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Interview

Translating Japanese

In conversation with Avery Fischer Udagawa

Avery Fischer Udagawa is an American, who lives in Thailand and translates from Japanese. She is like an iconic bridge that links diverse cultures with her translations. Avery grew up in Kansas and studied English and Asian Studies at St. Olaf College in Minnesota. She holds an M.A. in Advanced Japanese Studies from The University of Sheffield. She writes, translates, and works in international education near Bangkok, where she lives with her bicultural family.

Her latest translation, of the fantasy novel Temple Alley Summer by Sachiko Kashiwaba, is forthcoming in July 2021 from Restless Books, Brooklyn, New York. Described by the publisher as “a fantastical and mysterious adventure featuring the living dead, a magical pearl, and a suspiciously nosy black cat named Kiriko”, it features illustrations by Miho Satake.

Avery’s other translations include “Festival Time” by Ippei Mogami in The Best Asian Short Stories 2018, “House of Trust” by Sachiko Kashiwaba in Tomo: Friendship Through Fiction–An Anthology of Japan Teen Stories; and J-Boys: Kazuo’s World, Tokyo, 1965 by Shogo Oketani. Her translations have also appeared in Kyoto Journal and Words Without Borders.

You are an American. What moved you to learn Japanese? Why did you pick Japanese instead of some other language?

My parents took pains to expose my siblings and me to the world’s cultures, through the arts and artifacts and by having us spend time with AFS ( American Field Service) exchange students in Kansas, where I grew up. Some of these students were Japanese. It did not seem a huge stretch, then, to try an introductory Japanese course when I was an undergraduate. I quickly found that I enjoyed the language.

How many books have you translated? Do you enjoy translating? What are the challenges you face?

I have translated two novels, a number of short stories, and materials such as the English-language guide to a permanent display on Japanese children’s literature at the National Diet Library, Tokyo.

I deeply enjoy translating children’s literature or literature that foregrounds children’s perspectives. A child’s-eye view reveals our world in accessible, yet wise ways, I find. The chief challenge I face is low demand for children’s literature in English translation.

What kind of stories do you translate? Do you translate non-fiction too?

I often gravitate toward stories for (or foregrounding) children in upper elementary and middle school, roughly ages eight through twelve, but I also work with young children’s and teen literature. I am definitely open to non-fiction.

When you translate a story, do you get to pick the story, or do you get commissioned to translate?

Some of both. I was commissioned to translate the historical novel J-Boys: Kazuo’s World, Tokyo, 1965 by Shogo Oketani, and I proposed translating the fantasy Temple Alley Summer by Sachiko Kashiwaba, which I am proud to say is coming out in July 2021.

Do your translations find a home among Western audiences? What kind of reception do Japanese stories have among them?

Not only mine, but many translations into English face an uphill battle, because the anglophone markets tend to focus inward. In children’s publishing in my native U.S., the most coveted prizes—the Newbery and Caldecott Medals—are required to go to U.S. persons who write and publish in English. Another prize, the Batchelder Award, garlands translations from Languages Other Than English, by authors from anywhere, but most consumers have not yet heard of it. Another award I hope the book-buying public will discover is the Hans Christian Andersen Award, often called the Nobel prize for children’s literature, which is given biennially to one author and one illustrator. Jacqueline Woodson of the United States won the most recent Andersen Award for Writing, but the three prior winners were from Asia. I hope that readers of English will pick up their books in translation!

After the Pearl Harbor incident, Japanese Americans are said to have been isolated. In the current world where xenophobia is again rearing its ugly head, how are your translations received by Japanese Americans?

Satsuki Ina, a Japanese American filmmaker born in the Tule Lake Segregation Center during World War II, was kind enough to praise J-Boys: Kazuo’s World, Tokyo, 1965. Translating literature that humanizes Japanese children (my own children are Japanese, as well as American) is how I join the fight against xenophobia.

Is it easy to translate from Japanese to English? Are the languages compatible culturally?

Japanese and English are quite far apart, in terms of both linguistic features and cultural origins. Veteran translator Cathy Hirano has described the Japanese-to-English translator’s job as “fairly strenuous cultural and mental gymnastics.” Mitali, I believe you also translate between dissimilar languages.

Yes, I do. There are normally nuances in each language that are different and essentially belonging to that culture intrinsically. It becomes difficult to translate those words to another language, at least it is true when you translate from Bengali or Hindi to English. Is it true with Japanese to English too? Do you have to do cultural studies to do a translation?

Absolutely! Japanese features many forms of indirectness and intentional ambiguity, so awareness of cultural context is crucial to translation. The Japanese writing system also presents a challenge, in that the visual effects of thousands of ideograms (kanji) and two phonetic alphabets (hiragana and katakana) can be hard to replicate using only 26 English letters.

Finally, there are the many concepts and objects without ready English equivalents. In Temple Alley Summer, for example, a teacher is nicknamed 演歌 (Enka), which refers to a style of ballad singing that is popular yet steeped in tradition. The closest equivalent in U.S. English might be country music, but the genres are totally different. The teacher in the book is a minor character, so I had to weigh whether to explain Enka or go with the shorter, imperfect translation for flow.

Do you translate from English to Japanese? If no, then why not?

Just as someone who speaks, reads and writes English might not choose to write it for publication, I use Japanese daily but do not translate into (write) it for publication. In a competitive publishing environment, I prefer to work with the language I write better. I also perceive a greater need for translations from Japanese to English than vice versa; Japan has long had a robust appetite for world literature, and many fine translators already specialize in English-to-Japanese.

What do you see as the future of Japanese literature? How much has been found in translation?

In children’s literature, which I know best, Japan is second to none. Authors and illustrators regularly win international awards; noteworthy children’s titles continue to be published despite population aging; and Japan (as mentioned) boasts a vigorous market for translations. I wish that all of the world’s children had access to global stories like Japanese children do.

You have lived in the US, Japan and Thailand. Which country left the deepest imprint on you and your work? Is it difficult to translate from Japanese while living in Thailand?

I spent my formative years in the U.S. and in Japan, where I was fortunate to receive funding to study in my early twenties. I would still say that the U.S. and Japan made me who I am.

Marrying a Japanese man then ironically led to living outside of Japan: two years in Oman, and fifteen years and counting in Thailand. (My husband teaches music at international schools; he and I met in college concert band.) While here in Thailand, though, I have earned my Master’s in Japanese, and I use it in my work and family life. I struggle more with Thai, which I speak daily but do not use at work or at home. My children are more literate in Thai than I am.

As for whether it is hard to work from Thailand—before Covid, I would have said that the Internet offsets the distance between countries, making it easy to work from anywhere. Since the pandemic put the brakes on international travel, however, I have learned how much I need visits to our family’s home countries, both for work and for my spirit. Many people have been far more adversely affected than we have, of course. May we soon see strides in stamping out the virus.

More of Avery @ www.averyfischerudagawa.com

This has been an online interview conducted by Mitali Chakravarty.

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

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