Posts Tagged ‘picture book’

#WorldKidLitMonth Interview: Andrew Wong on The World’s Poorest President Speaks Out

By Deborah Iwabuchi, Maebashi, Japan

Andrew Wong’s translation of the picture book The World’s Poorest President Speaks Out (from a Japanese edition by Yoshimi Kusaba, illustrated by Gaku Nakagawa) has just been published ★ in English by Enchanted Lion Books. Here, I interview Andrew about the story behind the translation.

Andrew Wong holds his translation The World’s Poorest President Speaks Out (center), the Japanese original (left), and a book about José Mujica, Uruguay’s 40th president.

Deborah: Hi, Andrew. Congratulations on your translation of The World’s Poorest President Speaks Out! I ordered the book and fell in love with it instantly. I’ve got lots of questions to ask you. First of all, how did you get involved with this project?

Andrew: Hooray, another reader! Well, my story begins at a bookstore in Tokyo one day. The cover struck me, so I picked it up and read it. I actually didn’t buy it the first time, but I was really drawn to the illustrations—the opening montage—and the very apparent messages. The initial montage works with a preface to introduce Mujica’s speech at the 2012 Rio+20 Earth Summit and build up his personality, particularly his generous, frugal ways, which make him so well-loved by many Uruguayans. Those first few pages set readers up to interpret his speech, expecting to hear something “new” from him.

Deborah: That opening sequence drew me in, too, but of course I was looking at your English version. (Allow me to digress…) I had to know what the Japanese version was, so I got a copy right away. In both versions, there’s a great humor in the way Mujica’s wife sends her husband off to Rio for the +20 Summit. In the Japanese, she gives him the affectionate but unvarying greeting you’d give anyone going off to work for the day and then tacks on a request in a lovely Japanese way that doesn’t translate well. “Good-bye dear. Please feed the chickens.” Andrew, you solved that neatly with “Stay safe and feed the chickens on your way out! (Have a good trip, but don’t expect me to do your chores, Mr. President).” Okay, sorry I interrupted your story! Please continue.

Andrew: About that greeting, I left it as what it means to me, which is quite literal. The fact that Mr. President feeds the chickens on his farm just builds on his character—a person who seeks to live like everyone else. Anyway, I read the book again. And again. And realized how much I wanted to share this. That started my search for how to get the book translated into English, which led me to the SCBWI Japan Translation listserv. Then, at SCBWI Japan Translation Day 2016, I met a literary agent from Japan UNI Agency, and Japan UNI hooked me up with Enchanted Lion. A lot of it was chance. (And I think Trump played a part.)

Deborah: 2016 was your first SCBWI Translation event, and there you connected with someone who found a publisher. That was serendipitous! So often connecting with the right people seems like good luck—and some of it probably is—but behind that is usually hard work and good planning. How did you go about the translation?

Andrew: I’m not sure if that was my first event, but it was quite early in my interactions with SCBWI. Anyway, translating the short speech didn’t take very long, and I usually start with a very literal draft. But before revising, I needed more perspective, and I found it in the opening pages of the book. After some forensic work, I found out that Mujica spoke around 8 p.m. in June at the Summit where the Recycled Orchestra of Cateura had also performed (another picture book!). Anyway, that helped to eventually ground the English in environmental and social issues, which were rooted in capitalist greed, competition, and consumerism. Besides reading more on Mujica to understand his ideas better, my search for an English publisher also led me to a Traditional Chinese version (I read and speak Chinese), which had backmatter from reviewers on being content with what you have.

Deborah: I’d like to hear about the difference with the Chinese version. Was it just the backmatter or was the book itself changed at all?

Andrew: The backmatter made the difference. My initial impressions were really close to the Chinese interpretation, perhaps stemming from my Chinese Singaporean roots. So when the editors at Enchanted Lion and I dwelled on how the text could be affected by cultural perspectives, we dug deeper into the many arguments in the speech. A lot had been packed into a speech that lasted just 10 minutes. It touched on many difficult concepts—capitalism, competition, consumerism, economic growth, desire, poverty, happiness—so we realized there was room left to interpretation. To top it off, it drew on philosophy! Along the way, we also referred to the original Spanish, and it guided how we wanted to convey the speech—with clarity and passion.

Deborah (eyes popping out a little bit): So, going back to Mujica’s original speech in Spanish helped iron out some important nuances—after working with the Japanese and Chinese versions of the book.

Andrew: I did share the perspective from the two versions (as far as I know, there’s a Korean one too!), and initially I stuck close to the Japanese because we thought it was going to be straightforward. But I didn’t succeed in making polite Japanese sound quite as passionate. So we worked on the tone based on the original Spanish. As I said, there were many ideas in the speech, so we took a long, deep look because we didn’t want to leave things ambiguous. The editors and I kept a conversation going, exchanging emails in spurts over a few months, and eventually grounded the book in environmental and social issues. I believe that gave us a way to tie things together and wrap it all up nicely for everyone. It was a long and rewarding collaborative thought process, and I am grateful to everyone who was involved in shaping the English into what it is, because I certainly couldn’t have done it alone.

Deborah: No matter how long I translate, it’s always a surprise to find out how much effort and thought is required to change a book—one that seems quite straightforward—from one language to another. Did you find it necessary to simplify anything so that children could understand it? I see the target age is 8 to 12.

Andrew: Even though I don’t understand Spanish, I think the Japanese picture book did the hard work of making the difficult concepts accessible to children. Also, don’t you think Nakagawa’s illustrations work so well with the text to build a compelling argument? They also add perspective, for example, about how competition is about outdoing each other (not building each other up); how economic “growth” is driven by a fear of recession, leaving a pile of trash while a wise man stands above; and the importance of happiness for the family, livestock and all. I can go on, because there is so much to talk about in each and every spread. (My favorite is the baby in the cosmos!)

Deborah: I absolutely agree with you. I love the illustrations. I can see how they would help children understand what Mujica is saying! Now, your mention of the sweet baby in the cosmos brings me to a question I’ve got to ask. When I picked up your English translation of the book, I flipped through and was so impressed with the glorious diversity the illustrations represented. And then I got the Japanese version, and my jaw fell. To mention just a few of the differences, in the Japanese version, all the drivers in the smoggy traffic jam were men in Sikh turbans, the sweatshop workers were all brown, and the happy family of farmers and the sweet baby in the cosmos were all white! What was your role in the fortunate shift to inclusion in the English version?

Andrew: To be honest, I didn’t see the problem initially, but one day Enchanted Lion contacted me saying the Indian people caught in traffic were all unhappy Sikh men. And then the rest became easy to spot. I think the time we took to keep talking also gave us the chance to see and correct the problem, especially for a diverse readership. That experience has made me read more consciously, but I still remind myself to be constantly vigilant about stereotypes and my own biases because I don’t think I realize fast enough when they surface. (I’d be grateful to hear anyone point them out.) By the way, I’m delighted at the way the happy family at the end sits with the inclusive closing!

Deborah: The illustration of the diverse family ended the book for me on a very satisfying note. I was exhilarated and I could feel the dedication to Mujica’s words that everyone involved in making the book must have had. Any other bumps in the road you’d like to share?

Andrew: Well, to start, this was a translation of a translation. So when I was alerted to an existing English translation of the original speech online, I was really thankful, but it also got me worried. Once we were certain that the Japanese we were working from was a distinct work—an adaptation of the speech for children—the existence of another English translation became a non-issue. Enchanted Lion also provided input from the original speech in Spanish, which obviously helped in the revisions. The other huge bump was of course the ongoing pandemic, which has also impacted publishing. The launch date got pushed back a few times, so I’m glad it’s finally out. Hopefully more and more people get to read it and talk about the issues in the book, and, of course, Uruguay’s well-loved former President. It was some journey, and it continues, so I’d be happy to hear from readers!

Deborah: Thanks so much for taking the time to share all of this, Andrew. This is a gem of a book in so many ways, and learning about the background of the English version has been a fascinating lesson in how much goes into creating a translation.

The Japanese version of The World’s Poorest President Speaks Out is Sekai de ichiban mazushii daitoryo no supiichi, Choubunsha Publishing (2014). 

The Sad Song of Okinawa~Life Itself is our Most Precious Treasure

by Deborah Davidson, Sapporo

The Sad Song of Okinawa~Life Itself is our Most Precious Treasure is the heart-wrenching story of the Battle of Okinawa, “World War II’s longest and fiercest battle,” as told from the perspective of two young Okinawan children. It is in the form of a picture book for young readers, but certain to stimulate discussion among all age groups about the nature of war and peace. The original Japanese version was meticulously researched, written, and brilliantly illustrated by Maruki Toshi and Maruki Iri, a husband-wife team of artists whose work is known and respected worldwide.

The story begins with a delightful description of the beauty and joys of life in Okinawa, with the impact of the text multiplied by the vivid colors and whimsical illustrations. Young Tsuru and her even younger brother Saburo live in this joyful land along with their parents and extended family.

After impressing this charming setting firmly in the reader’s mind, the text continues: “The war came to Little Tsuru’s house when she was seven years old.” In both great and small ways, the life to which the children had been accustomed begins to crack and crumble. The illustrations become darker and more chaotic. Though the text continues in a matter-of-fact tone, the scenes that the words describe make your hair stand on end. The desperate reality of the situation is enhanced by many innocent-seeming details, such as what the evacuees choose to take from their homes as they flee, and the color of the mud puddle that the children must drink from to quench their raging thirst.

The Okinawan language, particularly in the form of a song Grandfather sings to the accompaniment of the sanshin (Okinawan banjo), weaves through the text, adding further continuity to the story. “Ikusayun shimachi, mirukuyun yagati, (the war will pass and there’ll be days of peace and pleasure) Nagikunayo shinka, nuchidu takara ( Don’t cry my friends, life itself is our most precious treasure).” The story ends with a repetition of this last phrase (“life itself is our most precious treasure”), which also serves as the book’s subtitle.

The publication of the English version of the book was made possible by the efforts of The Sad Song of Okinawa English Translation Project. It took three years for the project team to raise the funds necessary to get it published. Project members Kinjo Haruna, Andrea Good, and Rob Witmer undertook the translation of the original Japanese (and Okinawan) into English.

I’m pleased to say that the book is finally in published form as part of the RIC Story Chest series. As all books in that series, The Sad Song of Okinawa comes with a CD recording of the story text to assist young readers and speakers of English as a foreign language. Two Okinawan folk songs performed by Nahgushiku Yoshimitsu are also included in the CD. The book can be purchased from RIC Publications.

Debbie is a gifted artist as well as a notable translator and educator. Be sure to check out her etegami blog and her work on Ainu folklore translations; one story is included in the upcoming Tomo anthology from Stone Bridge Press!