Archive for the ‘The Translator’s Craft’ Category

The Saga of Sweet Bean Paste: A Conversation with Alison Watts

by Deborah Iwabuchi, Maebashi, Japan

I first read Sweet Bean Paste, by Durian Sukegawa and translated by Alison Watts, in 2019. It was just after a string of deaths in the family and just before the pandemic. Recently I decided it was time to go back to the book and talk to the translator about it. After a re-read, I set up a video conference with Alison Watts and ended up glued to my seat as she told me about her life-changing experiences with Sweet Bean Paste and author Durian Sukegawa.

First of all, the book is about Sentaro, a man of about forty who has spent time in prison, is in debt, and works at a job he doesn’t particularly like. He makes dorayaki, sweet bean paste sandwiched between pancakes, and sells it from a little shop. The profits go to pay back a loan. His only pleasure in life is an occasional beer. One day, a woman named Tokue comes to call and apply for a job. She’s quite elderly and her hands are misshapen. Tokue turns out to be a former Hansen’s disease patient. Sentaro turns her down again and again, but her bean-paste making skills win him over. She cooks up huge batches of the bean paste for dorayaki as she teaches Sentaro how to make it too. The story includes the basic history of the treatment of people with Hansen’s disease in Japan, and takes the reader inside Tenshoen, based on Tama Zenshoen in Tokyo, a sanatorium where many people were forced to stay for decades even after they were cured.

Alison Watts, a translator and long-term resident of Japan, found Sweet Bean Paste in 2013 when a foreign rights agent working on behalf of Poplar, the original publisher, gave her the book to read.

Alison: I read the book and couldn’t stop thinking about it. I wanted to translate it, so I did a synopsis and sample translation, and gave it to the agent. After that I didn’t hear anything for a couple of years. Then in 2016, Oneworld Publications contacted me and I got the contract to translate it. They wanted me to consult with the author as well, but instead of contacting Durian by email, I turned up at a musical-dramatic reading performance he was giving in Nasu to introduce myself. He wasn’t even aware that a translator had been assigned, so it was a complete surprise to him. He offered to show me around Tama Zenshoen, which he said the French translator of Sweet Bean Paste also found very helpful.

(Deborah: For more on Alison’s meeting with Durian, see the story Alison wrote about it for the Words Without Borders website.)

Alison: After I got to know Durian, I discovered how his own colorful history led to writing this story. To start out, he wanted to go into publishing, but he was apparently barred from entering many companies because of colorblindness. He went on to run a bar in Shinjuku; did part-time work in production, radio, magazines; became a star on late-night radio giving straight, non-judgmental advice to teenagers; was a TV presenter; and was an agony uncle on a help line. He also formed a moderately successful punk spoken-word band, Screaming Poets, which broke up when one of the members was arrested for drugs. After that, he spent time in New York to take a break from life. There he studied English, sang in a band, wrote poetry, and was on hand for the devastation of 9-11.

Guitarist Pickles Tamura, Alison, and Durian outside the farm temple at the 2016 Nasu performance where Alison first met Durian.

After that, he came back to Japan and resumed many of his creative endeavors. The common thread in all his work, I think, is that he is on the side of the underdog and the powerless, those who don’t get their voices heard.

Durian had wanted to write about Hansen’s patients after the law enforcing their isolation was repealed in 1996, which made their situation more widely known, but he didn’t feel qualified. Then quite by coincidence in 2006, some former Hansen’s disease patients came to see a concert he gave, which resulted in his getting to know them and going to Tama Zenshoen. The end result was Sweet Bean Paste. Hansen’s disease was touchy subject matter and the novel was rejected by many publishers. Poplar Publishing finally took it on and the book took off. Naomi Kawase made a film, starring the late Kiki Kirin, which was shown at the Cannes Film Festival in 2015.

Deborah: That’s some personal journey. What happened after you met him in Nasu?

Alison: A month later I toured Tama Zenshoen in Higashimurayama, Tokyo with Durian, the place on which the sanitorium in the novel is based, and also the location of the film. When we arrived, a musical festival was underway in the restaurant there, which is open to the public and even sells a zensai dessert based on Sweet Bean Paste. That day they were selling dorayaki too, which of course I ate. The mayor was there along with many people. It was fun. The sanitorium definitely seemed to be part of the community. The book and film have brought it much attention.

We visited the Hansen’s museum, and walked through the Zenshoen grounds, following a path described in the book that ends up at the charnel house where the remains of the dead are kept for those whose families refused to allow their ashes be interred in family graves. It was incredibly moving, and brought me so much closer to the story.

At Nagomi, the Zenshoen restaurant. Alison and Durian are pictured with Mi-chan, the manager, and the mayor of the city of Higashimurayama in Tokyo.

 

Deborah: So the author took you to the location of the story and answered all your questions. Your connection to him must have had an effect on your translation.

Alison: Absolutely. I literally walked right onto the set of Sweet Bean Paste and learned so much. But I also read Durian’s stage version of the story, a dramatic reading. It had details that weren’t in the novel that I felt would add to the reader’s understanding, so I asked his permission to include them.

Deborah: Any examples?

Alison: These lines of Tokue’s: “‘with this disease the eyesight gets weaker and sensation in the fingers and toes is gradually lost. But for some reason sensation in the tongue is the last to be affected. Can you imagine what it’s like for someone who can’t see or feel, to taste something sweet?’”  

Another thing was the Author’s Note. Talking with Durian taught me a lot about his reasons for writing the book, and I realized he had a philosophy on life that was integral to the story, which I wanted readers to hear too. So I asked the publisher if we could have an Author’s Note with the English version. She agreed and I translated this as well. Whenever I see it quoted on Goodreads or blogs, I feel really satisfied at having brought that about—it is such a powerful statement. For example, these lines:

“Some lives are all too brief, while others are a continual struggle. I couldn’t help thinking that it was a brutal assessment of people’s lives to employ usefulness to society as a yardstick by which to measure their value.” And these: “Anyone is capable of making a positive contribution to the world through simple observation, irrespective of circumstance.” This is the gist of the message Tokue had for Sentaro and Wakana in the book, both of whom struggled to make sense of their existences. These words really resonate with readers.

At the stone cairn at Zenshoen commemorating filming of An. Calligraphy (same as on movie flyer) by Naomi Kawase.

That aspect of the book had a great influence on me personally. My brother, who had schizophrenia, died a couple of years ago at the age of 51. I had to give his eulogy, and suspected some people might be feeling his life had been wasted because of his illness. But thanks to this story I had a means to frame my thoughts. I was able to stand up straight and say with confidence that my brother’s life had been as full and worthwhile as anybody’s.

Deborah: (searching for a tissue) Is that the end of the story?

Alison: Actually, no. Another result of my visit to Nasu was I decided to ask Durian and his guitarist, Pickles, to give the same performance in Tokai-mura, where I live. Up until the 2011 Fukushima disaster, it was the location of Japan’s worst-ever nuclear accident, which occurred in 1999. Of course Fukushima also had enormous consequences for Tokai-mura, but it’s hard to discuss them openly as most people in the town are connected to the nuclear industry. So Durian and Pickles came and gave a performance in February 2017. It was great—even the mayor came!

Poster for the February 2017 dramatic reading concert that Alison organized in Tokai-mura; Pickles Tamura, Durian, Alison and Tokai-mura’s Mayor Yamada and Deputy Mayor Hagiya at the concert.

Deborah: So you are still connected.

Alison: Yes, we met in Kamakura in early January. Durian is writing a series of animal fables and is a professor at Meiji Gakuin University these days.

Deborah: How is the book doing?

Alison: Ever since the pandemic started, Sweet Bean Paste has quietly boomed. Every single day I get alerts that somebody somewhere is reading, recommending or talking about it. Not bad for a novel published in 2017 by an independent publisher with little fanfare! Goodreads reviews have zoomed to 1500.

Deborah: I see Oneworld has it labeled “bestseller” in their pamphlet. Congratulations! What do you think is the connection with the pandemic that has drawn so many readers?

Alison: I think the experience of lockdown helped many readers identify with Tokue. Plus the struggles and uncertainty of life caused by the pandemic have set many people thinking about what makes life worthwhile. But Sweet Bean Paste doesn’t hit you over the head with heavy philosophical discussion. It’s an artfully simple, moving story that leaves the reader feeling better for having read it, and about their own place in the world, whatever that may be. I think that quality is what people appreciate the book for.

A flyer for an event featuring Durian and Masako Ueno, the former Hansen’s disease patient on whom Tokue was based. (Click to enlarge.)

Deborah: Alison, thanks so much for sharing your journey with Sweet Bean Paste. When I contacted you, I had no idea where it would lead. Are you working on any other books these days?

Alison: Yes, I’m currently translating What You Are Looking For Is In the Library by Michiko Aoyama, and I have two translations coming out this year: Fish Swimming in Dappled Sunlight by Riku Onda in June, and The Boy and the Dog by Seishu Hase in November.

Deborah: Then I guess I’ll be talking to you again soon!

To our readers: See also Alison’s bio.

Alison Watts and Deborah Iwabuchi

 

Voicing a Story

By Andrew Wong, Tokyo

We were recently treated to a double header on voice and character with two (yes two!) award winning kidlit creators, Traci Chee and Avery Fischer Udagawa. Attending both sessions, I saw how their approaches toward characterization and narrative were different by nature of their roles in the creative space—a writer shapes characters from scratch to best convey a narrative, while a translator recreates a story and the experience of reading it in another language.

A strong voice draws readers (that includes publishers too) and drives a story, and both Traci and Avery touched on how writers create voice. Using various techniques to put sentence length and vocabulary to work with non-textual cues, and sometimes with how the text falls on a page, to create tone, pace, and atmosphere, authors and translators use basically the same tools for a text-based narrative.

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Voicing and Tone: – PianoBuyer.com

But unlike authors, translators work on an existing text. Even so, Avery cautioned against being too concerned about fidelity. Taking an example from music, she mentioned how the notes of an accurately tuned piano may sound fine, yet they are different from the sound that flows from a voiced piano. My take on this would be that when a pianist (translator) plays music scripted by a composer (writer), a performance focused on hitting the right notes alone would sound sterile as compared to a nuanced expressive one.

Avery used submissions from a workshop at SCBWI Japan Translation Day a few years ago to show how two translations of the same passage can sound very different. This reminded me that a translator’s reading of the original, their interpretations and choices, affect every aspect of the translation. Indeed, no two translations from workshops over the past six editions of Translation Day have given off quite the same vibes.

Having shown how translation is a highly subjective endeavor, besides reading the story in rakugo-style and asking family members for input, Avery shared how communicating with Temple Alley Summer author Sachiko Kashiwaba sometimes influences her, for example encouraging her to trim her sentences (when in doubt) to reflect Kashiwaba’s often tightly phrased emails. While Avery mentioned that Kashiwaba doesn’t write herself into her stories, this experience suggests how personal connections between the writer and translator are simply precious and can sometimes prove instrumental in fine tuning the voice, narrative or otherwise.

We had already dipped into the depths of characterization and voice in the preceding workshop with Traci Chee, and together the two sessions made me think deeper about the tools available to (re)create characters and the story world, and about the clues lying there in the pages waiting to be discovered and conveyed. For more on Traci Chee’s illuminating workshop on voice in her book, We Are Not Free, watch for Mari Boyle’s write-up at the SCBWI Japan blog.

Participants in the Voice and Character event (photo taken after Avery’s session)

How Do You Live? An Interview with Translator Bruno Navasky

By Deborah Iwabuchi, Maebashi, Japan

Bruno Navasky is the translator of How Do You Live? by Genzaburō Yoshino, a book known for (among other things) being “the first English translation of Hayao Miyazaki’s favorite children’s book.” Bruno kindly agreed to do an interview for this blog.

Deborah Iwabuchi: Hi, Bruno! On your website, you introduce yourself as “a teacher and writer in New York City.” Could you add a little to this, especially in terms of translation?

Bruno Navasky: Hi Deborah! Thanks very much for including me on your blog.

Translation has always been for me less a vocation than a constant avocation. I first encountered Japanese through a childhood friendship with the conductor Alan Gilbert. The two of us studied French and Latin together as kids, and his family took me on my first trip to Japan, where we traveled with his Japanese cousins during their summer vacation. It was an unforgettable tour, from the onsen at Hakone up to the thatched rooftops of Takayama and down to the gardens and temples of Kyoto and Nara. As we traveled, I picked up random phrases of Japanese, and I remember being struck by the many ways in which it reminded me of the Latin works I was reading at the time (SOV word order, for instance, and regular conjugations that create a surfeit of end-rhymes, and thus a tendency to syllabic verse). I was just at the close of that period when language acquisition happens with minimal effort, and I came away with a budding appreciation of Japanese culture and an abiding love for the language.

Bruno Navasky

In college I studied Japanese language and literature, and I was fortunate to study with Prof. Edwin A. Cranston, the author of A Waka Anthology. My thesis project was a book-length translation and essay on the work of Tanikawa Shuntarō, a beloved poet who emerged from the wasteland of World War II to write life-affirming poems, playful and soulful, for readers of all ages. (For many years, he also translated Charles Schultz’s comic strip Peanuts for publication in Japanese newspapers.)

After college I attended the University of Nagoya as a research fellow of the Japanese Ministry of Education. I found myself again drawn to contemporaries of my college thesis subject, the poet Tanikawa. I loved the crushingly precise portraits of parenthood and childhood in the work of Kuroda Saburō, among others, and the richly allusive, surreal and musical poems of Naka Tarō.

Deborah: Let’s talk a little about How Do You Live? It was first published in Japanese in 1937 as Kimitachi wa dō ikiru ka and was then revised after World War II to make it easier to read. It was produced as a manga in 2017, which brings us to your English translation that came out this year by Algonquin Books. Interest in this translation is being propelled by the fact that Hayao Miyazaki, the Studio Ghibli creator, read and loved the book as a child and is making it into an animated film.

Could you give blog readers an idea of what the book is about?

Bruno: I think at heart for those who love it, How Do You Live? is the story of a boy and his uncle. The boy is learning how to be himself in a challenging world, and the uncle is trying to help him find his way. The boy lives with his mother, in a Tokyo suburb of the 1930s. He has a close group of school friends and together they sail through a series of adventures and misadventures that finally carry him to the stormy seas of a great personal crisis. Or at least, so it seems to him. Throughout the book, both his friends and the adults in his life have important lessons to offer him, particularly his uncle, and those lessons form the framework for what might be considered an ethical treatise by the author Yoshino Genzaburō.

Japanese edition of How Do You Live?

Yoshino himself had been imprisoned for his progressive political associations, and hoped to craft a defense of pacifism, of independent thought, and of the humanities in the face of the rampant militarism, authoritarianism, and censorship of the period. He initially intended the book to be a textbook, one in a series he was editing with a colleague (Nihon shōkokumin bunko, with Yamamoto Yūzō), but partially because of the heavy subject matter, and partially because of the political climate, they decided it would work better as a story. When Yamamoto developed eye problems, it fell to Yoshino to write the book himself.

So in a sense, the book exists on three planes simultaneously: as a work of fiction, as a primer, and as a political broadside. The format that Yoshino hit upon to accomplish this was to interleave narrative chapters about the boy’s experience together with notes that the uncle writes in his own journal. This has the benefit of softening the edge of the didactic material, and allows Yoshino’s own voice to poke through into the story. As an educator, I was impressed with the way the narrative and didactic sections use scaffolding to reinforce concepts after they are introduced — a challenging word or concept is never tossed aside casually in this book, but rather resurfaces and is reinforced in multiple occurrences. And as a reader, as well, I think the book might have been no more than the sum of its parts if the two threads of the book, the narrative and the didactic, had not been knit together, at long last, very neatly in the final chapters, where the book really begins to pull its weight as a novel.

Deborah: I agree with this. The ending is incredibly moving. Each of the episodes in the boy Copper’s life is pulled together, and the lengthy pieces of advice by his uncle move from broad to very specific. This is where we the readers, together with Copper, are grabbed by the scruff of the neck and dragged out of our rather peaceful existences, with Yoshino demanding to know, “How are you planning to live your life?”

Manga version by Shoichi Haga

I confess that the Miyazaki connection is what grabbed my interest at first. Written in the late 1930s, I imagined this book would have a critique of Japan’s militaristic road to war as its theme, something Miyazaki has used in a number of his films. Outside of the story of Napoleon, though, How Do You Live? actually doesn’t have much about war, though war could be the elephant in the room—we can smell it and hear it stomping around without actually seeing it. I greatly appreciate your historical notes at the end of the book; they answer the questions I had as I read.

Bruno: Aside from a brief period when the censors caught up with the book, it has remained in print for nearly all of the eighty-odd years since its publication. Although Japan’s circumstances have changed, and the original text may seem dated in certain respects, the book remains a luminous portrait of Tokyo at a time when Japan was on the brink of profound social changes, a moral beacon that influenced the values of a generation and, I think, a moving story to boot. With the release of the manga version and the forthcoming film by Miyazaki, it’s again selling briskly, and catching the eye of publishers around the world.

In addition to its interest as a historical and literary document, I think the book is of particular interest in countries that are grappling with authoritarianism right now. Since the English edition has been released I have had inquiries from Turkish, Russian, and Brazilian translators. I don’t exempt the United States from this, but I also think the book is of great value to the global generation that is coming of age in a time of so much uncertainty — political and economic changes, new technologies, covid, global warming, and so on — and wondering how to live their lives in the face of it all.

Deborah: How did you get involved with it and what your experience was like?

Bruno: The American publisher, Algonquin Books, acquired the English language rights to the book after news of the manga and the Miyazaki film caught the eye of Elise Howard, an astute editor and publisher of their Young Readers books. Algonquin knew of my translation work through a previous project with a related publisher, and a contact there suggested me for Yoshino’s book, but I did have to audition for the project. I submitted an initial sample for Algonquin and then an extended sample for the Yoshino estate, which was taking great care to safeguard the integrity of the original text, and had secured certain approval rights. So my agreement with Algonquin was conditional upon approval by the estate, and I had to put in a fair amount of work in advance of the contract.

I had heard of the book, but I had never read it. As I got to know it better, I felt very lucky to have been given the opportunity to do this translation. It ticked all the boxes for me — period and genre, but it was also a work intended for readers of all ages, so it appealed to me as an educator; and in the midst of the very authoritarian Trump administration in the United States, it seemed like it might carry an essential message of resistance to brute authority and bullying. On top of all that, I have a beloved uncle, and seven young nephews who are already starting to feel the weight of the social and environmental burden we have bequeathed to them, so I could really feel the book. And finally, my father-in-law grew up in Japan during and after the war, so I felt a special appreciation for the portrait the book painted of life at that time.

Deborah: When I started reading, I felt like it was a book that could have been written eighty-five years ago. It took me back to what I was reading as a child in the 60s, which was books from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Looking back, there was a particular kind of wording that describes and savors every detail of the setting, the characters and the action. It worked to get me inside a story and keep me there, wishing I really was there. As a translator, though, I’m not sure I could have kept up so faithfully with all of those words, although I think it was absolutely the way it needed to be interpreted. Can you talk a little bit about how you adopted a style that reflected the age in which it was written?

Bruno: I was fortunate that Yoshino was so good at setting the scene: his portraits of Tokyo’s neighborhoods and street culture are so deftly detailed that I didn’t need to nail down the language to a specific decade or even a particular genre convention. I wanted to create an impression that the book came from long ago, but not too long ago. My touchstones in English were in large measure drawn from the so-called “Golden Age” of children’s literature, British authors such as E. Nesbit, Lewis Carrol, and Edwin Abbott. These were writers who were all, in one sense or another, border crossers: they moved fluidly between the real world and the world of the imagination, they easily balanced formal and informal language, and perhaps most important, they wrote for both children and adults, bringing their concerns about art, politics, philosophy, science, and even mathematics into their storytelling.

Of course, the gradations between formal and informal language are far less explicit in English than they are in Japanese, so to a certain extent I flew by the seat of my pants, moving between language of greater and lesser intimacy, and greater or lesser levels of narrative distance to try to recreate Yoshino’s gentle humor and slightly archaic tone in English. Similarly with the shifts between simple narrative and the quite technical economic, philosophical, and scientific descriptions in the uncle’s interleaved notes. Which is not to say I didn’t agonize over specifics here and there. Throughout the work I was helped by my editor at Algonquin, who maintained a clear vision that the English version needed to be coherent for younger readers, without sacrificing the unique and idiosyncratic format and style of the original.

I had such a great time doing the research for this translation, partly because of the period in which it was set and partly because of the eclectic subject matter. Ordinarily, I’d be inclined to do a first reading of the book “cold,” just to get to know it directly before touching any biographical or critical material, but because my publisher wanted some background on the author and publishing history of the book, I began with that, and then dug into the text. With poetry I’m ready to let the Japanese have its way with the English more often than not, and my first drafts are usually in very fragmented, fractured English, as close to the Japanese vocabulary and word order as I can come, because I’m more worried about getting locked into conventional English phrasing, not at all concerned about “breaking” the English, and want the draft to point back at the original as much as possible as I get to know it better. But in this case, I was very focused on the overall tone in English, and the specific voices of characters, so from the first draft I was looking for my English phrasing, and to keep the work in sync with the original I just kept really extensive notes.

Genzaburō Yoshino (used with permission from Algonquin Young Readers)

Deborah: The suggested ages for readers of How Do You Live? is ten to fourteen years. I imagine fourteen-year-old readers can digest most books, but some of the wide-ranging advice Copper’s uncle gives him was a little beyond me, although when I stuck with it, there was quite a lot to learn.

Bruno: I can’t disagree with you about that, and Yoshino himself says as much in his foreword to the book. There were also moments when I couldn’t help being irritated with this schoolbook of an uncle, and his sections reminded me at times of the proletarian literature in the years immediately preceding Yoshino, but his sincerity always won me over in the end, as did the uncle’s love for his nephew — and I do think the lessons were brilliantly selected to educate both in their eclectic fields and simultaneously as cogs in the powerful ethical argument Yoshino was building. I love the way the many disparate parts of this book seem to be in a bit of a tug of war, but then are knit together in the end. Ultimately, I think that this book may not be an ideal book for every reader (as if there were such a thing!), but it is an absolutely essential book for some special readers — those who are able to see its magic.

Deborah: I agree with you about the magic, but reading all the way to the end is the best way to find it. I do hope that readers of all ages will pick it up, and find out why Hayao Miyazaki loved it so much. I want to thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts and experience with us. Take care and we hope to see you in Japan someday.

An expanded version of this interview is available at FULL STOP: Reviews. Interviews. Marginalia.

Read more about the book on the World Kid Lit Blog.

Talking about Temple Alley Summer

By Deborah Iwabuchi, Maebashi, Japan

Avery Fischer Udagawa is the translator of a middle grade novel just out from Yonder, an imprint of Restless Books. Temple Alley Summer was written by Sachiko Kashiwaba, a well-known author in Japan. Her book The Mysterious Village Veiled in Mist influenced the Studio Ghibli movie Spirited Away.

Today, I’m talking with Avery about her work on Temple Alley Summer (TAS). In the past months, I’ve had the opportunity to do a few of these interviews. Each one brings new discoveries, and I’m enjoying it so much that I’m about ready to give up doing translation altogether and just READ translated books so I can talk to the translators about them.

TAS was thoroughly engrossing, and I sailed through the 200-plus pages. There’s no way a brief synopsis without spoilers can do it justice, but let me give it a try. What begins as a story about modern Japanese schoolchildren moves quickly into an old neighborhood legend and a mysterious statuette that can bring people back from the dead. Fifth-grade Kazu witnesses such an event and becomes privy to the truth behind Akari, a girl who suddenly appears in his class. If Akari’s story were not enough, Kazu and Akari end up in pursuit of another, older and darker fantasy, an unfinished story in a magazine that Akari read in her first life, and which Kazu is determined to find the conclusion to. The reader gets to read the story along with Kazu, and is left hanging as he searches for its author. This story within a story keeps the reader glued to the page until the very end. What happens to Akari? And what about Adi in the other story? Rest assured, all the puzzles are solved, but that’s all you’re going to get from me!

Sachiko Kashiwaba, author of Temple Alley Summer

Deborah: Avery, you were interviewed a year ago about another story by Sachiko Kashiwaba that you translated, “Firstclaw,” online at Words Without Borders. In the interview, you also talked about your impressions of TAS, so I encourage blog readers to visit that posting too.

You describe TAS as “a middle grade novel that showcases Kashiwaba’s gift for writing fairy tales, Japan-inspired fantasy, and contemporary realism, all in 52,000 engrossing words.” Can you tell me how you came to meet Kashiwaba and translate this book?

Avery: I met Sachiko Kashiwaba through translating another of her works for Tomo: Friendship Through Fiction: An Anthology of Japan Teen Stories. The opportunity to translate for Tomo and the introduction to Kashiwaba both grew out of involvement in SCBWI Japan (then called SCBWI Tokyo) and its network, and the impetus to translate TAS came from a competition connected with the Asian Festival of Children’s Content 2016. I asked the author’s permission to submit a translation of TAS to the competition and then, later, to English-language publishers.

Avery Fischer Udagawa, translator of Temple Alley Summer

Deborah: I’d like to look at the different layers of the story. The story begins with Kazu, his family, and a day at his typical Japanese school. I imagine the author wanting to bring her Japanese readers in close with a familiar setting before leading them into the supernatural. I find it difficult to translate beginnings of books that involve Japanese school life. To me, it’s always the most difficult part of a translation. The aspects of Japanese society familiar to people living here are the parts that I as a translator have difficulty explaining for non-Japan-based readers in a way that doesn’t get in the way of the original.

In this case, too, there was a certain amount of school and household terminology to get through to discover the old town map with the name Kimyō Temple—an essential plot element. After that, the story takes off. The cast of characters from Kimyō Temple Alley and the somewhat eccentric former resident, together with Kashiwaba’s fantasy, are all described—and of course translated—thoroughly and engagingly. Every time I thought I had the plot figured out, it took a step in a different direction. Any comments on parts of the translation you found more challenging, and parts that were more fun to do?

Avery: Thank you for your kind words about the translation! The opening was indeed a challenge, due to the setting’s many Japan-specific features. Young readers of English cannot be expected to know that class sections in every grade at Japanese school are numbered, or that these sections routinely subdivide into numbered small groups, or that students will remove their street shoes at school and wear indoor shoes, which they may take home during vacations. The early chapters contain many references to such details, which I needed to try to include without stopping the story to explain. It comforts me that you, too, have struggled with this! I would love to see enough Japan school stories become known in English that a bit of background knowledge can be assumed.

Another challenge, which actually arose after translating, has been conveying that religious practices and objects play a role in TAS yet do not make the story religious—just as religious activities are part of life for many people in Japan who are otherwise secular. Everyone in a community might turn up for a festival at a temple to the bodhisattva Kannon, yet not venerate Kannon otherwise. A small statuette of the Buddha might be experienced as simply a household object. A family altar, more than being a site of worship, might imply something closer to missing departed relatives.

Explaining the role of religion in Japan is hard even for scholars and for Japanese themselves. I have tried to convey that TAS unfolds in a culture that has many religious influences, which nonetheless is often nonreligious. And TAS is not a religious novel, any more than The Letter for the King and The Secrets of the Wild Wood by Tonke Dragt, translated by Laura Watkinson, are religious due to including a chapel, a monastery, a knight saying a prayer, and so on.

Deborah: This is an excellent point. As someone who has been in Japan for decades, I tend to forget about the flexibility of Japanese society when it comes to religion and how unusual it can seem.

Avery: As for especially fun parts of TAS to translate, I relished working with dialogue and narrative voice to bring out the relationships between characters. The love/hate connection between fifth-grade Kazu and his 83-year-old neighbor Ms. Minakami was fascinating to translate, because rough equivalents of their words rarely served anything like the same function in English. For example, in a spot where Kazu harps on Ms. Minakami to do something, she says urusai! to him. I could hardly render this literally as “(You’re) noisy!” because the issue is Kazu’s nagging, not his loudness. Nor could I express urusai! with the commonly used but overly blunt “Shut up!” I needed to fashion some English that preserved the level of respect a child and an elder in the same tight-knit neighborhood would show to each other, even when fighting mad. And they really do get fighting mad!

Deborah: So how did it work out in the end? What did they say to each other in English?

Avery: “Kazu. You’re driving me crazy,” she said on the phone. (かずくん、うるさい!)

“Crazy is as crazy does…” [Kazu] replied. (自業自得ってやつです。)

Deborah: Well done! Both the difficult-to-translate urusai (drive me crazy) and jigō-jitoku (crazy is as crazy does) with one fell swoop.

Avery: The embedded tale within TAS, “The Moon Is On the Left,” also offered many interesting passages to translate, including a dramatic scene with rockfalls, flames, volleys of arrows, and lightning bolts indoors! My daily life doesn’t afford many chances to say rockfalls.

Deborah: One thing I liked about TAS was the fact that it WASN’T written in five volumes—when it very well could have been. On the other hand, there are a few aspects that I’m left wondering about and that I wouldn’t mind visiting in a sequel. What happened to the Kimyō Temple statuette? Did Akari’s first-life mother ever find out she came back to life? Are there any aspects you wanted to know more about, and has Kashiwaba written any other books to follow?

Deborah Iwabuchi and Avery Fischer Udagawa

Avery: Sachiko Kashiwaba has not published a sequel to TAS; I, like you, would certainly love to read more, especially about Akari’s former mother Ms. Ando. At the same time, I appreciate that certain things remain a mystery, and I too like that the book stands alone.

Kashiwaba has gone on to publish a number of other works, including the young adult/adult novel Misaki no mayoiga (The Abandoned House by the Cape), which takes place during and after the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011. This book has recently been made into a play, and it is also the basis of an anime movie to be released in Japan in August 2021.

Kashiwaba’s other recent works include several fantasy novels, an adaptation of the beloved Tōno monogatari folk legends, and volumes in her long-running Monster Hotel series—rollicking early readers that bring together yokai and western-style monsters.

People interested in her earlier works can check out the film Spirited Away, influenced by her debut novel The Marvelous Village Veiled in Mist; and the film The Wonderland, based on another early book. We also have a blog post here at Ihatov with excerpts from a workshop that drew on her 2010 novel Tsuzuki no toshokan (The “What’s-Next” Library).

Deborah: The titles alone are fascinating! Thanks for sharing this book and your experiences with it, Avery. I hope we’ll be seeing more of Kashiwaba in translation before too long. Meanwhile, I’m heading out to look for rockfalls.

Creative Exchange Featuring Translators!

By Deborah Iwabuchi, Maebashi, Japan

SCBWI Japan had a Creative Exchange on Friday, May 14, 2021. Below is a picture of all the participants. It was exciting to see the diversity of (fascinating and brilliant!) ongoing projects. Along with English books, we had several works by non-Japanese being written in Japanese. One book was entirely illustrations—suitable for universal readership.

Pertinent to this blog, three projects were Japanese-to-English translations being pursued on spec. Let’s take a look at them.

Amy Lange Kawamura is translating Kaeru Fukushima by Yasushi Yanai, published by Poplar, for the SCBWI translation contest. This nonfiction children’s story is about frogs endangered due to the nuclear disaster in Fukushima after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, as well as about the people who left the prefecture and have yet to return. Amy asked the group for ideas on the book’s English title. The word kaeru in Japanese can mean both “frog” and “go home,” and frogs are typically used in Japanese messages about—going home. The question for this title was which nuances should be retained to draw interest to the book.

Avery Udagawa is translating portions of DIVE!! by Eto Mori, published by Kadokawa Shoten. The YA novel is about a struggling diving club whose future hangs on whether or not it can produce Olympic contenders. The story begins with the arrival of a new female coach. Much to the dismay of her teenage charges, she starts off by rejecting the athletes’ forms and not even letting them in the water. Avery’s concern was the format of her excerpt. Japanese books often have very short paragraphs, and Dive!! ends one chapter with a string of them only a line long each. She also asked the group for comments on her interpretations of teenage conversations.

Holly Thompson’s latest translation is Chibi ryū (Tiny Dragon) by Naoko Kudo, published by Doshinsha. Here’s Holly’s description of the work: “A lyrical story of a newborn water dragon that befriends, questions and learns from all sorts of living beings until large enough to cradle and love the world.” The narrative’s opening is accompanied and encouraged by a choir of mosquitoes chanting ara yoi yoi! and hoi sassa! Holly wanted to know how the group felt about leaving the untranslatable chanting in the original language and what it might add to the story.

A GLLI Video Interview with Cathy Hirano

By Andrew Wong, Tokyo

The global pandemic has forced events online and deprived excellent books of much needed opportunities for promotion. So when the Global Literature in Libraries Initiative announced the winners of its 2021 Translated YA Book Prize and gave 2020 co-winner Cathy Hirano the chance to talk about her translations of The Beast Player and The Beast Warrior, I tuned in to watch her interview (accessible from here) with David Jacobson, introduced by Annette Goldsmith.

Cathy drew on her long career to share her insights into literary translation. For her work with Nahoko Uehashi, she related how Uehashi herself commissioned the entire translation of a Moribito title instead of just a sample, which demonstrated her understanding that the power of that story could only be seen when presented in its entirety. Talking at length about their work together, Cathy also appreciated how Uehashi is flexible, tweaking her work for dramatization and other adaptations, and often engaging deeply to help others convey her work. Cathy would probably be quick to concur that her excellent translations are in part down to what I perceived to be her deeply satisfying collaborative relationship with Uehashi, which in turn contributed to Uehashi clinching the 2014 Hans Christian Andersen Award for Writing.

The conversation also touched on adding information to build cultural bridges—or not—for example, by leaving foreign words as-is, like Toda for the lizards bred for battle, while choosing Royal Beast over Ōjū, which didn’t sound quite so magnificent in English. That Uehashi’s fantasy worlds had to be shaped by the original text meant less bridging work than stories set in specific periods in history.

US editions of The Beast Player and The Beast Warrior (Holt), illustrated by Yuta Onoda

Turning to the themes in the Beast titles, Cathy notes that while Uehashi draws on her background in cultural anthropology to weave complex multicultural relationships in a fantasy world, just as she did for the Moribito series, romance only appears in fleeting episodes. The momentum stays very much in the tussles with power and with the fear and control of the unfamiliar other. While I was particularly drawn to Elin’s development under the guidance of her mentors Joeun and Esalu in The Beast Player, it was intriguing to hear both David and Cathy note the parallel in the political relationships between the symbolic ruler Yojeh and her protectors, and that of Japan and the US in the real world, although Uehashi was leaning more towards an exploration of the situation internally in Japan. Perhaps my reading as a Singaporean was partly what made me simply join Elin and her young family in their flight in the second title, struggling together with them to find the light in a dense tangle of relationships. Then, Elin’s bond with Leelan, a Royal Beast she had cared for since nursing her back to health as a cub, steeled her to do what she had to in the final maelstrom.

As the interview drew to a close, Cathy made the translator in me smile when she said she found great satisfaction from knowing her work helped someone else experience a book the same way she did. By taking the time to highlight this second fascinating epic from the collaborative duo of Nahoko Uehashi and Cathy Hirano, GLLI too has opened more doors to worlds of the other, and extended an invitation to the conversation on translated works for children and young adults.

Every Color of Light: An Interview with Translator David Boyd

By Deborah Iwabuchi, Maebashi, Japan

Deborah Iwabuchi: Hi David, thanks for agreeing to interview for our blog. Since you’re not an SCBWI “regular,” let me introduce you as an assistant professor of Japanese at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. You’ve recently translated a couple of novellas by Hiroko Oyamada, and also co-translated fiction by Mieko Kawakami with Sam Bett.

Today we’re going to talk about your translation of Every Color of Light, written by Hiroshi Osada (1938–2015) and illustrated by Ryoji Arai. It was originally published as Sora no ehon, or A Picture Book About the Sky. Arai’s illustrations of a rainy day in a forest are accompanied by Osada’s rhythmical descriptions of the changing scene. The rain begins, gets harder and harder, and then thunder and lightning—every shift changing the colors we see. Finally, the rain subsides, the sun comes out, and night falls. The final illustration is of the moon reflected in the forest pond. Osada was a prominent and prolific author, essayist and translator. Arai is a world-renowned writer and illustrator of books for children. It must have been exciting to work on this book.  Can you tell me a little about how you ended up in children’s lit and translating this book?

David Boyd: Thanks, Deborah. Translating children’s books was something I’d wanted to do for years before I had the chance. For me, the biggest draw was how much attention seems to be given to every decision. Fewer words on the page tends to mean more thought per word. All of my experience in translating books for children so far has been with Enchanted Lion Books. I wonder if other publishers of children’s lit are as careful with their work… I can’t say for sure.

My first book with ELB was What What What (Arata Tendo and Ryoji Arai), which came out in 2017. It’s about a child named Pan who never stops asking questions. At first, the constant questions bother everybody, but in the end Pan’s persistence saves the day. When Claudia Bedrick (ELB) and I were working on What What What, we gave the book the time it deserved. As you know, there are many kinds of editor-translator relationships. When Claudia and I were working on this book, it was very clear to me that this was a relationship that I would want to sustain going forward. Every one of our collaborations since then has been equally satisfying, at least for me.

Since What What What, I’ve worked with ELB on four books in Kaya Doi’s Chirri and Chirra series, Kiyo Tanaka’s Little One (forthcoming), and one other book by Osada and Arai: Almost Nothing, Yet Everything (forthcoming).

All of my experiences with ELB have been extremely positive. On a fundamental level, I think this has to do with the fact that Claudia is a translator herself (from French).

Deborah: So it sounds as though you have a good working relationship with both the publisher/editor you work with. From a translator’s viewpoint, it sounds like an ideal situation.

David: It is. Claudia and I have discussed every book we’ve done, line by line, almost always over the phone. Sometimes this means multiple calls at various stages in the translation process. I can’t tell you how many great solutions have come from this. Email is convenient, to be sure, but it’s nice to be able to actually hear each other.

Most recently, with Almost Nothing, Yet Everything, Claudia and I had a few calls at various points to go over the text in detail. We gave a lot of thought, for example, to the line “inochi no oshikko” (something like “the pee of life”) that appears toward the end of the story. Over a period of months, we came up with several different ways to translate around the idea, before finally deciding that direct was probably the best way to go.

I’m happy to have an editor who’s willing to think about something until it’s actually perfect, or at least perfect to us. With children’s books in particular, it’s important to think about every aspect of the text. You have to give a lot of thought to how the translation agrees with the art and so on.

Deborah: You said “fewer words on the page tends to mean more thought per word,” and you sent me two versions of your translation of Every Color of Light. I wish I could print it all here along with the final version. The process through the revisions is a thing of beauty, where so many things change while remaining true to what the author is saying. 

David: I’m so happy to hear you say that. It’s the sort of book that could have been translated in several different ways. The different drafts that I came up with weren’t completely different, but they definitely called attention to different elements in the story. Repetition is something we often think about when translating from Japanese, and there’s a good deal of repetition in Osada’s poetry. In the final version, I think we found the best way to be faithful to that.

Deborah: Osada’s original uses the word だんだん dandan (gradually, or slowly) over and over. You could pat a child on the arm or the back as you read it each time, and that rhythm would most likely put them to sleep. I see that you translated dandan as “slowly” and used it faithfully in your first translation. By the time you get to the final version, there is a greater variety of words, many that, in English have the same rhythmical, soothing effect as dandan. On one page, a series of dandan dandan is completely replaced by “pitter-patter, pitter-patter,” which has a similar effect as a read-aloud word.

David: That’s right. We decided that it was fine to use a variety of words for dandan, as long as we could keep the strong sense of rhythm. That was our biggest concern.

Deborah: Can you tell me some more about the editing process?

David: There weren’t many changes made between the early drafts and the published version of the book, but I think most of the changes that were made related to one big decision about how to handle the book’s art.

When the artwork for the book was sent to ELB, they loved everything that was happening outside of the frame: Arai’s scribbles, splotches and sketch lines. In the English version, they removed the frame so that readers could see everything that went into making Arai’s art. Along with this came the idea to include Osada’s poetry below Arai’s art rather than over it. In the Japanese, there were usually four lines of writing per two pages, but we ended up going with (as a rule) one line per page. In my opinion, this plays out very well in the English version. It allows the text to slow down a little. It also does something to liberate Arai’s art.

Deborah: At this point I had to put David on hold and run to my local brick-and-mortar book store to get a copy of the Japanese version. The contrast was amazing. Here are a couple of photos illustrating what David has described above.

(You’ve got to remember that I’m a translator and not a photographer) The colors are very deep in the original, but in the English version the pages are larger and we get every bit of the original painting, including the shading and borders, with a single line of text below each page rather than a number of lines on one or two pages of a spread.

David, I agree with your comment about it “liberating” Arai’s art. Reading through the whole book, I can see why this change in the art had such a big influence on the written part of the book. You might feel that there is a risk of limiting what you could actually say, but that obviously has not been the case. I think the text might also be somewhat “liberated” by dividing it in half and using just the single line. On this page, the four lines of Japanese are two separate lines of English:

Raindrops drip from the leaves.

Sparkling like crystals, they fall to the ground.

The separation seems to increase the drama of what is turned into two completely different “actions” of the raindrops.

David: You’re absolutely right. I think that both versions have a lot to offer. They’re the same book, but remarkably different in certain ways.

Deborah: I also want to ask about the covers. The cover for the Japanese version has a daylight sky, and the English version has a nighttime sky. Why the difference?

David: Right, that’s a great point about day and night. Those two halves come together to create the full experience of the book. I didn’t participate in that part of the process (choosing the cover), but I think that ELB made a great decision. The book follows a path from rain to storm to calm. It’s a lullaby. At the same time, I love how the book turns up the volume (i.e., the storm) before ultimately turning it down. Anyway, I see the book as a nighttime read. That being the case, it’s probably best to have a soothing cover in quieter colors. Of course, each cover is stunning in its own way, isn’t it?

Deborah: Indeed they are! Thanks for taking the time to share your experiences with SCBWI Japan.

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

 

Exploring a Picture Book on Momofuku Ando, Inventor of Instant Ramen

By Andrew Wong, Tokyo

Translators of Japanese children’s literature often find they have much to learn from authors and illustrators of Japan-related books—as Andrew Wong learned at an event on instant noodles.

Earlier this month, SCBWI Japan invited author Andrea Wang and illustrator Kana Urbanowicz to talk about the making of the picture book Magic Ramen: The Story of Momofuku Ando. We were treated to an intriguing manifold back story, if you like, about persistence and how translation was very much integral to this story of a Japanese invention, which continues to evolve and fill hungry stomachs across the world, even in space!

Counterclockwise from above: Andrea Wang, Kana Urbanowicz, Mateus Urbanowicz

Andrea started the online session by mentioning how her background in environmental science and educational publications led to an interest in biographies and how her curiosity about who had invented instant ramen eventually led to the creation of the book. For Magic Ramen, she wanted to highlight the scientific approach that Ando, who had no culinary training, took to inventing instant ramen from scratch. However, instead of making it into something overly didactic, Andrea intended for the story to show, not tell, readers the scientific method at work.

But before all of that fell into place, she had struggled to find an emotional core for the story in the academic research on Taiwan-born Ando. Things changed when she received a pleasant surprise in the mail from someone at Nissin—an English copy of Ando’s autobiography. Andrea had had no luck looking for a retail copy of this English publication, because it had been distributed only internally at the company. It was in this translation that she found what the story needed—Ando had wanted to create a quick, warm, nutritious meal for hungry people after seeing the long ramen queue in a black market on a cold night in post-war Osaka.

Image of post-war ramen queue by Kana Urbanowicz

Having found the heart of Ando’s ramen story, Andrea paced Ando’s struggle to show his perseverance and scientific approach to making noodles. When Ando finally created instant ramen, the sakura were in full bloom, a scene that was also described in the autobiography. If you watch Andrea’s read aloud video, you will realize that the story goes on to show Ando selling his product and filling the stomachs of children, adults, and even royalty. With the manuscript ready, of course, more persistence was needed to find a publisher ready to take on a story behind one of the world’s best-selling inventions. While authors do not normally have much say in the choice of illustrator, Andrea specifically wanted a Japanese illustrator for this project.

After the manuscript was acquired by Little Bee Books, it was left to illustrator Kana Urbanowicz to tell the story in pictures. The Shin-Yokohama Ramen Museum in Yokohama and a copy of the Japanese version of Ando’s autobiography provided visual references for Kana regarding the Osaka black market and Ando’s family. As is often the case in U.S. publishing, the illustrator had little to no direct communication with the author about the manuscript. In fact, this SCBWI Japan event was the first time Andrea and Kana spoke to one another!

Some participants in the Magic Ramen event

For Magic Ramen, both the author and the illustrator shared a valuable resource—Ando’s autobiography—which seemed to act as a mental bridge between them. On the few occasions when they did communicate through the publisher, for instance when Kana asked for a visual reference of Ando and the illustrator note on the sakura scene, it was not surprising that both referred back to the autobiography!

In terms of design and visual storytelling technique, multiple diagonal panels were employed to give a sense of the passing of time and progress in Ando’s trial-and-error process, while the front and back inside covers are another demonstration of fun and wit. And so after about five years, not uncommon for non-fiction picture books, Magic Ramen hit the bookstores.

At this event, illustrators would have noted that language and accessibility played a significant part in helping Little Bee Books find Kana, whose English website and loop animation of a boy deliciously devouring ramen were huge factors in her favor. (We also learned that she got some help from her husband Mateus Urbanowicz, who is an illustrator too.) Translators would have noted that they might one day find themselves in a similar situation to their fellow creative professionals—long waits between editorial feedback and (sometimes) little to no contact with the original author.

This session provided a precious inside look at the motivations and choices made in the creation of Magic Ramen, particularly the story’s focus, the pacing and portrayal of Ando’s scientific process, and the visual cues in the illustrations. Since translators do not normally work with agents, I was encouraged by how Andrea’s individual persistence and perseverance had eventually led to such a heart-warmingly satisfying serving of the science behind the invention of instant ramen.

For a second helping of reflection on this event, tuck into Noodling about Noodles by SCBWI Japan author member Mari Boyle.

The World’s Poorest President Speaks Out in The Linguist

By Avery Fischer Udagawa, Bangkok

Andrew Wong, translator from Japanese of the picture book THE WORLD’S POOREST PRESIDENT SPEAKS OUT, has an article about the translation process in the February/March 2021 issue of The Linguist. Free to read online—go to page 22!