#WorldKidLitMonth Interview: Andrew Wong on The World’s Poorest President Speaks Out

By Deborah Iwabuchi, Maebashi, Japan

Andrew Wong’s translation of the picture book The World’s Poorest President Speaks Out (from a Japanese edition by Yoshimi Kusaba, illustrated by Gaku Nakagawa) has just been published ★ in English by Enchanted Lion Books. Here, I interview Andrew about the story behind the translation.

Andrew Wong holds his translation The World’s Poorest President Speaks Out (center), the Japanese original (left), and a book about José Mujica, Uruguay’s 40th president.

Deborah: Hi, Andrew. Congratulations on your translation of The World’s Poorest President Speaks Out! I ordered the book and fell in love with it instantly. I’ve got lots of questions to ask you. First of all, how did you get involved with this project?

Andrew: Hooray, another reader! Well, my story begins at a bookstore in Tokyo one day. The cover struck me, so I picked it up and read it. I actually didn’t buy it the first time, but I was really drawn to the illustrations—the opening montage—and the very apparent messages. The initial montage works with a preface to introduce Mujica’s speech at the 2012 Rio+20 Earth Summit and build up his personality, particularly his generous, frugal ways, which make him so well-loved by many Uruguayans. Those first few pages set readers up to interpret his speech, expecting to hear something “new” from him.

Deborah: That opening sequence drew me in, too, but of course I was looking at your English version. (Allow me to digress…) I had to know what the Japanese version was, so I got a copy right away. In both versions, there’s a great humor in the way Mujica’s wife sends her husband off to Rio for the +20 Summit. In the Japanese, she gives him the affectionate but unvarying greeting you’d give anyone going off to work for the day and then tacks on a request in a lovely Japanese way that doesn’t translate well. “Good-bye dear. Please feed the chickens.” Andrew, you solved that neatly with “Stay safe and feed the chickens on your way out! (Have a good trip, but don’t expect me to do your chores, Mr. President).” Okay, sorry I interrupted your story! Please continue.

Andrew: About that greeting, I left it as what it means to me, which is quite literal. The fact that Mr. President feeds the chickens on his farm just builds on his character—a person who seeks to live like everyone else. Anyway, I read the book again. And again. And realized how much I wanted to share this. That started my search for how to get the book translated into English, which led me to the SCBWI Japan Translation listserv. Then, at SCBWI Japan Translation Day 2016, I met a literary agent from Japan UNI Agency, and Japan UNI hooked me up with Enchanted Lion. A lot of it was chance. (And I think Trump played a part.)

Deborah: 2016 was your first SCBWI Translation event, and there you connected with someone who found a publisher. That was serendipitous! So often connecting with the right people seems like good luck—and some of it probably is—but behind that is usually hard work and good planning. How did you go about the translation?

Andrew: I’m not sure if that was my first event, but it was quite early in my interactions with SCBWI. Anyway, translating the short speech didn’t take very long, and I usually start with a very literal draft. But before revising, I needed more perspective, and I found it in the opening pages of the book. After some forensic work, I found out that Mujica spoke around 8 p.m. in June at the Summit where the Recycled Orchestra of Cateura had also performed (another picture book!). Anyway, that helped to eventually ground the English in environmental and social issues, which were rooted in capitalist greed, competition, and consumerism. Besides reading more on Mujica to understand his ideas better, my search for an English publisher also led me to a Traditional Chinese version (I read and speak Chinese), which had backmatter from reviewers on being content with what you have.

Deborah: I’d like to hear about the difference with the Chinese version. Was it just the backmatter or was the book itself changed at all?

Andrew: The backmatter made the difference. My initial impressions were really close to the Chinese interpretation, perhaps stemming from my Chinese Singaporean roots. So when the editors at Enchanted Lion and I dwelled on how the text could be affected by cultural perspectives, we dug deeper into the many arguments in the speech. A lot had been packed into a speech that lasted just 10 minutes. It touched on many difficult concepts—capitalism, competition, consumerism, economic growth, desire, poverty, happiness—so we realized there was room left to interpretation. To top it off, it drew on philosophy! Along the way, we also referred to the original Spanish, and it guided how we wanted to convey the speech—with clarity and passion.

Deborah (eyes popping out a little bit): So, going back to Mujica’s original speech in Spanish helped iron out some important nuances—after working with the Japanese and Chinese versions of the book.

Andrew: I did share the perspective from the two versions (as far as I know, there’s a Korean one too!), and initially I stuck close to the Japanese because we thought it was going to be straightforward. But I didn’t succeed in making polite Japanese sound quite as passionate. So we worked on the tone based on the original Spanish. As I said, there were many ideas in the speech, so we took a long, deep look because we didn’t want to leave things ambiguous. The editors and I kept a conversation going, exchanging emails in spurts over a few months, and eventually grounded the book in environmental and social issues. I believe that gave us a way to tie things together and wrap it all up nicely for everyone. It was a long and rewarding collaborative thought process, and I am grateful to everyone who was involved in shaping the English into what it is, because I certainly couldn’t have done it alone.

Deborah: No matter how long I translate, it’s always a surprise to find out how much effort and thought is required to change a book—one that seems quite straightforward—from one language to another. Did you find it necessary to simplify anything so that children could understand it? I see the target age is 8 to 12.

Andrew: Even though I don’t understand Spanish, I think the Japanese picture book did the hard work of making the difficult concepts accessible to children. Also, don’t you think Nakagawa’s illustrations work so well with the text to build a compelling argument? They also add perspective, for example, about how competition is about outdoing each other (not building each other up); how economic “growth” is driven by a fear of recession, leaving a pile of trash while a wise man stands above; and the importance of happiness for the family, livestock and all. I can go on, because there is so much to talk about in each and every spread. (My favorite is the baby in the cosmos!)

Deborah: I absolutely agree with you. I love the illustrations. I can see how they would help children understand what Mujica is saying! Now, your mention of the sweet baby in the cosmos brings me to a question I’ve got to ask. When I picked up your English translation of the book, I flipped through and was so impressed with the glorious diversity the illustrations represented. And then I got the Japanese version, and my jaw fell. To mention just a few of the differences, in the Japanese version, all the drivers in the smoggy traffic jam were men in Sikh turbans, the sweatshop workers were all brown, and the happy family of farmers and the sweet baby in the cosmos were all white! What was your role in the fortunate shift to inclusion in the English version?

Andrew: To be honest, I didn’t see the problem initially, but one day Enchanted Lion contacted me saying the Indian people caught in traffic were all unhappy Sikh men. And then the rest became easy to spot. I think the time we took to keep talking also gave us the chance to see and correct the problem, especially for a diverse readership. That experience has made me read more consciously, but I still remind myself to be constantly vigilant about stereotypes and my own biases because I don’t think I realize fast enough when they surface. (I’d be grateful to hear anyone point them out.) By the way, I’m delighted at the way the happy family at the end sits with the inclusive closing!

Deborah: The illustration of the diverse family ended the book for me on a very satisfying note. I was exhilarated and I could feel the dedication to Mujica’s words that everyone involved in making the book must have had. Any other bumps in the road you’d like to share?

Andrew: Well, to start, this was a translation of a translation. So when I was alerted to an existing English translation of the original speech online, I was really thankful, but it also got me worried. Once we were certain that the Japanese we were working from was a distinct work—an adaptation of the speech for children—the existence of another English translation became a non-issue. Enchanted Lion also provided input from the original speech in Spanish, which obviously helped in the revisions. The other huge bump was of course the ongoing pandemic, which has also impacted publishing. The launch date got pushed back a few times, so I’m glad it’s finally out. Hopefully more and more people get to read it and talk about the issues in the book, and, of course, Uruguay’s well-loved former President. It was some journey, and it continues, so I’d be happy to hear from readers!

Deborah: Thanks so much for taking the time to share all of this, Andrew. This is a gem of a book in so many ways, and learning about the background of the English version has been a fascinating lesson in how much goes into creating a translation.

The Japanese version of The World’s Poorest President Speaks Out is Sekai de ichiban mazushii daitoryo no supiichi, Choubunsha Publishing (2014). 

Translator Andrew Wong on the SCBWI Summer Spectacular 2020

By Andrew Wong, Tokyo

When nature gives us a pandemic, SCBWI takes its summer conference online to keep us at home!

While its virtual nature removed the physical part of meeting people, the SCBWI Online Summer Spectacular opened up five days of sharing to the world. And how the global SCBWI family responded—with more than 4,000 participants from across many US states and over 40 countries, from Alaska to Australia!

Kicking off with a rare cross-Atlantic pre-recorded chat between two giants, Sir Philip Pullman and Arthur Levine, and rounding off with a panel of agents from a diversity of backgrounds, what struck me most was the candid conversations between the speakers. It was as if everyone was—as executive director Lin Oliver said time and again—having friends over for dinner (or whatever meal fits your time zone). It wasn’t just the presenters, but I also caught glimpses of the people in and around these long-time friends and colleagues. Whether it was a family member passing by in the background returning just to wave hi, or an agent coddling his baby while speaking, I felt completely at home among very real on-screen people.

Lin Oliver (center top) with panel of agents and ASL interpreter Brian Truitt at SCBWI Summer Spectacular 2020 (Source: Official Conference Blog).

As a first-time attendee, it was a joy for me to hear what creators of children’s books had to share about their passion for their craft, how literary agents chose the right time and fit of a press for a story, and what editors and publishers do to place a story in a market. I was in awe of the spontaneity of Jason Reynolds and Judy Blume, and I was left amazed by the masterstrokes and concepts of Caldecott-winning illustrators LeUyen Pham and Dan Santat.

Nic Stone and Jason Reynolds in conversation, with ASL interpreter Vania Mollinedo, at SCBWI Summer Spectacular 2020 (Source: Official Conference Blog).

Jane Yolen was also on hand to talk about how the flow and choice of words matters in poetry and picture books with her daughter and editor Heidi Stemple. Like their session, many others also recognized the importance of collaboration. In such exchanges, whether it was between writers and illustrators or writers and their editors, there was also an unshakable trust to leave the other person room to do what they could to create the best possible work together. Publishers and agents too, spoke of long-term relationships with creators, and I certainly agreed when someone mentioned how vital a local critique group is for our creative pursuits.

Jane Yolen and Heidi E.Y. Stemple, with ASL interpreter Jennye Kamin, at SCBWI Summer Spectacular 2020 (Source: Official Conference Blog).

Even though there was very little about translation per se over the five days, I found a common thread through the many sessions: connections. Stories connect people. First in their creation, and then when they are read. And when a story strikes deeply, it evokes emotion, and sometimes it compels action. I often start on the receiving end. The resonance with a Japanese story drives me to create an interpretation for readers of another language, English. This process of translation, like other creative processes, calls for collaboration with the right person in publishing who connects with the work on the other side. When that connection happens, it may only be a matter of time before the story translates into still another language that makes new readers feel at ease and welcome in the book’s pages. While I haven’t heard of any translator enjoying the luxury of having an agent to handle the business side of things and find those vital connections, perhaps some translators grow into agents of a kind themselves.

The Summer Spectacular also inevitably touched on Black Lives Matter, when Lin Oliver asked Jason Reynolds and Nic Stone what they hoped to see come out of the movement. To paraphrase Reynolds simply, life will go on for those on the inside, and it comes down to what those on the outside want to achieve now, because they are the ones who can make things better.

The idea of the “other” constantly reminds me of the necessity of translation. How stories build understanding. How inhabiting characters from other cultures helps us realize that we are not so different from each other. That we are all in this together.

In all, the Summer Spectacular was a deeply gratifying and inspiring five-day conference, made possible by human endeavor despite the raging pandemic. If you missed what was a truly spectacular event with a stellar lineup, you can still sign up and catch the recordings from wherever you are until the end of the month!

Nahoko Uehashi and Cathy Hirano Speak in 2020 Printz Virtual Ceremony (6:07-17:24)

By Avery Fischer Udagawa, Bangkok

This past Monday, June 29, I rose early for a megadose of inspiration: Nahoko Uehashi and Cathy Hirano speaking in the American Library Association’s 2020 Michael L. Printz Virtual Ceremony!

Uehashi and Hirano were accepting the Printz Honor for The Beast Player, a novel also named a 2020 Batchelder Honor Book.

In her acceptance speech, subtitled by Hirano, Uehashi described how the novel had grown in her mind from concrete experiences, such as inexplicably imagining (while driving!) a girl standing on a cliff in the wind, and reading a book by a beekeeper.

In her own acceptance speech, Hirano reflected on traveling from her native Canada to Japan at age 20 and then settling there. She had been inspired at age 12 by Bahá’u’lláh’s words, “The earth is but one country and mankind its citizens.”

I found it rare and exciting to see an overseas author and translator feature in ALA’s awards day, during which the Caldecott, Newbery, and many other well-known awards were also conferred. The speeches made me want to get right back to translating!

Videos of all speeches from #TheBookAwardCelebration may now be found here. Thank you to the honorees, the 2020 Printz Committee, and the ALA for making Uehashi’s and Hirano’s speeches available!

The Beast Warrior, the sequel to The Beast Player, will be published Stateside on July 28, 2020.

Nanette McGuinness Talks with Emily Balistrieri, Translator of Andersen Award Winner Eiko Kadono

By Nanette McGuinness, San Francisco

SCBWI member Emily Balistrieri is the translator from Japanese into English of Overlord, by Kugane Maruyama, and The Refugees’ Daughter, by Takuji Ichikawa, among other titles. His translation of Kiki’s Delivery Service will be released by Delacorte Books for Young Readers in July 2020, after author Eiko Kadono won the 2018 Hans Christian Andersen Award in Writing. Emily translates books and manga for children and adults, video games, and anime subtitles from Japanese into English, and his latest children’s translation is a bilingual storybook in the “Mashin Sentai Kiramager” universe published by Kodansha in Japan.

Nanetta McGuinness (NM): I’ve read that you started out as a Russian major in college. What then drew you to Japanese and how did you decide to become a translator?

Emily Balistrieri (EB): Switching focus to Japanese was very dramatic because I canceled my study abroad in Russia. I still feel sad about that sometimes. But I just realized that if I was reading manga, into anime, obsessed with Haruki Murakami (this was in 2005ish), watching Takeshi Kitano films, listening to J-pop, playing Japanese video games, etc., there seemed to be a pretty clear path in Japanese, whereas I wasn’t sure what at the time what I would do with Russian. Thinking of it that way, it’s almost embarrassing—like picking which sport to play based on which local team gets more winning headlines. But I guess you have to pick somehow.

NM: I’m in awe of those proficient in a language that uses such a different character system, let alone such a fascinatingly different culture. The wonderful Cathy Hirano, who also works in this realm, has said that “translating between Japanese and English requires “fairly strenuous cultural and mental gymnastics.”* Can you talk about your experience and what it’s like translating from Japanese to English?

EB: I know that in some languages, the nitty-gritty of how well you can preserve the exact punctuation is a thing people consider. In Japanese, it can sometimes be, “Should these sentences even be in this order?” And there are plenty of instances when a question mark in Japanese is not a question mark in English.

As far as the characters go, it’s possible for people to be very creative with them. A great example is Hideo Furukawa’s new book where he takes the kanji for “forest” 森, which is made up of three “trees” 木, and adds three more 木 at the bottom (to make the pyramid shape bigger) for the title that is “pronounced” (and searchable as) おおきな森, “big forest”: the official English translation of the title is FFFFForesTTTT). One of my favorite parts of Japanese is rubi, characters placed over other (usually more complex) characters to show how to pronounce them. It gets interesting when, instead of writing the actual pronunciation, the author might put a word borrowed from another language, an explanation, or other somehow relevant text. In The Saga of Tanya the Evil, author Carlo Zen uses rubi at one point to make a euphemistic conversation about torture explicit to the reader. So the writing system can be front and center at times, but usually it’s easier to deal with than the grammar, at least for me.

The subject-object-verb order of Japanese (“I from Japanese to English translate”) is pretty easy to get used to. It gets tougher when a rarely used phrase pops up—one that you probably studied for a test at some point, but see so infrequently in the wild that you can never remember it properly. Similarly challenging are archaic forms, which some use to create atmosphere in the same way you might find Shakespearian flourishes in English. More common, but often frustrating, are sentences that come with a ton of qualifiers before the subject; they can contain info that, at least to an English reader, seems totally off-topic in the paragraph or just feels super wordy compared to what is actually being said. On the other hand, sometimes the way writers are able to layer in details is impressive, but it can still be a challenge to replicate in English.

NM: Kiki’s Delivery Service is a beloved Miyazaki anime classic with millions of fans worldwide, and its author, Eiko Kadono, won the Hans Christian Andersen Award for Writing in 2018. So it’s very exciting that the book that inspired Miyazaki will be back in print for English-language readers. What was it like to labor in the shadow of such an iconic work and by a lauded, living author?

EB: Honestly, I tried to just take it one page at a time (in the turn-of-phrase sense, not literally, haha) and capture the spirit as best I could. Kirkus Reviews was kind enough to call the translation “descriptive and whimsical,” but of course that’s all Eiko Kadono’s writing; if the English readers are as charmed as Japanese readers are, then I did my job right.

NM: I think I saw that Kiki’s Delivery Service is actually part of a series. Has there been any discussion about translating and publishing more of the series into English?

EB: Yes! There are six books in the main series and then two other volumes. There hasn’t been any discussion (at least not involving me) yet, but maybe if the first book does well, we’ll be able to continue? I sure hope so because a lot happens. Imagine if only Anne of Green Gables had been translated into Japanese and none of other volumes! (Anne is an extremely popular character in Japan; there is a classic animated TV series and even a prequel series made to coincide with the hundredth anniversary of the first book’s publication.)

NM: There are a number of differences between the Kiki’s Delivery Service film and the book—as generally happens when switching genres. Did you watch/rewatch the Miyazaki film when you were working on the translation? If you didn’t, it might be interesting to readers to hear why; if you did, could you talk about some of the differences between the book and the film?

EB: I deliberately avoided the movie (although I can still sing the English ending song from when I watched it as a kid), even in Japanese with no subtitles. Incidentally, I avoided the more recent live-action version, too. I didn’t want to be influenced by the way the characters were portrayed there, since this is specifically a translation of Kadono’s work.

Hayao Miyazaki kind of takes his inspiration and runs with it. Kadono has been quoted as saying that when she first saw the movie she was surprised how different it was. But she said she made sure before production started that he didn’t change the title or Kiki’s view of the world.**

NM: It’s always a fascinating process doing a retranslation.*** How did you prepare? Did you avoid looking at the first translation from 2003 so as not to be influenced, or did you read through it to know what you thought worked best? Were you able to have any contact with Lynne E. Riggs, the first translator, or with author Kadono?

EB: It was my first time translating it, so it never felt like a retranslation to me, even though that’s what it ends up as. I definitely avoided the previous translation because I wanted to come to the text completely fresh. A strange coincidence is that I have known Lynne Riggs for years because she is one of the founders of the Society of Writers, Editors, and Translators. I knew she had translated Kiki, so I never imagined that I or anyone else would be doing it. I feel almost a bit guilty, but I try to think of it as a sort of torch-passing. I definitely look up to her as a wordsmith community organizer here in the Kanto region (I’m sure she wishes I had more energy to help). She and the other members of SWET have a huge wealth of expertise and experience between them, so their events can be really inspiring.

NM: You’re listed on the title page of the book as the translator: congratulations! As a translator, I know how rare it is for an American publisher to do this. How did that come about? Once you turned in your translation to Delacorte, did you have any input on revisions?

EB: Thanks! I think “name on the interior” is how Delacorte does it. I went ahead and asked if the cover was possible, but it wasn’t this time. Never hurts to ask! The editing process was a bit irregular because the editor who brought me on was different from the one I did the bulk of the work with (Alexandra, if you’re reading this, please don’t be a stranger!), who is different from the one who finished the project. So I essentially did two rounds with them, and I know they made some other adjustments as well. Still, I’m used to just crossing my fingers after I submit a manuscript, so it was nice to be able to have so much back-and-forth for a change. I’m excited to see the final version.

NM: What are you currently working on? Any dream projects or books you’d like to translate next?

EB: Overlord and The Saga of Tanya the Evil are both ongoing series, so I’m always working on those, although they’re not for kids. I am chipping away on a masterpiece of a YA science-fiction novel about a first crush by Tetsuya Sato called Syndrome (and I’m pitching it, too, so please get in touch if this sounds good—it’s fantastic).

Other than that, here’s something to look forward to: I’m working again for Delacorte, to publish Shaw Kuzki’s Soul Lanterns. The protagonist is a 12-year-old girl living in Hiroshima 25 years after the atomic bomb, and the story is about how she and her classmates wrap their head around the horrors of the bomb and war, in general, by connecting with the adults in their community who experienced it firsthand. Kuzki is a second-generation A-bomb survivor, herself, so she’s an important voice to amplify in English. I really hope it’ll be a book that kids can read and discuss at school.

Thank you very much!

*“Catching up with Cathy Hirano,” SCBWI Japan Translation Group, May 14, 2011, https://ihatov.wordpress.com/2011/05/24/an-interview-with-cathy-hirano/ 

** In a Japanese-language interview she did after winning the Hans Christian Andersen Award in 2018, https://www.bookbang.jp/article/554311 

*** Kiki’s Delivery Service was first translated into English by Lynne E. Riggs in 2003 for Annick Press, with illustrations by Akiko Hayashi—nearly two decades after it was published in Japan.

Award-winning opera singer Nanette McGuinness is the translator of over 50 books and graphic novels for children and adults from French, Italian, and German into English, including the well-known Geronimo Stilton Graphic Novels. Two of her latest translations, Luisa: Now and Then (Humanoids, 2018) and California Dreamin’: Cass Elliot Before the Mamas & the Papas (First Second, 2017) were chosen for YALSA’s Great Graphic Novels for Teens; Luisa: Now and Then was also named a 2019 Stonewall Honor Book and a 2020 GLLI YA Honor Book. Her most recent translations are Little Josephine: Memory in Pieces (Life Drawn, 2020), Super Sisters (Papercutz, 2020), and Undead Messiah #3 (TOKYOPOP, 2020).

Cross-posted from SCBWI: The Blog with permission.

In Isolation but Connected: May 2020 SCBWI Japan Remote Creative Exchange

At SCBWI Japan’s Remote Creative Exchange on 30 May 2020: Translator Andrew Wong, writer Mari Boyle, and illustrator Naomi Kojima, all in Tokyo; translator Avery Udagawa in Bangkok, writer/translator/Exchange moderator Mariko Nagai in Tokyo, writer Suzanne Kamata in Tokushima; writer Amy Lange Kawamura in Fukushima (photo added after Exchange), writer Alana Matsui in Tokyo, and writer/translator Holly Thompson in Massachusetts. Several of the participants contributed manuscripts for friendly discussion by all.

By Andrew Wong, Tokyo

At SCBWI Japan’s first-ever Remote Creative Exchange on 30 May 2020, translators connected with writers and illustrators in the U.S., Thailand, and various parts of Japan. Joining from the comfort of my balcony in self-imposed Covid-19 lockdown in Tokyo, while muting wailing sirens and brushing off intermittent distractions, I gleaned invaluable lessons on the craft of translation.

When reading and writing stories involving other cultures, we are faced with a culture gap—both between story and reader, and between translator and text. I hadn’t realized that I had no point of reference for elements in my novel translation that I had not experienced first-hand, either as a child or as an adult. Lacking the linguistic tools to play with, what lay before me seemed like a crevasse. And then, at the exchange, my fellow creators gave me the means to start twining the rope and looking for possible anchors on the other side.

Unlike picture books where imagery comes visually, in textual narratives, intermittent illustrations may prove able guides in some works, while others rely solely on the reader’s imagination to recreate the story world. Some stories may never truly manifest in only the words of a different language, but at our exchange, there were good suggestions of how to recreate a sufficient replica using other cues.

Another topic we discussed was dialogue. When Japanese gender inflections and verbal style combine with social norms to create consistent character voice, translators like me are often left floundering with the flatness of English speech. For instance, we work with only two English defaults for the many ways to say and you in Japanese. Add to that verbal styles in gendered speech, and we see the whole mesh needing to be re-coded. What is already there? Or can be read? How much should be explained?

Also, will kappa and seto go down as well in English as ramen and natto?

Well, if the Bard apparently completed three of his famous tragedies when the bubonic plague hit London in the early 17th century, then we can stay creative and connected in self-isolation today, especially with technology. But watch out for those gaps!

Mari Boyle’s post on the SCBWI Japan regional blog covers this Remote Creative Exchange from a writer’s perspective.

Nicky Harman and Avery Udagawa Discuss “Firstclaw” by Sachiko Kashiwaba

By Nicky Harman, London
On Translation Columnist, Asian Books Blog

NH: I’m delighted to be interviewing Avery Fischer Udagawa, because I have a huge admiration for translators who focus on young readers. I started by asking her about her latest translation piece in Words Without Borders, and why she wanted to translate it.

AFU: “Firstclaw” at Words Without Borders is my rendering of イチノツメと呼ばれた魔女 by Sachiko Kashiwaba, a fairy tale from her collection of linked tales, 王様に恋した魔女 (Kodansha, 2016). I encountered this story on precisely the morning of October 24, 2018, in the large Maruzen Marunouchi bookstore in Tokyo, where I had gone to spend time before a meeting with the author. Since we are all stuck at home these days needing vicarious outings, I’ll share that I savored this book over chiffon cake in Maruzen’s third floor café, glancing out as JR local trains and bullet trains pulled in and out of Tokyo Station. I even exchanged bows with a window washer who floated by in his rigging.

Hours later, Kashiwaba herself signed my book. That was a story scouting day for the ages!

“Firstclaw” struck me as a skillfully wrought, surprising tale of a reclusive witch, a resourceful princess, and a brave king. I found the ending (which I won’t spoil here) curiously joyful, and I chose to translate it out of readerly pleasure.

When I submitted my translation last year to Daniel Hahn, guest editor of WWB’s April 2020 issue, I also wondered if “Firstclaw” might contribute to discussions in publishing about authors writing outside their own cultural identities. Ms. Kashiwaba’s oeuvre of fantasy writing includes many works with distinctly Japanese characters—kappa spirits, yuki-onna, shape-shifting raccoon dogs, local gods—but she also writes witches, dragons, vampires, and in “Firstclaw,” a “blond sovereign.” She grew up reading western children’s literature in translation and counts Canadian author Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Chronicles of Avonlea as influential in terms of form. Hahn, for his part, sees a “kinship” with Europe in “Firstclaw” and observes that “the webs of influence in children’s literature are dense and rich.”

Does it matter that “Firstclaw” comes from Japan? Readers may find this question stimulating, but I mostly just hope that the story cheers them up, as it does me.

With Sachiko Kashiwaba on October 24, 2018

NH: I’ll confess to having much less experience translating children’s literature than adult novels, so I’m intrigued by this question: do you think there is an essential difference between the two?

AFU: I don’t think there’s an essential difference at all.

The English-language publishing world categorizes literature as children’s or adult—and as middle grade, young adult, and so on within children’s—largely for marketing purposes and to help booksellers and librarians shelve books. This practice can help to ensure that young readers encounter books appropriate to their developmental level, which no one can argue with. It does, however, sometimes obscure the fact that literature is literature, and much of what sells as children’s literature in fact offers much to adults. The reverse is true, as well. Fiction like Ms. Ice Sandwich by Mieko Kawakami, translated by Louise Heal Kawai, works not only as adult fiction but also as MG and YA.

NH: When you interviewed my friend and translation colleague Helen Wang (who is a whizz at all things kidlit from Chinese), she said, about her translation of Jackal and Wolf by Shen Shixi: “Some of the fighting scenes are quite graphic and intense, but it was the psychological behaviour that I found more disturbing, especially where Flame tests a potential suitor.” Have you come across similar dilemmas in translating from Japanese and if so, how did you deal with them?

AFU: Yes, Japanese children’s books do sometimes include elements that might disturb young readers of English, due to culture gaps. For example, children of divorce in Japan often experience the trauma of never living with one parent again, which shows up in children’s books involving divorce. This reality may shock young overseas readers accustomed to traditions of joint custody. I have not dealt with this challenge personally.

Sachiko Kashiwaba’s novel 帰命寺横丁の夏, which I am pitching as Temple Alley Summer, includes a nine-year-old whose impoverished father sells her into servitude. While set in a fairy tale section of the book, this character’s plight has historical antecedents in pre-modern Japan, which might make it normal-ish fare for readers of the original. It could trouble some readers of the English, however. As the translator, I would never dream of changing this plot element, but in selecting this book to work on, it mattered to me that it goes on to show the child seeking freedom and agency, ultimately overcoming her past. I believe that English-language publishers will appreciate this aspect, too.

NH: What’s the nicest thing a young person has said to you about one of the books you translated.

AFU: “Mom, would you hurry up and translate the next chapter?” (I have two daughters, aged 8 and 12.)

NH: What kind of promotion do you find yourself doing for a finished and published novel? and what do you find is most effective when promoting a children’s book?

AFU: When promoting children’s books, it’s key to engage not only young readers, but also adult “gatekeepers” such as parents and educators, who are often the ones actually buying the books. With J-Boys: Kazuo’s World, Tokyo, 1965 by Shogo Oketani—a historical novel set in Tokyo after the 1964 Olympics—I have done school visits to interact with students, talks for the general public, and presentations to teachers and librarians both on- and offline. In several cases, I have had the privilege of co-presenting with the author. Sharing with my Japan- and kidlit-focused colleagues has also been very helpful. I treasure the professional organizations SWET and SCBWI and conferences such as the Asian Festival of Children’s Content.

NH: I can see from your blogs and interviews that you champion Japanese literature for kids, and put a lot of effort into pitching the books you like and finding sources of funding. How do you balance your paid and your done-for-love work?

AFU: Wouldn’t I love balance! Translating J kidlit into E is my passion, but it is a true labor of love. Even the most decorated member of my field, Cathy Hirano—translator of Hans Christian Andersen Award (“little Nobel”) laureate Nahoko Uehashi, among others—cannot live on what her children’s work pays. (Cathy is also the translator of Marie Kondo’s decluttering books; she coined the English phrase “spark joy” for ときめく.Less than five percent of children’s books published in the US each year are translations (I believe the UK is similar), compared with 15 percent or more in Japan. There just isn’t enough demand for #worldkidlit in English. Yet.

Meanwhile, I work as native language coordinator at International School Bangkok, a job that I find meaningful in itself, and I have a family. Under Covid-19, this means I facilitate virtual school on weekdays and chip away at work on evenings and weekends. Translation has to take a backseat. I know from experience, however, that this tough patch will make the future chances to translate, promote, and scout books in cafés all the sweeter.

NH: When you have time, what your current projects?

AFU: I am pitching Temple Alley Summer, a middle grade novel that showcases Kashiwaba’s gift for writing fairy tales, Japan-inspired fantasy, and contemporary realism, all in 52,000 engrossing words. A third-grade teacher who read this manuscript emailed me, “I stayed up reading when I should have turned out the light and gone to sleep.” She hopes to add it to her classroom library when it comes out.

For now, that’ll keep me going!

Cross-posted from the Asian Books Blog with permission.

Japanese Children’s Publishers’ Foreign Rights Catalogs for Spring 2020

By Deborah Iwabuchi, Maebashi, Japan

Along with much else in the world, the 2020 Bologna Children’s Book Fair was recently cancelled. (An online fair will be held May 4–7.) We in the SCBWI Japan Translation Group know that the BCBF provides a valuable venue for Japanese publishers to showcase their works and market foreign rights, including to visitors who happen by their physical booths.

We would like to use this post to give interested parties access to the beautiful foreign rights catalogs prepared for BCBF 2020 by Japanese children’s book publishers, some of which Translation Group members had a hand in putting together.

Here are links to catalogs from major children’s publishers in Japan.

Also, the Japanese Board on Books for Young People has its curated Japanese Children’s Books 2020 list available to download. Recommendations from this year and prior years are also searchable online at Japanese Children’s Books—JBBY’s recommendations.

If you know of other catalogs we can add, please comment below or email the SCBWI Japan Translator Coordinator: japan-tc (at) scbwi.org

Fortunately, reading is one of the few activities not limited by social distancing, and we invite all agents and publishers to take the time to go through these offerings. As Tokyo finally gets the hang of teleworking, you may have trouble making phone calls to foreign rights departments, but emails are sure to be welcomed!

Stay safe!

Meet Master Editor Akiko Beppu

By Avery Fischer Udagawa, Bangkok

Akiko Beppu has edited many iconic works of Japanese children’s literature that are known in other languages, including English—books by Naoko Awa, Sachiko Kashiwaba, Yuichi Kimura, and 2014 Hans Christian Andersen Award winner Nahoko Uehashi, among others. Recently retired from Kaisei-sha Publishing Company, where she had been editor for some 42 years, Beppu-san has also supported SCBWI Japan since its very first event.

Earlier this year, the regional team invited Beppu-san to a special lunch in Ginza. Our write-up of this gathering includes an introduction to her many works.

Ready to meet a master editor? Join the Thank You Lunch for Akiko Beppu over on the SCBWI Japan blog.

2020 GLLI Translated YA Book Prize Goes to The Beast Player and Maresi Red Mantle

By Andrew Wong, Tokyo

The wait for this year’s Global Literature in Libraries Initiative (GLLI) Translated YA Book Prize is over!

As announced on April 2, GLLI have selected not one but two titles for the top prize, one of which is Nahoko Uehashi’s The Beast Player, translated from the Japanese by Cathy Hirano. This adds to Uehashi’s list of international accolades since Hirano’s translation of the first book in the Moribito series won global recognition in 2009. The Beast Player shares the prize with fellow fantasy title Maresi Red Mantle by Finland’s Maria Turtschaninoff, translated from the Finno-Swedish by A. A. Prime.

One other Japanese title, Kazuki Kaneshiro’s Go, translated by Takami Nieda, also made the 13-strong shortlist.

Lockdown? Another reason to stay home and wander around the worlds created in these books! Stay safe everyone.

The Picture Book Art of Chiki Kikuchi

Chiki Kikuchi (EhonNavi)

By Alexa Frank, Tokyo, and Emily Balistrieri, Tokyo

Though his latest book may be titled Shiro to kuro (White and Black), the world of prolific picture book author and illustrator Chiki Kikuchi is anything but. After debuting in 2012 with Shironeko kuroneko (White Cat, Black Cat; Gakken Plus), which won the prestigious Golden Apple award at the Biennial of Illustrations Bratislava (BIB), Kikuchi underwent a major shift in style. Exchanging his sumptuous black lines and white spaces for inventive displays of color, Kikuchi’s books feature animals and children playing amid abstract visions of nature and inner universes. And his words are just as lively as his brushstrokes—Kikuchi’s work gestures toward big questions about loneliness, self-worth, and identity without sacrificing the childlike sense of wonder that has gained him fans all across Japan. 

Art by Chiki Kikuchi on display in Kichijoji, Tokyo, in fall 2019 (photo courtesy Kaori Nagaoka). Click to enlarge.

In fall 2019, Tokyo’s Kichijoji Art Museum held White and Black: A Chiki Kikuchi Picture Book Exhibition, a major showcase of Kikuchi’s original artwork. Longtime fans and Kikuchi newbies alike had the rare opportunity not only to see Kikuchi displays up close, but also to attend Kikuchi-led art workshops and experience live musical and dance collaborations. One of the highlights was a November talk show event that capped off the exhibition: a revealing conversation among Kikuchi, his editor Kaori Nagaoka, and book designer Hideyuki Saito. 

Nagaoka, Saito, and Kikuchi’s relaxed dynamic on stage spoke to the team’s loyal working relationship. They had collaborated on all of Kikuchi’s Kodansha books, and one of the reasons why Kikuchi’s books have been so successful is undoubtedly that this team appears to be on the same creative wavelength. It was Saito who picked the covers for Shiro to kuro and Momiji no tegami (Maple Leaf Letter; Komine Shoten). To evoke the changing of seasons, Saito designed the Momiji no tegami cover with red paper reminiscent of autumn leaves—a choice Kikuchi was very much a fan of. Momiji’s original cover art was notably missing from the Kichijoji exhibit; it had won a plaque at BIB 2019 and was still on display at Bratislava Castle in Slovakia.

Momiji no tegami (Maple Leaf Letter; Komine Shoten)

Kikuchi’s son was born the day of the 2013 BIB Golden Apple award ceremony—and was almost named Ringo (apple in Japanese) to celebrate the occasion. However, Kikuchi instead decided to honor his young son via his next book, Boku da yo boku da yo (It’s Me, It’s Me; Rironsha), inspired by their father and son playtime. 

Boku da yo, boku da yo (It’s Me, It’s Me; Rironsha)

Neko no sora (A Cat’s Sky; Kodansha) was commissioned by Nagaoka. Already a fan of Kikuchi’s paintings, Nagaoka first met him at a gallery exhibition and quickly became a fan of Kikuchi as a person as well. They worked together closely, creating a heartfelt narrative, which Nagaoka describes as “maybe more meta than the other stories about Chiki and his son.”

Neko no sora (A Cat’s Sky; Kodansha)

K: We didn’t decide right away that it was a tree and a cat.

N: But we were thinking it would be good to have a tree.

K: And there was a tree in front of my apartment where I was living, and I thought it was good. The landlord was feeding a bunch of stray cats out there. So the book kind of came together from those images. So okay, the tree will be me and the cat will be my son, I guess? It was all very natural. And when I was writing the scene where the cat takes a step away from the tree, I remember feeling a bit tearful. Like oh, my son will grow up…

When his son was old enough to realize his dad was a picture book author, he requested a book about a tiger, which thrilled Kikuchi. “I was so happy that I wanted to do it immediately!” That became Tora no ko Torako (Torako the Tiger Cub; Shogakukan).

When it comes to Kikuchi and words, Nagaoka says, “Lately, Kikuchi has been writing his text ideas on sticky notes during the draft stage, but maybe he’s always done that in his head. Changing one word in a picture book can change a whole scene. Kikuchi always reads the text out aloud. He thinks so carefully about the number of the characters in a book, what they say and where they’re placed…he really considers every part of the process.” 

The everyday conversations among Kikuchi, Nagaoka, and Saito have often influenced the direction of their books—nothing is ever decided at the beginning, which makes perfect sense for the medium. Words and art in a picture book inform one another: the colorful explosion of Boku da yo boku da yo mimics the way young children can find their own language through exploration. For Shiro to kuro, however, the team strove to strike a balance between black and white and color.

Shiro to kuro (Black and White) on the sign for the fall 2019 exhibition in Tokyo (photo courtesy Kaori Nagaoka). Click to enlarge.

The book stars Shiro, a white cat stand-in for Kikuchi’s son, and Kuro, a black dog, as they explore their surroundings and the complicated emotions we come across as children but lack the words for. Kikuchi has always liked black and white art. Of his earlier work, he says, “I didn’t feel like I was very good at using colors…when you add color, that’s the first thing people notice. But with black and white, I like that people can imagine the colors.” Just as one might when listening to the piano—Nagaoka was studying piano during the initial Shiro to kuro meetings, and lent Kikuchi a CD to listen to. Kikuchi was inspired by Nagaoka describing the spaces between notes as smooth, and wanted to put that feeling into a picture book. 

The making of Shiro to kuro, however, was decidedly bumpy—from the title to the writing to the printing process, the book underwent many changes before it hit the shelves. Kikuchi was unsatisfied with the original title (Ii na Ii na, “I’m jealous, I’m jealous”) and text, and decided to essentially write two books (one starring Kuro, one starring Shiro), and merge them together. This caused the book to undergo a total rewrite, which may have thrown off another editor, but not Nagaoka. She was delighted by the changes. It was only after Kikuchi’s extensive revisions that the book seemed to come together, and Saito, too, was happy to roll with it. Saito encouraged Kikuchi to simplify the cover’s color palette to black, white, and red to create greater contrast between the book’s central characters. The colors also start to thin out by the end of the book, which Kikuchi says mirrors how the sky lightens with the sunrise. “The sky starts brightening because Kuro’s thinking about Shiro. It’s still night, but there are more white scenes because his whole head is full of Shiro…so I used black less and less.” The overall book design was shaped by Kuro’s feelings—a decision Kikuchi credits to Saito. 

Art by Chiki Kikuchi on display in Kichijoji, Tokyo, in fall 2019 (photo courtesy Kaori Nagaoka). Click to enlarge.

Towards the end of the talk show, Kikuchi spoke about his son’s contributions to the exhibition. “Sometimes my son is sensitive and you can really see it in his body language, sort of like Shiro and Kuro,” Kikuchi says. As the opening drew closer, Kikuchi employed his son to help him create a paper sculpture of Shiro. The key to Kikuchi’s picture books really seems to be his son, who influences him so much. As his son and other young readers look at Kikuchi’s pages and imagine a great, big world, adult readers take pleasure in how Kikuchi puts them back in touch with their childhood selves, finding excitement in the small pleasures of the everyday. Just as words and images work together to shape a picture book, that white space between childhood wonder and adult understanding informs how we read them. And the Kichijoji Kikuchi exhibition, happily, gave us much room to dwell. 

Shiro to kuro (White and Black) by Chiki Kikuchi and the other titles in this post have not yet been published in English translation. We hope they will be soon!