Translating Culture to Kids

By Sako Ikegami, Kobe, and Juliet Winters Carpenter, Kyoto

Late last month, Kyoto-based former librarian Paul Evans spoke to members of the English Society of Doshisha Women’s College about sharing Japanese culture with English-reading children.

RIMG2302RIMG2299In particular, Paul spoke of his experience as a children’s librarian frustrated by the lack of authentic modern fiction by Japanese writers in translation. Paul pointed to a number of prominent voices in the world of children’s book publishing, who agree that a good way to teach children about another culture is to share children’s books from that culture with them. But although he has succeeded in finding books about Japan written by Westerners, Japanese Americans, and a sprinkling of Japanese authors in translation, few titles have really reflected life as it is for children in Japan today. He spoke of finding lack of authenticity, as well as subject matter limited to genres such as war experiences, fantasy or folktales.

Some staggering information he shared, is that there are 32 different versions of the Hachiko story in Japanese and eight in English (counting the movie with Richard Gere); one of the Japanese versions is a translation from English, but none of the English versions is a translation from Japanese. All are retellings, re-imaginings of the story.

Evans has performed extensive research and visited many libraries in an attempt to find more titles, and many of his sources have proven valuable, though far from complete. Specifying his search criteria, he called out to the audience to help him by suggesting titles: For young people not living in Japan, who have an interest in knowing what Japan is like, right now, what books are available?

What titles do you recommend? Please share in the comments.

Meanwhile, here is a list of children’s book resources that Paul shared in his handout, with  additions he provided afterward.

International Library of Children’s Literature, Tokyo

International Institute for Children’s Literature, Osaka

The Japan Board on Books for Young People (JBBY), part of the International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY)

J’Lit: Books from Japan and J’Lit: Japanese Literature Publishing and Promotion Center

Fresh Japan blog (in Japanese)

Japan Publishing Industry Foundation for Culture (in Japanese)

Publishers’ Association For Cultural Exchange, Japan

The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) Japan

The Mildren L. Batchelder Award

The Marsh Award for Children’s Literature in Translation

Outside in the World

International Research Society for Children’s Literature


One response to this post.

  1. One issue is how interesting publishers find books on life in Japan. I’ve translated a book by a major Japanese author that fits into the YA category, and am about to begin work on another. The first has not found a publisher despite some close calls and the other will be published as a ebook by the original publisher. In my opinion, both books are authentic voices, but it’s not clear whether young people in English-speaking countries will like them or be able to empathize with that “world” of Japanese middle school.


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