Translator Spotlight: Avery Fischer Udagawa

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Welcome to my interview with Avery Udagawa!

Yes, today I bring you my next interview highlighting the work of literary translators, and this time I’m chatting with a translator of Japanese children’s literature, Avery Fischer Udagawa (@AveryUdagawa).

Playing by the Book: Hello Avery, and welcome to Playing by the Book. I’ve been following your work for some time, and know that you are very active promoting children’s literature in translation and also do a lot supporting and discussing issues faced by multicultural families. Were multiple languages and bi/multicultural families part of your own childhood or was it later that you become aware of different languages and the joy of moving between them?

Avery Udagawa: I became aware while growing up in Kansas, in the central USA, where I took Spanish classes and had bilingual Mexican American classmates. I also met foreign exchange students and immigrants from Hungary, Japan, South Korea and beyond, as my parents believed firmly in international friendship. They traveled to Japan when I was small and brought back dolls, fans, ceiling mobiles and Barbie-sized kimono, which surrounded me as I grew and I’m sure made Japan feel closer. I didn’t realize then how unusual my parents’ internationalism was: a pastor and public school music teacher, they saved in order to visit a new country together every five years.

Later on, I took a Japanese class in my second year at St. Olaf College in Minnesota. I enjoyed it so much that I took more classes and used my savings to attend an eight-week Japanese immersion school at Indiana University-Bloomington the following summer. Humid Bloomington was where I first experienced living in a language other than English, and moving between tongues. Of course, Japanese and English are dissimilar and English still surrounded me. It was postgraduate scholarships, including from the now-threatened Fulbright program, that let me study for more than a year at Nanzan University, Nagoya, and later at the Inter-University Center for Japanese Language Studies, Yokohama, toward literacy and fluency. I earned a Master’s in Japanese from the University of Sheffield later. In total it took more than six years, including three in which I studied in Japan full-time—not while tutoring English, not while working (I was terribly fortunate)—to acquire Japanese. Of course, linguistic proficiency is a muscle, and I have to maintain it. I use Japanese and English in my bilingual family, in my work at an international school near Bangkok, and in translating children’s literature—my passion. I also speak a very mistake-laden, acquired-on-the-go Thai.

Playing by the Book: Wow, what a legacy from your parents, and how interesting to see how those early seeds germinated and grew. Whilst translating isn’t all that you do, what do you find most enjoyable about being a translator and why?

帰命寺横丁の夏 (Kimyoji yokocho no natsu) by Sachiko Kashiwaba

Avery Udagawa: I enjoy many parts of translation, but I especially enjoy seeing my translations reach children. A class of students at the school where I work, who in the UK would be Year 5s, wrote me notes after their teacher read them my translation of Temple Alley Summer (帰命寺横丁の夏 / Kimyoji yokocho no natsu) by Sachiko Kashiwaba. My ten-year-old elder daughter also dedicated a short novel she wrote recently to her family, to the UK author Jacqueline Wilson — and to Sachiko Kashiwaba, because of Temple Alley Summer. My daughter has not yet read this novel in Japanese, but she accessed it through my English, and I am thrilled that she seems to have enjoyed it as much as I did. Temple Alley Summer is forthcoming from Restless Books.

Playing by the Book: Could you describe the process you go through when translating a book? Do you use a similar process irrespective of genre? What are the most useful ‘tools’ you use?

Avery Udagawa: I hesitate to dwell on tools, as this can make translation sound mechanical, when in fact it is creative — often aptly compared to classical musical performance, in which a soloist interprets a piece. This might involve studying the piece closely, learning about the composer, and using all of oneself to bring the composition to life, so that it moves listeners in a concert hall.

I could say that my tools are a laptop, books of literature and language, and the Internet — but that’s a little like saying that Hilary Hahn’s tools are a violin, rosin, and a bow. (I hope to grow half as virtuosic as Hahn!) Far more goes into creative performance than the items used to produce it.

Regarding process, this too compares with a classical musician’s. I study an original work, and then I “play” it (not in sound waves, of course, but in English). I stick closely at first to the notes on the page, working to produce each linguistic pitch, accent and fermata as-written. I then attend to longer phrases, sections, and themes, and I consider the intended audience as well as the composer. I revise my interpretation again and again, eventually polishing it while looking away from the original. I will still go back and check the original, to ensure that I have been faithful; my job, after all, is not to compose a new work. But I endeavor to render the work in a fluid, clear, and compelling new way.

Playing by the Book: What a lovely analogy with music. So continuing with that idea – are you ever commissioned, or does it work the other way – you “compose”(i.e. translate, perhaps only a sample) and then pitch it?

Avery Udagawa: Of the two novels that I have translated so far, one has been commissioned and the other self-initiated. I translated J-Boys: Kazuo’s World, Tokyo, 1965 by Shogo Oketani, when his wife Leza Lowitz hired me to translate it for his birthday (they later found an English-language publisher in Stone Bridge Press, and a Japanese bilingual publisher in IBC Publishing). Temple Alley Summer by Sachiko Kashiwaba, on the other hand, is a novel that I read after translating the author’s story “House of Trust” for Tomo: Friendship Through Fiction—An Anthology of Japan Teen Stories. I enjoyed Temple Alley Summer so much that I translated it on spec and for practice, and submitted it to a contest and several publishers, before it found a home at Restless Books.

My translations of shorter works, from stories to kamishibai, have also been a mix of self-initiated and commissioned. I would note however that such projects all result from connections I have cultivated actively — by volunteering in professional guilds, presenting at conferences, translating material about children’s literature (speeches, pamphlet copy, gallery panels, newsletters), and writing articles. In fact, Shogo and Leza and I met when I interviewed them for Kyoto Journal.

So there is a self-initiated aspect to all of it, really. Demand for translations is low in English-language children’s publishing; rarely do projects result from editors knocking down a translator’s door.

Psst . . . If more grown-ups demand to purchase world titles for children’s bookshelves, this will change! I yearn to see adult “gatekeepers” read, request, and review children’s books in translation, that in this global age, publishers can offer children stories from their whole planet.

Playing by the Book: Oh I’m completely with you on that Avery! Yes, yes, yes! to more children’s books in translation from all across the world!

So, to help my readers (and me!) find more fabulous books in translation, what are your favourite five children’s books translated from Japanese and why?

Avery Udagawa: I will plug J-Boys again as it portrays a boy’s life after the 1964 Tokyo Olympics—and Japan will soon host the Tokyo Olympics a second time. J-Boys gives the only child’s-eye view I know, of how different Japan and its capital were after the last Summer Games there: Think young boys bathing in public baths, training to run like US sprinter Bob Hayes, bopping to The Beatles, and watching the Vietnam War on TV . . . all while seeing their elders nurse the all-too-recent scars of World War II.

I treasure The Friends, a middle grade novel by Kazumi Yumoto, translated by Cathy Hirano, in which three twelve-year-old boys spy on an elderly man to learn about death, and end up becoming friends with him. This title has won several awards and been dubbed the Japanese Stand by Me.

Many in my field celebrated recently when Eiko Kadono, author of the novel Kiki’s Delivery Service, won the 2018 Hans Christian Andersen Award for Writing. (Igor Oleynikov of Russia won the 2018 Andersen for Illustration.) The Andersen is considered the Nobel Prize for children’s literature. Kiki’s Delivery Service is known in the English-speaking world as the basis for a Studio Ghibli film, but the novel itself is pure delight. Translated by Lynne E. Riggs and published by Annick Press of Canada, it is out-of-print but selling for startlingly high prices on Amazon. Snag a copy if you can!*

*Update: A new translation of Kiki’s Delivery Service by Emily Balistrieri was published in 2020 by Delacorte Books for Young Readers!

The Girl with the White Flag by Tomiko Higa, translated by the late Dorothy Britton, is Higa’s memoir of surviving the Battle of Okinawa as a seven-year-old child, separated from her family. It is required reading in an age when many seem to have forgotten the brutality of war.

Finally, The Secret of the Blue Glass by Tomiko Inui (1924-2002) is a novel published in Japan’s postwar era that just came out in English, translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori. It portrays a family of Little People being cared for by a growing girl, who has to evacuate wartime Tokyo for the countryside. The novel is a mesmerizing combination of realistic historical fiction and fantasy—almost When My Name Was Keoko meets The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane.

Playing by the Book: Part of me is sad that I’ve only read one of your list – The Secret of the Blue Glass – but part of me is happy; I’ve now got a good excuse to go to the library and bookshop later today!

And looking to the future, what are your top picks for not-yet-translated Japanese books – ones you would you really love to see translated into English, and why?

Avery Udagawa: It’s so hard to choose! If I may name titles from three age categories:

Mommy, Please Hold Me (ねえ、だっこして / Ne, dakko shite) is a picture book by Fumiko Takeshita, illustrated by Kiyo Tanaka, in which a cat craves Mommy’s attention after a new baby is born. The cat aches to be held, knowing well the comforts of Mommy’s lap. And yet, the cat is big enough to explore on its own, even outdoors, and even on the roof! Set in an architecturally novel, traditional Japanese house yet featuring a universal theme, this title features a surprise on page 32.

A middle grade novel that I love, referred to in English as Satoko’s Plans or Happy Note (ハッピーノート) and written by Taki Kusano, portrays a preteen girl who hopes that after-school cram school will offer her release from the social pressures of public school. She develops a crush on a boy at her cram school, and she studies with him to prepare for exams for private middle school—which she also hopes will offer social refuge. But she cannot properly express her feelings to the boy, her peers, or her parents, and her reticence leads her to tell half-truths, which invite disaster. At last she must discard an elaborate set of plans she has made to reset her life, and tell the truth—which itself initially invites disaster. Kusano’s book involves many layers; among other things, it portrays cram school with far more depth than most Western descriptions offer. I confess I mainly relish the sweet first romance. Do UK children know that Year 7s can find love studying at Mister Donuts late at night?

They can.

Finally, I would like to mention the YA title DIVE!! by Eto Mori. DIVE!! came out in four bestselling installments in Japan, but would work as a long novel in English. It follows three teenage divers striving to qualify for the Olympic Games. Yoichi is a “thoroughbred” son of former Olympians, determined to earn his way without favors; Tomoki is a middle schooler talented beyond his years; and Shibuki is a rural teen whose family were ritual cliff divers. All of them train at the financially strapped Mizuki Diving Club, where the arrival of female coach Kayoko Asaki promises to turn everyone’s routine on its head—and perhaps guarantee him a future. This book has inspired two manga adaptations, a live action movie, and an anime series that aired in summer 2017. It is ripe for publication in English, as Japan will host the 2020 Summer Olympics.

Here is a video of lay people trying to jump from a 10-meter diving platform, the height the teen athletes dive from in DIVE!! [EDIT: I URGE you to watch this. It is simply astonishing and makes me desperate to read DIVE!!! /Zoe ~ Playing by the book]

Whether it’s a gorgeous picture book, a coming-of-age story or a pacey sports novel, #worldkidlit offers it. And books in translation connect young readers of English to new parts of their world. Wouldn’t it be great if the next global hit got UK children idolizing a Japanese author—the inverse of this photo?

Playing by the Book: That would indeed be wonderful, Avery. Thank you so much for the insight into the way you work, your tips on great Japanese children’s literature in translation and some suggestions for publishers to note – I really do hope the books you highlight get picked up – and that you’re invited to translate them!





If this interview whets your appetite for Japanese literature in translation, do check out the blog series which starts on May 1 on the Global Literature In Libraries Initiative website. Nearly every day during May there will be posts about Japanese literature in translation, ranging from lists of favored translations, to discourses on war in children’s lit, an evaluation of different translations of classic novelist Soseki Natsume to a discussion of Japanese “light novels” (aka “ranobe”). If you want to continue your exploration of Japanese culture, I’d also recommend the current series on BBC Radio 3, Night Blossoms – a whole host of late-evening programmes exploring the counter-culture in Japanese music and art (available to listen to online, around the world).

  1. David Jacobson

    Hi Zoe — I’m delighted to read your interview with Avery. As you’ve mentioned, she’s been a strong force behind promoting translations of international children’s lit, particularly those from Japan (even from her perch in Bangkok, Thailand!). I’m also personally indebted to her for her help with my book, “Are You an Echo?”. Thanks, too, for posting a link to the series on Japanese literature in translation, which I’m hosting at the Global Literature in Libraries Initiative website. Please let your readers know that we will be featuring an excerpt of Avery’s translation of “Dive!” on May 10. Check it out!

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