By Misa Dikengil Lindberg, Vergennes, Vermont
Last summer I had the pleasure of reading Shogo Oketani’s J-Boys: Kazuo’s World, Tokyo, 1965 (Stone Bridge Press, 2011), translated by SCBWI Tokyo Translation Group member Avery Fischer Udagawa. Told through the eyes of nine-year-old Kazuo Nakamoto, it is an engaging story that recreates the Shinagawa ward in 1960s Tokyo. Here the youngsters of the city, highly influenced by American culture, rush along with the current of westernization. The parents and adults of Kazuo’s world still hold vivid, painful memories of firebombings and food shortages during the war, but to Kazuo and his friends, American TV shows like Leave it to Beaver and Lassie and the track stars of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics are much more real than the war. Avery Fischer Udagawa, a J-E translator and writer based in Thailand, answered questions via email.
Congratulations on the publication of J-Boys: Kazuo’s World, Tokyo, 1965! This is your first book-length translation, right?
Yes! It is exciting to see it make its way into the world.
J-Boys is a unique work in that it was published in English translation before being published in Japanese (as of this writing, there is not yet a Japanese-language edition). The author, Shogo Oketani, is himself a translator of English to Japanese. How did you get involved in this project and what originally attracted you to it?
I first met Shogo Oketani and his wife Leza Lowitz when I interviewed them for an article that appeared in Kyoto Journal No. 56 (March 2004). Shogo and Leza are both authors and both translators. Leza got me involved with translating for the anthology Inside and Other Short Fiction: Japanese Women by Japanese Women (Kodansha International, 2006). In spring 2008, Leza wrote again to ask if I could translate J-Boys in time for Shogo’s birthday in December of that year. I read the manuscript, a collection of fifteen linked short stories, plus English translations of two stories that had been translated by others. I enjoyed and felt a connection to what I read and knew Leza and Shogo would work hard to find a publisher for it. I signed on to translate the book in its entirety, including the material previously translated by others.
How closely did you work with the author and what was it like working with a fellow translator?
I actually worked more directly with Leza than with Shogo. I would email Leza a translation of a story, or translations of multiple stories in a batch, and she would insert comments and edits to which I could then respond, and we could go back and forth as necessary. If either of us had content-related questions for Shogo, Leza would check with him and relay his answer to me. I was fortunate not only to have a close connection with the author, but also to receive Leza’s feedback on my English. She is a gifted writer.
In the author’s note, Oketani says that he wrote the book to introduce young readers to the world of 1965 Japan—specifically the world of young boys in a rapidly changing postwar Japan that is becoming increasingly influenced by American culture. How much research did you do while working on the translation? Where or to whom did you turn for help with any historical questions?
Shogo’s book itself explains lots of the era-specific themes, ranging from the rise of TV to the 1964 Olympics to the mid-1960s construction rush that transformed Tokyo. To get a visual sense of life in this period, I watched two Japanese movies in the Always san-chome no yuhi series, which is based on manga about childhood in working-class Tokyo during this time. (A third film in this series has just been released.) I also consulted the Internet for help with specific questions—about Japanese TV characters, the status of resident (or zainichi) Koreans in Japan, World War II history and memory, kamishibai storytellers, and even Popeye the Sailor and The Beatles!
The book contains a running glossary in the sidebars defining bolded words throughout the text. More than just definitions of Japanese words, the glossary is also a cultural dictionary, providing cultural and historical information about Japan. For example, April is defined as “The month when school begins in Japan. Japanese students go to school almost all year round, with a shorter summer vacation and time off at New Year’s. Students also wear uniforms, wool in the winter and cotton in the hotter months.” Was the glossary written by Oketani in Japanese? Did you translate the glossary as well?
The glossary and sidebars were prepared in English well after the translation phase. I played a limited role by reading the draft entries and suggesting some information to add and leave out. As the translator of J-Boys, I initially thought my involvement would end after I translated the book into English, but in my capacity as a close reader of the manuscript, I found I had ideas to contribute in the pre-publication phase as well, such as (in this case) what information young readers might use to understand the text.
You were working on this project for quite a while. How long did the whole thing take? Can you describe the different stages of the process?
The initial translation phase stretched from spring through winter of 2008. I then continued to work with some parts of the book for a project for my Master’s degree. Later, once Stone Bridge Press accepted J-Boys for publication, I worked with Shogo, Leza, and publisher Peter Goodman to support the editing and launch of the book. This pre-publication phase stretched from summer 2010 through summer 2011, and involved everything from emails about the subtitle—Kazuo’s World, Tokyo, 1965—which was added in 2010, to thorough editing passes. Children’s book editor and author Susan Korman came on board early on to shape the book into a novel for a U.S. middle-grade (MG) audience, and seeing and working with her changes proved very educational. Also eye-opening was the experience of reading other historical MG novels with Asian main characters, so as to identify the niche J-Boys fills. This was a valuable exercise both for PR purposes and for me as someone interested in translating more children’s literature. It is important—and exciting!—to read the material already available in the target market.
The book has an impressive website with pages about the author, further information about the characters, and useful links/teaching tools to help teachers use J-Boys in the classroom. How involved were you with the website? Do you think the website makes the book more accessible to American readers?
Thanks for checking out the website! It was created by the author and his wife, who then also solicited my input. I wrote the copy for the Book and For Teachers sections and sent some ideas about organization as well. We definitely hope it makes the book more accessible.
What did you learn about the craft of J-E translation while working on J-Boys? Did you face any eye-opening challenges?
I learned that a translator can play a role in birthing a book that extends far beyond translating to, in my case, drafting photo captions, working with sidebars, developing website copy, and even writing to authors to request endorsements. I conversed with elementary-school educators about the book and recently spoke about it in a visit to a fourth-grade classroom. I have also talked about it via Skype to a joint event of SCBWI Tokyo and SWET, the Tokyo-based Society of Writers, Editors and Translators. This work in the areas of editing and PR has taken time, but it has enhanced my knowledge of the publication process and given me ideas for future projects.
As for challenges, the biggest hurdle was probably translating the manuscript during the infancy of my first child! She was born just a few months before Shogo and Leza contacted me about the project. I remember a haze of weekends and late nights hunched over the computer. Now that my daughter is four, however, it is gratifying to see her read her name in the acknowledgments—where it appears with my husband’s—and to have her understand what kind of work I do. I look forward to reading J-Boys: Kazuo’s World, Tokyo, 1965 with her in a few years.
What value do you think J-Boys contributes to the world of MG lit in translation?
There is a lot of great MG lit out there that explores particular moments in Asia’s history through children’s eyes. World War II receives a lot of coverage, for example. But there is not a lot of MG writing about 1960s Japan, or about the real daily life of Japanese kids as opposed to fantasy. In addition, books about Japan are often written in English by non-Japanese authors, so it is good to add a translation to the mix written by someone who grew up in the world he is describing. Shogo Oketani grew up in Shinagawa ward, just like Kazuo, and still lives on the same plot of land where he lived in the 1960s.
J-Boys is also potentially useful in classrooms because it covers historical social issues but is not U.S.-centered; it features a boy; and it conveys weighty content in simple language, making it useful for English language learners. I look forward to learning more about how readers and educators approach this book.
I know you are very busy with a preschooler and a baby right now, but do you have any upcoming translation projects in sight?
You are right that I stay busy as an at-home mom of two—our seven-month-old daughter came into the world just as J-Boys was being published. I do have a short-story translation in the anthology Tomo, a collection of YA Japan stories that will benefit teen survivors of the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami. I also help lead the SCBWI Tokyo Translation Group, which brings together aspiring and published translators of Japanese children’s lit into English, wherever they are in the world. We offer an email listserv and this blog and periodically offer events in Japan such as SCBWI Tokyo Translation Day. If any translators would like to join us, they are welcome to email me via my website or contact japan (at) scbwi (dot) org.