Avery Udagawa on Opening the Children’s Book Ecosystem to Translations

averyAvery Udagawa Avery Fischer Udagawa 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 has studied at Nanzan University, Nagoya, on a Fulbright Fellowship, and at the Inter-University Center for Japanese Language Studies, Yokohama. She writes, translates, and teaches north of Bangkok, where she lives with her bicultural family.

She also serves as International Translator Coordinator and Japan Translator Coordinator for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (www.scbwi.org).

Here, she answers a few questions about book ecosystems, translation, and publishing for #WorldKidLit. Tomorrow, we post her list of 5 children’s books, translated from the Japanese, that every parent and child should have.

Fixed genre, lexile, and age rules are meant, I imagine, to make things easier for consumers, librarians, and educators. Yet, as you’ve noted in an essay “We Need Translated Books” for Literary Mama, they also make the “new” — including many translations — a hard sell. How could we make our book ecosystem more open to what’s wonderful and different?

Avery Udagawa: We could start by seeing books that don’t fit neatly in a box, as potential crossover books — attractive to more than one audience. Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street and Tony Earley’s Jim the Boy are examples of English-language books (not translations) that have sold in plural age categories, even having different covers for adults and children. Hiro Arikawa’s The Travelling Cat Chronicles is a book from Japan recently acquired by Transworld/Doubleday, with potential as a crossover book for teens/adults. I look forward to reading the translation by Philip Gabriel.

You write: “If a book unfolds overseas, it is usually written by a U.S. author.” This is particularly true of less-wealthy nations. Often “world literature” lists are populated by books about Egypt or Brazil or Philippines, not translated from Arabic, Portuguese, Tagalog. What do we lose by not reading from different literary traditions, from only seeing through our own narrative forms? 

AU: Ann Morgan discusses this beautifully in A Year of Reading the World (US title: The World Between Two Covers). In my less eloquent words, books about countries have different biases than books from countries. No book is bias-free. I see value in both “books-about” and “books-from”; books-about describe other places in ways English speakers can readily understand, while books-from relay worldviews of those who live in the places—people to whom that’s home and the English-speaking world is the “other place.”

What we lose without books-from, is the homegrown perspective. Imagine the only books in the world about your home region or culture being written by someone who’s visited on research trips. Would the books be speaking for you?

You also write: “I have seen Japanese writing scrubbed from storybook illustrations to be sold stateside.” Why do you think this is? Also: What does a child gain from having, for instance, Bengali or Japanese script as part of their visual palate?

AU: Scrubbing happens when publishers fear large groups of consumers balking at “foreign” elements in books. When I looked into this issue about ten years ago, one phrase I heard was “moms in Texas”—though I’m sure many Texans would enjoy Bengali script in illustrations. Picture book buyers for large chains, I was told, seek titles that will not turn off these imagined blocs of conservative shoppers. Publishers need the chains’ business, so this can affect what they publish and how they handle visuals, as well as elements like foreign names.

The world’s writing systems represent human diversity and artistry in ways exciting even to the very young. Early exposure can ignite interest in exploring a language and culture—or maybe, just help someone see the writing as normal not weird, and even beautiful.

Japanese is perhaps the only non-Western-European language & children’s book tradition to enjoy some stature within the English-language bookworld in the form of reviews, prizes, a steady number of translations. Why is that? There is, I think, government support? I’ve seen Japanese children’s literature translated into Arabic. 

AU: In Japan’s case, it’s not government support, at least for children’s. The country has an established children’s book industry, which publishes nearly 5,000 new titles per year — comparable to the US — though publishing has been in recession for some time. A few publishers and agents energetically market English language rights, despite uncertain demand abroad. A number of illustrators cultivate a style with global appeal. In addition, the Japanese Board on Books for Young People (JBBY, affiliated with IBBY) compiles dossiers to nominate authors and illustrators for the Hans Christian Andersen Award, conferred biennially on one writer and one illustrator. The writing award is sometimes dubbed the Nobel Prize for children’s literature. Japanese novelist Nahoko Uehashi won this award in 2014. (Cao Wenxuan succeeded her in 2016, becoming the first Andersen laureate from China.)

While Japan may seem prominent within the sliver of English-language children’s books that are translations, the sliver is tiny (two to four percent of books published annually). Of the thousands of children’s books published in Japan each year, maybe a handful get acquired for publication in English. Of these, a number fall out of print. Case in point: two years after Uehashi won the Andersen, her book Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit is out of print except in ebook. This title also won a Batchelder Award.

And while Japan is patchily represented, as you say, many non-Western cultures and languages aren’t represented at all. In southeast Asia where I live, many people can’t afford to buy books. Publishers have much to handle just making books and nurturing children’s literature traditions — let alone marketing foreign rights.

What gets you up in the morning and keeps you translating? How do you answer the “Why bother” question Cathy Hirano poses in her recent essay, “Why I Translate for Children and Teens in a Translation-Resistant Market“?

AU: What keeps me going is the joy of sharing stories I love. I think most bibliophiles get the urge to collar friends and say, “Hey, read this!” But to share some stories, I have to translate them first.

When reviewing or teaching — how do we change our critical goggles in order to help young readers see the beauty in something different?  

AU: I think our mission is to expose children and teens to world literature, and let them find the beauty. They will. Their minds are open to new stories and ways of telling; what we grown-ups can offer is access. We can take a conscious look at the books we review and teach, and see if they represent the globe our children will steward one day.

We would not raise our children on art, music or food from just one country. Let’s make sure they get stories from everywhere.

Avery notes that Translator is now a member category in SCBWI, and member translators worldwide can join a listserv focused on translation of children’s literature. Details: itc [at] scbwi.org

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2 thoughts on “Avery Udagawa on Opening the Children’s Book Ecosystem to Translations”

  1. Novelist Suzanne Kamata sent me these comments about crossover books (thanks, Suzanne!): “Other Press recently published a French adult book as a YA/crossover title. It’s interesting how a lot of books are marketed to different age groups depending on the country. It seems to remain a big challenge to promote across age groups in the U.S. Having different covers is a good idea. Also, a willingness to shelve a single book in different categories simultaneously, and/or setting up book sections based upon themes, as opposed to age.”

    The book Suzanne refers to is Déborah Lévy-Bertherat’s The Travels of Daniel Ascher, translated from French by Adriana Hunter. There is a Publisher’s Weekly feature on it here:

    http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/childrens/childrens-book-news/article/66372-first-ya-crossover-novel-from-other-press.html

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  2. Hi Avery-
    If you know of great picture books with publishers willing to experiment with a different model in bringing them to the US market, please let me know! Our company will be in Frankfurt in a couple of weeks actively looking for picture books we can translate and bring to US kids in digital editions. Xist Publishing has been bringing beautiful ebooks (and print editions too) since 2011 and we have a catalog of over 300 titles. With more than a million of our books being read by kids around the country every quarter, we have a market for these books and a way for foreign publishers to generate income (at no cost to them) on books that US kids need to read.

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