Double Feature Part 1: Are You an Echo? Lessons in Collaboration

February 4, 2017

Posted by Mari Boyle

When David Jacobson was given a slim book of Japanese poetry by a friend, he was eager to find out more about the author, Misuzu Kaneko (1903–1930), and the child-like simplicity of her work. The well-loved Japanese children’s poet wrote an incredible 512 poems in her tragically short life. Though Misuzu’s poetry had been translated into eleven languages, David could not find a comprehensive set of her work in English. Determined to bring Misuzu’s poetry to an American audience, David approached Chin Music Press with a proposal to publish a translation of selected poetry. The proposal was accepted, but he was asked to include Misuzu’s life story with the anthology. The result is the beautifully crafted Are You An Echo? The Lost Poetry of Misuzu Kaneko, published September 2016. It is the product of a talented team of writers and translators, David Jacobson, Sally Ito and Michiko Tsuboi, and the wonderful illustrator, Toshikado Hajiri. David, Michiko and Toshikado shared their experiences of collaborating on the book in a recent SCBWI Japan event in Tokyo.

Initially David focused on Misuzu’s biography. He had “vigorous discussions,” as he put it, with Japanese writers and other experts regarding how much detail should be included about Misuzu’s troubled married life, which resulted in her suicide at the young age of 26. Though he was acutely aware of how the knowledge might impact the reader’s interpretation of the poetry, as a journalist, David felt it important to include these events. “No matter how young the reader, they deserve the truth,” he commented. The issue is sensitively depicted, and has helped to open up debate among writers, teachers, librarians and readers, about how we portray the darker elements of life to young readers.

While David researched Misuzu’s life, he strongly believed her poetry should be translated by a poet. More specifically, he wanted a female poet, one who could capture the girlish essence of Misuzu’s style. Luckily, David found Sally Ito, a Canadian born Japanese writer, and her aunt, Michiko Tsuboi. The aunt and niece team had worked together on other projects, and had already translated some of Misuzu’s poetry for ‘fun,’ before David asked them to join him. Though it sounds like the perfect fit, both David and Michiko commented on how challenging the exchanges were between the three writers. Michiko admitted she was initially “shocked” by her niece’s “frank criticism” of David’s work, but as the project became more serious she knew she too had to set the bar high. Having to communicate via email between Canada, Japan and the U.S. complicated matters. There were ten or so emails each day, some examining broad themes, such as how to translate the girlish tones of Misuzu’s Japanese into English. Others debated precise details, finding just the right word or expression to preserve meaning. At other times Michiko felt compelled to clarify specific cultural or historical nuances of Misuzu’s life that Sally and David could not relate to. After a substantial back and forth, they had a final manuscript.

The next task was to find an illustrator. David wanted an illustrator who could authentically portray Misuzu’s world. He searched the Japan Illustrators Association (JIA) website, where he found Toshikado Hajiri. David saw in Toshikado’s work his ability to capture the child’s view of the world, much the way Misuzu did with her poetry. Toshikado shared some of his initial drawings with us, showing how they developed into final spreads. David was influential in this process, apparently very much so at times. But Toshikado took David’s suggestions on board and admitted he was happier with the new spreads. Toshikado and the team visited Misuzu’s hometown to ensure historical and cultural accuracy. Toshikado took photographs of her home and the surrounding area, collected contemporary maps, photos and paintings of the places where Misuzu grew up.

He paid attention to the finest details, including toys children would have played with in early twentieth-century Japan, and he sought to match Misuzu’s poetry through contrasts of dark and light, night and day, and seasonal variations. In one spread, Toshikado purposely included falling cherry blossom petals in the scene. “Cherry blossoms are beautiful,” he explained, “But they have a short life. Like Misuzu’s.”

It seemed through the very nature of this complex collaboration, each of the contributors sought to present Misuzu’s work in the most authentic way possible. Most certainly the echo of her voice is present on every page.

***

For further write-ups of this session please check out  Deborah Iwabuchi’s post on the SCBWI Japan Translation Group Blog here.

For more information about the book and Misuzu Kaneko’s life please visit http://misuzukaneko.com/