May GLLI Blog Series:  Japan in Translation, No. 3

Editor’s update:  A new source of interesting links, history and news about Japanese literature and Japanese literature-in-translation can be found at  See, in particular, its “factbook,”  which it describes as a “Dynamic Compendium of Interesting Japanese Literary and Publishing Facts.”  Red Circle calls itself a hybrid “communications and publishing company.”

Two_LinesRudolf and IppaiBlossoming FieldsCrossfireTranslucent TreeLove from the Depths

Invited to give a reading at a literary event, I thought of two translations that would be just right. One was selections from Rudolf and Ippai Attena by Saito Hiroshi, which I translated with good friend and writing partner, Kazuko Enda, and published in 2017. The other was Tomosui, a short story by Nobuko Takagi that won the Kawabata Yasunari Award in 2010. After getting them both out and looking through them, I realized with a start that Rudolf was an entertaining middle-grade book featuring a cat who frequents school libraries and can read and write. Tomosui,on the other hand, is about gender fluidity and chock full of sexual innuendoes—something you might hide somewhere the kids would never think to look.

And this, I realized for the millionth time, is what makes translation so much fun. A glance at the bookshelf I reserve for the books I’ve translated reveals a random selection of genres I never could have come up with on my own. Here are a few personal notes on some of my most memorable translations.

Two of my first works were books about sumo, Sumo Watching and Grand Sumo Fully Illustrated, both published by now-defunct Yohan. It was the early 1990s, at the height of Waka-Taka and Akebono fever. Did I know about sumo, the publisher inquired. The correct answer was, “No, nothing,” but I vaguely recall batting my eyes and mumbling something like, “Sure.” After a couple of books on the topic, though, I knew all about the sport and was an avid fan. Added value of my sumo career: (1) a couple years back, my daughter found the two books in a “sumo collection” on display at the San Diego County Fair. (2) I once ran into Doreen Simmons, a real sumo expert and commentator who has been decorated by the Japanese government, and she knew who I was.

My second publication and very first translation was Love From the Depths, the autobiography of Tomihiro Hoshino, a disabled artist and poet beloved in my adopted home in Gunma. This publication has given me an enduring link to the land and was my introduction to translation. Kazuko Enda, the co-translator, and I made a trip into the mountains on the Watarase Line to meet Hoshino in his home. Later, we were lucky to have veteran translator David L. Swain edit our work. I learned from him that red ink was a sincere sign of encouragement, and that’s what I tell my college students now when I return their assignments.

With Anna Isozaki, I translated Crossfire by bestselling mystery author Miyuki Miyabe. We followed the complicated story line of murder, urban social decay and paranormal powers with its cast of thousands, checking in with each other regularly and spending marathon sessions together in front of the computer screen to make sure we got it right. In many ways, Miyabe kept us spellbound and on edge to the very end.

Anna and I also did Beyond the Blossoming Fields by Jun’ichi Watanabe, an author renowned for lascivious works that became TV dramas. This, Watanabe’s first novel, was a more staid story about the life of Ginko Ogino, the first woman physician in Japan. She was born and raised in a town close to Gunma, and a bit of her history overlapped with mine. The minister who baptized her was the first pastor of the church where I am a member. It was, however, the Watanabe-like attention to detail of very intimate aspects of Ogino’s life that revealed volumes about all she had to endure to reach her goals.

I became acquainted with Nobuko Takagi’s work when given the opportunity to translate her Translucent Tree, an eloquent story of a passionate and tragic love affair. I have a poor ability to concentrate, and have found the best way to read a book and translate it is to do them both at once. (For some reason, I skip whole paragraphs when I know what is coming.) On a short deadline, I lived each day through the love affair of Gen and Chigiri, giving reports at the dinner table and crying all over the keyboard as I tapped away the ending when Gen died. Takagi uses a lot of sexual images, but she is an easy writer to translate. So easy, that even if some of her racier nuances go right over my head, I discover them—gasp—when I go back and read the translation over.

Which brings me back to my reading. Although I’m more of a furry pet and school library sort of person, I’ve decided to go with Tomosui. It’s an evening event and I’m taking the opportunity to appropriate a little of the passion Takagi exudes so well—it’s definitely not something I could ever come up with on my own.

On deck for tomorrow:  Eve Kushner on kanji’s punning potential.


Deborah Iwabuchi made her first trip to Japan at age 17 and took up permanent residence soon after college. Originally from California, she lives in the city of Maebashi with her family and runs her own company, Minamimuki Translations.  She has co-authored bestselling books on writing and reading English for the Japanese market. She has translated novels by popular Japanese authors, including The Devil’s Whisper and The Sleeping Dragon by Miyuki Miyabe, as well as the ebook Little Keys and the Red Piano by Hideko Ogawa (translated with Kazuko Enda) and “The Law of Gravity” by Yuko Katawa in Tomo: Friendship Through Fiction—An Anthology of Japan Teen Stories.

10339360_10203703467893736_1000817698243960595_oDavid Jacobson organized this series on Japanese literature in translation. He is the author of Are You an Echo? The Lost Poetry of Misuzu Kaneko, a 2017 NCTE notable poetry book. A longtime journalist, David has written news articles and TV scripts that have appeared in the Associated Press, The Washington Post, The Seattle Times and on CNN and Japan’s NHK. Since 2008, he has worked with Seattle book publisher Chin Music Press. An experienced Japanese translator, he is on the board of the Global Literature in Libraries Initiative.

And in case you missed it…

May 1:  Roger Pulvers on Ishikawa Takuboku (Japan-in-Translation, No. 1)
May 2:  Kathryn Hemmann on outsider stories in contemporary literature (Japan-in-Translation, No. 2)



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