Helen Mixter is a translator based in Toronto, Canada. She recently adapted Bolormaa Baasansuren's My Little Round House (Groundwood Books/House of Anansi Press, 2009) from Japanese into English. My Little Round House has been selected for inclusion in the 2010 Spirit of PaperTigers Project.
Working on My Little Round House, by Mongolian writer and artist Bolormaa Baasansuren, was a very unusual project for me, in that it really was more of an adaptation of the text than a translation. An eminent Japanese illustrator, Hideko Nagano, showed a beautiful Mongolian picture book to Patsy Aldana, Groundwood Book’s publisher, when she was on a visit to Japan. Though Nagano doesn’t speak English, it was possible with the help of former IBBY Vice-President Chieko Suemori for Patsy to learn the story behind the book.
My Little Round House was first published not by a Mongolian publisher, but by a very small Japanese publisher, after Bolormaa won the Grand Prize in the 2004 Noma Concours for Picture Book Illustration. The illustrations of the first year in the life of a nomadic child she submitted to the contest were accompanied by only an outline of a story, so the book's first edition was written in Japanese, not Mongolian, and Hideko Nagano was involved in its creation. He helped to shape it so that it would tell what it was like to be a Mongolian baby and also be a "proper" picture book, built around the theme of the roundness inherent in Mongolian nomadic culture and the roundness of this baby’s world from womb to ger––his felt house.
It took many months for Groundwood to receive a copy of the Japanese edition, and many more to buy the rights, since the originating publisher had never sold rights before. There was no common language between buyer and seller. But all sides persisted despite the barriers. Finally, thankfully, an agent became involved, and then it looked as though the project would work after all. The publisher asked for a rough translation. That’s when I got involved.
The rough translation was very useful for its factual content. It explained what was happening in the pictures and also conveyed the emotional tone of the book. It is a book that expresses very convincingly a baby’s feelings of being loved, of being safe and warm and cozy despite what to many non-Mongolians might seem to be the hard life of a nomad. All the elements of this wonderful story were there except that the text did not really resemble a picture book text that would work for North Americans.
The publisher had told me about Hideko Nagano’s story of working with Baasansuren on the theme of roundness to give the book its shape. So I decided that I would use this idea as the thematic centre for the English version. And roundness is certainly a dominant presence in this baby’s life––from his mother’s womb, to his ger, to the little basket in which he travels through a snowstorm to the family’s winter quarters. Roundness is there in the turn of the year as the family literally moves through four seasons, each with its own pastures and quarters for the animals. It is there in the family that lovingly surrounds him. Only at the very end, when he runs through the grass with the dogs on his first birthday, do we see the baby breaking out of his small round world into the greater, flatter world of the outdoors––though the sky is still a round canopy over his head.
The fact that the “original text” came through such an unusual route in some ways made the whole process much freer than usual. Whereas usually as a translator I work very hard to keep the voice of the original text intact and to remain as true as possible to the word for word of it, this process wasn’t really possible here. Because the illustrations show the story and the feelings of the book so clearly, and because the rough translation had the same emotional texture, it seemed to be okay to try and re-tell the story rather than to “translate” it. I think it works and that the English book is true in spirit and form to the original.
This book is a personal favourite of mine. It is so true to the emotional world of a baby while showing us such a wonderful and completely different way of life.
Posted February 2010