Talking about COLORFUL

by Holly Thompson, Kamakura, Japan

I’m always eager to read middle-grade and young adult novels that present teen struggles and real-life challenges in fresh ways, so I was eagerly awaiting the English-language publication of Colorful. At last, another YA novel translated from Japanese into English! AND a timeless novel with complex characters that takes a probing look at universal issues of shifting relationships with family, peers and society at large through humor, fantasy and unforgettable voice.

Today I’m pleased to be in conversation with translator Jocelyne Allen about her recently published translation of the bestselling novel Colorful by Eto Mori (Counterpoint Press, 2021). Eto Mori is the acclaimed Japanese novelist of award-winning children’s and YA books, including the novels Rizumu (Rhythm), Tsuki no fune (Moon Ship), the four-book series Daibu!! (Dive!!), and Kaze ni maiagaru biniru shito (Plastic Sheet Soaring in the Wind), which won the Naoki Prize.

Holly: Colorful was first published in Japan in 1998 to great acclaim, making it the third novel of celebrated novelist Eto Mori to win a juvenile literature award. Three films and a musical have been created from this novel that has sold over a million copies in Japan. When did you first learn about Colorful and how? Had you read any Eto Mori novels before translating Colorful?

Jocelyne Allen

Jocelyne: I can’t remember the first time I heard of the novel. It seemed to be one of those things floating in the cultural air, especially since I moved to Japan not long after it was published. I hadn’t actually read any of Mori’s novels before translating Colorful, although I had read a number of her short stories, and I had her novel Mikazuki sitting on my shelf waiting to be read.

Holly: You keep such a busy schedule translating manga and light novels, including the translations of Onward Toward Your Noble Deaths by Shigeru Mizuki, many volumes of What did you Eat Yesterday by Fumi Yoshinaga, Akino Kondoh’s graphic shorts on Words Without Borders, to name just a few, and your publication list is many pages long. So how did you end up translating Colorful? Were you approached? Or did you approach the Japanese publisher (Bungeishunju)? And did you suggest this book to Counterpoint Press? Could you tell us about the path to translation for this novel and your involvement?

Jocelyne: I was actually approached by my editor at Counterpoint Press, Yukiko Tominaga. She’s a huge fan of the novel and was really the driving force behind this project. I’ve had a relationship with the Japanese publisher for a number of years, and when Counterpoint licensed the title from Bungeishunju, they suggested that Counterpoint get in touch with me and see if I was available to do the translation. Yukiko also liked my work on another Bungeishunju book, A Small Charred Face by Kazuki Sakuraba, so she emailed and asked if I’d be interested in doing a sample translation for them. I said yes, translated a sample of about thirty pages, sent that to Yukiko, she presented it to her editorial board, and they decided they liked my sample enough to go ahead with the translation.

Holly: The title of the novel is カラフル (Karafuru) in Japanese and Colorful in English. Sometimes titles are changed for English-language publications, yet this title would seem to be a given. Was there ever any question about the English-language title?

Jocelyne: I don’t think there was, actually. I never brought the question up, anyway, and in all my conversations with the publisher, there was an underlying assumption that the title of the book would also be Colorful in English.

Holly: Your name appears on the book’s cover—hooray for #NameTheTranslator! Did you request this or is this standard practice for Counterpoint?

Jocelyne: Hooray for #NameTheTranslator! I did in fact request this. The original contract Counterpoint sent stipulated that my name would appear on the title page and the copyright page, but there was nothing about it being on the cover. So I said that I’d like the cover to be added to the list of places where my name appears, and they agreed right away. I didn’t have to fight for it exactly, but I did have to ask.

Holly: The premise of the story is that the narrator has won a lottery of sorts. After a serious mistake in a previous life, the protagonist has been assigned to borrow ninth-grader Makoto Kobayashi’s body for a temporary “homestay” of several months. This novel manages to dive into serious topics of bullying, anxiety, family stress, betrayal and suicidality. Yet this is managed with the deft use of humor plus elements of fantasy via the wise-cracking angel Prapura who appears now and then to offer background hints about the life of Makoto whose body the protagonist inhabits, and to chide and guide him. The story builds in unexpected ways and the ending absolutely resonates. I certainly hope this book will reach many English-speaking readers worldwide. What in particular do you think/hope will appeal to readers outside Japan?

Jocelyne: The themes of the book are so universal, even if a lot of the details aren’t. I think readers around the world can relate to being that age, to trying so hard to figure things out and yet messing up spectacularly. My hope is that readers will leave the book with a feeling of forgiveness toward themselves. They might be a mess, but we all are, even if we don’t look it. I think that’s a lesson that resonates wherever you are in the world and whatever language you grew up speaking.

Holly: Many scenes of Colorful take place in a Japanese middle school where Makoto is a 3rd year student (grade 9). Scenes are set in classrooms, the art room, soccer, on the school roof, and there are entrance exams—were there any translation challenges? Did you need to sneak in some context for English-speaking readers, and if so, can you offer some examples?

Jocelyne: So many translation challenges! I think the most difficult one was the entrance exams and that whole system. I tend to translate relying on the reader’s intelligence, so I don’t gloss all that much. I think for the most part, readers can figure out what something is and don’t need to be coddled. So the fact of entrance exams themselves wasn’t all that hard. Just make it clear that there are exams students need to take to get into high school and that these exams are a big deal, and readers will take that as part of this world they’re walking into. But implicit in the idea of entrance exams for a Japanese reader is the whole “shingaku” system. The difference between public and private schools is also well known and doesn’t need to be explained in a novel like this for a Japanese reader. But English readers have no idea about this system of education, so I had to massage a lot of the school references to include information about cost and the like, so that English readers could understand Makoto’s dilemma about exams and schools in a similar way as Japanese readers. Everything related to Makoto going to high school was a definite challenge.

Holly: For a book about teens that was published over twenty years ago, Colorful feels timeless. Granted, no cell phones appear in the novel, and there is a moment when the Heisei Era is mentioned, but otherwise, the story feels quite contemporary. As you translated did you aim to contemporize language or content in any way?

Jocelyne: I honestly didn’t. The book Mori wrote is really that timeless. That said, I wasn’t particularly conscious about avoiding anachronistic language like I would be with a novel that was more a product of its time. I tried to keep the same neutrality in terms of slang and other things that the original Japanese has. I think the only thing I updated slightly was the boots that Makoto ordered. In the original, he “mail” orders them, but I translated that as he “ordered” them to leave the where and the how of the ordering ambiguous. Deliberately insisting on the “mail” part would only raise questions in the reader’s mind that weren’t intended by Mori, especially given that we use the same word to refer to ordering things online now.

Eto Mori

Holly: The voices of the various characters—Makoto, his family members, the unpredictable Prapura, classmates Hiroka, Shoko and Saotome—are all distinct and add to the richness of the novel. Which of the voices were the most challenging or interesting to translate and why?

Jocelyne: Hiroka was the most challenging without a doubt. Instead of using the personal pronoun “I”, she speaks in this cutesy way of referring to herself by her first name. So “Hiroka wants” or “Hiroka thinks”, etc. It’s a thing that little kids do, and sometimes young women do it to sound cute and flirtatious. But obviously, it’s weird to refer to yourself by your own name in English, so I had to figure out how to capture the cutesy flirtatiousness of this in other ways.

Prapura was also a fun voice to try and sort out. He talks pretty casually on earth but very polite up in the heavens. Makoto even remarks on this change in register, so it was important to actually convey it in the translation. But English is less obvious about register, so it was a bit of a trick to make the difference obvious without hitting readers over the head with it.

Holly: Interestingly, Counterpoint Press states on their website that they do not publish YA or children’s literature, yet Colorful won the Sankei Children’s Book Award in 1999, and Colorful is solidly YA according to standard English-language publisher categorizations. I hope that this translation of Colorful will reach both YA and adult audiences, don’t you? I imagine that publishers in the U.S. would suggest this book for readers age 14 and up. Do you know if or how Counterpoint is marketing Colorful to the YA audience? to readers in North America? And, if you could share a few words to recommend this novel to teen readers and YA librarians, what would you say?

Jocelyne: I do hope the book reaches audiences of all ages. Right from the start, we were thinking of Colorful as an all-ages kind of thing because it really does have the power to speak to both YA and adult audiences. As I mentioned earlier, the themes really are universal, and you don’t have to be a teenager to relate to Makoto and his struggle. From what I understand, Counterpoint is marketing it to both YA and adult audiences, sending the book out for review to places like School Library Journal and similar publications geared toward librarians and educators.

If I were to recommend the book to anyone, I think I would quote the conversation between Makoto and Hiroka:

“Everyone’s messed up. We’re all normal and messed up.”

“It’s not just me?”

“It’s not just you.”

Colorful is funny and hopeful in a way that doesn’t deny or reject the idea that life can be and often is really hard. But it reassures readers that they’re not alone. And honestly, I think that’s a great thing for a book to be able to do.

Holly: Have you had the chance to meet or read side by side with author Eto Mori?

Jocelyne: I have! Of course with the pandemic, everything is virtual, but I met with Mori and her editor when we were getting ready to release the book, and we’ve done a few events together as well. I interpreted for her appearance at the International Festival of Authors here in Toronto, as well as a launch event this summer hosted by the Japan Foundation Los Angeles, and we’ll be doing a couple other events toward the end of the year.

Holly: The Counterpoint edition of the novel includes a beautiful afterword by author Eto Mori in which she states that “Teenagers in Japan have such difficult lives both now and then,” meaning when the book was first published in 1998. She writes: “I chose to write about a serious subject with a comical touch, I chose to depict it lightly. I wanted kids who liked reading and those who didn’t to have fun with it to start. I wanted them to laugh and roll their eyes at and relate to everything the characters did. I wanted them to enter the world of the book and be free of their everyday lives. And then, when they closed the book at the end, I wanted the weight on their hearts to be just a little lighter.” This is such a moving afterword, and this book feels like a hug to teens everywhere. Did Counterpoint reach out to Eto Mori for this afterword? Did you? Was this planned from the beginning?

Jocelyne: It really is such a moving and thoughtful afterword! Counterpoint reached out to her for it, and as far as I know, it was planned from the beginning.

Holly: There are so few Japanese middle-grade and YA novels translated into English. Are you planning to translate more Japanese MG or YA literature? (We hope so!)

Jocelyne: I would love to translate more YA into English! But it’s a hard sell for publishers. Light novels are similarly YA (albeit fantasy for the most part), and these are a lot easier to sell right now with manga and anime tie-ins and adaptations. A YA novel without that anime connection faces a hard battle toward translation into English.

Holly: Thank you so much and I hope that Colorful reaches many readers around the world!

Jocelyne: Thank you! I’m so happy Colorful has already found its way into the hearts of so many readers. It’s honestly so gratifying.

1945←2015: Reflections on Stolen Youth

By Avery Fischer Udagawa, Bangkok

Editors’ note: This post contains references to wartime atrocities that may disturb some readers.

August and September mark the end of Japan’s Asia-Pacific War some 76 years ago. In Japan, remaining survivors of the war are elders whose stories come from their youth and beg to be shared with today’s young people.

But many obstacles can stand in the way of such story-passing, especially after 76 years. The world has changed starkly, so the realities of “back then” can seem impossibly remote. Moreover, Japanese young people of 1945 not only endured but also inflicted suffering in a war of aggression. Can a collection of reminiscences about their “stolen youth,” translated into English, truly touch the hearts of international readers?

These questions were on my mind as I opened the e-book version of 1945←2015: Reflections on Stolen Youth. This volume, compiled by Motomi Murota and Naomi Kitagawa with photographs by Yuriko Ochiai, was published in Japan in 2015 on the seventieth anniversary of Japan’s surrender. In 2020, it was published in English translation by the same Japanese publisher, Korocolor, using proceeds from crowdfunding. The creators and backers of the book clearly wished its content to travel outside Japan’s borders. What is its agenda? I wondered.

My worries that it might present a view of the war overly sympathetic to Japan were erased, however, when I read the opening account by a survivor of the Tokyo Air Raids, who questioned Japan’s failure to compensate civilian victims of the raids. Another account openly described receiving abusive training as a Japanese military recruit and then giving the same treatment to Allied prisoners. Other accounts portrayed official neglect of the residents of Okinawa. Multiple accounts pulsed with remorse for committing violence during the war, some of it under orders: vivisection, pillaging, rape. Sharp critiques of wartime policy and regret for assenting to it filled the testimonies of many of the fifteen survivors featured.

The collection does include further accounts by civilian victims. One was twelve when the atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. He had to find the body of his six-year-old sister and then cremate it all by himself.

Yet the recurring theme of the accounts is not victimhood, but a longing for the young people of today to know the tragedy of war, that they may avoid repeating it. Many of the survivors have sought to address their past wrongs, in part by unabashedly owning up to their actions.

Following each survivor’s narrative is a letter by a modern-day youth in response. I was impressed by the perceptivity of the letter-writers, and I felt that they succeeded in providing a bridge between the world of young people back then and the world of today. The letters also function to create space for readers to absorb each war story before moving on to the next one. Close-up photographs provide another bridge to the present. When I read the e-book by smartphone, I appreciated being able to pause and hold the image of each survivor and letter writer in the palm of my hand.

Mr. Sanae Ikeda lost all his brothers and sisters in the atomic bombing of Nagasaki. He was twelve.

Despite my apprehensions before reading, I soon found myself wishing that every high school or college student who studies World War II might have access to these concise, moving stories and vivid photos, which give human voices and faces to a wide representation of locations and conflicts throughout Asia.

The English-language edition was masterfully translated by Deborah Iwabuchi, with the letters by today’s youth translated into English by students in the same age group (and then edited by Deborah). This speaks to the compilers’ wishes to make the war stories personal for people just embarking on their adult lives. The translators came from a variety of places—everywhere from Shizuoka to South Korea, and from Sydney to Senegal. The entire English-language edition was further edited by Stephanie Umeda, resulting in a highly readable work clearly polished by many hands.

I had the opportunity to ask Deborah a few questions about this book:

Avery: Deborah, you mentioned that the creators of Reflections made a point of involving young translators in the English-language edition, just as they had involved young writers of the letters. I understand that the involvement of young translators was exciting for the Japanese public. Why do you think it generated such excitement?

Deborah: From what I’ve seen and heard, the whole point of people telling their war stories is to pass them on to the next generations, so they will know not to support war. Seeing so many young people excited about an anti-war, pro-peace book had to be fulfillment of a dream for many.

Avery: As an extremely close reader of this book, what did you take away from its meditations on redemption? Did you find the different perspectives on addressing past wrongs to be different from perspectives you had encountered elsewhere, or somewhat similar/universal?

Deborah: The survivors seem to have digested so much harm and evil during the war and then managed to survive and lead successful lives. On the other hand, the war, what they lost in the war and/or the harm they caused in the war remain daily parts of their existence. I’m not sure if this is what you are asking, but they managed to move forward without moving on. Lost loved ones continue to be mourned and the atrocities some committed are never forgotten or brushed off. There were so many different situations, but all the survivors reached the same conclusion of not covering up what they did and not toning down what they saw or suffered, all for the sake of passing it down. I guess their redemption is the fact that they aren’t asking for redemption. They believe that survival came with responsibility and that few died deserved deaths. They just want the reader to know war is horrible and there are no circumstances under which it should be permitted or rationalized. What I hadn’t expected was the lack of blame. There was some (mainly against the Japanese leaders), but the survivors didn’t let that bog down their plea for peace. It definitely cleared my brain of the hubris and never-ending controversy surrounding war, and allowed me to focus on peace. They offered me redemption—even though I can’t explain and analyze the war, I can still take a stand against it.

Avery: In the English-reading world, what ages of readers would you say are an ideal audience for this book? Who would you most like to hand it to?

Deborah: The compiling editors definitely want a young reading audience and the survivors wrote about their experiences as very young people, so definitely YA. In the English-speaking world, readers in general will not know much about what happened in Japan and on the Japanese side in the war, so there is lots to learn. In conclusion, I’d say YA and up.

* * *

Avery: 1945←2015: Reflections on Stolen Youth was published in Japan and can be challenging to purchase from overseas, but it’s worth it.

I personally recommend purchasing the Kindle edition via Amazon Japan (ASIN B07TNRKF8R). If you typically purchase Kindle books using (say) an Amazon US account, you will need to establish a separate Amazon Japan account. Using a device that you have not previously used for e-reading (I used an iPhone), navigate to Amazon.co.jp, set the site’s language to English (if wished), create an account (required), purchase Reflections, and download the free Kindle app in order to read on your device. The Kindle app on this device will now receive e-books purchased via Amazon Japan only. Note: Since publishing this post, I have learned that Reflections does not work well with Kindle for PC.

The handsome print version of the English translation of Reflections is available for purchase as well, via both Amazon Japan and Amazon US (ISBN 978-4907239510). Don’t be fooled by the Japanese-language advertising sash that may show on the cover image, or even by labels that say this is a Japanese edition, in the Japanese language, etc. If “Translation by Deborah Iwabuchi” appears on the cover, you have found the English-language edition. Its sticker price at Amazon Japan is lower than overseas.

If you have any trouble obtaining 1945←2015: Reflections on Stolen Youth, please email japan [at] scbwi.org, and we will be glad to provide assistance.

Talking about Temple Alley Summer

By Deborah Iwabuchi, Maebashi, Japan

Avery Fischer Udagawa is the translator of a middle grade novel just out from Yonder, an imprint of Restless Books. Temple Alley Summer was written by Sachiko Kashiwaba, a well-known author in Japan. Her book The Mysterious Village Veiled in Mist influenced the Studio Ghibli movie Spirited Away.

Today, I’m talking with Avery about her work on Temple Alley Summer (TAS). In the past months, I’ve had the opportunity to do a few of these interviews. Each one brings new discoveries, and I’m enjoying it so much that I’m about ready to give up doing translation altogether and just READ translated books so I can talk to the translators about them.

TAS was thoroughly engrossing, and I sailed through the 200-plus pages. There’s no way a brief synopsis without spoilers can do it justice, but let me give it a try. What begins as a story about modern Japanese schoolchildren moves quickly into an old neighborhood legend and a mysterious statuette that can bring people back from the dead. Fifth-grade Kazu witnesses such an event and becomes privy to the truth behind Akari, a girl who suddenly appears in his class. If Akari’s story were not enough, Kazu and Akari end up in pursuit of another, older and darker fantasy, an unfinished story in a magazine that Akari read in her first life, and which Kazu is determined to find the conclusion to. The reader gets to read the story along with Kazu, and is left hanging as he searches for its author. This story within a story keeps the reader glued to the page until the very end. What happens to Akari? And what about Adi in the other story? Rest assured, all the puzzles are solved, but that’s all you’re going to get from me!

Sachiko Kashiwaba, author of Temple Alley Summer

Deborah: Avery, you were interviewed a year ago about another story by Sachiko Kashiwaba that you translated, “Firstclaw,” online at Words Without Borders. In the interview, you also talked about your impressions of TAS, so I encourage blog readers to visit that posting too.

You describe TAS as “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.” Can you tell me how you came to meet Kashiwaba and translate this book?

Avery: I met Sachiko Kashiwaba through translating another of her works for Tomo: Friendship Through Fiction: An Anthology of Japan Teen Stories. The opportunity to translate for Tomo and the introduction to Kashiwaba both grew out of involvement in SCBWI Japan (then called SCBWI Tokyo) and its network, and the impetus to translate TAS came from a competition connected with the Asian Festival of Children’s Content 2016. I asked the author’s permission to submit a translation of TAS to the competition and then, later, to English-language publishers.

Avery Fischer Udagawa, translator of Temple Alley Summer

Deborah: I’d like to look at the different layers of the story. The story begins with Kazu, his family, and a day at his typical Japanese school. I imagine the author wanting to bring her Japanese readers in close with a familiar setting before leading them into the supernatural. I find it difficult to translate beginnings of books that involve Japanese school life. To me, it’s always the most difficult part of a translation. The aspects of Japanese society familiar to people living here are the parts that I as a translator have difficulty explaining for non-Japan-based readers in a way that doesn’t get in the way of the original.

In this case, too, there was a certain amount of school and household terminology to get through to discover the old town map with the name Kimyō Temple—an essential plot element. After that, the story takes off. The cast of characters from Kimyō Temple Alley and the somewhat eccentric former resident, together with Kashiwaba’s fantasy, are all described—and of course translated—thoroughly and engagingly. Every time I thought I had the plot figured out, it took a step in a different direction. Any comments on parts of the translation you found more challenging, and parts that were more fun to do?

Avery: Thank you for your kind words about the translation! The opening was indeed a challenge, due to the setting’s many Japan-specific features. Young readers of English cannot be expected to know that class sections in every grade at Japanese school are numbered, or that these sections routinely subdivide into numbered small groups, or that students will remove their street shoes at school and wear indoor shoes, which they may take home during vacations. The early chapters contain many references to such details, which I needed to try to include without stopping the story to explain. It comforts me that you, too, have struggled with this! I would love to see enough Japan school stories become known in English that a bit of background knowledge can be assumed.

Another challenge, which actually arose after translating, has been conveying that religious practices and objects play a role in TAS yet do not make the story religious—just as religious activities are part of life for many people in Japan who are otherwise secular. Everyone in a community might turn up for a festival at a temple to the bodhisattva Kannon, yet not venerate Kannon otherwise. A small statuette of the Buddha might be experienced as simply a household object. A family altar, more than being a site of worship, might imply something closer to missing departed relatives.

Explaining the role of religion in Japan is hard even for scholars and for Japanese themselves. I have tried to convey that TAS unfolds in a culture that has many religious influences, which nonetheless is often nonreligious. And TAS is not a religious novel, any more than The Letter for the King and The Secrets of the Wild Wood by Tonke Dragt, translated by Laura Watkinson, are religious due to including a chapel, a monastery, a knight saying a prayer, and so on.

Deborah: This is an excellent point. As someone who has been in Japan for decades, I tend to forget about the flexibility of Japanese society when it comes to religion and how unusual it can seem.

Avery: As for especially fun parts of TAS to translate, I relished working with dialogue and narrative voice to bring out the relationships between characters. The love/hate connection between fifth-grade Kazu and his 83-year-old neighbor Ms. Minakami was fascinating to translate, because rough equivalents of their words rarely served anything like the same function in English. For example, in a spot where Kazu harps on Ms. Minakami to do something, she says urusai! to him. I could hardly render this literally as “(You’re) noisy!” because the issue is Kazu’s nagging, not his loudness. Nor could I express urusai! with the commonly used but overly blunt “Shut up!” I needed to fashion some English that preserved the level of respect a child and an elder in the same tight-knit neighborhood would show to each other, even when fighting mad. And they really do get fighting mad!

Deborah: So how did it work out in the end? What did they say to each other in English?

Avery: “Kazu. You’re driving me crazy,” she said on the phone. (かずくん、うるさい!)

“Crazy is as crazy does…” [Kazu] replied. (自業自得ってやつです。)

Deborah: Well done! Both the difficult-to-translate urusai (drive me crazy) and jigō-jitoku (crazy is as crazy does) with one fell swoop.

Avery: The embedded tale within TAS, “The Moon Is On the Left,” also offered many interesting passages to translate, including a dramatic scene with rockfalls, flames, volleys of arrows, and lightning bolts indoors! My daily life doesn’t afford many chances to say rockfalls.

Deborah: One thing I liked about TAS was the fact that it WASN’T written in five volumes—when it very well could have been. On the other hand, there are a few aspects that I’m left wondering about and that I wouldn’t mind visiting in a sequel. What happened to the Kimyō Temple statuette? Did Akari’s first-life mother ever find out she came back to life? Are there any aspects you wanted to know more about, and has Kashiwaba written any other books to follow?

Deborah Iwabuchi and Avery Fischer Udagawa

Avery: Sachiko Kashiwaba has not published a sequel to TAS; I, like you, would certainly love to read more, especially about Akari’s former mother Ms. Ando. At the same time, I appreciate that certain things remain a mystery, and I too like that the book stands alone.

Kashiwaba has gone on to publish a number of other works, including the young adult/adult novel Misaki no mayoiga (The Abandoned House by the Cape), which takes place during and after the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011. This book has recently been made into a play, and it is also the basis of an anime movie to be released in Japan in August 2021.

Kashiwaba’s other recent works include several fantasy novels, an adaptation of the beloved Tōno monogatari folk legends, and volumes in her long-running Monster Hotel series—rollicking early readers that bring together yokai and western-style monsters.

People interested in her earlier works can check out the film Spirited Away, influenced by her debut novel The Marvelous Village Veiled in Mist; and the film The Wonderland, based on another early book. We also have a blog post here at Ihatov with excerpts from a workshop that drew on her 2010 novel Tsuzuki no toshokan (The “What’s-Next” Library).

Deborah: The titles alone are fascinating! Thanks for sharing this book and your experiences with it, Avery. I hope we’ll be seeing more of Kashiwaba in translation before too long. Meanwhile, I’m heading out to look for rockfalls.

Takeaways from AFCC 2021

By Andrew Wong, Tokyo

A tinge of uncertainty seemed to hang over the start of the Asian Festival of Children’s Content (AFCC) 2021 when an email from the Singapore Book Council notified me that the hybrid event would be moved entirely online. Joining remotely from Tokyo, I wasn’t affected by this change, but as I caught up on the event’s recordings, which remain available to attendees until the end of June, I could sense that children’s content creators from the UK across Asia to the US were glad to see a familiar face or form new connections with people on the other side of their screens.

As with past editions, AFCC 2021 offered something for every breed of children’s content creator. Sessions on diversity, mental well-being, and accessibility in children’s books mixed with those on digital content, market entry, and distribution that were presided over by writers, illustrators, publishers, book sellers, and digital creators, and a handful of translators too.

From Japan, Mariko Nagai helped to envision poetry not as “Poetry” but as “poetry,” and Oscar nominee Koji Yamamura talked about his process and the differences between animation and picture book illustrations.

Lawrence Schimel who traverses both writer and translator realms spoke at length about producing picture books that are sensitive to their audiences. On writing about disabilities, he demonstrated how he sought to embrace disability and difference as normal, for example, by not needing to mention them in the text and leaving readers to see the pictures as they are. While this approach was made possible by the stories, reframing “the other” as part of the “normal” came across as both refreshing and liberating.

Screenshot edited by Andrew Wong

 

Speaking about translated works, Lawrence noted how visual cues were sometimes adjusted in translations of his books. For instance, a no-parking sign was changed from an “E” (proibido estacionar) in the Portuguese version to a “P” (no parking) for the English version. A quirkier change was how a pack of margarine was magically transformed into butter for the Swiss version of another of his picture books. He also appreciated how sometimes a translator of his work would come up with a much better expression than he had, like the German title Hundemüde (dog tired) for the English title Bedtime, Not Playtime!.

The conversation continued into how translations are often published in and processed through dominant languages and how decisions in translation can sometimes be influenced by the political relationships between or among the languages. In tune with embracing minority representations, Lawrence also asserted to keep words from a foreign language in regular style instead of italicizing and “othering” them.

Because this idea of the “other” is deeply entwined with translation, it was only natural that the topics carried on into a panel involving not two or three, but six (yes!) literary translators. Lawrence was joined by Avery Fischer Udagawa (Japanese-English) in Thailand, Helen Wang (Chinese-English) in the UK, Vertri (Hindi-Tamil) in India, and Nur-El-Hudaa Jaffar (Indonesian-Malay) and Shelly Bryant (Chinese-English) in Singapore.

Screenshot panel by Andrew Wong

Moderated by Shelly Bryant, the lively roundtable kicked off with the question of access to translated works. This part of the chat covered how there are many translated classics around us and what needs to be done for everyone to see more translations, from getting past the numerous gatekeepers of the publishing industry to giving translations the space and attention they need as literary works that are both relevant and important. On bypassing the dominant English gatekeepers, I quickly noted that Epigram Books in Singapore are looking for translations, particularly of stories from Southeast Asia.

Besides sharing experiences of working with cultural differences, such as how it is considered normal (or at least not weird) in Japan for the whole family to sleep side by side on futon in the same room, Vetri, Nur-El-Hudaa, Lawrence, and Shelly also touched on an interesting topic, of bridge languages, which normally would be dominant languages such as Chinese, English, Spanish, or, in the case of India, Hindi.

This discussion on bridge languages linked to a separate session on books featuring dialects and vernacular languages. Writer/publisher Yulia Loekito spoke to field linguist Alexander Coupe about using Javanese in her picture books. In one example, Yulia used Bahasa Indonesia, the dominant language, for the narrative and the vernacular Javanese for the dialogue so that readers can experience the diversity of spoken tongues and Javanese children can reaffirm their identities. In another one, she used different scripts (Javanese and romanized Bahasa Indonesia) to create a bilingual text, which works to bridge the linguistic and cultural gaps between readers of the two languages and preserve the Javanese script at the same time. Lawrence also spoke about how bilingual texts faced the need to be pretty much parallel in content. This illustrated a key difference from a translation – translations do not give readers the luxury of access to the original nor are they as strictly bound by it.

Screenshot by Andrew Wong of bilingual book by Yulia Loekito

The idea of preserving languages and their wisdoms came up again when Daphne Lee and Joel Donato Ching Jacob spoke about retelling folktales for today’s children. Conversations with someone on the same wavelength can sometimes reveal unexpected connections, so I wasn’t surprised when they stumbled upon a similarity in the much-loved Malaysian trickster mouse deer Sang Kancil and the Philippine pilandok while they discussed various versions of the Pontianak in the region. But while they both agreed that folktales from minority peoples need to be passed on, Joel opined that it might be hard to find such own voices because they might be busy with putting food on the table.

To that end, I found that what storyteller/writer Rosemarie Somaiah had to share from her experience during this pandemic – be kind, first to yourself, and also to others – emanates through my takeaways from AFCC 2021. Embracing the less represented among us; sensitivity to portraying cultural nuances; awareness of political perspectives in dominant languages; reaching out to help those stories waiting to be told. A clear guiding light from AFCC shone through the apparent uncertainty – when we have the breathing space to find and spread kindness, we’ll pull through this pandemic together better.

Creative Exchange Featuring Translators!

By Deborah Iwabuchi, Maebashi, Japan

SCBWI Japan had a Creative Exchange on Friday, May 14, 2021. Below is a picture of all the participants. It was exciting to see the diversity of (fascinating and brilliant!) ongoing projects. Along with English books, we had several works by non-Japanese being written in Japanese. One book was entirely illustrations—suitable for universal readership.

Pertinent to this blog, three projects were Japanese-to-English translations being pursued on spec. Let’s take a look at them.

Amy Lange Kawamura is translating Kaeru Fukushima by Yasushi Yanai, published by Poplar, for the SCBWI translation contest. This nonfiction children’s story is about frogs endangered due to the nuclear disaster in Fukushima after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, as well as about the people who left the prefecture and have yet to return. Amy asked the group for ideas on the book’s English title. The word kaeru in Japanese can mean both “frog” and “go home,” and frogs are typically used in Japanese messages about—going home. The question for this title was which nuances should be retained to draw interest to the book.

Avery Udagawa is translating portions of DIVE!! by Eto Mori, published by Kadokawa Shoten. The YA novel is about a struggling diving club whose future hangs on whether or not it can produce Olympic contenders. The story begins with the arrival of a new female coach. Much to the dismay of her teenage charges, she starts off by rejecting the athletes’ forms and not even letting them in the water. Avery’s concern was the format of her excerpt. Japanese books often have very short paragraphs, and Dive!! ends one chapter with a string of them only a line long each. She also asked the group for comments on her interpretations of teenage conversations.

Holly Thompson’s latest translation is Chibi ryū (Tiny Dragon) by Naoko Kudo, published by Doshinsha. Here’s Holly’s description of the work: “A lyrical story of a newborn water dragon that befriends, questions and learns from all sorts of living beings until large enough to cradle and love the world.” The narrative’s opening is accompanied and encouraged by a choir of mosquitoes chanting ara yoi yoi! and hoi sassa! Holly wanted to know how the group felt about leaving the untranslatable chanting in the original language and what it might add to the story.

A GLLI Video Interview with Cathy Hirano

By Andrew Wong, Tokyo

The global pandemic has forced events online and deprived excellent books of much needed opportunities for promotion. So when the Global Literature in Libraries Initiative announced the winners of its 2021 Translated YA Book Prize and gave 2020 co-winner Cathy Hirano the chance to talk about her translations of The Beast Player and The Beast Warrior, I tuned in to watch her interview (accessible from here) with David Jacobson, introduced by Annette Goldsmith.

Cathy drew on her long career to share her insights into literary translation. For her work with Nahoko Uehashi, she related how Uehashi herself commissioned the entire translation of a Moribito title instead of just a sample, which demonstrated her understanding that the power of that story could only be seen when presented in its entirety. Talking at length about their work together, Cathy also appreciated how Uehashi is flexible, tweaking her work for dramatization and other adaptations, and often engaging deeply to help others convey her work. Cathy would probably be quick to concur that her excellent translations are in part down to what I perceived to be her deeply satisfying collaborative relationship with Uehashi, which in turn contributed to Uehashi clinching the 2014 Hans Christian Andersen Award for Writing.

The conversation also touched on adding information to build cultural bridges—or not—for example, by leaving foreign words as-is, like Toda for the lizards bred for battle, while choosing Royal Beast over Ōjū, which didn’t sound quite so magnificent in English. That Uehashi’s fantasy worlds had to be shaped by the original text meant less bridging work than stories set in specific periods in history.

US editions of The Beast Player and The Beast Warrior (Holt), illustrated by Yuta Onoda

Turning to the themes in the Beast titles, Cathy notes that while Uehashi draws on her background in cultural anthropology to weave complex multicultural relationships in a fantasy world, just as she did for the Moribito series, romance only appears in fleeting episodes. The momentum stays very much in the tussles with power and with the fear and control of the unfamiliar other. While I was particularly drawn to Elin’s development under the guidance of her mentors Joeun and Esalu in The Beast Player, it was intriguing to hear both David and Cathy note the parallel in the political relationships between the symbolic ruler Yojeh and her protectors, and that of Japan and the US in the real world, although Uehashi was leaning more towards an exploration of the situation internally in Japan. Perhaps my reading as a Singaporean was partly what made me simply join Elin and her young family in their flight in the second title, struggling together with them to find the light in a dense tangle of relationships. Then, Elin’s bond with Leelan, a Royal Beast she had cared for since nursing her back to health as a cub, steeled her to do what she had to in the final maelstrom.

As the interview drew to a close, Cathy made the translator in me smile when she said she found great satisfaction from knowing her work helped someone else experience a book the same way she did. By taking the time to highlight this second fascinating epic from the collaborative duo of Nahoko Uehashi and Cathy Hirano, GLLI too has opened more doors to worlds of the other, and extended an invitation to the conversation on translated works for children and young adults.

Every Color of Light: An Interview with Translator David Boyd

By Deborah Iwabuchi, Maebashi, Japan

Deborah Iwabuchi: Hi David, thanks for agreeing to interview for our blog. Since you’re not an SCBWI “regular,” let me introduce you as an assistant professor of Japanese at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. You’ve recently translated a couple of novellas by Hiroko Oyamada, and also co-translated fiction by Mieko Kawakami with Sam Bett.

Today we’re going to talk about your translation of Every Color of Light, written by Hiroshi Osada (1938–2015) and illustrated by Ryoji Arai. It was originally published as Sora no ehon, or A Picture Book About the Sky. Arai’s illustrations of a rainy day in a forest are accompanied by Osada’s rhythmical descriptions of the changing scene. The rain begins, gets harder and harder, and then thunder and lightning—every shift changing the colors we see. Finally, the rain subsides, the sun comes out, and night falls. The final illustration is of the moon reflected in the forest pond. Osada was a prominent and prolific author, essayist and translator. Arai is a world-renowned writer and illustrator of books for children. It must have been exciting to work on this book.  Can you tell me a little about how you ended up in children’s lit and translating this book?

David Boyd: Thanks, Deborah. Translating children’s books was something I’d wanted to do for years before I had the chance. For me, the biggest draw was how much attention seems to be given to every decision. Fewer words on the page tends to mean more thought per word. All of my experience in translating books for children so far has been with Enchanted Lion Books. I wonder if other publishers of children’s lit are as careful with their work… I can’t say for sure.

My first book with ELB was What What What (Arata Tendo and Ryoji Arai), which came out in 2017. It’s about a child named Pan who never stops asking questions. At first, the constant questions bother everybody, but in the end Pan’s persistence saves the day. When Claudia Bedrick (ELB) and I were working on What What What, we gave the book the time it deserved. As you know, there are many kinds of editor-translator relationships. When Claudia and I were working on this book, it was very clear to me that this was a relationship that I would want to sustain going forward. Every one of our collaborations since then has been equally satisfying, at least for me.

Since What What What, I’ve worked with ELB on four books in Kaya Doi’s Chirri and Chirra series, Kiyo Tanaka’s Little One (forthcoming), and one other book by Osada and Arai: Almost Nothing, Yet Everything (forthcoming).

All of my experiences with ELB have been extremely positive. On a fundamental level, I think this has to do with the fact that Claudia is a translator herself (from French).

Deborah: So it sounds as though you have a good working relationship with both the publisher/editor you work with. From a translator’s viewpoint, it sounds like an ideal situation.

David: It is. Claudia and I have discussed every book we’ve done, line by line, almost always over the phone. Sometimes this means multiple calls at various stages in the translation process. I can’t tell you how many great solutions have come from this. Email is convenient, to be sure, but it’s nice to be able to actually hear each other.

Most recently, with Almost Nothing, Yet Everything, Claudia and I had a few calls at various points to go over the text in detail. We gave a lot of thought, for example, to the line “inochi no oshikko” (something like “the pee of life”) that appears toward the end of the story. Over a period of months, we came up with several different ways to translate around the idea, before finally deciding that direct was probably the best way to go.

I’m happy to have an editor who’s willing to think about something until it’s actually perfect, or at least perfect to us. With children’s books in particular, it’s important to think about every aspect of the text. You have to give a lot of thought to how the translation agrees with the art and so on.

Deborah: You said “fewer words on the page tends to mean more thought per word,” and you sent me two versions of your translation of Every Color of Light. I wish I could print it all here along with the final version. The process through the revisions is a thing of beauty, where so many things change while remaining true to what the author is saying. 

David: I’m so happy to hear you say that. It’s the sort of book that could have been translated in several different ways. The different drafts that I came up with weren’t completely different, but they definitely called attention to different elements in the story. Repetition is something we often think about when translating from Japanese, and there’s a good deal of repetition in Osada’s poetry. In the final version, I think we found the best way to be faithful to that.

Deborah: Osada’s original uses the word だんだん dandan (gradually, or slowly) over and over. You could pat a child on the arm or the back as you read it each time, and that rhythm would most likely put them to sleep. I see that you translated dandan as “slowly” and used it faithfully in your first translation. By the time you get to the final version, there is a greater variety of words, many that, in English have the same rhythmical, soothing effect as dandan. On one page, a series of dandan dandan is completely replaced by “pitter-patter, pitter-patter,” which has a similar effect as a read-aloud word.

David: That’s right. We decided that it was fine to use a variety of words for dandan, as long as we could keep the strong sense of rhythm. That was our biggest concern.

Deborah: Can you tell me some more about the editing process?

David: There weren’t many changes made between the early drafts and the published version of the book, but I think most of the changes that were made related to one big decision about how to handle the book’s art.

When the artwork for the book was sent to ELB, they loved everything that was happening outside of the frame: Arai’s scribbles, splotches and sketch lines. In the English version, they removed the frame so that readers could see everything that went into making Arai’s art. Along with this came the idea to include Osada’s poetry below Arai’s art rather than over it. In the Japanese, there were usually four lines of writing per two pages, but we ended up going with (as a rule) one line per page. In my opinion, this plays out very well in the English version. It allows the text to slow down a little. It also does something to liberate Arai’s art.

Deborah: At this point I had to put David on hold and run to my local brick-and-mortar book store to get a copy of the Japanese version. The contrast was amazing. Here are a couple of photos illustrating what David has described above.

(You’ve got to remember that I’m a translator and not a photographer) The colors are very deep in the original, but in the English version the pages are larger and we get every bit of the original painting, including the shading and borders, with a single line of text below each page rather than a number of lines on one or two pages of a spread.

David, I agree with your comment about it “liberating” Arai’s art. Reading through the whole book, I can see why this change in the art had such a big influence on the written part of the book. You might feel that there is a risk of limiting what you could actually say, but that obviously has not been the case. I think the text might also be somewhat “liberated” by dividing it in half and using just the single line. On this page, the four lines of Japanese are two separate lines of English:

Raindrops drip from the leaves.

Sparkling like crystals, they fall to the ground.

The separation seems to increase the drama of what is turned into two completely different “actions” of the raindrops.

David: You’re absolutely right. I think that both versions have a lot to offer. They’re the same book, but remarkably different in certain ways.

Deborah: I also want to ask about the covers. The cover for the Japanese version has a daylight sky, and the English version has a nighttime sky. Why the difference?

David: Right, that’s a great point about day and night. Those two halves come together to create the full experience of the book. I didn’t participate in that part of the process (choosing the cover), but I think that ELB made a great decision. The book follows a path from rain to storm to calm. It’s a lullaby. At the same time, I love how the book turns up the volume (i.e., the storm) before ultimately turning it down. Anyway, I see the book as a nighttime read. That being the case, it’s probably best to have a soothing cover in quieter colors. Of course, each cover is stunning in its own way, isn’t it?

Deborah: Indeed they are! Thanks for taking the time to share your experiences with SCBWI Japan.

Jackie Friedman Mighdoll Talks with Translator Emily Balistrieri about Soul Lanterns

By Jackie Friedman Mighdoll, San Francisco

Soul Lanterns by Shaw Kuzki, translated by Emily Balistrieri, is the poignant story of 12-year-old Nozomi who lives in Hiroshima 25 years after the atomic bombing. When Nozomi notices that her mother sets afloat a white “soul lantern” in memory of someone she doesn’t talk about, Nozomi begins to wonder about the past. Nozomi and her friends decide to hold an art exhibition with the theme of “Hiroshima Then and Now,” and they approach their relatives and neighbors to ask questions about what really happened on August 6, 1945. Soul Lanterns is a powerful and accessible novel about war, peace, art, and healing.

I had the pleasure of talking with Emily Balistrieri about his work on translating Soul Lanterns. 

Jackie Friedman Mighdoll (JFM): Can you give us some background on this project? How did you find Soul Lanterns and how did Soul Lanterns find Delacorte? 

Emily Balistrieri (EB): I do a lot of work for Kodansha’s children’s division in Tokyo, and this book is originally published by them, so it was one of a number of titles I helped prepare promotional material for, including a sample translation. When we went to the 2019 Bologna Children’s Book Fair, I got to meet Beverly Horowitz, the senior vice president and publisher of Delacorte Press, who acquired Kiki’s Delivery Service, which I translated. My colleague from Kodansha and I took the opportunity to pitch a few books, and Beverly latched on to Soul Lanterns immediately.  

JFM: Do you remember how you pitched it to Beverly?

EB: I told her that I really enjoyed learning about history through the novel. I felt like it was a good balance of educational information and perspective. But also the family intrigue keeps you reading. Having Nozomi as the protagonist 25 years after the bombing makes her an easy character to identify with. We know the history is that the US dropped the bomb, and how horrible it was, but wrapping your head around it is really difficult unless you keep reading and learning and listening. Going on the journey with Nozomi makes that possible. And then there’s getting the author’s perspective herself, the personal perspective. 

JFM: Can you tell us more about Shaw Kuzki, the author?

EB: She’s the same age as Nozomi (i.e. was 12 years old in 1970, when this story is set.) Originally she specialized in Anglo Irish Literature, and she studied abroad in Dublin. She taught in higher ed for 20 years before focusing full-time on writing. Her debut (published when she was in her 40s, by the way—so no need to rush these things) was a fantasy novel that won two major newcomer awards, and she has continued to write in a variety of genres (one of her YA titles is about boys who play tennis, which was her sport in school) and collect more awards since then. Her main goal in writing about Hiroshima is to pass on the memories so that history doesn’t repeat. She feels a responsibility to remember and warn others. 

JFM: Do you have any general recommendations on how to pitch a translation?

EB: The main thing is to make sure you have your materials together. You need a summary that’s one page that spoils everything. Your sample translation. A cover letter that explains why it’s important to translate it, the awards it has won, and sales figures if you have them. The hardest part is always why it should be translated. Although for this book it was obvious. It could only be written by a Japanese person, and it’s a really good perspective. 

JFM: I imagine there’s also something about persistence.

EB: I recently sold some short stories for the first time. And that was a five-year process. First translating, and then pitching, and then waiting, and then getting rejected. Then tweaking, pitching, and getting rejected. And then I sold them!

JFM: What was the magic?

EB: With the short stories, it was reaching the right people. But it was also timing. Especially when pitching to magazines. Magazines are often trying to achieve a certain balance in their issues. It’s persistence. But I also made sure that between each pitch, I made sure to go back to reread to see if there was anything I was missing. You should be confident but you should also take the opportunity to reread and make edits. 

And recently I sold something on the first try—so you never know. 

JFM: I always love hearing about a translator’s process. What was yours in translating Soul Lanterns

EB: I had read it in full before, and after polishing the sample I felt like I knew how I wanted it to sound, or like the voice was familiar, so it went fairly smoothly. I try to get it pretty close (the first time through), partly because I hate leaving things so-so. Then I go back and tweak it later. Some of the more complicated sentences need re-working. But the dialogue comes naturally. I always work with an assistant, a native Japanese speaker, so I can ask questions.

JFM: Soul Lanterns contains poems by Hitomi Koyama. After World War II, newspapers published her tanka grieving her son’s death. Did you translate the tanka as well? Was your process for translating poetry different than for prose?

EB: I did translate the poems. Poetry is extremely challenging. I worked with poet Bin Sugawara on a collection that was published bilingually last year, which was a great experience and very fun, but it only made me fear poetry more, haha. The drafts I came up with were poems, but some of them turned out to be different poems from the ones he had intended. It makes me really wonder how people translate deceased poets. I guess the poem you end up with becomes the poem. For the tanka in this book, I decided I wanted to focus on the images and emotions and not get hung up on the form. I didn’t want to corner myself with the structure and shoehorn the content in. 

JFM: What were some of the other fun translation challenges in working on this? 

EB: The biggest challenge was working on realistic historical fiction. The vast majority of my translations so far have been fantasy or speculative fiction. I tried not to overthink the fact that I am an American delivering a story about suffering and tragedy that the country I’m from caused, but it was definitely on my mind… Obviously I’m concerned with being as accurate as I can on any project, but the subject matter definitely added weight this time. 

JFM: Did you do other secondary reading as part of the translation? Are there other books in Japanese for children about this topic? Or other resources that you would recommend?

EB: I didn’t read other children’s books, although there certainly are some, including more by Shaw Kuzki. Apart from articles and random research, the main thing I did was actually go to Hiroshima (in 2019) to visit the Peace Memorial Museum and see the dome in person. At the museum, I had a chance to listen to what they call an A-Bomb Legacy Successor talk. Essentially, a volunteer learns the testimony of an elderly first-generation survivor so that the story can continue to be shared. Incidentally, the website of the museum has a ton of resources. You can even browse exhibits online. And if you have a group of 10 or more people, you can request a free talk via video conference from anywhere in the world. I wonder if schools in the USA are aware of this opportunity.

JFM: I appreciate your work on getting Soul Lanterns out to the English speaking world. What are you excited about next?

EB: I don’t have anything finalized for children at the moment, but I really hope to translate Yusaku Kitano’s Doronko rondo (Mud puddle rondo) at some point. The story follows a little girl android and a turtle childcare robot on a journey to search for humans, who can only be found on TV in the far-flung future after the Earth has turned into a mud puddle. It has that classic (timeless?) adventure feel and manages to get quite trippy and philosophical at times while remaining aimed at kids. It’s from the same Fukuinkan imprint as Tetsuya Sato’s Syndrome, which is a masterpiece of YA science fiction that I’m currently pitching with a complete manuscript.  

Jackie Friedman Mighdoll writes for children: poetry, picture books, and middle grade. She translates from Japanese to English. In a prior career, she founded a school for teaching world languages to children from newborn to elementary. Find her on the web at https://jackiefm.com/ On Twitter: @jackiefm

 

New Translations Presented at SCBWI Japan Showcase 2021

By Deborah Iwabuchi, Maebashi, Japan

On April 9, 2021, SCBWI Japan held its first showcase of members’ new publications since January 2017. Sixteen books by thirteen members were presented, and a significant number were translations (seven books by five translators)!

The showcase was offered free of charge and teachers, librarians and other interested parties were—and are—invited. To view the recording of the session, follow the simple instructions here.

Here are the books recently published in translation that were showcased.

Kiki’s Delivery Service by Eiko Kadono, translated by Emily Balistrieri

The Beast Player and The Beast Warrior by Nahoko Uehashi, translated by Cathy Hirano

The World’s Poorest President Speaks Out by Yoshimi Kusaba, illustrated by Gaku Nakagawa, translated by Andrew Wong

1945←2015: Reflections on Stolen Youth, compiled by Motomi Murota and Naomi Kitagawa, translated by Deborah Iwabuchi

Of the remaining two, one is just out:

Soul Lanterns by Shaw Kuzki, translated by Emily Balistrieri

And the other will be out this summer:

Temple Alley Summer by Sachiko Kashiwaba, translated by Avery Fischer Udagawa.

We should be hearing more about both of them soon!

View the recording of SCBWI Japan Showcase 2021 to learn more about these and all of the books presented.

Exploring a Picture Book on Momofuku Ando, Inventor of Instant Ramen

By Andrew Wong, Tokyo

Translators of Japanese children’s literature often find they have much to learn from authors and illustrators of Japan-related books—as Andrew Wong learned at an event on instant noodles.

Earlier this month, SCBWI Japan invited author Andrea Wang and illustrator Kana Urbanowicz to talk about the making of the picture book Magic Ramen: The Story of Momofuku Ando. We were treated to an intriguing manifold back story, if you like, about persistence and how translation was very much integral to this story of a Japanese invention, which continues to evolve and fill hungry stomachs across the world, even in space!

Counterclockwise from above: Andrea Wang, Kana Urbanowicz, Mateus Urbanowicz

Andrea started the online session by mentioning how her background in environmental science and educational publications led to an interest in biographies and how her curiosity about who had invented instant ramen eventually led to the creation of the book. For Magic Ramen, she wanted to highlight the scientific approach that Ando, who had no culinary training, took to inventing instant ramen from scratch. However, instead of making it into something overly didactic, Andrea intended for the story to show, not tell, readers the scientific method at work.

But before all of that fell into place, she had struggled to find an emotional core for the story in the academic research on Taiwan-born Ando. Things changed when she received a pleasant surprise in the mail from someone at Nissin—an English copy of Ando’s autobiography. Andrea had had no luck looking for a retail copy of this English publication, because it had been distributed only internally at the company. It was in this translation that she found what the story needed—Ando had wanted to create a quick, warm, nutritious meal for hungry people after seeing the long ramen queue in a black market on a cold night in post-war Osaka.

Image of post-war ramen queue by Kana Urbanowicz

Having found the heart of Ando’s ramen story, Andrea paced Ando’s struggle to show his perseverance and scientific approach to making noodles. When Ando finally created instant ramen, the sakura were in full bloom, a scene that was also described in the autobiography. If you watch Andrea’s read aloud video, you will realize that the story goes on to show Ando selling his product and filling the stomachs of children, adults, and even royalty. With the manuscript ready, of course, more persistence was needed to find a publisher ready to take on a story behind one of the world’s best-selling inventions. While authors do not normally have much say in the choice of illustrator, Andrea specifically wanted a Japanese illustrator for this project.

After the manuscript was acquired by Little Bee Books, it was left to illustrator Kana Urbanowicz to tell the story in pictures. The Shin-Yokohama Ramen Museum in Yokohama and a copy of the Japanese version of Ando’s autobiography provided visual references for Kana regarding the Osaka black market and Ando’s family. As is often the case in U.S. publishing, the illustrator had little to no direct communication with the author about the manuscript. In fact, this SCBWI Japan event was the first time Andrea and Kana spoke to one another!

Some participants in the Magic Ramen event

For Magic Ramen, both the author and the illustrator shared a valuable resource—Ando’s autobiography—which seemed to act as a mental bridge between them. On the few occasions when they did communicate through the publisher, for instance when Kana asked for a visual reference of Ando and the illustrator note on the sakura scene, it was not surprising that both referred back to the autobiography!

In terms of design and visual storytelling technique, multiple diagonal panels were employed to give a sense of the passing of time and progress in Ando’s trial-and-error process, while the front and back inside covers are another demonstration of fun and wit. And so after about five years, not uncommon for non-fiction picture books, Magic Ramen hit the bookstores.

At this event, illustrators would have noted that language and accessibility played a significant part in helping Little Bee Books find Kana, whose English website and loop animation of a boy deliciously devouring ramen were huge factors in her favor. (We also learned that she got some help from her husband Mateus Urbanowicz, who is an illustrator too.) Translators would have noted that they might one day find themselves in a similar situation to their fellow creative professionals—long waits between editorial feedback and (sometimes) little to no contact with the original author.

This session provided a precious inside look at the motivations and choices made in the creation of Magic Ramen, particularly the story’s focus, the pacing and portrayal of Ando’s scientific process, and the visual cues in the illustrations. Since translators do not normally work with agents, I was encouraged by how Andrea’s individual persistence and perseverance had eventually led to such a heart-warmingly satisfying serving of the science behind the invention of instant ramen.

For a second helping of reflection on this event, tuck into Noodling about Noodles by SCBWI Japan author member Mari Boyle.