Young Adult Fantasy in Translation: An Interview with Cathy Hirano

by Misa Dikengil

SWET member Cathy Hirano is a Japanese-English translator living in Shikoku. Her translation of the young adult (YA) novel The Friends by Kazumi Yumoto (Natsu no niwa; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996) won the Mildred L. Batchelder Award for children's literature in translation and the Boston Globe–Horn Book Award for children's fiction (both in 1997). Misa Dikengil interviewed Hirano via email about her most recent YA publications: a translation of Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit by Nahoko Uehashi (Seirei no moribito; Scholastic, 2008) and a revised reissue of her 1993 translation of Dragon Sword and Wind Child by Noriko Ogiwara (Sorairo magatama; VIZ Media, 2007). Shortly after the interview, Hirano's translation of Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit received the 2009 Mildred L. Batchelder Award for Arthur A. Levine Books, an imprint of Scholastic.

Nahoko Uehashi’s ten-volume Moribito series, about the adventures of a young female bodyguard and the friends she makes during her journeys, is the winner of numerous literary awards and has become hugely popular in Japan, even spawning an anime and manga series of the same title. How did you first encounter Uehashi’s work? What initially drew you to it and made you want to translate it?

My first exposure to Ms. Uehashi’s work was in 2004, when I was asked to do a summary and sample of Koteki no Kanata (Beyond the Fox’s Flute, Rironsha, 2003). I was attracted by Uehashi’s writing style and by the fictional world she created. Around the same time, a Japanese friend told me about her Moribito series (published by Kaiseisha), and I found it intriguing that a children’s fantasy series was so popular even with people my age (fifty). Before I had a chance to read the series, however, Kaiseisha contacted me to do a summary and sample translation of the first book, Seirei no moribito (1996), for overseas promotion. This led to publication of Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit.

Moribito: A Three-Way Collaboration

I notice there are some areas in your translation of Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit where some exposition is left out, and other areas where explanation has been added. For example, the Mikado’s Hunters are given the names Mon, Jin, Zen, and Yun, which could be read in Japanese as one, two, three, and four. In the Japanese text, the meaning of the name Mon is briefly explained, but then the readers are left on their own to understand that Jin means two and Zen means three. You’ve added a very clear explanation of this in the English. Were these choices you made, or were they made with your editor at Scholastic? Did you have to consult with Ms. Uehashi?

In the Japanese version, each Hunter is introduced separately, and at the first mention there is a Chinese character added after the name to show that Mon means one, etc. Obviously that won’t work in English, but the fact that the names are numbers is significant to the story. When I was translating Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit, I suggested to Ms. Uehashi that we add an explanation. She agreed, and so I made the change and flagged it for the editor. The editor then came back with a suggestion that required adding the name of the eighth Hunter, which doesn’t come up in the original. The end result was the following sentence (the first half exists in the Japanese, while the underlined portion is our collaborative effort): “The last-born son of each Hunter was trained to follow in his father’s footsteps, and each was called by a number: Mon meant ‘one,’ Jin ‘two,’ Zen ‘three,’ Yun ‘four,’ all the way to Sune, ‘eight.’”

I never make major changes like this without consulting the author and the editor. During the translation process, if I feel that something is not coming through in English, I mark it in the text along with ideas for possible solutions. I then compile these with any other queries or comments and submit them to the author (or, if the author is an uncommunicative type, the Japanese editor) for feedback. (Sometimes the feedback makes it clear to me that I have actually misunderstood the original, so checking is really important.) If the author and I can solve the problem at that stage and it’s not a big change to the original, I don’t bother flagging it for the English editor. But if it is something major, I flag it because the English editor may have an even better solution. The Hunters issue required a lot of back-and-forth between the author and the English editor via me, not just to explain the meanings of the names, but also to convey the nature of the Hunters’ role accurately. This required translating the editor’s comments into Japanese and the author’s comments into English. For Guardian, I estimated that by the end I had translated at least 180 pages of comments! I don’t think I have ever had a job that required so much back and forth translation before, which is a testimony to the amount of effort and care the author and editor poured into the English version.

Nahoko Uehashi is a cultural anthropologist, and much of her work, including the Moribito series, takes place in a fantastical ancient Japan. Ms. Uehashi describes in detail not only the meals her characters eat, the clothing they wear, and the weapons they wield, but also their mythological and religious belief systems. Have you studied Japanese cultural anthropology or ancient Japanese history? While you were working on the translation, were you referencing any other texts, fiction or non-, to give you a better feel for the world you were writing in?

Actually, yes, I majored in cultural anthropology at a Japanese university. This series takes place in a fantasy world—not specifically ancient Japan at all—but it is a very Asian fantasy world. Everything is made up, including the clothes, food, belief systems, etc. Amazingly, there is now a recipe book coming out based on the food in the Moribito series. So my authoritative reference is the author herself! The world written in that series is just the tip of the iceberg. There is a whole universe inside Ms. Uehashi’s head, and she knows the culture of that world and each character very intimately, so I didn’t need to reference other books. That said, I did re-read Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea trilogy while translating Guardian, to keep me grounded in the English language and because I felt an affinity between these two authors and their works.

What were some challenges you faced while translating this text? Were there any elements that were particularly difficult to translate, such as the different speech styles of Balsa, the tough heroine bodyguard who is a commoner, and Chagum, the sheltered young prince Balsa protects; or the action-packed martial arts fight scenes?

Good guess! The fight scenes were a big challenge for me, as I am quite squeamish and have almost no martial arts experience. I found it very hard to picture what was actually happening and had to go through each fight scene, motion by motion, checking with Ms. Uehashi when I couldn’t visualize it. Once I was able to picture it, it was so gruesome!

Translating the different levels of speech was also difficult. As a prince, Chagum speaks a very regal form of Japanese, but he must disguise himself as a commoner to avoid assassination. Balsa has to remind him several times to speak more like an ordinary child. It was extremely difficult to make Chagum’s English sound princelike. In the end, the editor and I opted for making his language slightly stiff and stilted by avoiding contractions and using more adult-sounding words.

Another stumbling block was the gender of Torogai, the master magic weaver. In the Japanese, Torogai’s sex is kept ambiguous so that it’s a surprise to the reader as well as to Chagum to learn she is a woman, not a man. In English, however, it’s very hard to avoid using pronouns, which quickly give away gender. In order to stay true to the original, I changed many sentences, particularly in dialogue, to avoid using “she.” Also, Torogai’s title shishō (師匠, master) was hard to render sexless in English. In the end, the editor suggested we call her Master Torogai and explain that it is the custom among her people to call adept magic weavers “Master” regardless of their gender. With Ms. Uehashi’s consent, that is what we did.

In the United States, Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit is listed as a YA novel, for ages eleven and up, but the series has become successful across all age groups in Japan. What age/reading level did you imagine you were translating for?

Ms. Uehashi is a born storyteller, the kind who would have gathered the clan around the fire on winter nights and kept them spellbound with ancient lore. When I read these books, I didn’t feel that she was consciously writing for a specific age group, and therefore I didn’t bother thinking about the age range when translating. I just concentrated on making the story as gripping and interesting as the Japanese original. The English editor, however, did pay more attention to the target audience and suggested some changes based on what American children like to read. Many of these suggestions were excellent and very helpful, while others required renegotiating.

How did your relationship with Arthur A. Levine Books come about?

The Japanese publisher gave my sample to Arthur A. Levine Books. Apparently, the staff there had known about the series for some years, but upon hearing that the animated version would be coming to the States, they felt this would be a good opportunity for successful sales. They asked other translators to submit samples and compared them. Fortunately, they liked mine the best.

How closely did you work with your editor at Arthur A. Levine Books, Cheryl Klein? What were some of the problems you two worked to overcome?

Cheryl Klein is the most thorough editor I have ever worked with. She edited the translation as if it were a new manuscript submitted by an English author, which made some of her suggestions extremely radical. As Ms. Uehashi is also one of the most thorough and involved authors I have ever worked with on a translation, the result was definitely a team effort.

Probably the biggest problem was fitting the history of New Yogo (the fictional empire in which the story takes place) into the book in a more natural way. When I first read Guardian in Japanese, the history stuck out awkwardly in the third chapter, slowing everything down. Until that point, the action is fast-paced and the story gripping. Then suddenly the text switches to an unnamed narrator, jumps back in time, and then jumps back to the present again. It’s quite abrupt and would have sounded unnatural in English. So when I did the initial sample translation, I took it out (with the author’s and publisher’s permission) and tacked it on as a prologue with a note explaining that this would need to be solved during the editing process. After playing with several ideas, the three of us finally agreed that the history basically belonged in its original location but that English readers needed more of a transition to ease them into it and keep them from getting impatient during that section. Ms. Uehashi rewrote certain parts of the history, replacing the unnamed narrator with the more personal voice of Shuga, one of the Star Readers. So the English version is actually different from the Japanese but still written by the author.

Literature in Retranslation

In 1993, you translated Noriko Ogiwara’s Dragon Sword and Wind Child, part of the three-volume Magatama series, which is about magic amulets with the power to calm the destructive spirit of a dragon threatening the harmony of the world, and those who bear them. The original translation was published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux but has now been reissued in revised form by VIZ Media, an English-language publisher of mostly Japanese manga. The company is Japanese-owned but based in California. Could you explain how this reissue came about? How did your relationship with VIZ start?

It’s a bit complicated. I’m not one hundred percent sure what came first, but I’ll try.

imageI loved the Magatama series (first published by Fukutake Shoten, later republished by Tokuma Shoten) in Japanese and was therefore very disappointed when Dragon Sword and Wind Child (Sorairo magatama, 1988/1996) went out of print. Then my daughter grew up and fell in love with Ogiwara’s series as a teenager. Searching the Internet, she found that the English translation had received nothing but five-star reviews on Amazon. She also found used copies selling for up to five hundred dollars and one young reader who had made a website dedicated to the book. This person had even typed the entire out-of-print English translation to put on the site! I was stunned. People had actually liked the book as much as I had! I contacted the Japanese editor to see if there was a possibility of re-doing it, although I knew most American publishers would be reluctant to publish a book that hadn’t done well before. The editor, who also loves the book, began putting out feelers. Although we did not know this, around the same time, VIZ had decided to branch out into publishing translated Japanese literature and was looking for good Japanese books. One of their editors had read Dragon Sword and Wind Child when she was young and had loved it. When the editing team tried to get a copy for review, they found that the majority of library copies had been stolen, which actually made them more interested in the book, indicating as it did how popular the book was. They eventually got a copy and decided to republish it. The original English-language publisher agreed to give them the right to publish it but not the rights to my translation. When the VIZ editor contacted the Japanese publisher, she put them in touch with me and they asked if I would “re-translate” it. Of course, I was thrilled!

What kind of things did you find in your original translation that you felt needed to be reworked?

A lot. Dragon Sword and Wind Child was my first literature translation and I felt I had to be “true” to the original. But I was so true to the Japanese that the English became stilted and heavy-handed, and the natural flow of the dialogue and some of the humor didn’t come through. It was also the first translation that the English editor had worked on and I think we were both afraid to interfere too much. My whole approach to translation had changed in the sixteen years since I had translated it, so I knew I wanted to rewrite it. I began by reading the entire book out loud to my teenage children and niece, getting them to critique the language and circling places that sounded awkward. We had some good laughs doing that. Then I went through the book line-by-line, checking it against the most recent Japanese edition. To my chagrin, I found that I had misunderstood some of the Japanese (fortunately not too much) and dropped a few lines, but for the most part it was okay. I focused particularly on tightening up sentence structure, changing passive to active voice, cutting out repetition, and making the characters’ dialogue sound more realistic. My biggest aim was to make it a “good read,” just as is the Japanese.

You’ve been exceptionally successful in getting Japanese-English translations of young adult fiction published in the United States. Despite the huge number of translations from English in the Japanese children’s book market, sadly the reverse has yet to happen: there is very little Japanese children’s literature translated into English. What we do see in American bookstores, however, are English translations of Japanese manga. Both Uehashi and Ogiwara have had novels of theirs turned into manga. Have you ever translated manga? Is it something you are interested in?

Japanese children are so lucky to have access to literature from many different cultures and languages, and I highly respect the Japanese publishing industry for promoting translations for so many years. Although the content of some manga, just like the content of some books, can be pretty trashy, the good ones are great and they certainly are encouraging English-speaking children to find out more about Japan and hopefully to read Japanese books in translation. I’ve never translated any manga myself, but there are some that I really enjoy reading and think would be a lot of fun to translate, such as Nijū-seiki shōnen, Hikaru no go, and Slam Dunk.

Moribito and Magatama: Fresh Takes on Japanese Fantasy

In an afterword to one Japanese version of Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit  (Shinchosha, 2007), children’s literature translator Teruo Jingu writes that with the publication of Ogiwara’s Magatama series and Uehashi’s Moribito series, he sees a new era of Japanese children’s literature emerging, one that for the first time includes original fantasy stories authentic to Japan. When you read these novels, did you have a similar reaction that something new and exciting was taking place in Japanese children’s literature?

I know very little about what came before, and so I wasn’t comparing either of these authors or their books to others in the genre. I have, however, read and loved fantasy from the time I was a child, and grew up on such classics as The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings. I remember that the first time I read Dragon Sword and Wind Child it hit me as being completely new, exciting, and refreshing. It is so gray, ambiguous, and unexpected. The characters are complex, and the interplay between Light and Darkness challenges the whole idea of a dichotomy between good and evil. Although there are monsters and battles, there are no clear “good guys” and “bad guys,” and the most important action is internal rather than external. To me, these elements are “authentic” to Japan, if you want to phrase it that way. The same is true for Guardian. It’s not set in Japan, but the author definitely drew on her Japanese roots when writing it.

Interestingly, Ms. Ogiwara wrote in the afterword to Dragon Sword, “At the time I wrote this book, many critics insisted that fantasy would never take root in Japan. Excluding works by a few famous writers such as Kenji Miyazawa, Japanese fantasy was dismissed contemptuously as fairy tales without citizenship, folklore lacking the legitimacy of nationality.” She wrote this book eight years before Teruo Jingu wrote the comment you mention.

Do you have any other YA fiction translations in the works? Can fans expect more translations from either the Moribito series or the Magatama series in the future?

Yes, I just finished the second book in the Moribito series—Moribito II: Guardian of the Darkness—which is being released this spring, and may translate the second book in the Magatama series, Hakucho iden (The Shadow Prince, 1991).

Thank you so much for taking the time out to do this interview for SWET. Your fluid and captivating translations are truly inspiring to budding translators of Japanese children’s and YA literature.

Cathy Hirano served as guest speaker at the SWET New Year’s Party held January 26, 2009, reading an excerpt from Moribito II: Guardian of the Darkness, the second book in the Moribito series, which has just been released. Hirano also shared further thoughts on collaboration among living authors, editors, and translators—tentatively the subject of a future essay for the SWET Newsletter.

An in-depth interview with Cheryl Klein, editor of the Moribito series at Arthur A. Levine Books, appears in the Fall 2008 issue of Carp Tales, newsletter of the Tokyo chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.