Archive for the ‘The Translator’s Craft’ Category

When Translating Japanese Children’s Literature Helps You Meet Ruth Stiles Gannett

Dover Publications edition of My Father’s Dragon

Every once in a while, being a translator of Japanese children’s books puts you in the best place to learn about children’s books of another country. Such was the case when Deborah Iwabuchi agreed to translate the only biography (in Japanese) of Ruth Stiles Gannett, author of My Father’s Dragonand assist Ms. Gannett on her summer 2018 visit to Japan.

By Deborah Iwabuchi, Maebashi, Japan

First of all, a little background for how this came about! In 2010, Ruth Stiles Gannett came to Japan at the invitation of a Japanese newspaper. The well-known author, aged 87 at the time, captured the heart of Akie Maezawa, the interpreter assigned to accompany Ms. Gannett on school visits. Maezawa subsequently made a trip to Ithaca, New York, to visit and talk to Ms. Gannett.

The result was the only book-length biography of the author of the Elmer books, The Woman who Wrote My Father’s Dragon, Ruth S. Gannett (published in Japanese by Fukuinkan Shoten).

I met Maezawa—let’s call her Aki, as Ms. Gannett does—when she attended an SCBWI Japan Translation Day 2016 in search of a translator for her book, which has been well-received by Elmer fans in Japan.

The Japanese biography of Ruth Stiles Gannett, written by Akie Maezawa, published by Fukuinkan Shoten

One look at the cover, with a photo of a smiling Ruth Gannett holding a huge stuffed Boris doll surrounded by a sunny background of white and yellow stripes, and I was sold! (That’s another story, and yes we are looking for a publisher.) Meanwhile, Aki became involved with Puk, a Japanese puppet theater company. Puk was planning a production of My Father’s Dragon and was facing various problems with copyrights. Aki became their point person to garner support from the author of the book. After the production got the go-ahead, the people at Puk decided they wanted more than anything to have Ruth Gannett in Japan to see it. The author, 94, had recently had an accident that left her bedridden, but in typical style, she miraculously recovered and, accompanied by two of her seven daughters, she made the trip to Japan.

Ms. Gannett and her daughters made it safely to Tokyo at the end of July 2018 and, among side trips to Hakone and other places, attended a Puk performance, much to the joy of the audience and cast. On August 4, a separate event took place at Kinokuniya Hall in Shinjuku: a panel discussion by four people closely connected to the Elmer books in Japan, followed by Q-and-A session with Ms. Gannett. To my great pleasure, Aki asked me to help interpret the event for the three guests of honor.

On the evening of August 4, Ms. Gannett and her lovely daughters, Louise Kahn and Margaret (Peggy) Crone, arrived wreathed in smiles and ready for the big evening. The looks on the audience members’ faces as we all entered the packed Kinokuniya Hall told the story of how much everyone loved the books: My Father’s Dragon, Elmer and the Dragon, and The Dragons of Blueland. Many families in the room had three generations present, eager to see a beloved author. Feeling like a celebrity myself, I settled with Ms. Gannett’s family in seats about halfway back in the hall, until it was time for Ms. Gannett to go onstage.

Above: Ms. Gannett, her daughters, and a cutout of Ms. Gannett backstage at Kinokuniya Hall.

The first half of the program was a panel discussion with Mr. Shibasaki, the director of the Puk production, Aki Maezawa, Tetsuta Watanabe—son of the late Shigeo Watanabe who translated the Elmer books—and Tomoko Shirota, a member of JBBY who has successfully used My Father’s Dragon for twenty-four years in library programs to get children reading. The initial talks by these four were delightfully full of episodes about Ruth Stiles Gannett, Elmer Elevator, the puppet production and children and adults who have read and loved the books over the years. I wish I had the room to include all the stories here.

Japanese edition of My Father’s Dragon, translated by Shigeo Watanabe, published by Fukuinkan Shoten

Since this is a translators’ blog, let me talk about Shigeo Watanabe, as described by his son Tetsuta, who traveled all the way from Australia to be with Ms. Gannett that evening. The elder Watanabe was a member of the ISUMI group: writers and translators who met regularly in the years following the end of World War II to discuss the direction in which they hoped to take children’s literature in Japan. Watanabe had first read My Father’s Dragon in 1952, just four years after its publication in the US. He and the ISUMI group eventually chose the book as one they wanted Japanese children to read. In Tetsuta’s words, “They were looking for a book Japanese would enjoy, but probably not write.” My Father’s Dragon was published in Japanese as “Elmer’s Adventure” (Erumaa no boken) in 1964.

Tetsuta, a small child at the time, recalls his father ruminating over aspects of the book—things that would warm the cockles of a translator—such as the relationship of the two wild boars who make appearances throughout the story. Were they siblings? Friends? A married couple? He had to know so he could decide the type of language to use. Inverting parts of words as the excitable Mouse did in the English proved to be an easy task as Japanese syllables are easy to play with. Once the book was out, Watanabe, a young man with a family to support, kept careful records of the number of copies My Father’s Dragon sold, comparing it to Rieko Nakagawa’s Iya-iya-en, a bestselling Japanese book, which came out at about the same time. (Note: It turns out that Nakagawa and her son, Kanta, are both huge Elmer fans! Shirota told the rapt audience how young Kanta had begged his mother to use her publishing contacts to rewrite the book with his name in it and title it Kanta’s Adventure. The little boy only gave up his tearful pleas when Nakagawa explained about copyrights.)

Above: Tetsuta Watanabe and Akie Maezawa pose backstage; Ms. Gannett signs her autograph.

Shigeo Watanabe went on to become a prominent translator of children’s books. I have never read his Japanese translation of Elmer, but I’m sure he deserves his share of the credit for how the books have stood the test of time and remained consistently popular in Japan for the past half-century—as well as for the excitement in Kinokuniya Hall on August 4.

The second part of the program that evening was devoted to Ruth Stiles Gannett. Frail, but elegant and sure, she took the stage flanked by her daughter Louise, who assisted her mother with some responses (the interpreter’s interpreter) and me (the plain old Japanese-to-English interpreter). Aki, who knows Ms. Gannett well, took the job of summarizing and interpreting the author’s responses into Japanese. Ms. Gannett’s English was easy to understand and the audience was perfectly silent as they hung on every word, and remained captivated as they listened to the Japanese that came afterwards. Here are a few of the questions.

Anniversary edition of the Elmer trilogy

Why did you decide to write the books? I had been working at a ski lodge, the snow had melted and I had nothing to do. My parents were busy with their work, so I got busy writing! I did it mainly to entertain myself. I never intended to publish it until someone suggested it.

Why did you choose a dragon for Elmer to save? I was writing a book about my father, and I wanted him to save a creature that was large, strong and unusual.

Why did the dragon have yellow stripes? I drew a different picture of the dragon, and the stripes were the choice of my stepmother, Ruth Chrisman Gannett, who did all the illustrations in the book.

Why did you choose for Elmer to eat tangerines (mikan)? When I was young we got tangerines in the toes of our Christmas stockings. They weren’t available much before the Christmas season. Fruit like that was a rare treat for us.

What do you do every day? Oh not much, I like to read, get exercise, do yoga, bake bread and cookies . . . (note: there was more, but I can’t remember it all!).

Ms. Gannett had a question of her own that she mentioned several times during the short time I was with her. I’ll put it out there and would love to hear from anyone who has ideas on the subject so I can let her know. In publishing My Father’s Dragon, she intended it for middle graders to read, but she has found that in Japan it is overwhelmingly read to preschoolers, and she wonders why that is.

The two hours sped quickly by. Just before the evening ended we were joined on stage by Peggy and the Puk cast as the entire hall sang “Happy Birthday” to Ms. Gannett, who will be 95 on August 12. “Don’t forget!” Aki reminded the audience, “Her name is Ruth. Make sure to get the ‘r’ and the ‘th!’”

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My selfie with Ruth Stiles Gannett. I worried that we would wear her out, but Ms. Gannett and her daughters were gracious and she had a beautiful smile for everyone! —D.I.

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Global Literature in Libraries Initiative Features Japan, Including Children’s and YA Literature

By Andrew Wong, Tokyo

Looking for a strong dose of commentary on Japanese literary works online? Try the special Japan-in-Translation series at the Global Literature in Libraries Initiative (published throughout May 2018). Organized by David Jacobson, this series offered an entire month of blog posts spanning poetry and prose, manga, light novels, chapter books, picture books, fun with kanji, and onomatopoeia, plus reflections on publishing and reading translated works. Several members of SCBWI Japan contributed.

Here is the full list of posts in the series, including many on children’s literature:

Don’t Know What “Ippai Attena” Means? You Will.

By Emily Balistrieri, Tokyo

Rudorufu to Ippai Attena by Hiroshi Saito is a cute chapter book about a little black cat who finds himself lost in the big city, after inadvertently boarding a long-haul truck. He befriends a tough stray who knows a few tricks—including how to read human language. Can Rudolf use what he learns to find a way home?

Translated by Deborah Iwabuchi and Kazuko Enda as Rudolf and Ippai Attena, it’s put out in English by Kodansha in their Eigo Bunko line (which hardcore Haruki Murakami fans might be aware of, as it was the only way to read his first novel, Hear the Wind Sing, in English [translated by Alfred Birnbaum] until the 2015 version translated by Ted Goossen). Since Rudolf is a book published in Japan for young English learners, complete with a vocab list in the back, you might wonder how the translators approached it.

At a talk Iwabuchi and Enda gave recently in Tokyo, they said their goal was for English-speaking elementary-schoolers to be able to understand and relate to the story. As such, one of their focuses, besides navigating cultural things like torii and fish varieties, was making street-smart Ippai Attena sound like he could handle a fight without veering into words children shouldn’t use. Iwabuchi described English bad words as similar to Japanese keigo, in that there are various registers and situational uses. When she said this, I immediately thought of how kono yarō can operate on so many levels of English insults, from “Ya little booger” to “You bastard” (and surely beyond).

Speaking of “Ippai Attena,” though, if you’re wondering how this unconventional name made it through as-is, the main rationale was that the title is equally mysterious in Japanese (I won’t spoil what it means here). The translators do work an explanation into the text. While there may have been smoother options, the book’s very clear setting in Japan includes a few other references to the Japanese language, so the rōmaji doesn’t feel entirely misplaced.

As it turns out, the name joke was only one of many the translators had to cope with, including that most brutal pun, sake/salmon. And Ippai Attena’s trademark threat got an amusing localization to make it more evocative for English readers who may not know Doraemon.

Overall, the book’s themes of getting your education and using knowledge to accomplish your goals are good, but I especially like Ippai Attena’s nurturing side; for instance, where he says, “When you talk tough and sound nasty, your mind starts thinking it’s tough and that it’s acceptable to be mean,” I hope readers pause and consider the idea.

Are You an Echo? Showcased at Tokyo Event

By Deborah Iwabuchi, Maebashi Japan

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From left: Toshikado Hajiri, Michiko Tsuboi, and David Jacobson

On February 4, the illustrator, one of the translators, and the author of Are You an Echo? The Lost Poetry of Misuzu Kaneko spoke at an SCBWI Japan event in Tokyo.

Author David Jacobson (above right) began by telling how he was introduced to the works of Misuzu Kaneko (1903–1930), by friends who were Kaneko fans. He began to do research and work out a plan and funding for a book of her poetry.

The first order of business was finding a translator. The “translator” turned out to be an aunt-niece team: Michiko Tsuboi, based in Japan, and Sally Ito, an ethnic Japanese born and raised in Canada. Both of the women had already translated Kaneko poems for “fun,” according to Tsuboi. Jacobson found in these two women the enthusiasm for Kaneko’s work he felt was needed to translate her poetry. He also wanted a feminine interpretation of the “motherly” and “girlish” language Kaneko used in her poems.

Jacobson, Tsuboi and Ito first met in person when they, with illustrator Toshikado Hajiri, took a trip to Senzaki (now Nagato City) where Kaneko spent her life. Thus motivated to get on with the project, their real work began.

Tsuboi told us about the endless emails and Skype sessions she, Jacobson and Ito shared. From my point of view as a translator, one of the most interesting points was how Tsuboi and Ito were so involved in Jacobson’s narrative of Kaneko’s life. Tsuboi mentioned how shocked she was when her Canadian niece criticized Jacobson’s work at times, but seeing that the author was paying attention, she joined in with her own unvarnished opinions. In the end, all three of the group were credited for narrative and translation. In the process, the story of Kaneko’s life became the prominent feature of the book. But Jacobson was determined to include many of her poems.

are-you-an-echo-cover-1024x855Tsuboi said her role in translating the poetry was to convey the nuances of Japanese culture to her niece, and Ito’s job was to make the poetic interpretation. The two thought the simple poems would be easy to translate, but they ended up in endless arguments about wording and interpretation.

As a reader thoroughly enchanted by Are You an Echo? I enjoyed the back story about the trip to Senzaki, the arguments and critiques and endless rewriting. As a translator and writer, I was in awe of the dedication to the work and the ability of all involved to set their egos aside, to create a book that so eloquently honors the tragedy and unique sensitivity of a little known poet.

The event on February 4 continued with a showcase of works by SCBWI Japan members, including Ginny Tapley Takemori, translator of The Secret of the Blue Glass by Tomiko Inui.

Manga With Miso Soup: A Mini-Joust

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How Are You? by Miki Yamamoto

By Avery Fischer Udagawa, Bangkok

SCBWI Japan Translation Day 2016 featured a manga mini-joust with translators Zack Davisson and Alexander O. Smith, who discussed the work How Are You? by Miki Yamamoto. Yamamoto attended the event in Yokohama as a special guest.

How Are You? is the poignant story of a family’s break-up, told from the perspective of a girl in their neighborhood. The husband in the family is Japanese; the wife is from northern Europe. Their daughter is a teenager. The story unfolds in urban or suburban Japan.

For the mini-joust, Davisson and Smith each translated the same three pages from How Are You? and discussed their approaches, with Smith in Yokohama and Davisson appearing by Skype from Seattle.

The mini-joust by all accounts ended in a draw. Smith, translator of Akira Toriyama’s Dr. Slump and Davisson, translator of Shigeru Mizuki’s Kitaro, presented their work in different formats: Smith with his English text handwritten into the graphics, and Davisson in typewritten text with industry abbreviations: numbers to show which panel, FX for “effects.”

Smith (standing) and Davisson (via Skype) discuss their translations of How Are You? Yamamoto is seated at left in the white sweater.

Alexander O. Smith (standing) and Zack Davisson (via Skype) discuss their translations of How Are You? by manga artist Miki Yamamoto, seated at left in the white sweater.

Here are the three excerpts the translators discussed, each followed by Smith’s translation and then by Davisson’s. Following each excerpt are a few notes.

Excerpt 1

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[Source: p. 10, How Are You? by Miki Yamamoto (Shodensha, 2014). ISBN-10: 4396782055]

Translation by Alexander O. Smith

 how-are-you-trans-alexander-o-smith-p-10

Translation by Zack Davisson

P10

1.1 … she only wants to be like her daddy.

1.2 You’re imagining things.

1.3 I’m not! Dying her hair black …

1.4 Straightening it with an iron …

2.1 Sheesh!

2.2 She’s a pubescent high school girl. That’s all.

4.1 So what do you want for dinner?

4.2 Eh? I’m good with whatever Lisa wants.

4.3 His beautiful foreign wife and charming daughter are like vivid flowers blossoming in a garden from one of his drawings. A typical Sunday for the happy Masaoka family.

AU: The translations of this first excerpt show some confusion about who Lisa was (wife or daughter?). The translators at first did not have access to the full book, so had no way of knowing Lisa’s identity.

ZD: I think this shows how ambiguous translation can be, and how sometimes translators have to make a “best guess” . . .  one that is often revised later down the line when you go back and do revisions.

AOS: At the mini-joust, translator Hart Larrabee suggested that instead of saying “foreign wife” we could use the wife’s nationality (I think it was Danish?), as an alternative to removing “foreign” altogether, which is what I did.

Excerpt 2

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[Source: p. 18, How Are You? by Miki Yamamoto (Shodensha, 2014). ISBN-10: 4396782055]

Translation by Alexander O. Smith

 how-are-you-trans-alexander-o-smith-p-18

Translation by Zack Davisson

P18

1 FX: Chop chop chop chop

2 FX: Chop chop chop

3 FX: Chop chop chop

4.1 FX: Huh

4.2 Oh.

4.3 Crap.

4.4 I think I overdid it.

5.1 Did you get any sleep last night?

5.2 Not really … but

5.3 In case, you know … when he comes home.

5.4 I thought I should have breakfast ready.

7.1 Is this … miso soup?

7.2 Or a bowl of onions …?

8 …. I have to go to school. See you later!!

ZD: Something I just noticed: The text here only says gohan, and Alex made that dinner while I had it as breakfast! Ah, the choices translators have to make when they don’t have enough information…

AOS: It’s interesting how both Zack and I approached the miso soup part on the bottom right of p. 18 the same way, changing what was a statement in the Japanese (direct translation “but this miso soup . . . has nothing but leeks”) to a rhetorical question. My version hews a little closer to the Japanese, but I find myself preferring Zack’s more in-the-moment take on the line.

Zack Davisson, via Skype from Seattle, and Alexander O. Smith pose with manga artist Miki Yamamoto.

Zack Davisson and Alexander O. Smith pose with manga artist Miki Yamamoto.

Excerpt 3

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[Source: p. 32, How Are You? by Miki Yamamoto (Shodensha, 2014). ISBN-10: 4396782055]

Translation by Alexander O. Smith

how-are-you-trans-alexander-o-smith-p-32

Translation by Zack Davisson

P32

1 What if … what if he never comes back?

What if I never learn anything more than this?

I never know why he left. Where he went.

3

What if … this is it? He never comes back. He’s just … missing. And I …

What do I … what do I … w …what am I s..supposed to d..d..do …

Miki Yamamoto has also authored the works Ribbon Around a Bomb and Sunny Sunny Ann. All illustrations in this blog post are © Miki Yamamoto, and used with permission.

One Passage, Six Translations—Akiyuki Nosaka

hotaru-no-haka-amazon-co-jpBy Avery Fischer Udagawa, Bangkok 

At SCBWI Japan Translation Day on October 22, 2016, Ginny Tapley Takemori presented a workshop on translating excerpts from literature for young adults. One passage was a paragraph from Hotaru no haka (Grave of the Fireflies) by Akiyuki Nosaka (1930–2015), and portrays a war orphan living in Sannomiya Station, Kobe, after the end of World War II.

Prior to Translation Day, five translators submitted renderings of this paragraph. Their renderings were then blinded for critique by Takemori in a full session.

Two of the submitters and Takemori also tackled a paragraph that follows this one, which comprises a single long, highly challenging sentence in the original.

Below are the original passage and five translators’ versions, the final two of which have the further paragraph (not given in Japanese). Below that is Ginny Tapley Takemori’s rendering of both paragraphs.

This passage may disturb young children.

Original Passage

省線三宮駅構内浜側の、化粧タイル剝げ落ちコンクリートむき出しの柱に、背中まるめてもたれかかり、床に尻をつき、両脚まっすぐ投げ出して、さんざ陽に灼かれ、一月近く体を洗わぬのに、清太の瘦せこけた頰の色は、ただ青白く沈んでいて、夜になれば昂ぶる心のおごりか、山賊の如くかがり火焚き声高にののしる男のシルエットをながめ、朝には何事もなかったように学校へ向かうカーキ色に白い風呂敷包みは神戸一中ランドセル背負ったは市立中学、県一親和松蔭山手ともんぺ姿ながら上はセーラー服のその襟の形を見分け、そしてひっきりなしにかたわら通り過ぎる脚の群れの、気づかねばよしふと異臭に目をおとした者は、あわててとび跳ね清太を避ける、清太には眼と鼻の便所へ這いずる力も、すでになかった。

[Source: America hijiki, Hotaru no haka by Akiyuki Nosaka (Shinchosha, 1968). ISBN-10: 4101112037]

Translation A

Seita sat hunched over against a pillar outside the beachside exit of Sannomiya Station, buttocks pressed to the floor and legs stuck straight out before him. The glazed tiles of the pillar were chipped away in places, exposing the concrete underneath. Though his skin had been burned by the harsh sun, and he had not bathed in nearly a month, Seita’s hollow cheeks were pale and sunken. In the night he watched the silhouettes of men who brandished fire and cursed like raiders swelling with arrogance, and in the morning he watched the children walking to school as though nothing had happened. Those with khaki-coloured uniforms who carried their belongings wrapped in white cloths were from Kobe First. The ones with satchels were from public junior high schools. The girls from Kenichi, Shinwa, Shoin, and Yamate all wore loose-fitting pants and middy blouses, but you could tell them apart by their collars. They passed Seita by in an endless stream of legs. Most did not even register that he was there – those who noticed a strange smell and glanced down gave a start and hurried to avoid him. Though it was only a few steps away, Seita no longer had the strength to crawl to the bathroom.

Translation B

Along the government railway line on the ocean side of Sannomiya Station, slouched against the exposed concrete of a pillar whose tiled surface had crumbled away, Seita sat with his backside on the floor and his legs splayed out before him. Despite long exposure to the burning sun and not having bathed in nearly a month, his sunken cheeks were sallow and ashen. At night he stared at the silhouettes of the men who made bonfires and cursed loudly like bandits, animated by the arrogance in their hearts, and in the morning he watched other children heading off to school as if all were right with the world: Kobe Middle School Number One with their white and khaki bundles, Municipal Middle School shouldering school knapsacks, the girls from Prefectural Number One, Shinwa, Shoin, and Yamate all wearing loose workpants and sailor tops differentiated by the shape of each school’s collar. Among the endless stream of legs passing by there were those who, glancing down upon detecting a whiff of something foul, hurriedly leapt away to avoid Seita, who by now lacked even the strength to crawl to the nearby bathroom.

Translation C

Leaning slumped over on the beach side of the Sannomiya Station on the Sho Line against a pillar whose tiles had come off to reveal the bare concrete, butt to the floor, legs sticking straight out in front, completely sunburned, Seita’s emaciated cheeks only became paler, although he hadn’t bathed in almost a month; at night he watched the silhouettes of the men building a bonfires like bandits and shouting curses, perhaps out of pride in their agitation; and in the morning the khakis, whites, and folded cloth bags of Kobe 1 Junior High, the backpacks of the municipal junior high, and top of the prefecture Shinwa, Shoin, and Yamate students he could tell apart by the shape of the sailor collar over their monpe work pants; people in the never-ending crowd of legs passing by who looked down at the bad smell they wish they hadn’t noticed hopped, flustered, to avoid him; already, he didn’t have the strength to crawl even an inch to a better place.

Translation D

On the side of the railway ministry’s Sannomiya station facing the ocean, the tiles were peeling off a concrete pillar. A boy sat under it, hunched, ready to fall over anytime. Butt to floor, legs stretched out, at the mercy of the sun, unwashed for nearly a month. Seita lay, cheeks hollowed, sunken, pale white. In the night, he sat gazing out at silhouettes of men who, as if aroused by their memories, swore like bandits, shrilling at the top of their voices, cracking like bonfires. In the morning, students passed by on their way to school as if nothing had happened, Kobe middle schoolers in their khakis and white cloth bundles, municipal city schoolers with their backpacks, and the Prefectural First, Shinwa, Shoin, and Yamate girls differentiated by the collars of sailor-styled uniforms worn over their working clothes. Endless pairs of feet would move along normally, until a nose caught the odor that brought their eyes down to their feet, then they would jump frantically aside, away. No morsel of strength was left in Seita to crawl to a place away from those noses or eyes.

Children, homeless and orphaned, sit at every 3-foot wide pillar, leaning in what felt like the bosom of their mothers, in the train station. They gather here because it is the only place they are allowed to enter. Or maybe because they longed to be among people, like it used to be. Or perhaps because they could always have water. Or in hope of that someone who would give them something to eat. The black market under the railway tracks at Sannomiya station began in September, from a cup of caramelized sugar water dished straight out of an oil drum going for 50sen each. Soon there were steamed potatoes, steamed cakes made from potato flour, rice balls, glutinous rice cakes, fried rice, red bean soup, steamed buns, udon, tempura rice, curry with rice, cake, rice, barley, sugar, tempura, beef, milk, canned fish, shochu or sweet potato liquor, whiskey, Japanese pears, large summer oranges, rubber boots, bicycle tyre tubes, matches, cigarettes, workman’s two-toed shoes, diaper covers, military blankets, military boots, military uniforms, half boots. An alumite lunch box of barley, freshly-packed in the morning by the wife is a “good ten yen, just ten yen.” A weary hand reaches down to remove a shoe, dangle it on one finger, and offer it instead for “how about twenty, twenty yen.” Seita first wandered in, lured by the smell of food. In time, he would find a space the size of a single grass mat to peddle old clothes. Selling off his late mother’s kimono, the inner dress, sash, and outer collar, which had all faded away while soaking in the water in a bomb shelter, he managed to somehow buy food to survive for two weeks. He then sold his school uniform, which was made of good cloth, those cloth bindings from the calf to the ankle, his shoes, but certainly not his trousers? As he dithered, he gradually came to spend the nights in the station. Families with young boys would return from evacuation in full celebratory color, carrying school bags packed with a mess tin, kettle, and metal helmet. Cloth bags dangling, evacuation hoods still neatly folded within. They probably gave out emergency rations in the trains. Relieved to have come thus far, they would leave behind steamed bran cakes for him, strings undone, like some unwanted baggage. A sympathetic soldier back from the frontlines or an old lady who took pity, reminded of her grandchild around the same age, would place a bite of leftover bread or pan-fried soy beans wrapped in paper a polite distance away, like they would in an offering to Buddha. Seita took these gratefully. Now and then, the station master would try to drive him away, making him get up, but the reserve MP manning the ticket gate would stand up for him. We do have lots of water, he reassured. Once he got back, he just sat. Two weeks later, he could no longer get up.

Translation E

Seita sat on the floor of Sannomiya government railway station, the side toward the ocean. His back sagged against a pillar whose tiles had peeled off, exposing the concrete, and his legs splayed out before him. The sun had roasted him. He had not bathed in nearly a month, and his emaciated cheeks hung hollow and pale. At night, he watched the silhouettes of furious men who lit bonfires and cursed like bandits; in the mornings, he watched students commute to school as if everything were normal. Students in khaki who carried white cloth bundles headed to Kobe Middle School Number 1; students with leather backpacks went to Municipal Middle School. Girls bound for Prefectural College Number 1, or Shinwa or Shoin or Yamate, wore monpe pants and sailor tops whose collars told them apart. In the endless stream of legs were those that jumped away, owners’ eyes averted, upon smelling Seita’s stench. He had not the strength to crawl to the toilet nearby.

Children like him sat in all directions against the three-foot pillars, as if the pillars were their mothers. They had come because the station was the one place where they were allowed, or because they could be near people again here, or because they could drink water, or because they hoped for a handout when someone dropped his guard. As soon as September came, a black market had opened beneath the railroad tracks, beginning with a spot where people paid fifty sen for a cup of sugar water drawn from a steel barrel. Soon there were steamed sweet potatoes, sweet potato flour dumplings, rice balls, daifuku dumplings, fried rice, rice flour dumplings in red bean sauce, manju dumplings, udon, tempura rice, curry rice, cake, plain rice, barley, sugar, tempura, beef, milk, canned fish, shochu liquor, whiskey, pears, sour oranges, rubber boots, bicycles, tire tubes, matches, cigarettes, cloth work shoes, diaper covers, military blankets, military boots, military uniforms, military half boots. A man would hold up some barley meal in an Alumite lunch box his wife had packed that morning and say, “How ’bout it, ten yen?” Another would remove his worn shoes and hold them up by a finger, saying, “Hey, twenty yen, hey, twenty yen.” Seita, lost and drawn in by the food smells, had laid out his dead mother’s under-kimono, obi, false collar, and waist strips for under the obi, all with the colors run and faded due to getting wet in an air raid. These sold for enough to feed him for two weeks, and then he had sold his middle school uniform and gaiters. By the time he was starting to hesitate, wondering if he could really sell his pants, he had begun to spend nights at the station. Families with children sometimes returned by train from bombing evacuation sites, their air raid hoods still folded in canvas bags, their rucksacks holding ration kits, kettles, steel helmets; dressed in their best, they carried the steamed rice-bran dumplings seemingly distributed for emergencies in trains, which they would decide they no longer needed and give Seita to lighten their loads. Or a demobilized soldier or an old person with grandchildren his age might take pity on him. They would leave their items softly a distance away, as if offering them to the Buddha: leftover bread, roasted soybeans. He would receive the gifts gratefully. Sometimes a station employee would chase him off, but a military police reservist at the wickets might knock the employee down and protect Seita, saying they at least had plenty of water here. In that way Seita had put down roots. Two weeks later he could no longer stand.

Translation by Ginny Tapley Takemori

In the mainline Sannomiya Station, bayside exit, Seita sat slumped against a column, its tiles peeling off to expose the bare concrete, with his bottom on the floor and both legs stretched out straight before him. He was sunburned to a frazzle and hadn’t washed for almost a month, yet his emaciated cheeks were sunken and pale. Come nightfall, he gazed at the silhouettes of men conversing rowdily with excessive bravado as they warmed themselves around the watch fire like bandits. In the morning he saw children his age heading off to middle school as if nothing were amiss, khaki-clad boys with white bundles from the top prefectural school and those with satchels on their backs from the city school, and girls sporting sailor blouses over their baggy wartime pantaloons, the folds of their collars indicating whether they attended the prestigious prefectural school or one of the three expensive private academies. The legs of the unseeing crowds filing purposefully past jumped to avoid him only at a whiff of his stench. But Seita no longer had the strength to crawl to the nearby toilet.

War orphans clustered around the base of each of the solid meter-thick columns as if finding in them motherly protection, having gathered here perhaps because it was the only place they were allowed in, or because they yearned to be among the crowds of people, or because here there was water to drink or some hope of scraps of food being tossed their way. Already by the beginning of September someone had started selling burned sugar dissolved in a drum of water for fifty sen a cupful under the railway arches, and almost overnight a black market had sprung up offering steamed sweet potatoes, sweet potato dumplings, rice balls, rice cakes, fried rice, bean soup, bean jam buns, noodles, tempura and rice, curry and rice, and then cake, rice, barley, sugar, tempura, beef, milk, canned fish, rice liquor, whisky, pears, bitter oranges, gum boots, bicycle inner tubes, matches, cigarettes, rubber-soled work shoes, nappies, army blankets, army boots, army uniforms, army boots. Men stood holding out the aluminium lunchboxes of barley rice their wives had packed for them just that morning “Yours for ten yen, yours for ten yen!” or dangling their tired old shoes in one hand “Twenty yen, how about it? Twenty yen!” Drawn singlemindedly by the smell of food, Seita had stumbled aimlessly in and sold the underkimono, sash, collar, and waist tie that were the only mementos he had of his mother from the flooded air raid shelter, the colours faded and run, at a second-hand clothing stall consisting of a single straw mat spread out on the ground, and had thus somehow managed to keep the wolf from the door for a couple of weeks—then went his rayon middle school blazer, gaiters, and shoes, and while wondering whether he could go so far as to sell his trousers, before he knew it he had become a nightly fixture inside the station. Here a boy with his family apparently returning from evacuation to the countryside, fully decked out with his air raid hood neatly folded and placed over his canvas bag, his mess tin and kettle and steel helmet attached to his backpack, left Seita some mouldy ricebran dumplings, no doubt emergency food prepared for the train journey and now it was no longer needed, discarded to lighten the load. Others—a kindly soldier returning from the front, an elderly woman with a grandson his age who took pity on him—left crusts and roasted soybeans wrapped in paper placed quietly at a safe distance, as if making an offering to Buddha, which he gratefully accepted. From time to time he was shooed away by the stationmaster, but the adjunct from the feared military police guarding the ticket gate sent the man sprawling, protecting him, and there was always enough water, so having found some comfort he settled in and put down roots until one day a couple of weeks later he could no longer stand.

An Interview with Translator Zack Davisson

Birth of Kitaro Shigeru Mizuki Zack DavissonBy Alexander O. Smith, Kamakura

The recent death of Shigeru Mizuki (1922-2015, eulogized here in The New Yorker and here in The Comics Journal) brought deserved attention to this artist’s remarkable life, and to his manga about Japanese folklore and history. His works often appeal to children and young adults. A major translator of Mizuki’s manga, Zack Davisson, agreed to an interview here about his career and approach. His latest Mizuki translation, The Birth of Kitaro, is forthcoming in May 2016.

Hello Zack, many thanks for agreeing to do this interview for us. To start us off, could you give us a little bit of your background, and tell us what you’re currently working on?

I’m a translator and writer who specializes in Japanese folklore and yokai. I wrote my MA thesis on yurei, which I turned into my book Yurei: The Japanese Ghost. I currently translate several manga series, and am working on a new seven-volume collection of Shigeru Mizuki’s classic yokai comic Kitaro. The Birth of Kitaro, due out in May, is the first volume in this collection.

Literary translators often have two stories to tell about how they got where they are: the story of their growth as a translator, and the story of their growth as a writer. How did you develop your skills on both sides of the Pacific?

Growing up in Spokane, WA, writing was something I was always good at. Like some kids were good at sports, or math, words held no mystery for me. But I never thought about writing seriously—I wanted to be an artist. It took me four years of art school to come to terms with the fact that I would never be anything other than a middling talent. Certainly not able to compete on a professional level. But I still wanted to do something creative, and living in Japan in my thirties sparked the idea of doing freelance writing. I started out small, writing for my local JET newsletter. When that was well received, I moved up to paid magazine gigs for Japanzine and Kansai Time-Out. Then when I was doing my master’s degree with the University of Sheffield, at their Hiroshima branch, I got into the idea of turning my thesis into a book. A book I ended up rewriting completely about 5-6 times.

Translating was an extension of all this. I did translation assignments for my MA, and I found I liked doing them. We translated a broad spectrum of works, from short story science fiction to news articles to blog posts, getting a feel for how to change styles to suit the source. My first translations were terrible; clunky and laboriously faithful to the source material. But I started to feel my way around in how to put the words on the page.

Birth of Kitaro Sample Zack Davisson Mizuki ShigeruAnd then manga translation was just pure love of comics. I’ve been a comic fan for as long as I can remember, including owning a comic book store with the massive collection that that entails. It was something I wanted to do, so I learned how to do it. I also took an already translated manga—Dr. Slump—and I went through it volume by volume doing my own translation, then compared it to the published work to see what they were doing and how they did it. [Translated by our interviewer, Alex! –ed] It was excellent practice and something I recommend to anyone who wants to translate manga.                                   Page from The Birth of Kitaro courtesy Zack Davisson

I subscribe to the 10,000 hours theory, that you need to endure a period of hard ass, grindstone practice before you become fluent in a skill. The ones who don’t make it through that particular crucible never reach the professional level.

You’ve written about supernatural Japan in Yurei: The Japanese Ghost and on your website, hyakumonogatari.com, and your translations of Mizuki Shigeru’s Kitaro comics are filled with yokai. What drew you to this genre?

Ghosts and the supernatural are something that I have always found interesting. As a kid in the 70s I used to watch this show called In Search Of, and I pored over books like Time Life’s The Enchanted World and a great gnome book that I can’t remember the title of. I liked the concept of a mysterious world of folklore. I lived in Scotland for a bit and toured around, going to the Brig o’ Doon and the fairy bridge on the Isle of Skye. I even had a Loch Ness Monster sighting.

Going to Japan was like hitting the jackpot. The country was alive with folklore and magic and mystery and lived with it in a day-to-day way that I hadn’t imagined. I was fascinated by everything, and wanted to decipher every character on every temple wall or shopkeeper’s shelf and figure out what it all meant. And when I discovered Shigeru Mizuki—that was life-changing. His characters and work were everywhere, but I had never heard of him. And the more I plunged into his world, the more I wanted to know, both about the yokai world and about Mizuki himself.

There was this whole wonderful, hidden world locked tightly in a box of which language was the key. I made it my mission to take up the torch from Lafcadio Hearn, and through translation and writing make more of this exquisite awesomeness available to an English-speaking audience.

Yurei_Japanese_Ghost_CoverOne challenge YA authors whose work spans multiple cultures grapple with is how to introduce concepts from a culture that may be unfamiliar to their readership in a way that will inform and develop a sense of place without leaving their audience behind. You’ve chosen to leave words like yurei and yokai in Japanese. What informs your choices about what to leave “unlocalized,” and what strategies have you used to introduce these terms?

I had some back-and-forth about that with my editors, but I felt strongly about keeping those words in Japanese. I think this is also part of the art of translation—knowing when to not translate a word. I read older translations from the 1800s where samurai was translated as knights and yokai as faeries, and the translations are horribly dated. They don’t read well because they are overly localized to resemble Western fairy tales. I’ve read similar translations of Arabian Nights where they did their best to scrub the “Arabian” part, going so far as to introduce Christian parallels.

That said, there has to be a reason for leaving a word in the native language. You are essentially introducing a new word into the English language. But that reason has to be beyond exoticism. Or laziness . . . like you said, it is that balance of sense of place and readability.

For me, it was that the precedent had been set centuries ago for world folklore—you don’t translate monster names. Leprechauns are leprechauns. Banshee are banshee. Penanggalan are penanggalan. These are very specific, culturally bound terms that are not possible to translate. It’s better to educate.

I used a few strategies to introduce these terms, mostly my beloved em dash. You can drop that in to give a quick clue. “We’re surround by yokai—monsters everywhere!!!” I’m not a huge fan of Translator’s Notes. If possible I want to give clues in the main text so readers don’t have to flip back and forth. I also write Yokai Files for every volume of Kitaro. The Yokai Files highlight all the yokai in each volume, and help readers get acclimatized to the names. But I think of those as “bonus features,” instead of required for the main text.

At the end of the day, you have to trust readers, even young ones. I ultimately made the argument that if kids could handle Pokémon and Pikachu, then they wouldn’t stumble over Nurikabe and Nezumi Otoko.

The Secret Biwa MusicYour work spans literary translations from classical Japanese, such as The Secret Biwa Music that Caused the Yurei to Lament, to translations of much more modern material. How does the age and style of the source material influence your creation of a style or authorial “voice” in the translation?

That’s something very important to me. I translate works from different eras because I enjoy reading from different eras. I love Charles Dickens and Nathanial Hawthorne. And when you translate works from those eras they should reflect the literary style of the times. The prose was more patient. The vocabulary was more verbose.

Translating from different eras flexes different literary muscles as well, which I enjoy. Although I can’t overdo it. I spent a couple months doing some very early Edo translations, and it made my brain hurt. I needed to do some modern manga as a break after that!

Tell me about what’s it’s been like working on Mizuki Shigeru’s comics. His output spans a wide range of genres and readership ages. How aware are you of your target audience’s age when you translate, and what do you change, if anything, when translating for younger readers?

Absolutely I am aware. I didn’t translate Showa: A History of Japan with the same vocabulary that I used to translate Kitaro—nor did Mizuki write them at the same level. That’s one of the things I love about Mizuki, is that he offers such a broad range of depth and styles in his work. I did a translation of some of his art commentary, and people were amazed that the same person who wrote Kitaro was capable of such poetic language. Working with Drawn & Quarterly is great in that they want to present a complete picture of Mizuki as an artist, and have allowed me to work on some things that I never thought would get English translations.

With Kitaro, the goal is “kid friendly.” That means I follow the basic reading level rules, use simpler vocabulary and shorten the sentences. But I don’t dumb down the concepts, and every now and then I throw in a word that kids might have to look up. I think that’s important. When I was a young reader, I liked books that challenged my vocabulary. I want to pass on that feeling of accomplishment.

Narrow Road Zack Davisson CoverYou collaborated with artist Mark Morse on an original comic, Narrow Road. Where did the idea for that project originate? How did you divide storytelling duties between yourself as the writer and Mark as the artist?

I think many translators eventually have the itch to do something of their own. My collaboration with Mark was kind of dipping my toes in those waters. I had seen him on Twitter and was really taken with his art. I reached out to him, and he was open to collaboration. We had similar ideas, of doing something with Buddhist traveler’s tales in a non-didactic way. So we did a test story and found that we enjoyed working together.

With comics it is hard to say how the storytelling duties are split. I give him a full script, which includes panel-by-panel breakdowns and art suggestions, but he has plenty of room to improvise. Sometimes I will insist on things, especially if they affect the pacing of the story, or the timing of a gag. But his sense is great and he always improves on the initial ideas. I have only had him go back and redraw something once, but that was because I had a new idea once the art was done.

We hope to keep going. The reception has been good, and doing the work is rewarding. I just sent him the next script yesterday. We’ll see where the Narrow Road takes us!

Have you collaborated with other artists/editors/translators/writers? What different arrangements have you tried, and how did they work out? Anything to recommend to YA authors or translators contemplating collaborative projects?

My experience with editors has been 100 percent positive. I don’t know if that is just luck, but it has been good experiences all around. My personal goal as a translator is to get as many of my words on the page as possible. I generally get everything up there, with only a word or two changed for a 500-page comic. But even then I go over the finished version to see what changes were made and try to learn from that.

A new collaboration is always tricky, as you have to sort of feel each other out. I am starting a new project with an Italian artist, as well as doing some work with different editors at a new company, so that will be interesting.

If possible, it is nice to establish a relationship over time. When I first started with Drawn & Quarterly, there was more back-and-forth with editorial, especially on how to present Mizuki’s language. But having worked together for years now we are in synchronicity, and have developed a wonderful level of trust. You’ll see the fruits of that in the latest Kitaro, where I was able to add quite a bit of additional content to the main text. It’s a lot of fun!

Showa-A History of JapanMany YA authors/translators teach, edit, or write outside their main genre. Is translation/writing your full-time occupation?

Unfortunately, writing and translation does not pay enough to serve as my sole occupation. I have a full-time job on top of my translation/writing work: writing and editing for a big company. I try to keep my day job private, although everyone at my office knows about my “other life.” It’s a tough balance—I essentially have two full time jobs, and that means sacrifice.

When I started tackling Mizuki’s manga Showa: A History of Japan, I knew that I would have to make changes to my life if I wanted to be successful. So I cut out a lot of things that people do for fun in favor of long stretches of isolation propped over a keyboard with a tankobon (paperback) propped open. Sometimes I wish I could just chill out and play a video game or something, but I don’t have the time. I haven’t played a video game since about 2008.

On the plus side, my regular job gives me the luxury of only taking on freelance work that I am personally interested in. I don’t have to do crap work just to pay the bills. And each manga I translate or book I write is an individually hand-crafted work of love.

Some YA authors/translators struggle with self-promotion. You’ve been a presence at many conventions, such as Comicon and Sakuracon. How important has it been to you to attend cons, either as a presenter or an attendee? Any other promotional activities that you would recommend to others?

Zack Davisson Bio PicI am a huge extrovert, so self-promotion is part of my package. I tell publishers that when they hire me, they not only get the translation but they get my enthusiasm as well. To me that is a key part of the work, especially conventions. I just did Emerald City Comic Con, and put over a hundred copies of Mizuki’s works into hands of people who had never heard of him before. Those are people who would have never tried his work if I hadn’t been there.

I also do presentations, which is something I personally enjoy. I am trained as a public speaker and taught for years, so standing up in front of an audience is something I am comfortable with. I also publish articles on various sites, like my recent Confessions of a Manga Translator article for The Comics Journal, which got a surprising amount of attention. Each article or presentation serves dual function as an advertisement. Getting your name out there is important to generating sales, as well as getting new work opportunities. Networking is essential. I just today signed a new contract for a translation that came directly from a conversation at Emerald City Comic Con.

Recently I have been trying to build my Twitter network of translators. After the “Confessions of a Manga Translator” article, I have been hearing from fellow professionals and it has been great. Twitter is a great tool for making connections with people that you are geographically separated from.

Did you face any early challenges to finding success in your translation and writing?

Getting someone to take a chance on that first work is the greatest challenge. Until you have your first published work—until you make that move to professional—you are a gamble for publishers. They don’t know if you can meet deadlines. They don’t know the quality of work you can deliver. They don’t know if you will make their jobs easier or more difficult.

I told Drawn & Quarterly publisher Chris Oliveros that he changed my life by giving me my first job translating Showa: A History of Japan. Everything has built on that initial chance he gave me.

Kitaro Meets NurarihyonYou work on Japanese material, but live in the US. What challenges and advantages does your choice of location present, both in “keeping in touch” with both cultures, and in finding and developing projects?

My wife and most of my friends are Japanese, so I still feel very much surrounded by the culture. We speak Japanese at home. My wife works at a Japanese restaurant. It’s very much a little bubble in the greater society. Obviously I don’t have that immersion like when I lived in Japan, but I never feel far away from it. And my translation work keeps me into the language.

The thing I am most out of touch with is pop culture. I don’t know what’s cool anymore, or what the catch phrases are. Fortunately, I specialize in classic manga and Edo period ghost stories so that usually isn’t too much of an issue!

The same thing happened when I lived in Japan. Coming back to the US required me to relearn what had been going on in my native land while I was gone. I’m nostalgic for the times when I had no idea who the Kardashians were or Justin Bieber.

A nostalgia I think we all share! Well, this has been fascinating getting a glimpse into your work and interests. Thank you very much for your time. I’d like to finish up by having you tell us about any other upcoming projects you’re excited about.

I am most excited for the new Kitaro series from Drawn & Quarterly, and Queen Emeraldas from Kodansha. Those are both dream projects for me. Leiji Matsumoto, creator of Queen Emeraldas, is really responsible for me even doing what I do, because seeing his Galaxy Express 999 and Star Blazers (Space Battleship Yamato) years ago completely enamored me of Japanese culture and language. So getting to work on his comics is a huge deal. And Kitaro . . . that’s the reason I got into manga translation.

A good decade ago I stood on a friend’s bar in Osaka and made a drunken vow that I would bring Shigeru Mizuki’s work to English, and finally holding a printed copy of The Birth of Kitaro in my hands feels like a fulfillment of that vow.

Above: Kitaro meets Nurarihyon, second volume in the Kitaro series, is due out in October 2016.

Alexander O. Smith is translator of thirty novels from the Japanese, including Brave Story and The Book of Heroes by Miyuki Miyabe, The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino, and the Guin Saga series by Kaoru Kurimoto. He is also known for localization and production of video games, and is cofounder of publisher Bento Books.