Jackie Friedman Mighdoll Talks with Translator Emily Balistrieri about Soul Lanterns

By Jackie Friedman Mighdoll, San Francisco

Soul Lanterns by Shaw Kuzki, translated by Emily Balistrieri, is the poignant story of 12-year-old Nozomi who lives in Hiroshima 25 years after the atomic bombing. When Nozomi notices that her mother sets afloat a white “soul lantern” in memory of someone she doesn’t talk about, Nozomi begins to wonder about the past. Nozomi and her friends decide to hold an art exhibition with the theme of “Hiroshima Then and Now,” and they approach their relatives and neighbors to ask questions about what really happened on August 6, 1945. Soul Lanterns is a powerful and accessible novel about war, peace, art, and healing.

I had the pleasure of talking with Emily Balistrieri about his work on translating Soul Lanterns. 

Jackie Friedman Mighdoll (JFM): Can you give us some background on this project? How did you find Soul Lanterns and how did Soul Lanterns find Delacorte? 

Emily Balistrieri (EB): I do a lot of work for Kodansha’s children’s division in Tokyo, and this book is originally published by them, so it was one of a number of titles I helped prepare promotional material for, including a sample translation. When we went to the 2019 Bologna Children’s Book Fair, I got to meet Beverly Horowitz, the senior vice president and publisher of Delacorte Press, who acquired Kiki’s Delivery Service, which I translated. My colleague from Kodansha and I took the opportunity to pitch a few books, and Beverly latched on to Soul Lanterns immediately.  

JFM: Do you remember how you pitched it to Beverly?

EB: I told her that I really enjoyed learning about history through the novel. I felt like it was a good balance of educational information and perspective. But also the family intrigue keeps you reading. Having Nozomi as the protagonist 25 years after the bombing makes her an easy character to identify with. We know the history is that the US dropped the bomb, and how horrible it was, but wrapping your head around it is really difficult unless you keep reading and learning and listening. Going on the journey with Nozomi makes that possible. And then there’s getting the author’s perspective herself, the personal perspective. 

JFM: Can you tell us more about Shaw Kuzki, the author?

EB: She’s the same age as Nozomi (i.e. was 12 years old in 1970, when this story is set.) Originally she specialized in Anglo Irish Literature, and she studied abroad in Dublin. She taught in higher ed for 20 years before focusing full-time on writing. Her debut (published when she was in her 40s, by the way—so no need to rush these things) was a fantasy novel that won two major newcomer awards, and she has continued to write in a variety of genres (one of her YA titles is about boys who play tennis, which was her sport in school) and collect more awards since then. Her main goal in writing about Hiroshima is to pass on the memories so that history doesn’t repeat. She feels a responsibility to remember and warn others. 

JFM: Do you have any general recommendations on how to pitch a translation?

EB: The main thing is to make sure you have your materials together. You need a summary that’s one page that spoils everything. Your sample translation. A cover letter that explains why it’s important to translate it, the awards it has won, and sales figures if you have them. The hardest part is always why it should be translated. Although for this book it was obvious. It could only be written by a Japanese person, and it’s a really good perspective. 

JFM: I imagine there’s also something about persistence.

EB: I recently sold some short stories for the first time. And that was a five-year process. First translating, and then pitching, and then waiting, and then getting rejected. Then tweaking, pitching, and getting rejected. And then I sold them!

JFM: What was the magic?

EB: With the short stories, it was reaching the right people. But it was also timing. Especially when pitching to magazines. Magazines are often trying to achieve a certain balance in their issues. It’s persistence. But I also made sure that between each pitch, I made sure to go back to reread to see if there was anything I was missing. You should be confident but you should also take the opportunity to reread and make edits. 

And recently I sold something on the first try—so you never know. 

JFM: I always love hearing about a translator’s process. What was yours in translating Soul Lanterns

EB: I had read it in full before, and after polishing the sample I felt like I knew how I wanted it to sound, or like the voice was familiar, so it went fairly smoothly. I try to get it pretty close (the first time through), partly because I hate leaving things so-so. Then I go back and tweak it later. Some of the more complicated sentences need re-working. But the dialogue comes naturally. I always work with an assistant, a native Japanese speaker, so I can ask questions.

JFM: Soul Lanterns contains poems by Hitomi Koyama. After World War II, newspapers published her tanka grieving her son’s death. Did you translate the tanka as well? Was your process for translating poetry different than for prose?

EB: I did translate the poems. Poetry is extremely challenging. I worked with poet Bin Sugawara on a collection that was published bilingually last year, which was a great experience and very fun, but it only made me fear poetry more, haha. The drafts I came up with were poems, but some of them turned out to be different poems from the ones he had intended. It makes me really wonder how people translate deceased poets. I guess the poem you end up with becomes the poem. For the tanka in this book, I decided I wanted to focus on the images and emotions and not get hung up on the form. I didn’t want to corner myself with the structure and shoehorn the content in. 

JFM: What were some of the other fun translation challenges in working on this? 

EB: The biggest challenge was working on realistic historical fiction. The vast majority of my translations so far have been fantasy or speculative fiction. I tried not to overthink the fact that I am an American delivering a story about suffering and tragedy that the country I’m from caused, but it was definitely on my mind… Obviously I’m concerned with being as accurate as I can on any project, but the subject matter definitely added weight this time. 

JFM: Did you do other secondary reading as part of the translation? Are there other books in Japanese for children about this topic? Or other resources that you would recommend?

EB: I didn’t read other children’s books, although there certainly are some, including more by Shaw Kuzki. Apart from articles and random research, the main thing I did was actually go to Hiroshima (in 2019) to visit the Peace Memorial Museum and see the dome in person. At the museum, I had a chance to listen to what they call an A-Bomb Legacy Successor talk. Essentially, a volunteer learns the testimony of an elderly first-generation survivor so that the story can continue to be shared. Incidentally, the website of the museum has a ton of resources. You can even browse exhibits online. And if you have a group of 10 or more people, you can request a free talk via video conference from anywhere in the world. I wonder if schools in the USA are aware of this opportunity.

JFM: I appreciate your work on getting Soul Lanterns out to the English speaking world. What are you excited about next?

EB: I don’t have anything finalized for children at the moment, but I really hope to translate Yusaku Kitano’s Doronko rondo (Mud puddle rondo) at some point. The story follows a little girl android and a turtle childcare robot on a journey to search for humans, who can only be found on TV in the far-flung future after the Earth has turned into a mud puddle. It has that classic (timeless?) adventure feel and manages to get quite trippy and philosophical at times while remaining aimed at kids. It’s from the same Fukuinkan imprint as Tetsuya Sato’s Syndrome, which is a masterpiece of YA science fiction that I’m currently pitching with a complete manuscript.  

Jackie Friedman Mighdoll writes for children: poetry, picture books, and middle grade. She translates from Japanese to English. In a prior career, she founded a school for teaching world languages to children from newborn to elementary. Find her on the web at https://jackiefm.com/ On Twitter: @jackiefm

 

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