Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
We Need Translated Books

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The mountains became a black lump.

No.

The mountains combined in a black silhouette.

The mountains coalesced into a black silhouette.

Three mountains merged in a coal-black silhouette.

I fiddle with the first line of a scene in Yamagata prefecture, Japan: At sunset, three backlit mountains seem to lose their distinctions and form one entity that challenges the sky.

A boy watching this brings a trumpet to his lips. He climbs a hill here each day after school, and again after supper, to practice his long tones. He is a beginner whose sound more resembles a cat’s yowl than his idol Louis Armstrong’s purr. His mother has told him to quit trumpet, so he won’t disturb the neighbors; his teenage brother informs him he’s a psychopath. He plays on, however, amid bullying at school and discord at home.

As I translate this piece, I wonder whether it will see print in English. It is short for a novella and long for a short story; its tone has an innocence common to chapter books, but one violent scene better suits middle grade or young adult fiction. It works as what it is—a story penned in Japan, outside of U.S. categories. I translate in hopes of sharing it, but its form may make it a hard sell in English.

~

“Uh, ah, eh. So.” In the end, that’s what came out of my mouth. I am a moron.

“Oh, ah. Umm.” She began running through the vowels herself. She probably wondered what the heck I had to say.

She turned bright red.

Oh no, don’t do that, don’t blush! She had the wrong idea. She thought I was about to declare my undying love. What a situation.

I draft-translate a novel for a children’s publishing workshop. This book’s main character is a fifth-grade boy who comes in third at everything. One day, he sees a mysterious girl leave his house and turn up at school, where everyone “remembers” her as his classmate. The boy learns that he lives on a temple site where the dead can be reborn—and that his classmate has come back to life. She also faces grave danger. The hapless hero must race against time to protect her existence.

This novel’s style and length would make it a middle grade title in English. It offers male and female leads, distinctive voice, and a fresh take on the theme of the reborn. Its realistic narrative with wisps of fantasy, set loosely in Japan’s Iwate prefecture, weaves with a yarn about a pearl diver who saves her kingdom from a wicked witch. I work on zippy pitches for the book: “A Japanese The Fault in Our Stars with fifth graders.” “A middle grade mystery-fantasy combined with a fairytale.”

I bear in mind, though, that when I sent this story for critique, a New York publishing expert asked why it is set in Japan. I had never imagined it should not be.

I realized I had a blind spot: I viewed setting a book outside the U.S. as normal. But U.S. books for children tend to take place in America, or in a fantasy world. If a book unfolds overseas, it is usually written by a U.S. author.

~

“Ooh, the fence in the shade is cool. The fence in the sun is warm! How about this bicycle seat in the sun? OUCH! It’s hot!”

I translate-read with our three-year-old at bedtime. This picture book features a boy and his dad who use their hands as “thermometers,” checking the temperatures of things in their neighborhood.

The book reminds me of Aliki’s The Listening Walk, except it focuses on sense of touch. The pictures show a friendly town with distinctive sights: a mailbox with the post office symbol 〒, a pole with the character 文 for school. The story never mentions Japan, but its visuals could work against it: I have seen Japanese writing scrubbed from storybook illustrations to be sold stateside.

Do parents prefer not to buy children’s books that look “foreign,” or do booksellers think they will not? Or has no one given them a chance?

~

Our living room bookshelves bulge with English and Japanese picture books. Our daughters’ reading times involve books from one or the other tongue, sometimes both. (Plus sometimes Thai, when we can have a friend read to us.)

We find that books translated into Japanese are many. Japanese bookstores stock every U.S. storybook from Where the Wild Things Are to This Is Not My Hatthe latter in an Osaka dialect translation that we adore.

When we browse U.S. children’s book sections, however, we almost never find picture books from Japan—except Everyone Poops by Taro Gomi. Translations are unusual; almost all books on offer are authored in English.

We wonder when U.S. children see stories composed in the dozens of major languages (and thousands of “minor”), or set in the 190-odd other countries. Books would help them do this pleasurably. They’d get to laugh, romp, and cry through stories that move companions on their planet.

~

The We Need Diverse Books campaign began in May in response to lack of diversity in children’s books: Less than 10 percent feature diverse main characters, though about half of U.S. children come from a minority background. The campaign received over 60 million Tweets.

My favorite WNDB quote comes from author Lamar Giles, who holds that lack of diverse books is “more tradition than malice.” He finds that publishers who see the statistics quickly support diverse books. I hope the same publishers will acquire translations, an untapped well of diversity.

The world is full of stories that non-U.S. kids love, which U.S. adults can give their children through translations. We can trust them with new authors and settings. We can decide that, since they will grow up in a global world, they deserve to explore it.

We can begin by buying children’s and teen books in translation, such as titles on the Mildred L. Batchelder Award list. If I could give one to every parent reading this, it would be The Friends by Kazumi Yumoto, translated by Cathy Hirano. In it, three twelve-year-olds spy on an old man to learn about death, and end up studying life.

~

Mr. Honda wrote some characters on the chalkboard.

“These characters are read sabetsu, which means discrimination. This is making fun of, or looking down on, people because of the color of their skin, their nationality, or the way they look. It is a shameful practice, the one thing people should avoid doing at all costs.”

A few years ago I translated the historical novel J-Boys: Kazuo’s World, Tokyo, 1965 by Shogo Oketani. Oketani grew up in Shinagawa ward, Tokyo, still lives there, and sends his son to the school he describes in the book. His story is one that only he could have written.

In the scene above, a teacher defines discrimination partly as treating others poorly due to nationality. Fifty years later, I believe his words hold true.

Can we fight this discrimination with diverse books? As a literary mama in Asia, I believe we must try.

If you have diverse book recommendations—including translations for children—please share them in the comments here and via #WeNeedDiverseBooks. The movement for diverse literature needs you, and your love of reading and children.

 


Avery Fischer Udagawa grew up in Kansas and lives with her bicultural (Japanese/American) family in an international school community near Bangkok. Her translations from Japanese include J-Boys: Kazuo’s World, Tokyo, 1965, a middle grade novel by Shogo Oketani. Her writing has appeared in Kyoto Journal. Please visit her website to learn more.


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I recommend two series of books originally in Japanese. They don't have much of a cultural aspect, mainly appealing to children's love of fantasy and "yeah, why can things be just like that?" One series is "Guri and Gura" by Rieko Nakagawa, and the "Grandma Baba" series by Wakiko Sato. For illustrations and more of a realistic setting (more Japanese culture) are books by Akiko Hayashi.
Commenting on Avery's mention of what her children have read, I'd say the ideal is reading books in their respective languages. How enrichening for bilingual/bicultural children to get children's lit in their own multiple languages! But even read in translation, I believe my daughters were aware of which culture individual books came from and it added to their understanding of where they came from even if we spent much more time living in one culture than the other. The books helped connect them. My nieces and nephews read books on Japan--kid's lit, not reference books--that connected them to their cousins living in that country. Being aware of other countries and cultures is so complicated, and yet starting children out learning about them through the books they read is a natural and almost absurdly simple way to do it. Useful for parents, too!
A great article Avery! I think you've captured the essence of not only the difficulty in translating a story, but trying to introduce it to people who would enjoy it - if they only knew about it!! One of my favorite Japanese stories is Kiki's Delivery Service by Eiko Kadono and translated by Lynne Riggs, which was the basis for the movie of the same name. Another book by Kazumi Yumoto, Bear and the Wildcat, translated by Cathy Hirano, is a wonderful story that I would recommend to adults as well as children.
Thank you Avery! Great column. Favorite translated (published) picture book: "Guji Guji" by Chin-Yuan Chen, from Taiwan, available in English and Japanese (the English translator is unnamed!) A wish: the Japanese "Fox and Wolf" picture books. Wildly popular in Japan - vivid stories, unforgettable art. I've draft-translated a number of them over a period of years with the care and love they deserve (revising, revising), but sadly, no interest found so far in getting them published in English. http://www.booksfromjapan.jp/publications/item/209-friends
Nice essay, Avery! As a children's librarian, I have recommended "Lon Po Po" to younger students - the Red Riding Hood story from China, a most beautiful story in words and pictures. Older students enjoy "The Thief Lord"...the plot is full of twists, has a great ending, & is the perfect children's book. Cornelia Funke is regarded as the German J.K. Rowling. I heartily agree with you, Avery, we need more translations! Keep up the good work!
Beautiful essay, Avery. You captured the process and struggles of translation so well. As a child, one of my favourite books was "The Little Prince." I read it, not knowing it was a translation, but only knowing that it completely captivated me--and never failed to do so in each subsequent reading, even as an adult. As I am sure readers of this site know, the novella was first published in 1943 and was written by French aristocrat, writer, poet and pioneering aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (1900–1944). The French title was "Le Petit Prince." According to Wikipedia, "The Little Prince" is both the most-read and most-translated book in the French language, and was voted the best book of the 20th century in France. It has been translated into more than 250 languages and dialects (as well as braille), and sells nearly two million copies annually with sales totalling over 140 million copies worldwide. It is one of the top best-selling books ever published! And if children's books were not translated, we would never have had this great work available across the world. I don't know that children who read it are even aware that it is a translation. I certainly wasn't. This story of a boy's quest for meaning is universal, timeless, and completely beyond borders of language, country and culture. Who knows what other masterpieces are awaiting translation in the coming generations? Our lives will certainly be the richer for them.
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