At SCBWI Japan Translation Day 2014 on October 18, Juliet Winters Carpenter presented a workshop using excerpts from A True Novel (in Japanese, Honkaku shosetsu) by Minae Mizumura. A True Novel is a re-imagining of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights set in postwar Japan and the U.S.
For the workshop, 15 participants translated one to two selected excerpts from the novel in advance. Their submissions were blinded and critiqued by Carpenter in a 90-minute session.
For this blog post, Carpenter has selected six translations of one excerpt, and edited each of the translations slightly. Below are the original Japanese passage, the six translations, and Carpenter’s own rendering.
This portion of A True Novel appears in chapter 5, “Lightbulbs,” and contains recollections about two children, Taro and Yoko. The narrator is a woman named Fumiko who worked as maid for Yoko’s family. At the time she is recalling, she would have been in her late teens.
Carpenter’s published translation of A True Novel won the 2014 Next Generation Indie Book Award Grand Prize for Fiction and was first runner-up for Best Translated Book of 2014. Carpenter will soon receive the American Translators Association’s 2014 Lewis Galantière Award for A True Novel.
[Source: Honkaku shosetsu by Minae Mizumura (Shinchosha, 2002)]
There was a swing in one corner of the lot. When one child had swung several dozen times, the other would take a turn. As I sat reading my book in the servant’s room, I would hear Yoko announce that they should switch off after singing, “Steam train, steam train, hear the whistle blow!” She would chant this again and again. Children may seem impatient, but they can repeat something over and over that would drive an adult crazy. One day when nearly an hour had passed and I could still hear “steam train, steam train, hear the whistle blow,” I gave up trying to read and went to watch them. I found Yoko standing upright on the wooden swing, having Taro push her from behind. She gripped the ropes tightly, her feet planted on the seat, and squealed in delight. Taro, for his part, swung so hard on his turns that he flipped over the crossbeam. They sang other chants such as, “Where are you from, Sir?” “Higo, Sir!” “Where in Higo, Sir?” “Kumamoto, Sir!” “Where in Kumamoto, Sir?” They bounced a ball as they chanted. Sometimes they also stretched a rubber cord out and took turns jumping over it. They would never set it so high that Yoko could not jump over, however. Apparently that was fine with Taro.
There was a single seat swing in the corner of the garden where the children played, each swinging a dozen or so times before giving way for the other to take a turn. I could hear them in the distance from the servant’s room where I sat reading, singing one of those nursery rhymes that children have the capacity to chant tirelessly over and over again in a way that adults can never bear to do: Choo choo train, whistling down the track, time to change over, don’t look back! One day I had been listening to them sing Choo Choo train endlessly for almost an hour when I decided to give up reading and go see for myself. Yoko stood tightly gripping the swing ropes, her feet planted firmly on the plank seat as Taro pushed her from behind, spilling peals of joyous laughter as her body rose into the arc of each swing. When it was Taro’s turn he sometimes put so much power into the swing that he would go right round in a complete circle. Where are you from? I’m from Higo. Where in Higo? Kumamoto. Where in Kumamoto? they sang while throwing a handball between them. And sometimes they played jumpies with elastic. They couldn’t set the elastic higher than Yoko could jump, but Taro didn’t seem to mind.
In the corner of the yard there was a swing and it seemed like they were trading off after one of them had swung some number of times: reading a book in my room, I could hear Yoko’s voice faintly as she chanted the choo-choo train song about taking turns over and over. Children are capricious and yet have no problem doing the same thing so many times it would drive an adult up a wall: one day after almost an hour they were still chanting; I couldn’t believe it and when I closed my book and went to look, Yoko was standing on the seat, gripping the ropes tightly with both hands, legs braced, getting pushed by Taro; as she swung she laughed and laughed as if the delight inside her were spilling out. When Taro swung he would sometimes pump so hard he would flip the bar. They’d bounce a ball and sing a song about Tanukis in Kumamoto. They’d do Chinese jump rope. Taro jumped only as high as Yoko could, but he didn’t seem to mind holding back.
The children took turns pushing each other on the single swing that hung in the corner of the yard. From the maid’s chambers where I read, I could hear them singing their song again and again.
Listen to the choo-choo’s whistle blow,
When the train goes toot then you must go!
Children soon tire of things, yet some things that would bore any adult to tears they have no trouble doing over and over, and so that day, after a good hour of hearing the train going toot, I put down my book with a sigh and went to take a look. I found Taro pushing Yoko’s back as she stood, her little hands gripping the chains tightly, feet planted firmly on the swing, chuckles of mirth bubbling out as she swung back and forth. When Taro swung he pumped his legs so hard that sometimes he circled clear over the bar. I used to see them play with balls, bouncing them in time with their songs.
Where are you?
In Higo, friend!
Where o where is Kumamoto?
They played with a large rubber band, too—as large as a jump rope—which they hopped over and twisted around their feet. Though they could only go as high as Yoko could jump, Taro didn’t seem to mind.
In one corner of the yard there was a swing, which only one child could use at a time, and they were apparently taking turns, each yielding his or her place after a certain number of swings. From the maid’s room where I sat reading, I could hear Yoko’s voice chanting over and over again: “When the train goes choo-choo, then it’s my turn too.” You might think that children are quick to grow tired of something, but they can also be surprisingly persistent, endlessly repeating the same thing in a way that an adult would find unbearable. One day, having found myself listening to “the train goes choo-choo” for close to an hour, I finally closed my book and went to see what was going on. Yoko was standing on the plank while Taro pushed her from behind, her hands wrapped tightly around the ropes and both feet standing firm, pumping her legs and laughing pouring out of her, as if pure joy was coursing throughout her entire body. When it was Taro’s turn, he pumped with such strength that sometimes the swing would do a complete 360-degree turn. They also played a bouncing ball game, accompanied with a traditional children’s song, and a kind of Chinese skip rope. The rope would, of course, only be raised as high as was possible for Yoko to jump, but that didn’t seem to bother Taro.
In a corner of the garden, there was a swing where one of the two would swing back and forth a few dozen times before it was the other one’s turn. Far off in the maid’s room where I was reading, I could hear over and over again Yōko’s voice childishly chanting the familiar line, All aboard, all aboard! Take turns! Choo choo, that’s your cue! Children are entirely fine with doggedly repeating something that adults could never tolerate for as long. That day, even after nearly an hour, I could still hear, All aboard, all aboard! Take turns! Choo choo, that’s your cue! Irritated, I shut the book and went to take a look. I saw Yōko standing on the seat of the swing with Tarō pushing her. Both hands clutching the ropes tightly, her feet planted firmly, she was swinging while laughing with squeals of delight, joy overflowing from her entire body. When Tarō himself was on the swing, he would sometimes push much too forcefully and go all the way around. They also played a maritsuki game, bouncing a ball back and forth under one leg while singing, Where are you from, hey! Higo, hey! Where in Higo, hey! Kumamoto, hey! Where in Kumamoto, hey!1 They also played jump rope. They could only go as high as Yōko could jump, but Tarō didn’t seem to mind.
1A well-known song said to have originated during the Bakumatsu era (1853-1867) and sung when playing this children’s ball game. Higo Province was an old province in southern Japan in the area now known as Kumamoto Prefecture, where the city Kumamoto is now the capital.
Translation by Juliet Winters Carpenter
There was a swing in one corner, and they took turns on it, each child being allowed a certain number of swings. As I sat in my room reading, in the distance I’d hear Yoko chanting over and over again:
Children have such short attention spans, and yet they will cheerfully go on repeating the same thing endlessly, beyond the endurance of any adult. One day that everlasting “Swing, swing” kept up for a good hour, until finally I shut my book and went to have a look. Yoko was standing on the wooden seat while Taro pushed her from behind, her hands clutching the ropes and her feet braced, her whole body quivering with joy as she pumped her little legs for all she was worth and laughter poured out of her. When it was Taro’s turn, sometimes he got so carried away he’d swing right around, full circle.
They also bounced balls while chanting songs to the rhythm:
Tell me where you’re from, sir.
I’m from Higo, sir.
Where in Higo, sir?
Where in Kumamoto, sir?
And they tried high-jumping over a long chain of elastic bands attached to trees. It was never higher than Yoko could jump—so actually low-jumping—but Taro didn’t seem to mind.
[Source: A True Novel by Minae Mizumura, translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter (Other Press, 2013)]