May GLLI Blog Series: Japan in Translation, No. 23
Editor’s Note: Yesterday, we quoted Kirkus’ YA Editor Laura Simeon saying that the first piece of translated young adult fiction she had read was Kazumi Yumoto’s The Friends (winner of the 1997 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for Fiction and the 1997 Batchelder Award). Today we hear from the translator of The Friends, Takamatsu, Japan-based Cathy Hirano. Cathy has translated two other Batchelder-winning titles, Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit and Moribito II: Guardian of Darkness. Both of these were written by Japan’s Nahoko Uehashi, herself the 2014 recipient of the Hans Christian Andersen Award. I asked Cathy about Uehashi’s newest title, The Beast Player, just out earlier this year.
David Jacobson: The Beast Player is the first volume of a new fantasy series by Nahoko Uehashi for English-language readers. Can you tell us a little about the world she creates in The Beast Player?
Cathy Hirano: The Beast Player is set in a multicultural, politically complex and many layered world and follows the adventures of a young girl named Elin as she grows and matures. A half-breed, Elin is rejected by her father’s people, stewards of the kingdom’s cavalry of ferocious giant reptiles. When her mother is executed on a false charge of treason, she finds herself an orphan and an outcast at the age of ten. Raised in the mountains by a beekeeper and then trained in a school for beast doctors, she learns how to communicate with the Royal Beasts, huge winged wolf-like creatures that are the symbol of the ruler’s power. This unique ability, however, makes her a potential tool for those who seek to usurp the throne, while her innocent desire to befriend and help the beasts threatens to turn them into weapons of war. To save them, she must defy the laws of the land and her own people.
David: There seem to be elements in The Beast Player familiar to readers of English-language fantasy, as Alex Smith notes in this review: “a school for gifted students, the challenges of taming fantastical creatures.” Does The Beast Player owe a specific debt to J. K. Rowling?
Cathy: No, none at all. Uehashi hadn’t read J.K. Rowling at the time she was writing The Beast Player. Uehashi herself says that she wanted to create stories and worlds that no one has ever seen before and cites Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings as one of the greatest influences on her work, along with Rosemary Sutcliff’s historical fiction and Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea series. I see the influence of Tolkien in the scale and breadth of the world she has created, Sutcliff in the attention to realistic, authentic detail, and Le Guin in her voice as a storyteller.
As is typical of Uehashi’s writing process, the first intimation of the tale that would become The Beast Player came to her as a vivid image of a young woman standing on the edge of a cliff, strumming a hand-held harp on a windy night, and watched by huge beasts on the other side of the ravine. Several years later, Uehashi was reading a book about beekeeping when another image came to her—a girl crouched down in front of a beehive wondering how bees make honey. Realizing that these two images featured the same person, she began exploring who that girl was and what challenges she faced.
For me as a translator, this intuitive process of composition makes Uehashi a fascinating author to work with: she knows the worlds and characters she creates intimately.
David: What will English-language readers find familiar, or strikingly different?
Cathy: If you think that “fantasy” means magic and wizards, the fact that neither appear in The Beast Player makes it strikingly different. In addition, no connection or portal to its unique world from our ‘ordinary’ world exists, nor are there any superheroes or supervillains.
For me, one of the most striking aspects of Uehashi’s work is the way her knowledge and experience as a cultural anthropologist inform and shape her worlds. The Beast Player is not set in Japan or anywhere else on earth, yet the world and its society feels so authentic that I’m sure I could walk right into it. The cultures, belief systems, social structures, lifestyles, and customs Uehashi depicts are plausible and match the historical context and physical environment in which she has placed them. Her keen observation and understanding also extend to the physiology and psychology of the creatures she depicts in this book, including not only the huge fighting reptiles and winged Royal Beasts but also such familiar things as honeybees and horses.
Another compelling feature is her portrayal of women. Growing up, it was difficult for me to identify with female characters in some of the fantasy novels that I loved. Women were scarce and played a secondary role. In Uehashi’s books, it is refreshing to encounter strong central female characters such as Elin the beast doctor (The Beast Player), Balsa the bodyguard-for-hire (Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit), and Sae the expert tracker (The Deer King). Although they have relationships, Uehashi’s women are not defined by, nor do their decisions and lives revolve around a romantic attachment. They are all capable and complex human beings who struggle to make the right choices in a complex world—often one that is male dominated.
David: More than ever, the children’s literary world is awash in fantasy. My 11-year-old daughter, for instance, will read nothing but fantasy and can talk to you in detail about Tolkien, J.K. Rowling, C.S. Lewis, Phillip Pullman and even Rick Riordan. Why should kids like her seek out Uehashi’s work? And what is it about Uehashi that makes her work attractive to adults as well as kids?
Cathy: If I were a child, the biggest appeal for me would be the fact that Uehashi doesn’t write for “kids” but for people regardless of their age. Her stories are solid, satisfying and real; never condescending or sloppy.
The child in me is very drawn to Elin’s affinity for and fascination with living creatures, most poignantly depicted in her desire to save the wounded Beast cub, Leelan, and her longing to communicate with and befriend it. My heart aches for Elin when she makes choices she believes, in her pure-hearted innocence, are right but that she later discovers have consequences far greater and more negative than she could have imagined. Heart-in-mouth, the child in me reads on, hoping that Elin will rise each time she stumbles and falls.
The adult in me is deeply moved by Elin’s struggle to understand everything around her; I admire her desire to stand by what she believes is right in a world that isn’t fair and against insurmountable odds. The Beast Player is also profoundly thought provoking. There is no convenient stereotype of the hero versus the villain here. In the intricate world she so vividly creates, Uehashi shows us how and why her characters come to make the choices they do, even if their actions are evil. As Elin matures and faces increasingly difficult choices, I find myself forced to examine the social structure of my own world with its inequalities and injustices and to confront my own biases and assumptions. I also find myself pondering human interaction with nature, of which we are a part and yet which we seek to “control” and “harness” in ways that can negatively impact the delicate balance of the natural world and our own lives.
Finally, and most importantly, both the child and the adult in me resonate to Uehashi’s theme of the human response to “the other.” We fear yet are fascinated by those who are different from us, who seem “alien.” While one part of us may wish to flee or even exterminate “the other,” another part of us longs to bridge the great abyss that divides us and touch souls. Elin seeks communion with the ultimate “other,” the Royal Beasts. Even though it seems impossible, she shows us that the effort is worth making.
Coming tomorrow: Strong Women, Soft Power — by Ginney Tapley Takemori
Photo of Cathy Hirano, below, courtesy of Skye Hohmann
Cathy Hirano came to Japan in 1978 and graduated with a BA in cultural anthropology from International Christian University in Tokyo in 1983. She has been translating professionally since 1984 in diverse fields, fitting in children’s and YA literature translations when and where she can. Her translations of YA fiction and fantasy have received several awards, and her translation of Yours Sincerely, Giraffe was recently shortlisted for the 2018 UKLA Book Award. In addition, Nahoko Uehashi, the author of The Beast Player, received the 2014 Hans Christian Andersen Award for Writing. In the non-fiction field, Cathy’s translations of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo and its sequel have become international best-sellers.
David 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)
May 3: Deborah Iwabuchi on memorable translations (Japan-in-Translation, No. 3)
May 4: Eve Kushner on kanji’s punning potential, part 1 (Japan-in-Translation, No. 4)
May 5: Eve Kushner on kanji’s punning potential, part 2 (Japan-in-Translation, No. 5)
May 7: Translator roundtable on Shiba Ryōtarō’s Ryōma!, part 1 (Japan-in-Translation, No. 6)
May 8: Translator roundtable on Shiba Ryōtarō’s Ryōma!, part 2 (Japan-in-Translation, No. 7)
May 9: Librarian Ash Brown on manga in translation (Japan-in-Translation, No. 8)
May 10: Excerpt from Mori Eto’s Dive!! (Japan-in-Translation, No. 9)
May 11: Tony Malone on translations of Natsume Sōseki (Japan-in-Translation, No. 10)
May 12: Poet Michael Dylan Welch on translating haiku (Japan-in-Translation, No. 11)
May 14: Smithsonian BookDragon’s Favorites, part 1 (Japan-in-Translation, No. 12)
May 15: Smithsonian BookDragon’s Favorites, part 2 (Japan-in-Translation, No. 13)
May 16: Sally Ito on Misuzu Kaneko’s Compassionate Imagination (Japan-in-Translation, No. 14)
May 17: Frederik Schodt on The Four Immigrants Manga (Japan-in-Translation, No. 15)
May 18: Stone Bridge Press Publisher Peter Goodman (Japan-in-Translation, No. 16)
May 19: Melek Ortabasi on Japanese Literature as World Literature (Japan-in-Translation, No. 17)
May 20: Selected Japanese Picture Books by Andrew Wong (Japan-in-Translation, No. 18)
May 21: Murakami translator Jay Rubin (Japan-in-Translation, No. 19)
May 22: Zack Davisson on translating sound effects in comics (Japan-in-Translation, No. 20)
May 23: Translator showdown: where manga meets the novel (Japan-in-Translation, No. 21)
May 24: Kirkus YA Editor Laura Simeon on cultural messages in Japanese picture books (Japan-in-Translation, No. 22)