In January this year, I shared my thoughts about the English translation of Temple Alley Summer by Kashiwaba Sachiko, and I am now happy to post a Q&A with the translator Avery Fischer Udagawa.
Avery is an American but lives near Bangkok with her family. Her husband, who is Japanese, teaches music. They have two daughters.
Avery grew up in Kansas and studied English and Asian Studies at St. Olaf College in Minnesota. She was then at Nanzan University, Nagoya, on a Fulbright Fellowship, and the Inter-University Center for Japanese Language Studies, Yokohama . While living in Thailand, she read for and was awarded an MA in Advanced Japanese Studies from the University of Sheffield.
How did you get into translating professionally?
I began by networking through the Tokyo-based Society of Writers, Editors and Translators, and through freelance writing about translation, such as for Kyoto Journal (see my maiden KJ article, ‘They Who Render Anew’, here). I tried different kinds of editing and translation and found myself gravitating toward children’s literature, partly due to starting a family and wanting my home and work lives to connect. Once I began to focus on kidlit, involvement with the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) Japan chapter became key for my professional development, as did participating in the Asian Festival of Children’s Content (AFCC) in Singapore — where I met you!
When you translate a book from Japanese to English what sort of guidelines, if any, are you given by the publisher?
Publishers seldom post submission guidelines for translations, but through speaking with editors at SCBWI events and AFCC, I have gotten a sense of which houses and imprints welcome translations, and what sorts of submissions they seek. They will often need a more extensive sample translation and pitch for a work from an unfamiliar author and/or translator and/or language, than they would in a case where they feel they know what they’re dealing with. It can be tricky for emerging translators, particularly of lesser-known material, to produce sample translations and pitches sufficient to interest publishers, yet not get trapped in an un- or underpaid ‘full-sample hellscape’ (Anton Hur’s term). Grant funding can really help translators at this stage. So can translating short fiction to establish a track record.
I notice that Japanese books that have been translated into English tend to follow Western conventions in name order. So, for example, the author’s name will be Sachiko Kashiwaba and the characters’ names also appear with the surname after the given name. Could you talk about this practice?
Since the convention in English-language children’s publishing has been given-name first, I think the concern with using surname-first is that it could be jarring for some readers, taking them out of the story. I have seen, however, that publishing conventions can change; for example, it is more common now to put macrons over vowels and to include non-English words without italics (as was done in TAS: Yūsuke, yakisoba). As publishing conventions change, readers’ expectations can evolve too. It may be that we will soon see more nuanced approaches to names.
When Yūsuke, a supporting character, calls the main character Kazu ‘Dude’, is this a translation of a similar form of address in Japanese? Can you talk about your style in terms of translating such words/forms of address, and translating things like idioms, proverbs and poetry?
“It’s Akari, dude. Akari,” he repeated.
In this line, Yūsuke is reminding Kazu of a name he has known for years (as far as Yūsuke understands, anyway). The Japanese is read, ‘Akari da. Akari.’ The da is the plain/casual form of the copula desu, which is like a ‘be’ verb; it can also be used for emphasis. The aim in a literary translation is to convey the effect of the source text, not the precise dictionary equivalent of each word (which often doesn’t exist, especially in a dissimilar language). Instead of translating literally here, with the Yoda-like “Akari it is. Akari,” or some such, I used an informal term of emphasis that ten-year-old English speakers might use with friends: ‘dude’. I actually started out with ‘man’, but my daughters (now ten and fourteen) nixed this as too outdated!
What do you find most challenging when you translate a book and, in particular, TAS?
Children’s books are often set partly in school, and school in different countries can look and feel very different, so it’s challenging to bridge the gaps. Japanese primary school, for example, has many aspects not found overseas (special indoor shoes that look like canvas ballet slippers; numbered class sections and small groups; summer homework). Yet especially when a book opens partly in a school, like TAS does, it’s important to give a sense of starting out in a well-known, predictable place — which is what the school setting does in the original. What I tried to do in TAS was clarify aspects of school that non-Japanese would need to know to follow the story, but not introduce so many that it would be overwhelming.
Also, what do you enjoy most about translating?
Lately, it has been a real mountaintop experience to see TAS receive the Batchelder Award, which means that the translation will make its way into more English-language libraries (the Batchelder is conferred by the Association for Library Services to Children within the American Library Association). The award also generated renewed attention for the book in Japan. After asking the author to wait for years while I sought a publisher abroad, it was great to see TAS generate TV and newspaper coverage for her at home.
But mostly, being a translator does not involve awards! The joys are more intrinsic: discovering a way to evoke a character’s voice, smiling over a passage that you can’t wait to share with new readers. Also, the community of kidlit translators is wonderful. The working conditions (pay, crediting and so on) are often poor — and we agitate to change this, to make careers in this field more viable and the field, as a whole, more inclusive,—,but an upside is that people who translate kidlit into English despite the hardships are committed, supportive, and a family I treasure.
Finally, speaking of family, my children and husband were part of the final go-overs of TAS, and sharing the experience of translating and launching it with them was priceless.
When translating a book, do you communicate with the author of the book and if so, what kinds of questions do you usually have for them?
I have not had access to the author of every work I have translated, but I was fortunate to be introduced to Sachiko Kashiwaba in order to translate a story of hers for Tomo: Friendship Through Fiction — An Anthology of Japan Teen Stories (2012). Being in touch with her has helped when specific questions have arisen about her writing, and also in terms of understanding the background and humanity that power her books. It is a privilege to know such a gifted writer.
If you could translate any Japanese author or Japanese novel, what/who would it be and why?
I would love to translate many more of Kashiwaba’s books; currently, I am translating her novel Misaki no mayoiga (The House of the Lost on the Cape) for publication next year. An animated feature film based on this book recently came out to acclaim.
I would also love to place the YA sports novel DIVE!! by Eto Mori; the middle grade first-love novel Happy Note (Satoko’s Plans) by Taki Kusano; the Zorori series by Yutaka Hara for early readers . . . the list goes on and on!
Do you have favourite translators of Japanese novels into English, or favourite Japanese to English translated works? Who/what are they and why?
Cathy Hirano has translated the Batchelder Award-winning realistic middle grade novel The Friends by Kazumi Yumoto; the Batchelder Award-winning fantasy Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit by Nahoko Uehashi, as well as The Beast Player by Uehashi, named a Batchelder Honor book and a Printz Honor book; and lately, Anne’s Cradle, Eri Muraoka’s biography of her grandmother Hanako Muraoka, the first translator of Anne of Green Gables into Japanese during World War II. As you see, Cathy has a phenomenal genre range. Outside of children’s literature, she is the translator of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo! Her translations are unfailingly absorbing while imparting the distinct flavors of contrasting texts. And beyond that, she is generous and kind. My journey as a translator has been punctuated by traveling to see her in her home of Takamatsu years ago; enjoying a meal with her on the sidelines of AFCC when Japan was the Country of Focus; and exchanging emails. She is unfailingly gracious and inspiring.
How inevitable is it that some elements of a story will be ‘lost in translation’? If so, why is it so? And what, in your opinion, needs to happen to minimize this?
Elements of a story get ‘lost’ when they require explanation for a new audience and there’s no way to do so without interrupting a story. (Example: the room where Kazu’s family altar stands in TAS is the zashiki, a word that young readers could totally handle, which I could not find a way to use and define without stopping the flow. I ended up calling the zashiki a ‘room with tatami floors’ or the ‘altar room’.) For fewer elements to be ‘lost’, readers need ample exposure to a culture over time, so that less of it has to be explained. These days, for example, it’s possible to refer to anime, manga, or an emoji without pausing to unpack these terms as one might have had to do years ago.
Have you ever been unable to finish a book because it was poorly translated? If so, what about the translation made it particularly difficult to read?
When a book contains English that has not been fine-tuned as English, that’s a struggle to read.
Is there an author or a book that hasn’t been picked up for translation whom/that you think should be?
Every time I pick up Japanese Children’s Books, a list of recent outstanding titles curated by the Japanese Board on Books for Young People and described in English, I see about ninety books that need translation! You can find the 2020 edition of this publication here (PDF) and the 2021 edition here (PDF). The 2022 edition is coming soon.
A long time ago, when I had read only a few translated Japanese novels, I asked a Japanese friend what he thought of Murakami Haruki, and he called Murakami a Japanese Dan Brown and recommended Suzuki Koji instead. Care to comment?
I’m definitely no authority on literature for grown-ups. If you want a Dan Brown-esque, blockbuster movie-inspiring thriller, you could try Bullet Train by Kōtarō Isaka, translated by Sam Malissa. I understand that it is set on a shinkansen traveling to Morioka where, incidentally, Sachiko Kashiwaba lives. When Covid lets up enough for me to reenter Japan and visit her there, I’m thinking of geeking out and riding the same train and route while reading the book!
If you had to recommend one title to someone who has never read any Japanese fiction, what would it be?
Impossible to recommend just one! See any of Cathy’s translations above or, for contemporary YA/adult uplit with substance, check out Sweet Bean Paste by Durian Sukegawa, translated by Alison Watts, or Colorful by Eto Mori, translated by Jocelyne Allen.