Japanese Fairy Tales and Yei Theodora Ozaki

By Deborah Iwabuchi, Maebashi

While doing some research, I came across Japanese Fairy Tales, a book published in 1908 and now available on Project Gutenberg.

The book was compiled and translated by one Yei Theodora Ozaki. Sensing a kindred spirit, I quickly became rather more curious about Ms Ozaki than the book. Who was this woman with the mixed-culture name compiling children’s books so many years ago?

Here is a line from her preface:

“These stories are not literal translations, and though the Japanese story and all quaint Japanese expressions have been faithfully preserved, they have been told more with the view to interest young readers of the West than the technical student of folk-lore.”

A hundred years separated, but apparently she and I shared a questionable translation policy. I was thrilled! But there was still more:

“In telling these stories in English I have followed my fancy in adding such touches of local color or description as they seemed to need or as pleased me, and in one or two instances I have gathered in an incident from another version.”

Ms. Ozaki went even further than “interpretation,” actually adding her own bits and pieces to make the stories better—she was a storyteller as well as a translator! Now she was my role model. But what about her life? How did translators live back in the days before typewriters, let alone computers and online dictionaries?

I doggedly continued my online search, and there she was on Wikipedia.  The details did not disappoint. Our heroine, a product of a short-lived union between a Japanese man and European women, lived in both Japan and Europe, refused an arranged marriage, took odd jobs, and lived in odd places. “All this time,” Wikipedia concluded with the romance I craved, “her letters were frequently misdelivered to the unrelated Japanese politician Yukio Ozaki, and his to her. In 1904, they finally met, and soon married.”

I was thoroughly satisfied, not to mention hopeful for some drama and consequence in my own sedentary existence. But now it was time to get back to my research. I dug into Ms. Ozaki’s enticing collection of stories—and I encourage you to do the same!

Japanese Fairy Tales by Yei Theodora Ozaki

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