. The end result was Sweet Bean Paste. Hansen’s disease was touchy subject matter and the novel was rejected by many publishers. Poplar Publishing finally took it on and the book took off. Naomi Kawase made a film, starring the late Kiki Kirin, which was shown at the Cannes Film Festival in 2015.

Deborah: That’s some personal journey. What happened after you met him in Nasu?

Alison: A month later I toured Tama Zenshoen in Higashimurayama, Tokyo with Durian, the place on which the sanitorium in the novel is based, and also the location of the film. When we arrived, a musical festival was underway in the restaurant there, which is open to the public and even sells a zensai dessert based on Sweet Bean Paste. That day they were selling dorayaki too, which of course I ate. The mayor was there along with many people. It was fun. The sanitorium definitely seemed to be part of the community. The book and film have brought it much attention.

We visited the Hansen’s museum, and walked through the Zenshoen grounds, following a path described in the book that ends up at the charnel house where the remains of the dead are kept for those whose families refused to allow their ashes be interred in family graves. It was incredibly moving, and brought me so much closer to the story.

At Nagomi, the Zenshoen restaurant. Alison and Durian are pictured with Mi-chan, the manager, and the mayor of the city of Higashimurayama in Tokyo.

 

Deborah: So the author took you to the location of the story and answered all your questions. Your connection to him must have had an effect on your translation.

Alison: Absolutely. I literally walked right onto the set of Sweet Bean Paste and learned so much. But I also read Durian’s stage version of the story, a dramatic reading. It had details that weren’t in the novel that I felt would add to the reader’s understanding, so I asked his permission to include them.

Deborah: Any examples?

Alison: These lines of Tokue’s: “‘with this disease the eyesight gets weaker and sensation in the fingers and toes is gradually lost. But for some reason sensation in the tongue is the last to be affected. Can you imagine what it’s like for someone who can’t see or feel, to taste something sweet?’”  

Another thing was the Author’s Note. Talking with Durian taught me a lot about his reasons for writing the book, and I realized he had a philosophy on life that was integral to the story, which I wanted readers to hear too. So I asked the publisher if we could have an Author’s Note with the English version. She agreed and I translated this as well. Whenever I see it quoted on Goodreads or blogs, I feel really satisfied at having brought that about—it is such a powerful statement. For example, these lines:

“Some lives are all too brief, while others are a continual struggle. I couldn’t help thinking that it was a brutal assessment of people’s lives to employ usefulness to society as a yardstick by which to measure their value.” And these: “Anyone is capable of making a positive contribution to the world through simple observation, irrespective of circumstance.” This is the gist of the message Tokue had for Sentaro and Wakana in the book, both of whom struggled to make sense of their existences. These words really resonate with readers.

At the stone cairn at Zenshoen commemorating filming of An. Calligraphy (same as on movie flyer) by Naomi Kawase.

That aspect of the book had a great influence on me personally. My brother, who had schizophrenia, died a couple of years ago at the age of 51. I had to give his eulogy, and suspected some people might be feeling his life had been wasted because of his illness. But thanks to this story I had a means to frame my thoughts. I was able to stand up straight and say with confidence that my brother’s life had been as full and worthwhile as anybody’s.

Deborah: (searching for a tissue) Is that the end of the story?

Alison: Actually, no. Another result of my visit to Nasu was I decided to ask Durian and his guitarist, Pickles, to give the same performance in Tokai-mura, where I live. Up until the 2011 Fukushima disaster, it was the location of Japan’s worst-ever nuclear accident, which occurred in 1999. Of course Fukushima also had enormous consequences for Tokai-mura, but it’s hard to discuss them openly as most people in the town are connected to the nuclear industry. So Durian and Pickles came and gave a performance in February 2017. It was great—even the mayor came!

Poster for the February 2017 dramatic reading concert that Alison organized in Tokai-mura; Pickles Tamura, Durian, Alison and Tokai-mura’s Mayor Yamada and Deputy Mayor Hagiya at the concert.

Deborah: So you are still connected.

Alison: Yes, we met in Kamakura in early January. Durian is writing a series of animal fables and is a professor at Meiji Gakuin University these days.

Deborah: How is the book doing?

Alison: Ever since the pandemic started, Sweet Bean Paste has quietly boomed. Every single day I get alerts that somebody somewhere is reading, recommending or talking about it. Not bad for a novel published in 2017 by an independent publisher with little fanfare! Goodreads reviews have zoomed to 1500.

Deborah: I see Oneworld has it labeled “bestseller” in their pamphlet. Congratulations! What do you think is the connection with the pandemic that has drawn so many readers?

Alison: I think the experience of lockdown helped many readers identify with Tokue. Plus the struggles and uncertainty of life caused by the pandemic have set many people thinking about what makes life worthwhile. But Sweet Bean Paste doesn’t hit you over the head with heavy philosophical discussion. It’s an artfully simple, moving story that leaves the reader feeling better for having read it, and about their own place in the world, whatever that may be. I think that quality is what people appreciate the book for.

A flyer for an event featuring Durian and Masako Ueno, the former Hansen’s disease patient on whom Tokue was based. (Click to enlarge.)

Deborah: Alison, thanks so much for sharing your journey with Sweet Bean Paste. When I contacted you, I had no idea where it would lead. Are you working on any other books these days?

Alison: Yes, I’m currently translating What You Are Looking For Is In the Library by Michiko Aoyama, and I have two translations coming out this year: Fish Swimming in Dappled Sunlight by Riku Onda in June, and The Boy and the Dog by Seishu Hase in November.

Deborah: Then I guess I’ll be talking to you again soon!

To our readers: See also Alison’s bio.

Alison Watts and Deborah Iwabuchi

 

Talking with Tang Yaming: Crossing Borders with Picture Books

By Deborah Iwabuchi, Maebashi, and Andrew Wong, Tokyo

On February 26, 2022, SCBWI Japan hosted editor, author, and translator Tang Yaming, who spoke to us from his home in Tokyo. Born in Beijing, Tang worked as an editor for 35 years at Fukuinkan Shoten Publishers, one of Japan’s top children’s book publishers, until retirement. He continues editing and making picture books, collaborating with Japanese and Chinese writers and artists, and publishing through Chinese publishers. Many of the works he mentioned struck us as deserving of translation into English, and his talk had much to offer everyone in children’s books.

 

Some of the many works Tang Yaming has nurtured, in Chinese and Japanese

 

In “Crossing Borders with Picture Books,” Tang Yaming drew on his experience of bridging the Japanese picture book industry with the world. With thoughts of the war in Ukraine hanging over us, Tang first reminded everyone that borders do in fact exist, however much we may hear in the kidlit industry that they don’t. Whether they are natural, national, or cultural, they exist. And Tang recognizes that it is his job as a publisher to cross (or bridge) those borders and help children gain a broader perspective of the world.

In 1983, Tang happened to serve as an interpreter for a group of representatives of children’s books visiting Beijing from Japan, and in this position, he spent a week with Tadashi Matsui, then president of Fukuinkan Shoten.

 

On the Great Wall of China: L to R, Tang Yaming; illustrator Satoshi Kako; former president of Fukuinkan Shoten, Tadashi Matsui

 

Before returning to Japan, Matsui offered Tang a job in Tokyo. Tang had no experience in children’s books and wasn’t sure how serious Matsui was, but decided to go to Japan to find out. He told us that he showed up at Fukuinkan Shoten totally prepared not to have a job, but was determined to stay and study in Japan, even if it meant working as a cook at a Chinese restaurant. It turned out the job was his for the taking. He became the first foreign full-time editor in Fukuinkan Shoten and in Japan’s publishing industry, and thus began his career as an editor of children’s books. Japanese society was just entering the era of globalization, and Matsui’s goal in hiring Tang from China was to bring cultural diversity to children’s literature in Japan.

Taking examples from Japanese long-seller picture books such as Sūho no Shiroi Uma (Suho’s White Horse) and Ōkina Kabu (The Gigantic Turnip), Tang explained that Japanese creators who had deep personal connections to Mongolian and Russian culture were central to the creation of both books, and this was even before Japan underwent a phase of internationalization in the 1980s.

Tang then shared his tale of crossing borders during the production phase of Shika yo Ore no Kyodai yo (Oh Deer, My Brother Deer! 2004), for which he sought a Japanese writer and Russian artist to shape a poetic ode to the circle of life through the lens of the indigenous people of Siberia. This story had been percolating in him for decades since being captivated by the beauty of Siberia’s harsh natural landscape as a young soldier sent to the Soviet border.

 

Picture book Shika yo Ore no Kyōdai yo (Oh Deer, My Brother Deer! 2004)

 

In 1969 during China’s Cultural Revolution, Tang had been sent from Beijing to Siberia during the Sino-Soviet border conflict. He’d managed to avoid fighting, and was instead deeply impressed by Siberian flora and fauna. Decades later at Fukuinkan, he decided that the beauty of the nature of Siberia was what he wanted to create a book about. In searching for an author, he found Toshiko Kanzawa, a writer who had spent her childhood on Sakhalin, one of the Kuril Islands north of Hokkaido. Kanzawa had the background Tang was seeking. She knew about the native people on the island and the cultures of people of the northern territories. To write the book, Kanzawa traveled to Siberia to learn about the indigenous tribes on the continent, and it was about them that she wrote. Tang was delighted with Kanzawa’s story and writing. He pointed out that she had even included native language in the text.

The next job was to find an illustrator. Until the 1980s, we learned, Japanese picture books were illustrated almost exclusively by Japanese artists. Yet Tang was convinced that no artist could draw Siberia unless they had actually seen it. He eventually discovered an artist by the name of Gennadiy Dmitriyevich Pavlishin who lived in Siberia and was devoted to portraying indigenous peoples. Pavlishin agreed to illustrate the book, and Tang was excited when the artist finally contacted him to say that illustrations were ready.

Tang flew from Niigata, on the Japan Sea side of Honshu, to Khabarovsk on the Eastern edge of Russia, and then traveled to Pavlishin’s home, where Tang discovered, after a night of obligatory drinking with the artist, that only three pictures had been completed. When he finally got a look at the art, however, Tang knew he’d chosen the right artist because the illustrations were exactly as Tang remembered Siberia.

 

Tang Yaming in Siberia; Left: Tang Yaming and far right: illustrator Gennadiy Dmitriyevich Pavlishin with a woman in traditional clothing

 

The story of Oh Deer, My Brother Deer! made a powerful impression on attendees. The story was from ages that have come and gone; Kanzawa’s childhood home of Sakhalin was lost to Russia after World War II. Tang had begun working in Japan when Sino-Japanese relations were at their best. He traveled with ease from China to Japan, and from Japan to post-Cold War Russia, where he had no problem finding his artist at home. He showed us a photo of himself with Pavlishin and a woman from an indigenous tribe of Siberia in native costume.

For attendee translators, writers and illustrators, many of us who live and work in a culture different from the cultures we were born in, cultural diversity is what we thrive on, so the explanation of how Tang produced this book was especially interesting. In the credits at the back of the book are further notes of diversity: acknowledgments of two translators who must have helped out in translating the book for the sake of the illustrator and ironing out other details. One was Kazuya Okada, a Japanese living in Khabarovsk, Russia, and the other Valentina B. Morozova of Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine.

Once-retired after 35 years with Fukuinkan Shoten, Tang has continued to be involved in the publishing business in China, initially by translating Japanese picture books on China so that Chinese children can read about their culture in picture books in their own language. After explaining that in China picture books are sometimes considered wasteful—too much space on the page lacking text—Tang also offered an astute observation that a country’s picture book industry usually starts blossoming when the economy starts growing, opining that that occurs when people start having deeper pockets and the idea of education shifts toward a more holistic one.

Still, Tang noted that an understanding of the market’s tastes and needs is crucial in publishing. For example, while he strives to make picture books that both adults and children can enjoy, he demonstrated how a deeply rooted mindset that children should be educated by adults and that good manners are important drove the China sales figures for a series on manners and etiquette to 900,000 copies—over ninety times the sales figures in Japan where originally published. He also shared how books concerning nature and social issues are selling well because people can relate to them as more young families move to cities in search of better wages.

 

Chinese editions of the Kaisei-sha picture book series on manners

 

However, Tang also noted some misses, such as a carefully crafted informational series on toilets, which covers the history of their development. We might have thought that the pandemic would have boosted sales of this somewhat niche but important topic about the most visited hygiene facility. But Tang heard parents say that their children are busy learning other things and they don’t have time to learn about toilets.

Returning to Tang’s comment connecting economic growth and the picture book industry, it struck blogger Andrew that that reality could have been the reason behind his own lack of exposure to picture books and local literature during his youth a few decades ago when his country was caught up in climbing all sorts of world rankings.

Besides further discussion on making books that venture into foreign places, during the Q&A, Tang also acknowledged the importance of portraying and handing down local history and culture to future generations. Both lines of thought seemed to converge toward finding the stories or voices that need to be heard before they are lost to marginalization, poverty, modernity, and urbanization. This is an idea that echoes strongly with the translator in both of us bloggers, along with the fact that it’s only natural that some stories are more suited to certain markets—which is one more reason to admire and celebrate the work behind successful translations!

Decades ago, when Fukuinkan Shoten president Tadashi Matsui hired Tang Yaming to create some diversity at Fukuinkan Shoten, it was a hopeful era. Matsui could never have foreseen the changes occurring in the current global situation. For us at SCBWI Japan, Tang Yaming’s talk was the perfect moment to be reminded of the wealth of culture we inherit in a book like Oh Deer, My Brother Deer!, as well as the importance of our role as writers, illustrators and translators in ensuring this attention to culture endures.

 

Editor, author, translator Tang Yaming

 

Deborah Iwabuchi runs Minamimuki Translations in Maebashi, Gunma. Have a look at her high-tech operations at Minamimuki.com.

Andrew Wong is a freelance linguist and translator of The World’s Poorest President Speaks Out. The happy introvert also keeps a text-heavy blog on books and other stuff at Tales from 2 Cities (or more).

This post first appeared on the SCBWI Japan blog.

TOMO Anthology 10th Anniversary

By Avery Fischer Udagawa, Bangkok

“Nothing remained of the coastline or the train. We had no way of knowing what had happened to these lovely people who had fed us seafood so fresh it was still moving on the plate, who handed their own toast and hot coffee to my parents who were struggling through a Japanese-style breakfast.”

—Deborah Iwabuchi, translator, on revisiting an area of Tohoku she had explored with family before the 3/11 disaster

The editor, publisher, and contributors to Tomo: Friendship Through Fiction—An Anthology of Japan Teen Stories have shared messages on the 11th anniversary of 3/11 and the 10th anniversary of Tomo’s publication.

Tomo Anthology 10th Anniversary! Words from Contributors

The messages tell where life has taken those who shaped the anthology and its 36 stories. Many have continued connecting with Tohoku and bearing witness to the March 11, 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami. Proceeds from the sale of Tomo as an ebook continue to support the recovery efforts.

The “commitment was to create an anthology of short fiction that would help support teens in Tohoku in the challenging years ahead . . . a breathless volunteer sprint.”

—Holly Thompson, editor

“On a personal level, I have been sustained by stories at the worst of times. The Tomo anthology is an example of the best that we as writers and translators can do.”

—Suzanne Kamata, writer

“People who understand each other are inclined to help each other, and I’m sure the Tomo spirit will endure as many Japanese now step up to provide relief and compassion to others in distant lands.”

—Peter Goodman, publisher, Stone Bridge Press

Do have a read of the messages and peruse TomoHere at Ihatov, we welcome suggestions of additional resources for our Children of Tohoku page.