Posts Tagged ‘Picador’

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!