Posts Tagged ‘Counterpoint Press’

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.