Archive for the ‘Translator Interviews’ Category

A Chat about The Cat Who Saved Books

by Andrew Wong, Tokyo, Japan

I gladly interviewed Louise Heal Kawai about The Cat Who Saved Books, her translation of a fascinating tale of a boy, a bookshop, and a cat, authored by Sosuke Natsukawa.

LouiseHealKawai

Louise Heal Kawai, translator of The Cat Who Saved Books

Andrew: Let’s start with how you came to translate The Cat Who Saved Books. Did you pitch it to a publisher?

Louise: Well I must admit that I didn’t pitch The Cat Who Saved Books. First of all, I was asked by an agent to do a sample translation in order to sell the rights. In case readers of this article are interested in those kinds of details, it was the Japanese publisher who paid me for the sample. It was quite a long one – the whole of Chapter 1 (not including the preface).

The agent kindly let me know who bought the rights, and I followed up with a couple of emails until finally they asked me to be the translator. In the past, I have had bad luck being asked to translate a book after doing a sample. In fact, woeful luck. I think this is the first time it ever worked out for me.

Andrew: That’s something I’ve heard before – being engaged for a sample translation doesn’t mean you eventually get to translate the entire work.

Louise: I have learned never to expect to be asked to do a translation after doing the sample. I do my best to follow up on contacts with publishers, if I can find out who buys the rights. I have had my heart broken many times, but I was persistent with this title and it eventually paid off.

Andrew: Persistence does pay (this time)! What did you feel reading the original? And what did you wish to convey in your translation?

Louise: I most wanted to convey the visuals that are so important in the original. My goal was to have the reader caught up in the quests as if they were there themselves. Whirling paper, booming music, falling books, the visuals were essential to capture. (I hope I was successful.)

Another important aspect of the novel is the author’s thoughts on books and reading. Rintaro, the cat, and particularly Rintaro’s grandfather all express ideas on the topic of reading which I guessed (correctly) would be quoted in numerous reviews. The original Japanese was beautifully stated so I had to be sure that I translated these phrases in a way that would appeal to the English language reader, hopefully sticking in their mind. I tried to take extra care with the wording. Again, I hope I was successful.

A word about “Books have a soul.” Of course the original Japanese was “心” (kokoro).  I felt neither mind nor heart were quite right here. I liked “soul” in this image of a reader leaving something in a book. It felt richer somehow.

Books have a soul.… 

a book that has been cherished and loved, filled with human thoughts,

has been endowed with a soul.”

Andrew: The atmospheres in both the bookshop and the labyrinths certainly drew me into the story, and that quote is an idea that I thought book readers would like to pass down to someone, like how Rintaro’s grandfather passed it on to him. When I went off to my local library, I found the Japanese original next to Natsukawa’s Kamisama no Karute series in the regular fiction section, not the YA section. It’s not uncommon to find young protagonists in novels written for adults in Japan, and it seems that he might have intended The Cat for an older audience. Did that impact your translation?

Louise: The issue of YA versus adult is interesting. Picador (UK) and HarperVia (US) were clear that they didn’t want to package it as a YA book. Both large publishers have YA imprints and it wasn’t those who had bought the rights, so perhaps the reason was as simple as that? Reviewers seem to be divided on the issue. I personally felt because of its subject matter (teens, hikikomori, friendship, adventure “quests”) that it was very YA. However I didn’t aim my language at any particular readership and just sought to translate the Japanese in the voices that I heard in it.

Andrew: As a nice segue into the voices in the book, I wanted to applaud your translation of “二代目” as “Mr. Proprietor” – it’s simply quite brilliant!

Louise: First of all – thank you. I found “二代目” (2nd generation) a challenge to translate. Obviously a direct translation wasn’t going to do it. I thought about the cat’s voice and the level of the language it used, and “Mr. Proprietor” came to me. It manages to say everything that the original does about the cat’s intentions for Rintaro, as well as being slightly sarcastic.

TheCatWhoSavedBooks

The UK edition and the original Japanese text

Andrew: The ginger cat, Tiger, who sits atop a pile of books on the English cover, along with Rintaro and Sayo are the three main voices/characters in the story. I just love Tiger’s voice. It reminds me of a certain sharp-witted lasagne-loving feline from a famous comic strip. What were your references for the style and tone of voice? What about the three men of the labyrinths – the collector of books, reader of books, and the bookseller – who were quite similar, yet unique, characters?

Louise: Well, I didn’t think of Garfield, although I know who he is. I haven’t read many of those comic strips. The thing I took most into account was the fact that (real) cats always seem a little arrogant and do exactly as they want. The voice was tough and not particularly kind in the original – telling Rintaro some uncomfortable truths. I was careful not to make it obviously British or American, so I purposely combined a little British sounding pomposity with a bit of the image of a wisecracking New Yorker from a whole slew of American sitcoms/dramas.

By the way, although I wrote in my translator’s note at the end that I had deliberately not given the cat a gender as the original never specifies, it was obvious from the language that the cat was supposed to be male. I also used that note to explain more about the phenomenon of hikikomori to readers.

About the translator’s note, I have asked many publishers if I may include one (and it’s usually declined) but this time I was offered the chance by the publisher so I jumped at it.

Andrew: The theme of hikikomori stays quietly in the background, so I certainly appreciated your note at the end of the book. Back to the story, Rintaro and his love for books and knowledge of their stories helps him debunk fundamental flaws in their reasoning, changing their relationships with books. As I read, I could not help but think of my own relationship with books. Am I done with a story after reading it once? Do I have the time and energy to read an entire book again? And what of those bestseller rankings and the talk of money and books?

Louise: I felt guilty about my own reading habits. I rarely re-read books myself and I wondered if perhaps I should. I wondered if I was the first opponent from the first labyrinth just getting through as many as possible. But the worst thing was the comments about storage of books. I would be ashamed to show my bookshelves to Rintaro for sure. So many improperly displayed books!! I think that the author’s depiction of the bookseller skewered the publishing industry rather perfectly and a little cruelly.

Andrew: And so we can imagine the bookseller in the third labyrinth rubbing his hands in glee with The Cat – it says “The International Bestseller” on the cover. Do you know how well it’s actually doing?

Louise: The UK edition might have been a little premature with that claim, but it is subsequently true. Before English I knew it had been translated into Italian, Turkish and possibly Chinese. Rights to about 30 languages were sold after Frankfurt in 2019 (including English) but since the English translation was published the number has now grown to rights sold or translations already out in 38 languages. There’s about to be a Croatian version done in relay translation from my English translation. (Andrew: Hooray!)

Andrew: And did it travel from the UK to the US? Or was it vice versa?

Louise: I was hired by the UK publisher but the US publisher was in a hurry to get their edition out before Christmas 2021 so their editor joined in when we were in the editing process. At first I was nervous that there might be too many conflicting ideas, but in the end it was great to have the double input.

Andrew: I’ve seen US and UK editions of some titles around and noticed some subtle changes, but I would really like to hear how things were tweaked for the two editions.

Louise: Changes made for the US edition were minimal – mostly spelling changes and some obvious vocabulary such as “senior” rather than “final year of high school” and “paraffin” for “kerosene”. We decided together not to change “bookshop” to “bookstore” as apparently the word has currency in the US for a smaller kind of shop such as Natsuki Books. I was so happy with that decision.

The Cat was the first time I had the opportunity to work on a US edition, and I had the final say on the edition, which I usually don’t.

I must mention that the ginger tabby on top of the pile of books is just the UK cover. I like it a lot but the US cover deserves a mention as it is by famed artist Yuko Shimizu and is gorgeous.

TheCatWhoSavedBooks--original

The cover of the US edition by award-winning artist Yuko Shimizu – from Louise’s SCBWI page

Andrew: Yes it is! And it’s nice to know you had the final say on the text of the US edition this time. To wrap up, do you have anything in the works?

Louise: I don’t have any children’s or YA titles in the works but Death on Gokumon Island by Seishi Yokomizo (the second book in Kosuke Kindaichi detective series) will be released at the end of June 2022. Another title by Hideo Yokoyama by the end of the year, and I’m currently working on two more classic crime novels.

Andrew: End of June 2022 is not far away! Thank you again for sharing your story with The Cat with us!

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

 

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 COLORFUL

by Holly Thompson, Kamakura, Japan

I’m always eager to read middle-grade and young adult novels that present teen struggles and real-life challenges in fresh ways, so I was eagerly awaiting the English-language publication of Colorful. At last, another YA novel translated from Japanese into English! AND a timeless novel with complex characters that takes a probing look at universal issues of shifting relationships with family, peers and society at large through humor, fantasy and unforgettable voice.

Today I’m pleased to be in conversation with translator Jocelyne Allen about her recently published translation of the bestselling novel Colorful by Eto Mori (Counterpoint Press, 2021). Eto Mori is the acclaimed Japanese novelist of award-winning children’s and YA books, including the novels Rizumu (Rhythm), Tsuki no fune (Moon Ship), the four-book series Daibu!! (Dive!!), and Kaze ni maiagaru biniru shito (Plastic Sheet Soaring in the Wind), which won the Naoki Prize.

Holly: Colorful was first published in Japan in 1998 to great acclaim, making it the third novel of celebrated novelist Eto Mori to win a juvenile literature award. Three films and a musical have been created from this novel that has sold over a million copies in Japan. When did you first learn about Colorful and how? Had you read any Eto Mori novels before translating Colorful?

Jocelyne Allen

Jocelyne: I can’t remember the first time I heard of the novel. It seemed to be one of those things floating in the cultural air, especially since I moved to Japan not long after it was published. I hadn’t actually read any of Mori’s novels before translating Colorful, although I had read a number of her short stories, and I had her novel Mikazuki sitting on my shelf waiting to be read.

Holly: You keep such a busy schedule translating manga and light novels, including the translations of Onward Toward Your Noble Deaths by Shigeru Mizuki, many volumes of What did you Eat Yesterday by Fumi Yoshinaga, Akino Kondoh’s graphic shorts on Words Without Borders, to name just a few, and your publication list is many pages long. So how did you end up translating Colorful? Were you approached? Or did you approach the Japanese publisher (Bungeishunju)? And did you suggest this book to Counterpoint Press? Could you tell us about the path to translation for this novel and your involvement?

Jocelyne: I was actually approached by my editor at Counterpoint Press, Yukiko Tominaga. She’s a huge fan of the novel and was really the driving force behind this project. I’ve had a relationship with the Japanese publisher for a number of years, and when Counterpoint licensed the title from Bungeishunju, they suggested that Counterpoint get in touch with me and see if I was available to do the translation. Yukiko also liked my work on another Bungeishunju book, A Small Charred Face by Kazuki Sakuraba, so she emailed and asked if I’d be interested in doing a sample translation for them. I said yes, translated a sample of about thirty pages, sent that to Yukiko, she presented it to her editorial board, and they decided they liked my sample enough to go ahead with the translation.

Holly: The title of the novel is カラフル (Karafuru) in Japanese and Colorful in English. Sometimes titles are changed for English-language publications, yet this title would seem to be a given. Was there ever any question about the English-language title?

Jocelyne: I don’t think there was, actually. I never brought the question up, anyway, and in all my conversations with the publisher, there was an underlying assumption that the title of the book would also be Colorful in English.

Holly: Your name appears on the book’s cover—hooray for #NameTheTranslator! Did you request this or is this standard practice for Counterpoint?

Jocelyne: Hooray for #NameTheTranslator! I did in fact request this. The original contract Counterpoint sent stipulated that my name would appear on the title page and the copyright page, but there was nothing about it being on the cover. So I said that I’d like the cover to be added to the list of places where my name appears, and they agreed right away. I didn’t have to fight for it exactly, but I did have to ask.

Holly: The premise of the story is that the narrator has won a lottery of sorts. After a serious mistake in a previous life, the protagonist has been assigned to borrow ninth-grader Makoto Kobayashi’s body for a temporary “homestay” of several months. This novel manages to dive into serious topics of bullying, anxiety, family stress, betrayal and suicidality. Yet this is managed with the deft use of humor plus elements of fantasy via the wise-cracking angel Prapura who appears now and then to offer background hints about the life of Makoto whose body the protagonist inhabits, and to chide and guide him. The story builds in unexpected ways and the ending absolutely resonates. I certainly hope this book will reach many English-speaking readers worldwide. What in particular do you think/hope will appeal to readers outside Japan?

Jocelyne: The themes of the book are so universal, even if a lot of the details aren’t. I think readers around the world can relate to being that age, to trying so hard to figure things out and yet messing up spectacularly. My hope is that readers will leave the book with a feeling of forgiveness toward themselves. They might be a mess, but we all are, even if we don’t look it. I think that’s a lesson that resonates wherever you are in the world and whatever language you grew up speaking.

Holly: Many scenes of Colorful take place in a Japanese middle school where Makoto is a 3rd year student (grade 9). Scenes are set in classrooms, the art room, soccer, on the school roof, and there are entrance exams—were there any translation challenges? Did you need to sneak in some context for English-speaking readers, and if so, can you offer some examples?

Jocelyne: So many translation challenges! I think the most difficult one was the entrance exams and that whole system. I tend to translate relying on the reader’s intelligence, so I don’t gloss all that much. I think for the most part, readers can figure out what something is and don’t need to be coddled. So the fact of entrance exams themselves wasn’t all that hard. Just make it clear that there are exams students need to take to get into high school and that these exams are a big deal, and readers will take that as part of this world they’re walking into. But implicit in the idea of entrance exams for a Japanese reader is the whole “shingaku” system. The difference between public and private schools is also well known and doesn’t need to be explained in a novel like this for a Japanese reader. But English readers have no idea about this system of education, so I had to massage a lot of the school references to include information about cost and the like, so that English readers could understand Makoto’s dilemma about exams and schools in a similar way as Japanese readers. Everything related to Makoto going to high school was a definite challenge.

Holly: For a book about teens that was published over twenty years ago, Colorful feels timeless. Granted, no cell phones appear in the novel, and there is a moment when the Heisei Era is mentioned, but otherwise, the story feels quite contemporary. As you translated did you aim to contemporize language or content in any way?

Jocelyne: I honestly didn’t. The book Mori wrote is really that timeless. That said, I wasn’t particularly conscious about avoiding anachronistic language like I would be with a novel that was more a product of its time. I tried to keep the same neutrality in terms of slang and other things that the original Japanese has. I think the only thing I updated slightly was the boots that Makoto ordered. In the original, he “mail” orders them, but I translated that as he “ordered” them to leave the where and the how of the ordering ambiguous. Deliberately insisting on the “mail” part would only raise questions in the reader’s mind that weren’t intended by Mori, especially given that we use the same word to refer to ordering things online now.

Eto Mori

Holly: The voices of the various characters—Makoto, his family members, the unpredictable Prapura, classmates Hiroka, Shoko and Saotome—are all distinct and add to the richness of the novel. Which of the voices were the most challenging or interesting to translate and why?

Jocelyne: Hiroka was the most challenging without a doubt. Instead of using the personal pronoun “I”, she speaks in this cutesy way of referring to herself by her first name. So “Hiroka wants” or “Hiroka thinks”, etc. It’s a thing that little kids do, and sometimes young women do it to sound cute and flirtatious. But obviously, it’s weird to refer to yourself by your own name in English, so I had to figure out how to capture the cutesy flirtatiousness of this in other ways.

Prapura was also a fun voice to try and sort out. He talks pretty casually on earth but very polite up in the heavens. Makoto even remarks on this change in register, so it was important to actually convey it in the translation. But English is less obvious about register, so it was a bit of a trick to make the difference obvious without hitting readers over the head with it.

Holly: Interestingly, Counterpoint Press states on their website that they do not publish YA or children’s literature, yet Colorful won the Sankei Children’s Book Award in 1999, and Colorful is solidly YA according to standard English-language publisher categorizations. I hope that this translation of Colorful will reach both YA and adult audiences, don’t you? I imagine that publishers in the U.S. would suggest this book for readers age 14 and up. Do you know if or how Counterpoint is marketing Colorful to the YA audience? to readers in North America? And, if you could share a few words to recommend this novel to teen readers and YA librarians, what would you say?

Jocelyne: I do hope the book reaches audiences of all ages. Right from the start, we were thinking of Colorful as an all-ages kind of thing because it really does have the power to speak to both YA and adult audiences. As I mentioned earlier, the themes really are universal, and you don’t have to be a teenager to relate to Makoto and his struggle. From what I understand, Counterpoint is marketing it to both YA and adult audiences, sending the book out for review to places like School Library Journal and similar publications geared toward librarians and educators.

If I were to recommend the book to anyone, I think I would quote the conversation between Makoto and Hiroka:

“Everyone’s messed up. We’re all normal and messed up.”

“It’s not just me?”

“It’s not just you.”

Colorful is funny and hopeful in a way that doesn’t deny or reject the idea that life can be and often is really hard. But it reassures readers that they’re not alone. And honestly, I think that’s a great thing for a book to be able to do.

Holly: Have you had the chance to meet or read side by side with author Eto Mori?

Jocelyne: I have! Of course with the pandemic, everything is virtual, but I met with Mori and her editor when we were getting ready to release the book, and we’ve done a few events together as well. I interpreted for her appearance at the International Festival of Authors here in Toronto, as well as a launch event this summer hosted by the Japan Foundation Los Angeles, and we’ll be doing a couple other events toward the end of the year.

Holly: The Counterpoint edition of the novel includes a beautiful afterword by author Eto Mori in which she states that “Teenagers in Japan have such difficult lives both now and then,” meaning when the book was first published in 1998. She writes: “I chose to write about a serious subject with a comical touch, I chose to depict it lightly. I wanted kids who liked reading and those who didn’t to have fun with it to start. I wanted them to laugh and roll their eyes at and relate to everything the characters did. I wanted them to enter the world of the book and be free of their everyday lives. And then, when they closed the book at the end, I wanted the weight on their hearts to be just a little lighter.” This is such a moving afterword, and this book feels like a hug to teens everywhere. Did Counterpoint reach out to Eto Mori for this afterword? Did you? Was this planned from the beginning?

Jocelyne: It really is such a moving and thoughtful afterword! Counterpoint reached out to her for it, and as far as I know, it was planned from the beginning.

Holly: There are so few Japanese middle-grade and YA novels translated into English. Are you planning to translate more Japanese MG or YA literature? (We hope so!)

Jocelyne: I would love to translate more YA into English! But it’s a hard sell for publishers. Light novels are similarly YA (albeit fantasy for the most part), and these are a lot easier to sell right now with manga and anime tie-ins and adaptations. A YA novel without that anime connection faces a hard battle toward translation into English.

Holly: Thank you so much and I hope that Colorful reaches many readers around the world!

Jocelyne: Thank you! I’m so happy Colorful has already found its way into the hearts of so many readers. It’s honestly so gratifying.

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.

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

 

Interview with Michael Blaskowsky, Translator of Sato the Rabbit

By Andrew Wong, Tokyo

The English version of Sato the Rabbit launches in the US today, nearly 15 years since Yuki Ainoya’s delightful picture book of a boy having adventures dressed like a rabbit was first published in Japan. I caught up with translator Michael Blaskowsky, a self-styled digital nomad, as he hopped across Wifi networks across the Pacific to find out more.

Translator Michael Blaskowsky with the Japanese title that started it all

Andrew (A): Hello Michael, thanks for joining us, and happy book birthday to Sato the Rabbit! For a start, how did you come across this book?

Michael (M): Seattle, oddly enough, was where my wife and I first came across Sato the Rabbit. After our son was born, we wanted to make sure we kept reading him Japanese books and thankfully Seattle and the surrounding cities—with their large Japanese/Japanese American population—stock a large variety of Japanese children’s books. My wife found Sato on the shelves one day and we loved the book so much that we bought the entire series the next time we went back to Japan. About a year later, we came across the US edition of Chirri & Chirra at a local library, which is how I learnt of Enchanted Lion Books, so I reached out to see if they were interested. They came back with a resounding yes and we’ve been working with them ever since.

A: Before we go any further, I notice “Shizuka Blaskowsky” is mentioned in the credits page.

M: Shizuka is my wife and very much a part of the Sato team. We discussed it and decided to list just my name for the English translation, but we wanted to make sure that she was credited as well, since we both love and worked on the series. She goes over everything I write and then we talk over every sentence, decide what best reflects the Japanese while flowing well in English, and work to find text that maintains the overall feel of the world. I translate and Shizuka edits, so while I am credited for translation, we’re certainly a team on this and every project.

A: It’s really heartening to hear about the strong family focus behind Sato, and I certainly agree that teamwork and collaboration play a big part in translation. Having seen Chirri & Chirra and then this book, something definitely clicked, so I’m not surprised Enchanted Lion took it up. Sato, though, isn’t a one-story 32-page picture book. Made up of seven separate episodes, I found each episode’s four spreads as imaginative, in a calming and dreamy sense, as the next. My younger daughter and I both like A Night of Stars, where Sato collects shooting stars to fill the observatory on a moonless night. I also like Forest Ice, especially the part about “sipping stories” in bed! Do you happen to have a favorite?

M: Picking one is really difficult. There are some that I like more than others, of course, and in the first book I love Walnuts and Forest Ice. I absolutely adore the creativity and the way that in only eight pages, some common, everyday action takes a fantastical turn to some dreamy place or event. I hope that it sinks into my son’s subconscious and inspires his imaginative play. If he mirrors a Sato story or the flow of the Sato world then I’ll have a huge grin on my face.

A: Speaking of mirrors, after reading both versions separately, putting the English and Japanese versions side by side felt like looking into a mirror. We thought we were reading it back to front, or even turning back time. The layout didn’t affect the translation, did it?

M: The layout was pretty straightforward. Very few things were changed, but as the Japanese text in columns reads right to left, sensible text placement for smooth reading flow is a little different than in English. It didn’t affect much, but we did swap locations of two images in Walnuts to match the text about Sato opening the walnut, to work better with the suspense of what he finds as people turn the page.

A: I thought the second and third pages of each vignette almost always involved a fantastical leap in thought! How did you go about translating the accompanying text?

M: I made the most literal translation of each sentence I could, then went back and tried to make it sound more interesting in English. I took each sentence and wrote down all the synonyms for each word or phrase in every sentence, then tried the combinations to see what I liked. As an example from A Window in the Sky, in the third and fourth pages, I played around with how “particularly”, “especially”, and “peculiarly” sounded with “clear” and “vivid”, like in “particularly vivid”. We went with “luminous” in the end, and while there was some talk about whether that word was too advanced for some readers, I like that more children’s books these days include larger words and so went with a more advanced word here. A counterexample might be in Forest of Ice. I started off with “melancholy” when describing the feelings of the blue ice, but we went with “sad” because it’s easier for kids to connect with.

A: It’s clear a lot was put into every word, and those choices also made Sato really enjoyable to read aloud, so I’m thinking that this was probably one aspect you particularly worked on. Were there any passages or sentiments that were challenging?

M: I really wanted the sentences to flow nicely and sound soothing when read aloud, plus I wanted to use alliteration and similar wordplay when possible (but not puns). Having a fun, imaginative English text that matched the fun, imaginative images was very important to me. I also tried to give everything in the book’s world as much agency as possible and to avoid expressions that conveyed that Sato was controlling the world or making things happen. Instead, I tried to show that he was interacting with the world and was generally rolling with the punches. The longer sentences were challenging, but thankfully Sato doesn’t contain many. Sometimes like when, in Forest Ice, Sato goes out for ice, the description of the ice is one long sentence. Japanese allows for much longer sentences and easier merging of clauses, so it was challenging trying to get all the information into the space without the sentence becoming too awkward. Claudia at Enchanted Lion was a big help with that, talking about how we wanted to phrase sentences so that we reflected the world Sato lives in using language that was natural and associable to children. All those conversations really helped hone the language and make enjoyable sentences that were true to the Japanese.

A: I certainly had fun joining Sato in interacting with his world, so I think you and your team have successfully conveyed the reading experience. As you said, Sato is the first of the series, and I already see a placeholder for the second one. Until then, thank you again for sharing!

Nanette McGuinness Talks with Emily Balistrieri, Translator of Andersen Award Winner Eiko Kadono

By Nanette McGuinness, San Francisco

SCBWI member Emily Balistrieri is the translator from Japanese into English of Overlord, by Kugane Maruyama, and The Refugees’ Daughter, by Takuji Ichikawa, among other titles. His translation of Kiki’s Delivery Service will be released by Delacorte Books for Young Readers in July 2020, after author Eiko Kadono won the 2018 Hans Christian Andersen Award in Writing. Emily translates books and manga for children and adults, video games, and anime subtitles from Japanese into English, and his latest children’s translation is a bilingual storybook in the “Mashin Sentai Kiramager” universe published by Kodansha in Japan.

Nanette McGuinness (NM): I’ve read that you started out as a Russian major in college. What then drew you to Japanese and how did you decide to become a translator?

Emily Balistrieri (EB): Switching focus to Japanese was very dramatic because I canceled my study abroad in Russia. I still feel sad about that sometimes. But I just realized that if I was reading manga, into anime, obsessed with Haruki Murakami (this was in 2005ish), watching Takeshi Kitano films, listening to J-pop, playing Japanese video games, etc., there seemed to be a pretty clear path in Japanese, whereas I wasn’t sure what at the time what I would do with Russian. Thinking of it that way, it’s almost embarrassing—like picking which sport to play based on which local team gets more winning headlines. But I guess you have to pick somehow.

NM: I’m in awe of those proficient in a language that uses such a different character system, let alone such a fascinatingly different culture. The wonderful Cathy Hirano, who also works in this realm, has said that “translating between Japanese and English requires “fairly strenuous cultural and mental gymnastics.”* Can you talk about your experience and what it’s like translating from Japanese to English?

EB: I know that in some languages, the nitty-gritty of how well you can preserve the exact punctuation is a thing people consider. In Japanese, it can sometimes be, “Should these sentences even be in this order?” And there are plenty of instances when a question mark in Japanese is not a question mark in English.

As far as the characters go, it’s possible for people to be very creative with them. A great example is Hideo Furukawa’s new book where he takes the kanji for “forest” 森, which is made up of three “trees” 木, and adds three more 木 at the bottom (to make the pyramid shape bigger) for the title that is “pronounced” (and searchable as) おおきな森, “big forest”: the official English translation of the title is FFFFForesTTTT). One of my favorite parts of Japanese is rubi, characters placed over other (usually more complex) characters to show how to pronounce them. It gets interesting when, instead of writing the actual pronunciation, the author might put a word borrowed from another language, an explanation, or other somehow relevant text. In The Saga of Tanya the Evil, author Carlo Zen uses rubi at one point to make a euphemistic conversation about torture explicit to the reader. So the writing system can be front and center at times, but usually it’s easier to deal with than the grammar, at least for me.

The subject-object-verb order of Japanese (“I from Japanese to English translate”) is pretty easy to get used to. It gets tougher when a rarely used phrase pops up—one that you probably studied for a test at some point, but see so infrequently in the wild that you can never remember it properly. Similarly challenging are archaic forms, which some use to create atmosphere in the same way you might find Shakespearian flourishes in English. More common, but often frustrating, are sentences that come with a ton of qualifiers before the subject; they can contain info that, at least to an English reader, seems totally off-topic in the paragraph or just feels super wordy compared to what is actually being said. On the other hand, sometimes the way writers are able to layer in details is impressive, but it can still be a challenge to replicate in English.

NM: Kiki’s Delivery Service is a beloved Miyazaki anime classic with millions of fans worldwide, and its author, Eiko Kadono, won the Hans Christian Andersen Award for Writing in 2018. So it’s very exciting that the book that inspired Miyazaki will be back in print for English-language readers. What was it like to labor in the shadow of such an iconic work and by a lauded, living author?

EB: Honestly, I tried to just take it one page at a time (in the turn-of-phrase sense, not literally, haha) and capture the spirit as best I could. Kirkus Reviews was kind enough to call the translation “descriptive and whimsical,” but of course that’s all Eiko Kadono’s writing; if the English readers are as charmed as Japanese readers are, then I did my job right.

NM: I think I saw that Kiki’s Delivery Service is actually part of a series. Has there been any discussion about translating and publishing more of the series into English?

EB: Yes! There are six books in the main series and then two other volumes. There hasn’t been any discussion (at least not involving me) yet, but maybe if the first book does well, we’ll be able to continue? I sure hope so because a lot happens. Imagine if only Anne of Green Gables had been translated into Japanese and none of other volumes! (Anne is an extremely popular character in Japan; there is a classic animated TV series and even a prequel series made to coincide with the hundredth anniversary of the first book’s publication.)

NM: There are a number of differences between the Kiki’s Delivery Service film and the book—as generally happens when switching genres. Did you watch/rewatch the Miyazaki film when you were working on the translation? If you didn’t, it might be interesting to readers to hear why; if you did, could you talk about some of the differences between the book and the film?

EB: I deliberately avoided the movie (although I can still sing the English ending song from when I watched it as a kid), even in Japanese with no subtitles. Incidentally, I avoided the more recent live-action version, too. I didn’t want to be influenced by the way the characters were portrayed there, since this is specifically a translation of Kadono’s work.

Hayao Miyazaki kind of takes his inspiration and runs with it. Kadono has been quoted as saying that when she first saw the movie she was surprised how different it was. But she said she made sure before production started that he didn’t change the title or Kiki’s view of the world.**

NM: It’s always a fascinating process doing a retranslation.*** How did you prepare? Did you avoid looking at the first translation from 2003 so as not to be influenced, or did you read through it to know what you thought worked best? Were you able to have any contact with Lynne E. Riggs, the first translator, or with author Kadono?

EB: It was my first time translating it, so it never felt like a retranslation to me, even though that’s what it ends up as. I definitely avoided the previous translation because I wanted to come to the text completely fresh. A strange coincidence is that I have known Lynne Riggs for years because she is one of the founders of the Society of Writers, Editors, and Translators. I knew she had translated Kiki, so I never imagined that I or anyone else would be doing it. I feel almost a bit guilty, but I try to think of it as a sort of torch-passing. I definitely look up to her as a wordsmith community organizer here in the Kanto region (I’m sure she wishes I had more energy to help). She and the other members of SWET have a huge wealth of expertise and experience between them, so their events can be really inspiring.

NM: You’re listed on the title page of the book as the translator: congratulations! As a translator, I know how rare it is for an American publisher to do this. How did that come about? Once you turned in your translation to Delacorte, did you have any input on revisions?

EB: Thanks! I think “name on the interior” is how Delacorte does it. I went ahead and asked if the cover was possible, but it wasn’t this time. Never hurts to ask! The editing process was a bit irregular because the editor who brought me on was different from the one I did the bulk of the work with (Alexandra, if you’re reading this, please don’t be a stranger!), who is different from the one who finished the project. So I essentially did two rounds with them, and I know they made some other adjustments as well. Still, I’m used to just crossing my fingers after I submit a manuscript, so it was nice to be able to have so much back-and-forth for a change. I’m excited to see the final version.

NM: What are you currently working on? Any dream projects or books you’d like to translate next?

EB: Overlord and The Saga of Tanya the Evil are both ongoing series, so I’m always working on those, although they’re not for kids. I am chipping away on a masterpiece of a YA science-fiction novel about a first crush by Tetsuya Sato called Syndrome (and I’m pitching it, too, so please get in touch if this sounds good—it’s fantastic).

Other than that, here’s something to look forward to: I’m working again for Delacorte, to publish Shaw Kuzki’s Soul Lanterns. The protagonist is a 12-year-old girl living in Hiroshima 25 years after the atomic bomb, and the story is about how she and her classmates wrap their head around the horrors of the bomb and war, in general, by connecting with the adults in their community who experienced it firsthand. Kuzki is a second-generation A-bomb survivor, herself, so she’s an important voice to amplify in English. I really hope it’ll be a book that kids can read and discuss at school.

Thank you very much!

*“Catching up with Cathy Hirano,” SCBWI Japan Translation Group, May 14, 2011, https://ihatov.wordpress.com/2011/05/24/an-interview-with-cathy-hirano/ 

** In a Japanese-language interview she did after winning the Hans Christian Andersen Award in 2018, https://www.bookbang.jp/article/554311 

*** Kiki’s Delivery Service was first translated into English by Lynne E. Riggs in 2003 for Annick Press, with illustrations by Akiko Hayashi—nearly two decades after it was published in Japan.

Award-winning opera singer Nanette McGuinness is the translator of over 50 books and graphic novels for children and adults from French, Italian, and German into English, including the well-known Geronimo Stilton Graphic Novels. Two of her latest translations, Luisa: Now and Then (Humanoids, 2018) and California Dreamin’: Cass Elliot Before the Mamas & the Papas (First Second, 2017) were chosen for YALSA’s Great Graphic Novels for Teens; Luisa: Now and Then was also named a 2019 Stonewall Honor Book and a 2020 GLLI YA Honor Book. Her most recent translations are Little Josephine: Memory in Pieces (Life Drawn, 2020), Super Sisters (Papercutz, 2020), and Undead Messiah #3 (TOKYOPOP, 2020).

Cross-posted from SCBWI: The Blog with permission.

Nicky Harman and Avery Udagawa Discuss “Firstclaw” by Sachiko Kashiwaba

By Nicky Harman, London
On Translation Columnist, Asian Books Blog

NH: I’m delighted to be interviewing Avery Fischer Udagawa, because I have a huge admiration for translators who focus on young readers. I started by asking her about her latest translation piece in Words Without Borders, and why she wanted to translate it.

AFU: “Firstclaw” at Words Without Borders is my rendering of イチノツメと呼ばれた魔女 by Sachiko Kashiwaba, a fairy tale from her collection of linked tales, 王様に恋した魔女 (Kodansha, 2016). I encountered this story on precisely the morning of October 24, 2018, in the large Maruzen Marunouchi bookstore in Tokyo, where I had gone to spend time before a meeting with the author. Since we are all stuck at home these days needing vicarious outings, I’ll share that I savored this book over chiffon cake in Maruzen’s third floor café, glancing out as JR local trains and bullet trains pulled in and out of Tokyo Station. I even exchanged bows with a window washer who floated by in his rigging.

Hours later, Kashiwaba herself signed my book. That was a story scouting day for the ages!

“Firstclaw” struck me as a skillfully wrought, surprising tale of a reclusive witch, a resourceful princess, and a brave king. I found the ending (which I won’t spoil here) curiously joyful, and I chose to translate it out of readerly pleasure.

When I submitted my translation last year to Daniel Hahn, guest editor of WWB’s April 2020 issue, I also wondered if “Firstclaw” might contribute to discussions in publishing about authors writing outside their own cultural identities. Ms. Kashiwaba’s oeuvre of fantasy writing includes many works with distinctly Japanese characters—kappa spirits, yuki-onna, shape-shifting raccoon dogs, local gods—but she also writes witches, dragons, vampires, and in “Firstclaw,” a “blond sovereign.” She grew up reading western children’s literature in translation and counts Canadian author Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Chronicles of Avonlea as influential in terms of form. Hahn, for his part, sees a “kinship” with Europe in “Firstclaw” and observes that “the webs of influence in children’s literature are dense and rich.”

Does it matter that “Firstclaw” comes from Japan? Readers may find this question stimulating, but I mostly just hope that the story cheers them up, as it does me.

With Sachiko Kashiwaba on October 24, 2018

NH: I’ll confess to having much less experience translating children’s literature than adult novels, so I’m intrigued by this question: do you think there is an essential difference between the two?

AFU: I don’t think there’s an essential difference at all.

The English-language publishing world categorizes literature as children’s or adult—and as middle grade, young adult, and so on within children’s—largely for marketing purposes and to help booksellers and librarians shelve books. This practice can help to ensure that young readers encounter books appropriate to their developmental level, which no one can argue with. It does, however, sometimes obscure the fact that literature is literature, and much of what sells as children’s literature in fact offers much to adults. The reverse is true, as well. Fiction like Ms. Ice Sandwich by Mieko Kawakami, translated by Louise Heal Kawai, works not only as adult fiction but also as MG and YA.

NH: When you interviewed my friend and translation colleague Helen Wang (who is a whizz at all things kidlit from Chinese), she said, about her translation of Jackal and Wolf by Shen Shixi: “Some of the fighting scenes are quite graphic and intense, but it was the psychological behaviour that I found more disturbing, especially where Flame tests a potential suitor.” Have you come across similar dilemmas in translating from Japanese and if so, how did you deal with them?

AFU: Yes, Japanese children’s books do sometimes include elements that might disturb young readers of English, due to culture gaps. For example, children of divorce in Japan often experience the trauma of never living with one parent again, which shows up in children’s books involving divorce. This reality may shock young overseas readers accustomed to traditions of joint custody. I have not dealt with this challenge personally.

Sachiko Kashiwaba’s novel 帰命寺横丁の夏, which I am pitching as Temple Alley Summer, includes a nine-year-old whose impoverished father sells her into servitude. While set in a fairy tale section of the book, this character’s plight has historical antecedents in pre-modern Japan, which might make it normal-ish fare for readers of the original. It could trouble some readers of the English, however. As the translator, I would never dream of changing this plot element, but in selecting this book to work on, it mattered to me that it goes on to show the child seeking freedom and agency, ultimately overcoming her past. I believe that English-language publishers will appreciate this aspect, too.

NH: What’s the nicest thing a young person has said to you about one of the books you translated.

AFU: “Mom, would you hurry up and translate the next chapter?” (I have two daughters, aged 8 and 12.)

NH: What kind of promotion do you find yourself doing for a finished and published novel? and what do you find is most effective when promoting a children’s book?

AFU: When promoting children’s books, it’s key to engage not only young readers, but also adult “gatekeepers” such as parents and educators, who are often the ones actually buying the books. With J-Boys: Kazuo’s World, Tokyo, 1965 by Shogo Oketani—a historical novel set in Tokyo after the 1964 Olympics—I have done school visits to interact with students, talks for the general public, and presentations to teachers and librarians both on- and offline. In several cases, I have had the privilege of co-presenting with the author. Sharing with my Japan- and kidlit-focused colleagues has also been very helpful. I treasure the professional organizations SWET and SCBWI and conferences such as the Asian Festival of Children’s Content.

NH: I can see from your blogs and interviews that you champion Japanese literature for kids, and put a lot of effort into pitching the books you like and finding sources of funding. How do you balance your paid and your done-for-love work?

AFU: Wouldn’t I love balance! Translating J kidlit into E is my passion, but it is a true labor of love. Even the most decorated member of my field, Cathy Hirano—translator of Hans Christian Andersen Award (“little Nobel”) laureate Nahoko Uehashi, among others—cannot live on what her children’s work pays. (Cathy is also the translator of Marie Kondo’s decluttering books; she coined the English phrase “spark joy” for ときめく.Less than five percent of children’s books published in the US each year are translations (I believe the UK is similar), compared with 15 percent or more in Japan. There just isn’t enough demand for #worldkidlit in English. Yet.

Meanwhile, I work as native language coordinator at International School Bangkok, a job that I find meaningful in itself, and I have a family. Under Covid-19, this means I facilitate virtual school on weekdays and chip away at work on evenings and weekends. Translation has to take a backseat. I know from experience, however, that this tough patch will make the future chances to translate, promote, and scout books in cafés all the sweeter.

NH: When you have time, what your current projects?

AFU: I am pitching Temple Alley Summer, 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. A third-grade teacher who read this manuscript emailed me, “I stayed up reading when I should have turned out the light and gone to sleep.” She hopes to add it to her classroom library when it comes out.

For now, that’ll keep me going!

Cross-posted from the Asian Books Blog with permission.