Catching Up with Cathy Hirano

By Alexander O. Smith, Greensboro, Vermont

Cathy Hirano is the translator most recently of Mirror Sword and Shadow Prince, the second volume in Noriko Ogiwara’s Tales of the Magatama series, published by VIZ Media’s Haikasoru imprint.

Her translation of The Friends by Kazumi Yumoto won both the Mildred L. Batchelder Award for children’s literature in translation and the Boston Globe-Horn Book award for fiction. Her translation of Guardian of the Spirit by Nahoko Uehashi also won the Batchelder Award, and Guardian of the Darkness, the second in the Moribito series, was a Batchelder Honor recipient. A native of Canada, Cathy moved to Japan in 1978 where she received her B.A. from International Christian University (ICU) in Tokyo. She responded to questions from her home on the island of Shikoku.

Congratulations on the release of Mirror Sword and Shadow Prince!

Thank you!!

I know the first volume in the series came out originally in 1993 and was then retranslated for VIZ in 2007. Can you tell me how you came to work on this series?

After graduating from ICU, I reviewed English YA books for possible Japanese publication and occasionally did J-E picture book translations as PR materials. This was a side job for Kayoko Yoneda, a friend from ICU and an editor at Fukutake Shoten. When the first Magatama book Sorairo magatama (English title: Dragon Sword and Wind Child) came out in 1988, Kayoko asked me to review it and write a summary. Farrar, Straus & Giroux read this and asked for a sample translation and then for the whole thing. It was my very first literature translation and it was very hard! There being no Internet at the time, I never heard how it fared; only that it went out of print. Years later, I was contacted by Masumi Washington at VIZ Media. She told me VIZ wanted to publish a retranslation as well as the second book in the series and asked if I would be willing to take on the task. Apparently, Dragon Sword and Wind Child, though long out of print, had acquired a solid fan following, demonstrated by the fact that the majority of library copies had been stolen and used books were listed at several hundred dollars on Amazon. It even had its own fan site developed by a teenager who loved the book and was sad it went out of print. She had the whole book typed and put online so that people could read it! You know, most publishers would shy away from a book that had already been published once and failed to survive. So I am extremely grateful to VIZ for recognizing the book’s value and for giving it a second chance and to the DSWC fans for keeping the flame alive. The knowledge that people were waiting to read Mirror Sword is what kept me going during some pretty rough patches. Readers have power!!!

What was it like revisiting the first volume fourteen years after your first translation?

It was fun, embarrassing, unnerving, confirming. I started by reading it aloud to my kids and their cousins, who by then were in their mid and late teens. They loved it, thank goodness! But they also had some good laughs about some of my word choices while I found myself cringing in places where the language I’d used was stuffy and stilted. I then went through the translation line by line against the Japanese and caught things I had missed or misunderstood—not as many as I had feared, but still. After rewriting all the trouble spots, I did a final pass through the whole book. Although it was embarrassing to see the mistakes I had made, it was also confirming to see that I have evolved somewhat as a translator in those 14 years and that I still love to escape into Ogiwara’s world!

The Magatama and the Moribito series which you also worked on are interesting to me in that they both fit snugly within a very Western Fantasy genre and yet their stories and worlds are influenced by Asian history and myth. How did you navigate the process of bringing these worlds into English without losing the flavor of the original? Were you inspired, stylistically or otherwise, by any other books in English?

A hard question! For me, it’s a very intuitive process and I’m never sure if I really have succeeded in keeping the flavor of the original. One thing I try to do is read the translation out loud once I get it to a more polished state. That helps me see whether it “feels” the same. What I’m looking for at a gut level is whether the English grabs me in the same way as the Japanese. To me, Uehashi’s voice is fast-paced, powerful, compassionate, clear and deceptively simple. Ogiwara’s voice, though just as powerful, is completely different. Her rich, lyrical images and sweeping descriptions vividly convey the emotional atmosphere. She has a knack for capturing a focal point or detail that draws in the reader and for mirroring the inner worlds of her characters’ minds and hearts in the outer world. However, this style, which is very Japanese, is less compatible with the English language than Uehashi’s. To give one example, Uehashi’s battle scenes are graphically detailed. You know exactly when and how each bone is broken, whose bone it is and what it feels like (ouch!!). This brings home the reality of life for the bodyguard Balsa.

Ogiwara’s battle scenes, in contrast, convey the emotional intensity of the moment but the smaller details are rather blurred, as if viewed through the subjective lens of a particular character’s mind. At one crucial point, for example, I knew that the heroine, Toko, had stabbed someone but it wasn’t until I tried to translate that part that I realized this fact is not actually stated. Her intent to stab him and subsequently the fact that a knife is protruding from the person’s side are there but not the act itself. In Japanese, readers easily connect these dots but in English, they don’t. So as the translator I had to decide when this act actually takes place and how to convey it without losing the tone.

The Moribito world was, in one way, much easier to render in English than the Magatama world simply because Uehashi invented it from scratch. This means that the Japanese readership is just as unfamiliar with it as the English readership so the descriptions Uehashi provides are thorough enough for everyone to follow regardless of their cultural background. While the positioning of these details sometimes bogged down the flow in English, occassionally requiring relocation in consultation with the author and the English-language editor, translating the cultural context into English was not a problem. In contrast, the Magatama books draw on ancient Japanese myths: Dragon Sword and Wind Child (2007) on the ancient Japanese creation myths and Mirror Sword and Shadow Prince (2011) on the tale of Yamato Takeru, a legendary Japanese hero of the 4th century. To the Japanese reader, these tales and their setting are familiar territory but for English readers they are not. A single word in Japanese can conjure up a hairstyle (mage), clothing (mo), building (miya) or social status (osa) for which no English equivalents exist. Because no explanation is provided in the Japanese, the translation required a hefty amount of background research into the tales’ historical and cultural context and plenty of agonizing over how much of that information was needed for an English speaker and how to unobstrusively convey the essentials.

As for what books inspired me during the translation process, I actually strive not to be influenced stylistically by other authors so that I can remain true to the original. At the same time, however, I do read books in the same genre because exposure to good English helps me avoid an excessively literal translation.  While translating the Moribito books I found myself rereading Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea series. I think what appealed was their common themes such as the search for meaning, the painful journey of self discovery and acceptance, and the fact that their voices both evoke the oral tradition of story-telling. When translating Ogiwara, on the other hand, I was drawn to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Again, it wasn’t the style but the story’s epic nature and the use of humor to lighten a serious tale that resonated.

I attended a fascinating talk you gave in Tokyo with Nahoko Uehashi, author of the Moribito series, in which you described working closely with the author during your translation of her books. Did you have similar access to Ogiwara when working on the Magatama series? What are the pros and cons to working directly with an author?

I think it probably depends on the author. I feel incredibly blessed to have worked with authors who welcome input and who understand and respect the translation process. I corresponded directly with, and also met, Nahoko Uehashi and Kazumi Yumoto. Although I only met Noriko Ogiwara once and did not correspond with her directly, I had an excellent mediator in Rei Uemura, her editor and friend, who has a complete grasp of her works, gives very informed and helpful answers, evaluates or even suggests possible solutions, and filters any questions so that the author only has to deal with essentials.

So for me, working directly with the author is a huge plus. The only drawback might be the extra time involved, but it is well worth it. There is so much to learn during this process. Authors construct their stories and choose the words that bring them to life with care, passion, and creative genius. What a gift to be able to ask them why they chose a particular word that doesn’t quite work in English and what they think about a possible solution. I have worked on books where I got no response from the author and I feel it shows in the end product and in how I feel about it: frustrated and unsure that I’ve understood what the author intended.

On the business side, you’ve worked now with several different publishers and editors. How has your experience been with the publishing side of translation? Has there been a lot of back-and-forth during the editorial process, or is it fairly hands-off?

I think I’ve run the gamut! The Moribito series was the most hands-on I’ve ever experienced, the Tales of Magatama the most hands-off, and Kazumi Yumoto’s somewhere in the middle. It seems to depend on the U.S. editor. Personally, I prefer input despite the extra work involved. It helps me to develop as a translator and, if the editor is good, it makes for a better book.

You mention in a piece on your lovely translation of Kazumi Yumoto’s The Friends that translating between Japanese and English requires “fairly strenuous cultural and mental gymnastics.” I encourage our readers to follow the link at the end to Cathy’s article, which is a great read with excellent insights into the challenges facing translators of this particular language pairing. To follow on your discussion in that article, how do you position yourself as translator with regards to the work, the author, and your audience?

I think that my approach as a translator differs significantly for bread-and-butter translation and for literature. With the former, I am more objective. I keep a clear picture in my mind of the target reader and I focus on conveying the intent and meaning of the Japanese rather than on the style, sometimes extensively editing and rewriting the original. With literary translation, however, I find the translation process more personal and subjective. The author has written the book for me and I’m translating it so that others can enjoy the same experience. In the initial stages in particular, I don’t worry about the readership and instead focus far more on the author, on his or her style, choice of words, rhythm—on the voice. I’m quite faithful to the original. It is only when I go back and reread it, that I regain some objectivity and become rather ruthless. But I am still trying to convey an experience rather than just content or meaning.

How do you approach the nuts and bolts of your work? How do you prepare for a translation? What’s a typical day at the office like?

My approach is simple: I start by reading the book! As I’m reading it, I note the areas that will require research for background information, think about people who can help me research or people I can query. With Mirror Sword, for example, I started reading about Yamato Takeru, got Japanese friends to help me map out where the different events take place, asked my architect husband for help with architecture, and a history buff for pictures of clothing and background on customs. With the Moribito series, I read up on martial arts!

My next step is to create a rough draft. I usually do that by chapter, typing all questions and problem areas directly into the manuscript with the Japanese page numbers and highlighting the corresponding place in the Japanese text. Then I go back and try to answer my own questions. What I can’t answer, I ask my long-suffering husband or daughter. Often my questions are something like this: “How does this particular word make you feel? What’s the image you get?” I keep a glossary of terms, too, for consistency and so that I don’t have to make a decision more than once. I usually leave the rough draft of one chapter while I go on to the next one and then come back to rewrite it. This gives me some distance from the Japanese.

For Tales of Magatama and the Moribito series, once the translation was rewritten and all queries answered, I sent it to my niece and some young friends to read to make sure it communicated to readers in the target age range. And I asked my daughter to read the English against the Japanese to catch any misinterpretations or omissions. This was also the point where I sent all the questions that no one else could answer to the author (or Japanese editor). After processing the feedback, I did a final run through to catch any places that didn’t feel right. That was it.

I have no typical day at the office. I work at home and am involved in too many other things. With literature translation in particular, more often than not I have to squeeze the work into a small window of time each day. During the rewriting stage, however, I block out longer chunks of time because it’s harder to hold onto the voice when there are frequent interruptions.

Thanks again to Cathy Hirano for participating in this interview. Here is Cathy’s previous article concerning her translation of Kazumi Yumoto’s The Friends.

Cathy’s most recent translation is also available through the Haikasoru imprint’s website.

One response to this post.

  1. Thank you for this interview!

    Here is a recap (in Japanese) of the talk Cathy gave in Tokyo with Nahoko Uehashi, mentioned above. The source is the website of the International Library of Children’s Literature, or 国際子ども図書館, which hosted the lecture in April 2010.

    Click to access 2010-02summary.pdf

    International Library of Children's Literature, Tokyo


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