Society of
Children's Book Writers
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SCBWI Japan Translation Day 2018: Japanese Children’s and YA Literature in English

A Writer’s Perspective and a Translator’s Perspective on Translation Day 2018

by Cam M. Sato and Andrew Wong

1. Glimpsing the “Magnificent Puzzle”

by Cam M. Sato, poet, author and editor

I feared I was going to be way over my head when I decided to go to Yokohama International School on October 20 to attend SCBWI Japan Translation Day, but I wanted to meet some of the people who make the magic of giving us a peek into another culture, through literature. And I wasn’t disappointed.

Participants on the morning of Translation Day 2018

The day opened with a pre-recorded Skype interview with Takami Nieda who talked about how she got into translating and how she came to translate Go by Kazuki Kaneshiro. Though Nieda had wanted to be a screenwriter in Hollywood, she soon learned that was nearly an impossible road to go down for a person of color, so she began to translate manga which led to books and eventually to Go. As soon as she read Go and saw the film, she was taken with the story. Growing up Japanese American in New Jersey, she had not had many books that she could relate to. Kaneshiro’s characters and the discrimination they face in Japan as resident Koreans resonated with her. She contacted the author via Twitter and told him how much the story meant to her, and that she wanted to translate it into English. And he agreed.

Interview with Takami Nieda, conducted using questions generated by the SCBWI Japan Translation Group

Next, Avery Fischer Udagawa, SCBWI Japan Translator Coordinator, led a “speed share” so we could meet the other participants and hear about their current projects. She then told us about the benefits of SCBWI and SWET, as well as letting us know which publishers were currently open to translation submissions and which ones tend to be translation friendly.

Interview with Adam Freudenheim

Udagawa’s talk led nicely into her pre-recorded Skype interview with Adam Freudenheim from Pushkin Press, an active publisher of translations. Freudenheim said that when a book has done well at home and there are subsidies from the home country, putting the book out in translation is almost a no-brainer. He said that Pushkin is always on the lookout for new books and new translators. Many of the projects they take on come from cold approaches: someone presents a synopsis of the book, a reason why this book is so important that it needs to be translated, and how well the book has sold in its home country along with a sample translation. The other way Pushkin finds new talent—and this is why workshops, book fairs and conferences are so important—is through connections: people recommending people.

Louise Heal Kawai, translator of Ms. Ice Sandwich, and Adam Freudenheim of Pushkin Press/Pushkin Children’s Books

The final event before breaking for lunch was Louise Heal Kawai talking about her translation of Ms. Ice Sandwich by Mieko Kawakami. It was fun learning about the plays on words that Kawai had to deal with in her translation. One involved changing the name of a character from Hegaty to Tutti. The problem was that Hegaty was a joke nickname given by the main character, to reference the time his friend farted and it smelled like tea. Kawai also read excerpts from Ms. Ice Sandwich. Her reading was so smooth and natural that it didn’t “sound like a translation” at all. I was mesmerized.

Lunch outdoors at Minato no Mieru Oka park

After a wonderful vegan Buddha Bowl lunch provided by Dragon Dining, Louise Heal Kawai critiqued participants’ translations of an excerpt from Akogare (Longing) by Mieko Kawakami. The big takeaway was that every translation had its gems, and every translation had things that could have been tweaked a bit. Some translation depends on deep knowledge of the culture; half of participants translated the word shiori as bookmark, and the other half as leaflet or pamphlet. To choose the correct word here, one would have to know that Japanese elementary school children make shiori pamphlets that announce itineraries for certain events.

Louise Heal Kawai workshops translations of a passage by Mieko Kawakami as yet unpublished in English.

Though Kawai’s translation of Ms. Ice Sandwich has been marketed as a book for adults, which could also work for young adults, it could clearly also be marketed as a middle-grade novel. Holly Thompson, in the next session, discussed the differences between middle grade (MG) and young adult (YA), and she told us that classifying books is important for knowing how to market and where to shelve books in bookstores and libraries. Thompson then handed out excerpts from MG and YA novels and had us determine if our excerpts were MG or YA and tell why we thought so.

The day ended with a panel discussion by Yumiko Sakuma, prolific translator, scholar, and President of the Japanese Board on Books for Young People (JBBY), along with Avery Udagawa and Holly Thompson. They discussed what happens when Japanese novels meet US/UK book categories, and vice versa. It seems that Japanese are more willing to read stories where the protagonist is young, even in books marketed to adults—Ms. Ice Sandwich being an example of that. In Japan, kanji is often the marker for knowing what age a story is targeted for. The panel thought that a book could do better if placed in the proper category (or categories) in its target market. The Whale that Fell in Love with a Submarine by Akiyuki Nosaka, translated for Pushkin Children’s Books by Ginny Tapley Takemori, is a good example of this; it did better in the UK when re-marketed recently for adults as The Cake Tree in the Ruins.

Yumiko Sakuma during the panel discussion at Translation Day 2018

Though much of Translation Day was focused on the market and the proper placement of books, for me, the magic was getting a glimpse of how great translators put together pieces of the magnificent puzzle that is translation.

2. Landing Right

by Andrew Wong, translator

Ever wondered where a children’s story might land? Which shelf would a bookseller put it on? How would it end up in that one corner of the school library? Why not this one instead? What goes into that decision?

Picture books have, well, their own section, and they give booksellers and librarians the tough choice of picking which ones to put in the front face-out (and others in the back or spines-out).

Books with more text come in categories from early reader to middle grade and young adult. The latter two categories are not always as clear as their names suggest. I dropped in at SCBWI Japan’s Translation Day 2018 to hear Holly Thompson give a crash course on guidelines to identifying MG and YA, which gave a peek into what influences a book’s landing category.

Holly Thompson’s session on MG and YA

Running through the key elements of target readership, character age, subject matter, and buyer, she also tuned our minds to language, perspective, and other clues in the text. MG normally centres on school or family life, while more complex, deeper issues tend to fall under YA. Things can get tricky with a storyline that spans both categories, and with children choosing to read about slightly older characters, borders can quickly become less apparent.

Participants discussing whether selected excerpts are MG and/or YA

Well, there’s nothing like a pop quiz to test how much we understand about those borders. From a few pages of selected MG and YA titles, we discovered just how many clues a couple of pages can contain. Cover design, title, character voice, vocabulary, and even text size proved valuable hints. Examples of crossover titles added to an understanding of the fluidity of the MG-YA boundary, and why libraries might put some titles in both sections.

More participants evaluate MG and YA excerpts

So how does an understanding of the two largest kidlit categories change the way we craft or translate stories? The day’s final panel on Japanese titles meeting US categories offered some hints.

Panel on Japanese vs. US/UK book categories with Yumiko Sakuma (center)

Joined by Avery Fischer Udagawa and Holly Thompson, JBBY President Yumiko Sakuma started the panel with a brief introduction of Japanese children’s book categories: books for babies, toddlers, young children, and then children’s literature, which covers MG and YA. The standout factor in Japanese categories is kanji (ideograms, which Japanese children learn year by year through high school). How many reading helps for kanji are provided in a book is an indication of the required kanji ability and target readership.

But will a story land in the same category in another country? Hans Christen Andersen Award winners Nahoko Uehashi’s Moribito series, translated by Cathy Hirano, and Eiko Kadono’s Kiki’s Delivery Service, translated by Lynne E. Riggs, were cited as examples of works that seemed to fall outside those traditional US categories. Kaiseisha launched the Moribito books in Japan some twenty years ago as a children’s fantasy series with lead character, Balsa, in her 30s, while Kiki grows from childhood to adulthood in the latter series.

Japanese children’s titles also occasionally deal with challenging themes like nuclear power and war, subjects that would probably not sit well within US category guidelines. But with the Harry Potter series capturing a broad readership beyond its intended audience, there are hints that translated editions can be tweaked, and books redesigned, repackaged, and marketed to reach multiple readerships. That final thought from Translation Day 2018, on re-imagining the same story for another crowd, certainly sowed ideas to make stories land in just that right spot.

To read more about Translation Day 2018, please see coverage at the SCBWI Japan Translation Group blog.