My First Two Picture Book Translations!

By Holly Thompson, Kamakura

Over the past year, I’ve had the opportunity to work with Miyoshi Town (三芳町) Library in Saitama translating two picture books of local history. Thank you to Avery Fischer Udagawa (via JBBY) for sending this translation job my way!

Both books were created in conjunction with the town’s Yomi-ai Read Together initiative:よみ愛・読書のまち, and I worked closely with librarian Tomoko Shirota throughout the translation, editing and copyediting process.  

In June 2019, I visited Miyoshi Town to attend a performance of Chikumazawa Kuruma Ningyō puppetry by the local troupe and to gain some first-hand understanding of this performance art. Many people know of bunraku puppetry, but few are familiar with kuruma ningyō puppetry in which just a single puppeteer, seated on a small kuruma wheeled cart, controls each puppet. 

This puppetry style developed in the Tama region, and during the Meiji Era, the Maeda family of Chikumazawa began performances. However, as times changed and films and other forms of entertainment gained popularity, demand for puppet shows waned, and the last performance was held in 1921. Kuruma ningyō was put to rest, all but forgotten. Then in 1971, wicker boxes containing puppet parts, costumes, and carts were discovered in a Maeda family storeroom. Fortunately there were two healthy elderly individuals in the community who knew the art of kuruma ningyō puppetry and could train others. Now the Chikumazawa Ningyō Preservation Society troupe performs annually using original puppets, costumes and stories, and the performance art is taught to children in the region. This style of puppetry survives in just three places in Japan: Hachioji City, Okutama, and Chikumazawa in Miyoshi Town. 

The picture book about this type of puppetry, かえってきた竹間沢車人形 (Kaettekita Chikumazawa kuruma ningyō; English title The Puppets Are Back! Chikumazawa Kuruma Ningyo Puppetry) written and illustrated by Noriko Sagesaka, is told from the vantage point of young Yoshiko who helps her father discover the puppets and follows along as he learns to manipulate the puppets and ultimately perform on stage. I was fortunate to meet the real Yoshiko and her father during my visit to Miyoshi Town!

I loved the work of translating this book, especially the rich back matter and the interior “Look Inside!” and “Make It Move!” full-spread sections. 

The second book おいしくなあれ富のいも(Oishiku naare tome no imo; English title Grow, Grow, Grow, Tome Sweet Potatoes!) by Hiromi Watanabe and illustrated by Hiroko Takai was actually the first book published in this reading initiative series. This book focuses on a type of sweet potato cultivated in the Kawagoe area of Saitama. During my visit to Miyoshi Town, I was able to visit the Santome Shinden fields–long rectangular land allotments created some 300 years ago combining space for farm houses, forest for leaf compost, and long fields for the sweet potatoes famous in this area. I was fortunate to meet the farmer of the story, which features a fictional grandson Daichi learning about the growing cycle and the traditional Edo-era method for creating satsuma-doko seed beds for temperature control. 

In the story, Daichi plants his own seed potato in the fields, and in autumn during the fall harvest festival he savors the potatoes of his labor and looks forward to creating the seed bed again in early spring. 

This book, too, is fiction that features child-friendly nonfiction elements: a full spread about the traditional leaf compost method, plus back matter about Miyoshi Town–home of the famous Tome sweet potatoes. 

Miyoshi Town was selected to be an Olympic Host Town, and these books were translated anticipating an influx of tourists to the area this summer. Alas, COVID-19 interrupted those plans! At this time, the English-language translations are only available through special order via the Miyoshi Town Library. Librarians in Japan–PM me if you are interested in a copy!

As a picture book author, I love both crafting and reading fiction picture books that also weave in rich nonfiction contents. And I am always excited to work on projects about the arts, agriculture, rural life and nature. I hope to do more picture book translations in the future!

Cross-posted from the Hatbooks blog with permission.

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