AFCC Notes: Found in Translation


Back during the 2012 AFCC, one of the best sessions I attended was one on translation, conducted by Avery Fischer Udagawa. I wandered into the session out of sheer curiosity; after all, I collect Harry Potter translations for fun. But as I sat through the session, I discovered translation to be a highly specialized segment of the children’s book industry.

The session was quite enlightening, and it made me realize just how rich literature is because of translations — so many of the world’s best-loved books were not originally written in English. And it was because of that session two years ago that I made a beeline for “Found in Translation – Asian Content for the World’s Children” by award-winning translator Cathy Hirano at this year’s AFCC.

IMG_3972A whole new world

With so much literature already written in English, and translation taking precious time, effort and money, Hirano posed the question: why bother to translate?

The collision of culture forces us to think, Hirano notes. “For example, love, courtesy, and compassion enrich human relationships all around the world — that is universal. But the way we express these things may be totally opposite, depending on the culture that we’re in and the language that we’re using,” she explains. “Translations help us discover the universal within us, to embrace and enjoy the tremendous diversity of the human race.”

Children have flexible minds that are not yet limited by their culture, adds Hirano. “Adults often underestimate children’s capacity to explore new concepts. Literature in translation breaks down barriers as it gives readers access to different perspectives, and encourages flexibility and receptivity to diversity.”

Hirano further notes that readers can find a whole new world in translated literature. “What we find in translation is a whole new world. We find that all the people who live in this world are not strangers, but friends who have similar struggles and joys as we do.”

Read, write, love

Hirano, who is a Batchelder award (given by the American Library Association to the year’s most outstanding children’s book translated into English and published in the US) winner for her work on the Moribito series by Nahoko Uehashi, reveals her personal definition of the work of a translator.

“The work of a translator is to stand in hearts of children in two languages, to understand the deepest heart of the author beyond the words they have written, to capture the soul of their work and express it in a way that will touch the heart of a child of a different language and culture,” she explains.

The key to being a good translator is to be a good writer and a good reader, and have genuine love for children, Hirano points out. “Read, write, and love. If we can give children a rich environment, we have given them a gift for life, to be able to express ideas and understand people’s thoughts.”

Hirano cautions that translation is not about trying to repeat every word or reiterate every line that the author says. She discusses her process for translation, which starts with reading the book.

“I want to get the feel of the author’s voice, to capture that voice, and this work is intuitive rather than intellectual. I try to feel the characters, catch the mood, get the flow of the story. I’m trying to give the English reader as close to the same experience as the Japanese reader as possible,” Hirano elaborates. “So my first reading, I try and capture the tempo, the mood, the emotions and my impressions of the work. I also look for potential problems, such as words or concepts that do not translate to English very easily.”

She also details some tips for translators:

  • Less is more. “When you add extra words that aren’t needed in English, it actually makes it worse for the English reader. [It is tempting] to use more words because they are there in the Japanese. In Japanese, repetition is a very useful device; in English, it’s almost never an effective device. So when I do a second sweep for my draft in translation, when I start rewriting it, I’m now consciously looking out for these words, concepts and ideas that when repeated too often, the reader starts to fade away.”
  • Check, check, and double check. “I do three or four rewrites in a translation, and somewhere along the line, I will look at paragraph over and over again, and [get around to] thinking that something must not be right. I try to get as far away as the original language as possible in order [when I work on a translation], but when I have that feeling that something’s wrong, I go back to the Japanese. If I don’t catch it myself and still feel that something’s wrong, I go to an expert on the language. If [the expert] cannot tell me what is wrong, I go to the editor with my questions. And if she still can’t get it, that’s when I go to the author.”
  • Let the language flow. Consider the flow of the language you are translating in. “This can be a problem when translating from Japanese — in English, language flows in a linear way, very logically. In Japanese, language flows in a very circular way, so beautifully vague and ambiguous.”
  • Teamwork. “The translator is the mediator and advocator [sic], but an editor can help spot things a translator can’t. It helps to have an objective outsider.”




In my two years of attending the AFCC, I must say that translators are among the most passionate people I’ve had the pleasure of meeting. And while the session focused on the importance of children’s literature in translation, particularly in bringing Asian content to the rest of the world, I thought it was also quite relevant to the current trend in the Philippines — bestsellers being translated in Filipino — which continues to receive mixed reactions from the general public.

Also, I had brought along Moribito on this trip, finished it after two days of commuting on the train, and it is awesome!!! Tanda is my new favorite kick-a** heroine! Will post a review, hopefully when I manage to locate book 2 (and there’s no ebook edition, *meep*).


2 thoughts on “AFCC Notes: Found in Translation”

  1. Translations seem like a wonderful way to introduce children around the world to different values, beliefs, and cultures. Children’s stories may seem simple, but just like all writing, they are created through a very meticulous process. Much more for translated children’s stories! I’d love to attend the AFCC soon! :)

    1. You’re right, Verne. And someday, I’d love to see Filipino translators formally represented in the book industry, not just so we can reach more Filipino readers with bestsellers, but also so we can bring more Filipino stories to the rest of the world :)

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