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

by Deborah Iwabuchi, Maebashi, Japan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Deborah: Any examples?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deborah: So you are still connected.

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

Deborah: How is the book doing?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To our readers: See also Alison’s bio.

Alison Watts and Deborah Iwabuchi

 

Talking with Tang Yaming: Crossing Borders with Picture Books

By Deborah Iwabuchi, Maebashi, and Andrew Wong, Tokyo

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

Editor, author, translator Tang Yaming

 

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

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

This post first appeared on the SCBWI Japan blog.

TOMO Anthology 10th Anniversary

By Avery Fischer Udagawa, Bangkok

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

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

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

Tomo Anthology 10th Anniversary! Words from Contributors

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

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

—Holly Thompson, editor

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

—Suzanne Kamata, writer

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

—Peter Goodman, publisher, Stone Bridge Press

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

2022 GLLI Translated YA Book Prize Shortlist

By Andrew Wong, Tokyo, Japan
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The Global Literature in Libraries Initiative has narrowed down its list of titles for the 2022 GLLI Translated YA Book Prize to a shortlist of five titles, two of which are translated from Japanese – Colorful (Eto Mori, tr. Jocelyne Allen) and The Easy Life in Kamusari (Shion Miura, tr. Juliet Winters Carpenter).
 
Colorful is about a boy finding himself in a second look at life in someone’s body while The Easy Life explores the ganbaru spirit in a coming-of-age story set in the landscape of the forestry industry.
 
Check out Holly’s interview with Jocelyne on Colorful here!

Batchelder Award for Temple Alley Summer; Criteria Revised

By Holly Thompson, Kamakura, SCBWI Japan Co-Regional Advisor
Mariko Nagai, Tokyo, SCBWI Japan Co-Regional Advisor
Naomi Kojima, Tokyo, SCBWI Japan Illustrator Coordinator

 

Among the ALA YMA Awards last month, the 2022 Mildred L. Batchelder Award for a book translated from another language into English went to to Temple Alley Summer written by Japanese author Sachiko Kashiwaba, illustrated by Miho Satake, and translated from the Japanese into English by SCBWI Japan Translator Coordinator/SCBWI Translator Coordinator Avery Fischer Udagawa!

This was thrilling news for many: for publisher Yonder, an imprint of independent publisher Restless Books; for Sachiko Kashiwaba, author of many beloved children’s books; for illustrator Miho Satake; and for Avery. Avery has been an advocate for young people’s literature in translation and a champion of children’s and YA translators of other languages into English, co-organizing our biennial SCBWI Japan Translation Days since 2010, overseeing this SCBWI Japan Translation Group blog, and managing Google Groups for both SCBWI Japan translators and for all interested SCBWI translators who translate into English. Avery has helped build communities of translators and created opportunities for both emerging and established translators, and she has long been advocating for crediting translators, lately via #NameTheTranslator and #TranslatorsOnTheCover.

In the SCBWI Translation community, we were also delighted when, just days after the Youth Media Awards announcements, we learned the great news that the ALSC board passed a motion to revise the Batchelder Award criteria, such that translators must be named on, or in, the books submitted. As explained in this World Kid Lit blog post by Paula Holmes of ALSC, “The translator(s) shall be named on all titles submitted for consideration. The translator(s) name(s) shall appear, at minimum, on the title page along with the author(s) name(s), and ideally the translator(s) name(s) shall appear on the cover along with the author(s) name(s) as well.”

So a special hurrah and thank you to Avery! And to translators of children’s and young adult literature from other languages into English, we applaud you all! Do persevere! English-language young readers deserve to read the world.

Voicing a Story

By Andrew Wong, Tokyo

We were recently treated to a double header on voice and character with two (yes two!) award winning kidlit creators, Traci Chee and Avery Fischer Udagawa. Attending both sessions, I saw how their approaches toward characterization and narrative were different by nature of their roles in the creative space—a writer shapes characters from scratch to best convey a narrative, while a translator recreates a story and the experience of reading it in another language.

A strong voice draws readers (that includes publishers too) and drives a story, and both Traci and Avery touched on how writers create voice. Using various techniques to put sentence length and vocabulary to work with non-textual cues, and sometimes with how the text falls on a page, to create tone, pace, and atmosphere, authors and translators use basically the same tools for a text-based narrative.

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Voicing and Tone: – PianoBuyer.com

But unlike authors, translators work on an existing text. Even so, Avery cautioned against being too concerned about fidelity. Taking an example from music, she mentioned how the notes of an accurately tuned piano may sound fine, yet they are different from the sound that flows from a voiced piano. My take on this would be that when a pianist (translator) plays music scripted by a composer (writer), a performance focused on hitting the right notes alone would sound sterile as compared to a nuanced expressive one.

Avery used submissions from a workshop at SCBWI Japan Translation Day a few years ago to show how two translations of the same passage can sound very different. This reminded me that a translator’s reading of the original, their interpretations and choices, affect every aspect of the translation. Indeed, no two translations from workshops over the past six editions of Translation Day have given off quite the same vibes.

Having shown how translation is a highly subjective endeavor, besides reading the story in rakugo-style and asking family members for input, Avery shared how communicating with Temple Alley Summer author Sachiko Kashiwaba sometimes influences her, for example encouraging her to trim her sentences (when in doubt) to reflect Kashiwaba’s often tightly phrased emails. While Avery mentioned that Kashiwaba doesn’t write herself into her stories, this experience suggests how personal connections between the writer and translator are simply precious and can sometimes prove instrumental in fine tuning the voice, narrative or otherwise.

We had already dipped into the depths of characterization and voice in the preceding workshop with Traci Chee, and together the two sessions made me think deeper about the tools available to (re)create characters and the story world, and about the clues lying there in the pages waiting to be discovered and conveyed. For more on Traci Chee’s illuminating workshop on voice in her book, We Are Not Free, watch for Mari Boyle’s write-up at the SCBWI Japan blog.

Participants in the Voice and Character event (photo taken after Avery’s session)

How Do You Live? An Interview with Translator Bruno Navasky

By Deborah Iwabuchi, Maebashi, Japan

Bruno Navasky is the translator of How Do You Live? by Genzaburō Yoshino, a book known for (among other things) being “the first English translation of Hayao Miyazaki’s favorite children’s book.” Bruno kindly agreed to do an interview for this blog.

Deborah Iwabuchi: Hi, Bruno! On your website, you introduce yourself as “a teacher and writer in New York City.” Could you add a little to this, especially in terms of translation?

Bruno Navasky: Hi Deborah! Thanks very much for including me on your blog.

Translation has always been for me less a vocation than a constant avocation. I first encountered Japanese through a childhood friendship with the conductor Alan Gilbert. The two of us studied French and Latin together as kids, and his family took me on my first trip to Japan, where we traveled with his Japanese cousins during their summer vacation. It was an unforgettable tour, from the onsen at Hakone up to the thatched rooftops of Takayama and down to the gardens and temples of Kyoto and Nara. As we traveled, I picked up random phrases of Japanese, and I remember being struck by the many ways in which it reminded me of the Latin works I was reading at the time (SOV word order, for instance, and regular conjugations that create a surfeit of end-rhymes, and thus a tendency to syllabic verse). I was just at the close of that period when language acquisition happens with minimal effort, and I came away with a budding appreciation of Japanese culture and an abiding love for the language.

Bruno Navasky

In college I studied Japanese language and literature, and I was fortunate to study with Prof. Edwin A. Cranston, the author of A Waka Anthology. My thesis project was a book-length translation and essay on the work of Tanikawa Shuntarō, a beloved poet who emerged from the wasteland of World War II to write life-affirming poems, playful and soulful, for readers of all ages. (For many years, he also translated Charles Schultz’s comic strip Peanuts for publication in Japanese newspapers.)

After college I attended the University of Nagoya as a research fellow of the Japanese Ministry of Education. I found myself again drawn to contemporaries of my college thesis subject, the poet Tanikawa. I loved the crushingly precise portraits of parenthood and childhood in the work of Kuroda Saburō, among others, and the richly allusive, surreal and musical poems of Naka Tarō.

Deborah: Let’s talk a little about How Do You Live? It was first published in Japanese in 1937 as Kimitachi wa dō ikiru ka and was then revised after World War II to make it easier to read. It was produced as a manga in 2017, which brings us to your English translation that came out this year by Algonquin Books. Interest in this translation is being propelled by the fact that Hayao Miyazaki, the Studio Ghibli creator, read and loved the book as a child and is making it into an animated film.

Could you give blog readers an idea of what the book is about?

Bruno: I think at heart for those who love it, How Do You Live? is the story of a boy and his uncle. The boy is learning how to be himself in a challenging world, and the uncle is trying to help him find his way. The boy lives with his mother, in a Tokyo suburb of the 1930s. He has a close group of school friends and together they sail through a series of adventures and misadventures that finally carry him to the stormy seas of a great personal crisis. Or at least, so it seems to him. Throughout the book, both his friends and the adults in his life have important lessons to offer him, particularly his uncle, and those lessons form the framework for what might be considered an ethical treatise by the author Yoshino Genzaburō.

Japanese edition of How Do You Live?

Yoshino himself had been imprisoned for his progressive political associations, and hoped to craft a defense of pacifism, of independent thought, and of the humanities in the face of the rampant militarism, authoritarianism, and censorship of the period. He initially intended the book to be a textbook, one in a series he was editing with a colleague (Nihon shōkokumin bunko, with Yamamoto Yūzō), but partially because of the heavy subject matter, and partially because of the political climate, they decided it would work better as a story. When Yamamoto developed eye problems, it fell to Yoshino to write the book himself.

So in a sense, the book exists on three planes simultaneously: as a work of fiction, as a primer, and as a political broadside. The format that Yoshino hit upon to accomplish this was to interleave narrative chapters about the boy’s experience together with notes that the uncle writes in his own journal. This has the benefit of softening the edge of the didactic material, and allows Yoshino’s own voice to poke through into the story. As an educator, I was impressed with the way the narrative and didactic sections use scaffolding to reinforce concepts after they are introduced — a challenging word or concept is never tossed aside casually in this book, but rather resurfaces and is reinforced in multiple occurrences. And as a reader, as well, I think the book might have been no more than the sum of its parts if the two threads of the book, the narrative and the didactic, had not been knit together, at long last, very neatly in the final chapters, where the book really begins to pull its weight as a novel.

Deborah: I agree with this. The ending is incredibly moving. Each of the episodes in the boy Copper’s life is pulled together, and the lengthy pieces of advice by his uncle move from broad to very specific. This is where we the readers, together with Copper, are grabbed by the scruff of the neck and dragged out of our rather peaceful existences, with Yoshino demanding to know, “How are you planning to live your life?”

Manga version by Shoichi Haga

I confess that the Miyazaki connection is what grabbed my interest at first. Written in the late 1930s, I imagined this book would have a critique of Japan’s militaristic road to war as its theme, something Miyazaki has used in a number of his films. Outside of the story of Napoleon, though, How Do You Live? actually doesn’t have much about war, though war could be the elephant in the room—we can smell it and hear it stomping around without actually seeing it. I greatly appreciate your historical notes at the end of the book; they answer the questions I had as I read.

Bruno: Aside from a brief period when the censors caught up with the book, it has remained in print for nearly all of the eighty-odd years since its publication. Although Japan’s circumstances have changed, and the original text may seem dated in certain respects, the book remains a luminous portrait of Tokyo at a time when Japan was on the brink of profound social changes, a moral beacon that influenced the values of a generation and, I think, a moving story to boot. With the release of the manga version and the forthcoming film by Miyazaki, it’s again selling briskly, and catching the eye of publishers around the world.

In addition to its interest as a historical and literary document, I think the book is of particular interest in countries that are grappling with authoritarianism right now. Since the English edition has been released I have had inquiries from Turkish, Russian, and Brazilian translators. I don’t exempt the United States from this, but I also think the book is of great value to the global generation that is coming of age in a time of so much uncertainty — political and economic changes, new technologies, covid, global warming, and so on — and wondering how to live their lives in the face of it all.

Deborah: How did you get involved with it and what your experience was like?

Bruno: The American publisher, Algonquin Books, acquired the English language rights to the book after news of the manga and the Miyazaki film caught the eye of Elise Howard, an astute editor and publisher of their Young Readers books. Algonquin knew of my translation work through a previous project with a related publisher, and a contact there suggested me for Yoshino’s book, but I did have to audition for the project. I submitted an initial sample for Algonquin and then an extended sample for the Yoshino estate, which was taking great care to safeguard the integrity of the original text, and had secured certain approval rights. So my agreement with Algonquin was conditional upon approval by the estate, and I had to put in a fair amount of work in advance of the contract.

I had heard of the book, but I had never read it. As I got to know it better, I felt very lucky to have been given the opportunity to do this translation. It ticked all the boxes for me — period and genre, but it was also a work intended for readers of all ages, so it appealed to me as an educator; and in the midst of the very authoritarian Trump administration in the United States, it seemed like it might carry an essential message of resistance to brute authority and bullying. On top of all that, I have a beloved uncle, and seven young nephews who are already starting to feel the weight of the social and environmental burden we have bequeathed to them, so I could really feel the book. And finally, my father-in-law grew up in Japan during and after the war, so I felt a special appreciation for the portrait the book painted of life at that time.

Deborah: When I started reading, I felt like it was a book that could have been written eighty-five years ago. It took me back to what I was reading as a child in the 60s, which was books from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Looking back, there was a particular kind of wording that describes and savors every detail of the setting, the characters and the action. It worked to get me inside a story and keep me there, wishing I really was there. As a translator, though, I’m not sure I could have kept up so faithfully with all of those words, although I think it was absolutely the way it needed to be interpreted. Can you talk a little bit about how you adopted a style that reflected the age in which it was written?

Bruno: I was fortunate that Yoshino was so good at setting the scene: his portraits of Tokyo’s neighborhoods and street culture are so deftly detailed that I didn’t need to nail down the language to a specific decade or even a particular genre convention. I wanted to create an impression that the book came from long ago, but not too long ago. My touchstones in English were in large measure drawn from the so-called “Golden Age” of children’s literature, British authors such as E. Nesbit, Lewis Carrol, and Edwin Abbott. These were writers who were all, in one sense or another, border crossers: they moved fluidly between the real world and the world of the imagination, they easily balanced formal and informal language, and perhaps most important, they wrote for both children and adults, bringing their concerns about art, politics, philosophy, science, and even mathematics into their storytelling.

Of course, the gradations between formal and informal language are far less explicit in English than they are in Japanese, so to a certain extent I flew by the seat of my pants, moving between language of greater and lesser intimacy, and greater or lesser levels of narrative distance to try to recreate Yoshino’s gentle humor and slightly archaic tone in English. Similarly with the shifts between simple narrative and the quite technical economic, philosophical, and scientific descriptions in the uncle’s interleaved notes. Which is not to say I didn’t agonize over specifics here and there. Throughout the work I was helped by my editor at Algonquin, who maintained a clear vision that the English version needed to be coherent for younger readers, without sacrificing the unique and idiosyncratic format and style of the original.

I had such a great time doing the research for this translation, partly because of the period in which it was set and partly because of the eclectic subject matter. Ordinarily, I’d be inclined to do a first reading of the book “cold,” just to get to know it directly before touching any biographical or critical material, but because my publisher wanted some background on the author and publishing history of the book, I began with that, and then dug into the text. With poetry I’m ready to let the Japanese have its way with the English more often than not, and my first drafts are usually in very fragmented, fractured English, as close to the Japanese vocabulary and word order as I can come, because I’m more worried about getting locked into conventional English phrasing, not at all concerned about “breaking” the English, and want the draft to point back at the original as much as possible as I get to know it better. But in this case, I was very focused on the overall tone in English, and the specific voices of characters, so from the first draft I was looking for my English phrasing, and to keep the work in sync with the original I just kept really extensive notes.

Genzaburō Yoshino (used with permission from Algonquin Young Readers)

Deborah: The suggested ages for readers of How Do You Live? is ten to fourteen years. I imagine fourteen-year-old readers can digest most books, but some of the wide-ranging advice Copper’s uncle gives him was a little beyond me, although when I stuck with it, there was quite a lot to learn.

Bruno: I can’t disagree with you about that, and Yoshino himself says as much in his foreword to the book. There were also moments when I couldn’t help being irritated with this schoolbook of an uncle, and his sections reminded me at times of the proletarian literature in the years immediately preceding Yoshino, but his sincerity always won me over in the end, as did the uncle’s love for his nephew — and I do think the lessons were brilliantly selected to educate both in their eclectic fields and simultaneously as cogs in the powerful ethical argument Yoshino was building. I love the way the many disparate parts of this book seem to be in a bit of a tug of war, but then are knit together in the end. Ultimately, I think that this book may not be an ideal book for every reader (as if there were such a thing!), but it is an absolutely essential book for some special readers — those who are able to see its magic.

Deborah: I agree with you about the magic, but reading all the way to the end is the best way to find it. I do hope that readers of all ages will pick it up, and find out why Hayao Miyazaki loved it so much. I want to thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts and experience with us. Take care and we hope to see you in Japan someday.

An expanded version of this interview is available at FULL STOP: Reviews. Interviews. Marginalia.

Read more about the book on the World Kid Lit Blog.

Top Japanese Children’s Books from 2021

By Avery Fischer Udagawa, Bangkok

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

Japanese Children’s Books 2021 is now available to download!

Japanese Children’s Books 2020 also remains online.

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

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

Happy perusing!

Crediting the Translator: These Books Do It All!

By Avery Fischer Udagawa, Bangkok

Yes, it’s possible to do it all!

When I published the post 3 Cs for Translators: Copyright, Compensation, Credit in 2016, I gave examples of crediting the translator from several books, because no one book named the translator in all the places I mentioned. Essentially, the translator should be credited wherever the author is, both on and in the book and in its metadata, which circulates to retailers and beyond.

But last year and this year, the U.S. editions of 獣の奏者 by Nahoko Uehashi, translated as The Beast Player and The Beast Warrior by Cathy Hirano, proved it’s possible to do it all! Published by Godwin Books at Henry Holt and Company (Macmillan), The Beast Player and The Beast Warrior both feature the translator’s name on the cover, copyright page and title page and include a translator profile in the back. Cathy Hirano is also clearly credited on the publisher’s website and by online retailers, which shows that she was included in the metadata.

Bravo to Godwin Books/Holt/Macmillan! The standard of naming the translator wherever the author is named appears in PEN America’s A Model Contract for Literary Translation (#11) and The Authors Guild’s Literary Translation Model Contract (section 11). Recent movements to ensure that crediting happens, and information about why it matters, can be found via the hashtags #NameTheTranslator and #TranslatorsOnTheCover.

Have you spotted other translations of children’s literature (picture books through YA) that do it all?

Examples of appropriate translator crediting from The Beast Player and The Beast Warrior:

Cover

Copyright page (The Beast Warrior)

Title page

Profiles

Publisher’s website (us.Macmillan.com)

Online retailer (Bookshop.org) / Metadata

A Translator’s Takeaways from an Illustrator’s Presentation

By Andrew Wong, Tokyo, Japan

I took the chance to join last week’s SCBWI Japan session with Dow Phumiruk, as she took us through her journey of transitioning from pediatrician to award-winning picture book illustrator.

The session began with Dow sharing her background and how she came to illustrate for children. It was not surprising to hear that her success came from much hard work and perseverance, but her reminder to steel ourselves with the ability to see criticism objectively (it’s about your work, not you) would have been heartening to hear for anyone who is a content creator. She also made a special note of the importance of joining a community made up of the competition, like SCBWI, because this is where we can find support and a critique group to help ready those manuscripts for submission.

So what did the translator in me take away from it all?

Dow spoke about the amount of research she would do and reading manuscripts out loud to get the feel of the text, which we all know are so important. She also mentioned some projects where text was just so sparse. Those challenges for the illustrator would eventually translate into more visual information further down the road. So, translators would enjoy the luxury of having more clues in the form of the illustrator’s portrayals and interpretations that would already have passed through the hands of editors, book designers, and everyone involved in creating the finished piece.

And then came a lesson in reading illustrations. Dow dug deeper into her methods, for instance, showing how she warped images of textures from everyday life to apply, literally, textural overlays to add depth to her artwork and how white space or layout is sometimes used to create focus. That felt like a lesson in training the eye to see what’s not immediately apparent, a prompt to look out for hints everywhere.

Besides covering how she actually drew, Dow took some time to talk about perspectives in her work and mixing them up. Sometimes, after I read with children, they would say how the views on every page kept changing and how that was so interesting, so the point she made on perspective certainly echoed. For those of us working with text, the idea of perspective seemed to link more closely to reading widely to get familiar with how tone, rhythm, and flow work in the language of children’s literature.

Dow also mentioned book signings and marketing events after publication, another aspect of being in this line. The fact that she didn’t bring her dry pediatric persona to those sessions drew a few laughs. For translators, even though we might not get the same level of attention or visibility as authors or illustrators, we would do well to be on the lookout for ideas and methods for reaching and interacting with more readers. I’ve recently noticed translators coming together with the original authors to talk about the translations, so wouldn’t it be great to also hear from the illustrators of translated picture books too?

Overall, the session was fascinating, thanks to Dow’s immense generosity in sharing her methods and stories from creation and pitching to publication and marketing. You would probably have left with some takeaways regardless of whether you write, illustrate, or translate. Naturally, since we create for the same readers – children.