Sharing the Magic: Translating Kadono Eiko, by Lynne E. Riggs

May GLLI Blog Series:  Japan in Translation, No. 26

Editor’s note:  Kadono Eiko is the recipient of the 2018 Hans Christian Andersen Award, the most prestigious prize given in children’s literature worldwide.  She is best known outside of Japan for Majo no Takkyubin, (“Kiki’s Delivery Service“), which was made into a popular animated movie by the Japanese film director Miyazaki Hayao.  Though she has published more than 250 original works in Japanese, only two are known to have been translated: Kiki’s Delivery Service, the first of the six-volume Majo series (Annick Press, 2003) and the story “The Mirror” (“Kagami”), included in the anthology Fingers on the Back of the Neck, and other Ghost Stories (Rotterdam: Lemniscaat, 1996; reprinted by Puffin 1998). I asked the translator of both stories, Lynne E. Riggs, to tell us about her work.


Reaching for the “invisible” has always been something that enriches our “visible” lives—the life throbbing in forest-covered mountains, the voice of a long-deceased parent echoing in our bones, the meaning that may not be expressed in words. In explaining Japanese culture, Kadono Eiko once wrote: “[in the traditional Japanese lifestyle,] we came and went freely between the natural landscape and the human-created space of our homes, and we thought of the invisible or mystical world and the visible or real world as closely linked. I think even today the spirits of nature and of the deceased are part of our daily consciousness and customs.” Those close links form the backdrop of her stories and is the stuff of her recurring message, and it is a message that is not really strange to people anywhere. In explaining the protagonist of her Kiki (Majo no Takkyubin) series, Kadono wrote: “Kiki has been reared in the modern world, so there is only one kind of witchcraft she can use: flying through the air on a broom. The important role she can play, however, is to show people that there is still mystery and magic in this world.”[1]

A translator feels an affinity with this idea, as we, too, use our arts to cross barriers of language and culture and show “the mystery and magic” of this world. Why do we pursue the arts of translation if not to venture into the “invisible” realms of another language and bring back to our own “visible” language its treasures of story, imagination, and insight? Positioning ourselves at the borderlines of language, we deploy our arts of empathy and enunciation for transport across them. When, as with the writing of Kadono Eiko, the stuff of our toil is fantasy and fun rooted in an author’s insight into human nature and ourselves, our efforts are pleasingly rewarded.

For all the fame brought to Kadono Eiko by the animation film Kiki’s Delivery Service, it is in communion with her written words that we can best appreciate her world and the “our world” that she depicts. In language that is simple, evocative, and fresh, her stories are exemplary “show-don’t-tell” approaches to literature (no wonder they lend themselves so well to the latest animation and illustration media) and are listened to and read by not only children but adults. Within a few words, we are there, right in the story, with the characters, when they face a predicament. A few excerpts might give a sense of how this comes out in translation, at least as I have had the pleasure of attempting it.

A twelve-year-old protagonist finds herself pulled inside a hallway mirror by her look-alike who turns out to be another side of herself who takes over her life:

I began to think that if I’d got into the mirror, there must be a way out. I began to grope at the invisible wall before me, but suddenly I realized with horror that I could not see my own hands. I raised both arms and looked hard, but I couldn’t see them. Alarmed, I looked down at my feet. They were invisible. My heart began to pound and the blood drained out of my head.

“The Mirror,” by Kadono Eiko, in Fingers on the Back of the Neck, and other Ghost Stories [Rotterdam: Lemniscaat, 1996], p. 94) [2]

A little girl receives a stuffed doll with a head shaped like an apple from her grandmother, but the doll takes umbrage at the girl’s preference for her long-time buddy, the stuffed-pig:

Mimi felt a stab of fright. She quickly went to pick up Champion, but Champion was as heavy as a stone. His eyes and mouth were closed tightly.

Mimi looked at the clock on the wall, but though hands of the clock had always moved, making a “tick, tock” sound, the sound and the hands had stopped.

“Apple Addie” (Ringo-chan; Poplar Sha, 2003); translation originally prepared for the Hans Christian Andersen Prize dossier, 2017; quoted with permission.

Kiki flies into the town of Koriko and bravely introduces herself to passersby, only to find them unsympathetic and a bit cold:

Bursting with energy when she first arrived, Kiki suddenly felt like a deflated balloon. When she heard there wasn’t a witch in town, she had been convinced that everyone would welcome her like something new and novel. But now, the fatigue of flying all night and since morning without eating anything suddenly descended on her. She felt so tired it seemed as if her body might sink completely into the ground.

Kiki’s Delivery Service (Annick Press, 2003), p. 37.

Translation of Kadono faces all the myriad challenges that come with rendering Japanese into English. In Kiki, there are delightful word plays, which might work out in some cases (like the “Gu-Choki-Pan-ya,” name of Osono’s shop that is the Japanese words of the stone-scissors-paper game; “Buy, Bye Bakery” in the English) or be quite tough, as with “hon no osuso-wake” (just a little sharing of something you have received) as Kiki’s preferred form of paymentEvocative onomatopoeia, like the sounds that drift through the sky when Kiki carries instruments through the air in chapter 10 (“Boogh, boo-oop-oop, bo-la-lang-lang/Iyan, iya-aa-an, iya-ang, lang”) and the lively images evoked when Kiki visits Violet the laundress, are great fun. Her metaphors are sometimes universal (“sesame seeds popping in the frying pan”) and sometimes a little unfamiliar (“she might end up like the bagworm”; minomushi in Japanese). Some of her character’s names translate easily (Sumire-san as “Violet”), others seemed best as they are (Tombo), and others yield to a bit of ingenuity (Ai-kun as semi-disguised French “Lamor”).

Such examples are the more “visible” of the many hopefully invisible sleights of the translator’s hand, as we navigate our way between one language world and another.

[1] “The Visible and Invisible Worlds,” by Kadono Eiko (28th IBBY Congress Proceedings [Basel: International Board on Books for Young People, 2003], p. 82.) Quoted with permission.

[2] Available in Fingers on the Back of the Neck: And Other Spine-Chilling Stories, by Margaret Mahy, et al.

Up next:  Roland Kelts on the translation journal Monkey Business

Lynne E. Riggs is a professional translator and editor based in Tokyo. With Takechi Manabu she translates mainly nonfiction through their company, the Center for Intercultural Communication (, including many documents for the Japanese Board on Books for Young People. All the writings by Kadono Eiko quoted in this essay are her translations, quoted here with permission.

David Jacobson organized this series on Japanese literature in translation. He is 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)
May 25: Q&A with translator Cathy Hirano on Nahoko Uehashi’s The Beast Player (Japan-in-Translation, No. 23)
May 26: Strong women, soft power by Ginny Tapley Takemori (Japan-in-Translation, No. 24)
May 27: War in Japanese children’s literature by Sako Ikegami (Japan-in-Translation, No. 25)








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