PaperTigers’ Global Voices feature with award winning author Holly Thompson (USA/Japan)~ Part 3

Children’s and YA Books in Translation from Japan ~  by Holly Thompson

Part 3 of 3 (read Part 1 here and Part 2 here)

Over the years of raising our children in Japan, I have kept my eyes out for Japanese children’s books translated into English. Sadly, far more titles go from English into Japanese than from Japanese into English. Having peaked in numbers in the 1980s, nowadays few Japanese children’s and young adult books are translated into English each year.

The reasons for so few Japanese books being sold to English-language publishers are layered and complicated ranging from cultural differences and weak English copy or sample translations used for marketing books to foreign publishers, to stagnant picture book markets in English-speaking countries and a lack of interest from markets that are focused intently on books set in their own countries.

Currently, most of the children’s books translated from Japanese into other languages are sold to other countries in Asia—particularly Korea and Taiwan, and more recently, China. The International Library of Children’s Literature in Ueno, Tokyo, held an exhibit in 2010 Children’s Books Going Overseas from Japan and much exhibit information on translated Japanese children’s books appears on their website.

Because our children are bilingual, when they were young we read most Japanese picture books in Japanese, but we searched out English translations of Japanese picture books as gifts for relatives, friends or libraries in the U.S. Some of the Japanese picture books in translation that we loved to give are Singing Shijimi Clams by Naomi Kojima, The 14 Forest Mice books and others by Kazuo Iwamura, and books illustrated by Akiko Hayashi. Our all-time family favorite Japanese picture book was the widely read Suuho no shiroi uma, published in English as Suho’s White Horse, a Mongolian tale retold by Japanese author Yuzo Otsuka, illustrated by Suekichi Akaba, and translated by Peter Howlett—featured in this PaperTigers post.

R.I.C. Publications has a number of well-known Japanese picture books and some Ainu folktales in translation. Kane/Miller Book Publishers now focuses on books set in the U.S. but used to focus on translations of books from around the world; their catalog has a section on Books from Japan including the hugely successful Minna unchi by Taro Gomi, translated by Amanda Mayer Stinchecum and published in English as Everyone Poops. And recently Komako Sakai’s books have traveled overseas including Ronpaachan to fuusen published by Chronicle Books as Emily’s Balloon and Yuki ga yandara released as The Snow Day by Arthur A. Levine Books.

But these days very few English-language publishers, even those more multiculturally oriented, publish translations of Japanese picture books, and those titles that are imported are often those with minimum text. When picture books are translated into English, translation often happens “in house” at the English-language publisher, regrettably with no credit to a translator.  Translated text may also differ considerably from the original text. What’s more, some publishers even eliminate cultural references and alter illustrations—such as removal of kanji characters on signs in the background, and other details that would place a book firmly in Japan or Asia.

Over the years, even more than picture books, our family has sought out middle-grade (MG) and young adult (YA) books in translation and read novels by Kazumi Yumoto, such as The Friends, beautifully translated by Cathy Hirano, and Kiki’s Delivery Service, by Eiko Kadono, translated by Lynne E. Riggs. Partly due to the fact that YA is not a well-established book category here, not much Japanese YA fiction has been translated into English until recently. In the last few years, we are seeing a few more MG and YA titles translated from Japanese, and this is of course due in large part to overseas interest in Japanese manga and anime.

Examples of recent Japanese MG or YA titles translated into English include the Moribito books by Nahoko Uehashi, translated by Cathy Hirano; Brave Story, by Miyuki Miyabe, translated by Alexander O. Smith; J-Boys: Kazuo’s World, Tokyo, 1965 by Shogo Oketani, translated by Avery Fischer Udagawa; Real World by Natsuo Kirino, translated by Phillip Gabriel; The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya by Nagaru Tanigawa, translated by Chris Pai; and lots of Japanese manga appearing in English—see BookDragon book reviews. Still, I look forward to the day when the YA list of translated titles is much, much longer.

SCBWI Tokyo now has a Translation Group for Japanese to English translators of children’s and YA literature, and this year the group will hold its second Translation Day on June 16, which will feature Alexander O. Smith and translators of stories in Tomo: Friendship Through Fiction—An Anthology of Japan Teen Stories. Through this SCBWI Tokyo Translation Group we aim to cultivate translators skilled in the nuances and particulars of children’s literature and hope that the group can be a model for other regions in Asia so that English-language publishers around the world can readily find experienced translators. In the future, perhaps more children’s and YA literature from Asia can appear in English and reach a wider global readership.

Holly Thompson was raised in New England and is a longtime resident of Japan. Her verse novel Orchards(Delacorte/Random House) won the 2012 APALA Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature  and is a YALSA 2012 Best Fiction for Young Adults title. She recently edited Tomo: Friendship Through Fiction—An Anthology of Japan Teen Stories (Stone Bridge Press), and her next verse novel The Language Inside (Delacorte/Random House) will be published in 2013. She teaches creative writing at Yokohama City University and serves as the regional advisor of the Tokyo chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. Visit her website:

One Response to “PaperTigers’ Global Voices feature with award winning author Holly Thompson (USA/Japan)~ Part 3”

  1. Edi Says:

    How interesting to read about what the translation of Japanese texts to English. I want to be surprised that we’re not better and translating books while maintaining accuracy.
    I’ve really enjoyed your series!