An Interview with Ginny Tapley Takemori

Ginny Tapley TakemoriBy Sako Ikegami, Kobe

Ginny Tapley Takemori is a British translator based in rural Ibaraki, Japan, who has translated fiction by more than a dozen early modern and contemporary Japanese writers. Two of her translations are due out this year from Pushkin Children’s Books: The Whale That Fell In Love With a Submarine by Akiyuki Nosaka and The Secret of the Blue Glass by Tomiko Inui.

Takemori will discuss both titles at an event in Tokyo on June 20, 2015: On Whales, Blue Glass, War and Young People.

Here she introduces The Whale That Fell In Love With a Submarine.

Sako Ikegami: First, please allow me to congratulate you on the publication of such a historically important translation. It’s a beautiful rendition of Akiyuki Nosaka’s seminal, autobiographical work.

Ginny Tapley Takemori: Thank you very much. I’m honoured to have had the opportunity to translate it, and delighted that you enjoyed my translation.

Could you tell us a bit about Nosaka and the background of this story collection?

Nosaka experienced the war as a child, and lost his adoptive parents in the bombing of Kobe. He was evacuated along with his younger sister, who died of starvation. He went on to become an extraordinary public figure in Japan, famous as a prolific writer, scriptwriter, chanson singer, comedian (rakugo and manzai), TV personality, and even politician. The stories in The Whale That Fell In Love With a Submarine reflect his horrifying wartime experiences, and their profoundly antiwar message is emphasised by setting them all on 15 August 1945, the day of Japan’s surrender. Nevertheless, they are sweetly and sensitively written, retaining the innocence of the child, and highlight aspects of war that are often overlooked.

Whale cover

Would you tell us a little bit about your own background, how you came to learn Japanese, and what got you interested in children’s literature translation, in particular? Is there any genre of books that you particularly enjoy working on?

My background is somewhat unconventional, to say the least. I became interested in Japanese literature while working as a literary agent in Barcelona, and translating from Spanish and Catalan. One of our clients was the Japan Foreign Rights Centre, and I read up all the books they sent us in English in order to sell them to Spanish and Catalan publishers. At the same time, a Japanese friend gave me some Murakami Haruki books, and I began seeking out whatever Japanese literature I could find in English (which at the time involved scouring bookshops wherever I went), while also reading the weekly Dragon Ball mangas in Spanish, and watching anime such as Dragon Ball, Yawara, etc on Catalan TV. Completely swept away by the different vision they afforded and also intrigued at the challenge of learning a very different language, I decided to drop everything and enrolled on a BA Japanese course at SOAS (London University) with the long-term goal of translating Japanese literature into English. I became interested in children’s literature as a child, devouring whatever books I could get my hands on, and that interest never left me. I am also keenly interested in adult literature, and now translate fiction for both adults and children. I have a very eclectic taste, from literary fiction to mysteries to sci-fi and fantasy—and everything in between. My only criteria for enjoying a book (as reader or translator) are that it engages me mentally and emotionally, fires my imagination, and leaves me a little bit changed from before I read it.

How did you come to translate The Whale That Fell In Love With a Submarine?

Thanks to existing translations in French and German, the editors at Pushkin Press had already read it and acquired the rights. I was very lucky to be in the right place at the right time, since Pushkin had just released Ryu Murakami’s From the Fatherland, With Love, which I co-translated. They had already approached me about Tomiko Inui’s The Secret of the Blue Glass, and had actually offered Nosaka’s book to my good friend and co-translator Ralph McCarthy, who instead recommended me. I fell in love with Whale instantly, as I’m sure he knew I would.

Is there any story in Whale that you particularly love?

To be honest, I love all the stories. What struck me very strongly in Nosaka’s voice was his deadpan sense of irony, almost sarcastic in places. He brilliantly captures the raw experience of war, while at the same time remaining tender—a combination I find devastating. The stories are all very powerful, and also opened my eyes to aspects of the war I had never known about. This edition only contains seven of the original twelve, but Pushkin had me translate all of them with the intention of including the remaining stories in future editions. I hear they are contemplating releasing an e-book of all the stories, which I very much hope happens. If I had to pick out just one that made a particularly deep and lasting impression on me, it would have to be “The Mother That Turned Into a Kite.” It still brings tears to my eyes when I read it.

I understand that you are from the UK. It seems that while stories about war in juvenile literature are less popular in the United States, many award-winning books in the UK (winners of the Carnegie Medal, Whitbread/Costa Book Award, and more) are stories about children affected by war. Do you believe that the readership in the UK may be more open to stories from Japan that deal with this topic, since the UK experienced intense bombings (such as the Blitz), like Japan? The two countries also share a history of sending children out into the countryside to protect them from bombings. Goodnight Mister Tom is one of my favorite novels.

Britain didn’t suffer anywhere near the extent of the devastation that Japan did, but they did experience the nine-month Blitz (in which mostly factories and docklands, rather than civilians, were targeted) as well as other aspects of war, including all the men being called up to fight, food shortages and rationing, evacuation of schoolchildren, etc. My parents are about the same age as Nosaka and I grew up hearing them talk about their experiences, and how we must never let it happen again. They inculcated in me a strong anti-war sentiment that remains with me today. My mother-in-law lost her house in the Tokyo air raid as a child, and I’m sure her traumatic experience has defined her life. While the US was very much involved in the war and experienced the draft and rationing, other than Pearl Harbor they did not experience bombing raids or fighting on their home territory, so I think the reality was rather different for them, and perhaps that is reflected in attitudes to stories about war for children.

Do you have any thoughts on why The Whale That Fell In Love With a Submarine has been translated now, so many years after the war? Have we become too complacent? Do we and our children need reminding of the horrors?

I’m not sure Pushkin Press had any particular intention in publishing this book now other than that it’s a very good book that deserves to be available in English. In terms of my own feelings about it, I worry that now the experience of the last world war is disappearing from living memory we seem to be headed that way again. Yes, perhaps we are too complacent. There are many wars going on around the world, many children and families are suffering, but these hardly affect those of us living in peacetime and we become inured to the images of suffering that we see on TV. I feel strongly that people should be aware of the reality of war and why we should do everything in our power to avoid it—whether it affects us directly or not. That is why stories like the ones in this collection are so important.

In many ways these stories are difficult to read because they are honest and there is just so much pain and loss—topics that children’s books tend to avoid. Was it difficult to translate these in a way that would appeal to a child, as well as a general readership?

I translated them the way they spoke to me in Japanese. I imagined them being read to children and tried to make the narrative voice appropriate—especially aiming for a kind of fairy-tale style—but I didn’t change anything in the original Japanese to try to make them more “child-friendly.” I’m not certain that Nosaka intended them specifically as children’s stories so much as stories viewed through the eyes of children. He describes the brutal reality of war, but at the same time he imbues the stories with empathy and humanity, qualities that override all else. I think they are probably more appropriate for young adults than younger children, and of course I think they appeal to adults too—but then, all good children’s books do.

Some of the stories have Japanese children’s songs in them. What was your experience translating these “familiar tunes” into a totally different language?

In this edition of Whale, only two of the stories have songs in them: one, in “The Parrot and the Boy,” is an established children’s song, “Seagull Sailors” by Toshihiko Takeuchi, and the other is an impromptu lullaby sung by the mother to her child in “The Mother That Turned into a Kite.” In the case of “Seagull Sailors,” I looked up the full lyrics and listened to a number of renditions of the song. I also tracked down an existing translation by a certain B. Ito that I thought was very good and better than anything I could produce myself, so I used the relevant lines from that (of course crediting the translator on the copyright page). There is another children’s song in a story not included in this edition that I approached in the same way—although I couldn’t find any existing translation that I liked, so I did my own. The lullaby in “The Mother That Turned into a Kite” is not meant to be a polished song—she makes up the words as she goes—so I simply tried to capture the feelings, anguish, and emotions she expresses through them.

This holds true for Nosaka’s Grave of the Fireflies (not included in this volume): Given the grim settings and outcomes in these stories, I was surprised by how uplifted I was by the characters and their stories. I imagine that this must be why Nosaka’s stories have endured over the decades. Do you have any thoughts on this?

I think what is so important about Nosaka’s writing is that in amongst all the destruction and suffering, he can find love, courage and hope. The characters in his stories are children and animals, innocents who cannot understand, or adults swept up in the tide of history by events beyond their control—but all human, and all tragic. All are portrayed with an empathy that underlines our very humanity. There is no trace of sentimentality. The contrast between the violence and destruction and this tenderness is devastatingly poignant, heartbreaking and beautiful, and I think it is this that makes them ultimately uplifting.

I’ve wondered how readers outside of Japan might accept the way that these, and I guess many Japanese stories in general, don’t really end up with a “happily ever after” type of ending. What has been your experience in that regard?

This is one of the things that first had me so intrigued about Japanese literature. In the West we are so used to there being a satisfying ending that we forget that life often isn’t really like that, and stories don’t need to be like that either. I’ve come to feel that sometimes this “happy” ending stops us from seeking other elements that can make a story meaningful—as in life, the process is often more important than the ending. I do realize that many Western readers struggle with this unfamiliar way of writing, and I don’t have a simple answer to how we can reconcile this, but I do feel that English-language readers are becoming more open to different ways of seeing the world as translated literature gains popularity. In Nosaka’s case, I think the stories are so well constructed and beautifully written that most readers will just be swept away by them—at least I hope they will.

Thank you again for such a sensitive and well-written translation of Nosaka’s stories. I sincerely hope that Whale reaches the wide readership it deserves.

If my translation succeeds in drawing readers into these wonderful stories, I will be very happy.

Ginny Tapley Takemori will speak to SCBWI Japan in Tokyo on June 15, 2015.

Sako Ikegami can lay claim to various titles—clinical pharmacist, medical translator/writer, children’s book reader—but best enjoys working with young adult books. She aspires to bridge her two cultures, US and Japanese, by translating children’s literature. Her translations include Ryusuke Saito’s stories The Tree of Courage and Hachiro, which appears in Tomo: Friendship Through Fiction—An Anthology of Japan Teen Stories and is introduced here.

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