By Deborah Iwabuchi, Maebashi, Japan
New questions cropped up as soon as the translation work began. First of all, we had the matter of names. The main character’s name was Pianyan—which looked to my American eye more like the capital of North Korea than a name for a white female kitten. Kazuko and I finally came up with Little Keys to describe a piano-playing feline. Her romantic opposite was Cats, named after the musical, which we changed to Catz to look more like a name. Their mother figure was Futoneko, which translated literally as Fat Cat meant something else altogether. Futoneko finally became Big Cat. The author, Hideko Ogawa, was especially concerned with how we would translate the Niigata dialect spoken by the main character. In my opinion, it’s almost impossible to substitute a dialect in one language for a dialect in another. Other possibilities we considered made the main character sound stupid—which was not at all the intent of the author. Finally we sidestepped the matter, using a word or two of authentic Niigata dialect (eekatta rather than yokatta) with a bit of explanation woven in. I think it worked out well, but more time for thought might have resulted in a different solution.
The next issue was age/marketing category because this would set the tone for the work. Pianyan was of a format that lines the shelves of all Japanese elementary schools: rather thick chapter books in large print. Middle Grade (MG) would be the closest category in the English-language book world—but of course MG is not exactly the same.
Young Adult (YA) books in English allow for almost anything you’d see in adult literature, but books for children must keep their focus on their target readers. We should have known to expect challenges when the author told us that adults in Japan loved her book even more than children did. Unfortunately, the English version was going to have to choose a category and stick with it. It couldn’t be for children most of the time, and at times lapse into an adult style. For example, the book begins without introduction or background. Pianyan’s human family is being transferred to Tokyo because of Dad’s job. The family can’t take the cat with them, so Little Keys decides to go to Shibuya to become a stray cat. So in the first couple of pages we have the concepts of Tokyo vs the countryside, families being uprooted and assigned to small apartments where no animals are allowed (rather than looking for places of their own), and the complete difference in lifestyle the move will mean, not to mention what or where Shibuya is and how Little Keys—just a kitten—happens to even know about it. There is also the matter of why Yumiko’s father is so excited by the impending move (well, of course, he is most likely being promoted and sent back to headquarters!). And along with everything else, Pianyan–and all other cats–can talk to humans.
Leaving talking cats to suspended disbelief, the book assumes that the reader is familiar with all of the other social aspects. How could we communicate enough background information to catch and hold the interest of children without sounding like a textbook on life in Japan? I’m not a fan of footnotes. I’d rather gently weave the details into the text without upsetting the story. I think we succeeded in doing this. Throughout the book we added bits and pieces of explanation and smoothed out adult-sounding parts or things only Baby Boomers would understand to keep the story anchored in MG. Here’s how we worked with the beginning where Yumiko (the cat’s owner) tells Little Keys that they can’t take her to Tokyo because they’ll be living in an apartment.
“But we’ll be in company housing—a big building with small apartments—cats would disturb the neighbors. There’ll be hundreds of neighbors. That’s what Mom says.”
There were other concepts that we decided didn’t require explanation because they were details not essential to the story. Little Keys has her heart set on trying a hamburger, so the hamburger issue was an important part of the story, but what about when she goes out in town and sees food sold by street vendors? How much description was needed for snacks with a single appearance? Not much we decided.
“Okonomiyaki pancakes! And tiny kasutera cakes. Oh, and there was another (stall) with steamed buns ‘straight from Yokohama Chinatown’—that’s what the sign said.”
Check back next week for Part 3 of this series.