SCBWI Japan Translation Days 2020 on Zoom

By Susan Jones, Kobe

The year 2020 has thrown all of our best laid plans awry. Thankfully, SCBWI Japan did not allow that to derail the organization of Translation Day, a biennial event eagerly anticipated by members old and new. The current circumstances meant that the event was held completely online via videoconference. In the capable hands of Translator Coordinator Avery Udagawa who moderated and organized the event along with Holly Thompson, Mariko Nagai, and Naomi Kojima, everything was executed like clockwork.

Unlike past Translation Days, participants enjoyed two half-days instead of one jam-packed day. While this may have been planned to accommodate the time zones of participants from around the world, the result was that participants had time to reflect and digest information between the two days. Holding the event online also meant that it was easy to record and share with participants for a time after the event, and share links and other information concurrently with the presentations and discussions. This format made the event more inclusive than ever with participants and speakers calling in from Japan, the US, Thailand, Australia, Singapore, and the UK.

Editor-publisher Beverly Horowitz

A Conversation with Beverly Horowitz

Day One began with a conversation with Beverly Horowitz, Senior Vice President and Publisher of Delacorte Press, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books. She shared important information for translators regarding the type of books she looks for when sourcing works in translation. In a nutshell she is looking for “a perfect book in any language.” That is to say, if the book is captivating in one language it will likely be captivating in translation provided it is translated well.

As for the process of new title acquisition, she uses a combination of visiting foreign rights fairs such as the Bologna Children’s Book Fair, accepting pitches from foreign rights agents, and connecting directly with publishers. She said that an important point for translators wanting to pitch a book to an agent or publisher is to first make sure that the English publication rights are available.

When talking about the difficulty of pitching works in translation, she mentioned that in the North American market “a vision of the broader world is not part of everyday life” and this limits the appeal of works in translation. There is certainly the impression that translated works might somehow be perceived as difficult or unrelatable—one reason why translator attribution on the cover may often be missing.

Emily Balistrieri on Translating Kiki’s Delivery Service

Emily Balistrieri was another featured speaker on day one. He gave us a fascinating view of his experience translating Hans Christian Andersen Award for Writing winner Eiko Kadono’s Kiki’s Delivery Service (Delacorte Press, 2020).

Translator Emily Balistrieri

Balistrieri described some of the translation challenges this project presented such as the description of how Kiki came up with the name for her delivery service and how that description had to be changed slightly since the name is “Witch’s Delivery Service” in Japanese. And “The Infamous Phone Number” episode in which he made Kiki’s phone number 1-800-KIKI-CAN in the original translation, but had to change course when readers began actually calling that number and reaching—well, not Kiki’s Delivery Service, but an entirely different sort of service. (Moral of the story: localization is not always the best choice.) Translation of special effects, puns, and even poetry added to the hurdles presented and handily cleared in Kiki’s Delivery Service.

Translation Workshop

Capping off day one was a valuable opportunity for children’s book translators: Emily Balistrieri’s critique of participants’ translations of an excerpt from Eiko Kadono’s 『大どろぼうブラブラ氏』. From rookie mistakes to more nuanced observations, it was a great way to compare translations and discuss why some choices were better than others.

Click image to enlarge this spreadsheet Emily Balistrieri prepared for the workshop, which compares different translators’ renderings of a name, a phrase, and a food.

A Conversation with Arthur A. Levine

Day two started off with important insights from industry veteran Arthur A. Levine, founder of children’s book publisher Levine Querido. His own childhood peppered with translated books such as Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Mazel and Shlimazel: or The Milk of a Lioness and Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking, he understands and has a deep love for good books no matter where their origin. But it took time to learn how to publish translations well. From finding the perfect source material via a network developed over thirty years, to working with translators and editors, it is a process he has honed throughout his successful career.

Editor-publisher Arthur A. Levine

Levine had some useful observations about how translations are currently received in the Anglophone market. Like Horowitz, he addressed the issue of translator credit. While it is standard to recognize the translator on the title page, it is still not common to find their name on the book cover. One reason, he says, is practical; it is more information for the reader to remember about the book. Another reason is intuitive; readers may pass over a translation for being “difficult” or not something they would choose for pleasure reading.

Finally, Levine shared his own philosophy regarding translated works: “The reader should have as close to the same experience of reading the text as the reader of the original.” Long experience allows him to discover the right translator for a project, and he encouraged translators to “let your passions be your power” when it comes to deciding what to translate and pitch to publishers and agents.

Andrew Wong: Translating The World’s Poorest President Speaks Out

Andrew Wong shared his experience of translating Yoshimi Kusaba’s adaptation of a speech by Uganda President José Mujica in The World’s Poorest President Speaks Out (Enchanted Lion, 2020) for the US market. This project held a significant challenge: the text of Mujica’s original speech was in Spanish, and it was adapted for the children’s book by Kusaba. In other words, Wong’s job was to translate a translation. Translators are well aware of “lost in translation” tropes, but Wong went the extra mile and consulted the original Spanish text to ensure that the book’s message and voice were portrayed clearly and accurately.

Click image to enlarge this slide by Andrew Wong, about the themes in José Musica’s iconic speech.

Wong also faced the problem of biases in the illustrations which were not apparent at first glance. Not only did the publisher successfully lobby the illustrator, Gaku Nakagawa, to make some illustrations more diverse, but that also had a positive impact on the original Japanese publication which began using the new illustrations as well. A translator’s influence on the original work in later editions is certainly not unheard of, and this is an encouraging example.

Panel: Translator Rights from a Range of Perspectives

The final session on day two was an in-the-trenches look at four different paths of Japanese to English translation in the children’s book market. Translators Andrew Wong (The World’s Poorest President Speaks Out, Enchanted Lion, 2020), Holly Thompson (Grow, Grow, Grow Tome Sweet Potatoes and The Puppets Are Back, Miyoshimachi Library, 2020), Avery Udagawa (Temple Alley Summer, Restless Books, 2021), and Deborah Stuhr Iwabuchi (1945←2015: Reflections on Stolen Youth, Koro Color, 2020) each described a recent project from inception through publication. From translator’s rights to projects changing mid-course, their stories showed that there is certainly more than one route to successful children’s literature translation, and their work gives hope to those aspiring to follow their lead.

Clockwise from top left: Andrew Wong, Holly Thompson, Deborah Iwabuchi, Avery Fischer Udagawa

One of the highlights for many people who attend Translation Day is the opportunity to meet other members in “water cooler” moments. In a more organized version of that idea, time was allotted for a Speed Share session in which every participant introduced themselves and their current project in thirty seconds. It was a wonderful way to connect with every participant. Instead of repeating the same session on day two, a special Translator Opportunities session (for participants only) provided a wealth of information about who is currently accepting submissions and proposals—indispensable information for those pursuing publication of their work.

The online format of Translation Day hardly seemed to be a hindrance; in fact, it was directly instrumental in allowing participation from people around the world who otherwise might not have been able to attend. All credit goes to the organizers’ impeccable planning and tireless efforts in achieving a fruitful experience for all.

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