An unfortunate gap: on Japanese-Russian translations of juvenile and YA books

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2017/09/06 Column

An unfortunate gap: on Japanese-Russian translations of juvenile and YA books

by Yuri Nagura

When I was studying Russian literature at the Maxim Gorky Literature Institute in Moscow, most of the people I had contact with were unaware that I was Japanese. My close friends all knew it, of course, but I made a point of not volunteering the information to other students and teachers when we first met. One day during a break between classes, I happened to be reading a Japanese paperback for a change, and the girl who sat down next to me asked, “What language is that?” When I told her it was Japanese, she looked surprised and said, “How come you know Japanese?” I quietly said to myself, “Yesss!”

We all wear a variety of masks. The little charge I get from successfully assimilating into a chosen environment that’s different from my own has always buoyed me. I don’t care if it’s with a mask, or if I have to go to extraordinary lengths to achieve it. Rather than fixate on frameworks of the past, I prefer to meld with the precious life that is in front of me right now.

There may be differences of degree, but I think this is a feeling experienced by anyone who leaves her birthplace for another linguistic zone not just to drop in for a visit but to actually live there for a length of time. And when I say birthplace, I’m not merely talking about where a person comes from geographically. Rather, in a very real sense, where a person comes from is his or her childhood. What I wanted was to share a childhood with the people I was living among.

With that sole objective, one of the first things I did was to go to a big bookstore and buy a stack of children’s books. A Russian reader for children written by Lev (Leo) Tolstoy became the textbook for my alternate childhood. Later I immersed myself in books written for a slightly older group. Even now, with the awesome power of books and words as my friend, I can become a child again. I can share a childhood with these people I have come to love.

My interest in children’s literature comes from this simple, “childish” desire. That’s why I will always continue to read children’s stories whether there’s profit in it or not, and why I’d like to translate such stories whether anyone buys them or not.

But to actually publish something in translation, it’s important to be aware of the social context. Let’s take a brief look at the situation in Russia going back a lifetime or so. What is the history of Japanese to Russian literary translation?

As most of my readers will know, there was strict censorship in Russia during the Soviet era. Beginning in the late 1930s, many of Russia’s most distinguished Japanese literature specialists were deemed to be Japanese spies and sent to internment camps, causing the research and translation community to go into a serious decline. Then in 1946, only a short while after the end of World War II, a law restricting foreign literature was enacted, and it became difficult even to acquire or read, let alone translate, any work of foreign literature that had not received official approval. Finally, toward the end of the 1950s and into the 1960s, a thaw took place and translations of classical Japanese literature appeared, beginning with tanka and haiku poetry and Taketori monogatari (The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter), followed in the 1970s by Tsurezuregusa (Essays in Idleness) and Makura no sōshi (The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon). These came to be read widely, especially among the intellectual class. Translations of modern fiction by Sōseki Natsume, Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, Kōbō Abe and others also appeared and became quite popular.

Japanese juvenile fiction was being translated as well, with such titles as Hiroshi Sunada’s Saraba haiuei (Goodbye Highway), Jōji Tsubota’s Kaze no naka no kodomo (Children in the Wind), Kazuo Mori’s Koropokkuru no hashi (The Koropokkuru Bridge), and Tetsuko Kuroyanagi’s Madogiwa no Totto-chan (Totto-chan: The Little Girl at the Window) coming out in the 1970s and 1980s to a very favorable reception by young Russian readers.

As a matter of fact, I myself encountered these works for the first time when I was in Russia. A friend came up to me one day and said, “This book’s Japanese, right? It’s really good.” Feeling embarrassed that I’d never heard of it, I read it in Russian, and oddly enough, I didn’t feel like I was reading a book that had been translated from Japanese. It felt like the book had been originally written in Russian, especially for readers of upper-elementary age—which was roughly my own Russian-language age at the time. I suppose this is an indication of how thoroughly engrossed I became in the story. Sometimes I’d be reading and look up to discover that the sun was going down and I was famished. I read one book after another and loved them all. Then when I returned to Japan and finally had a chance to see copies of the originals, it actually felt to me as if they’d been translated from Russian.

In other words, it really didn’t matter to me at the time which was the original and which the translation. What mattered was the existence of something that connected the multiple worlds I knew. That brought me a tremendous feeling of security. The gnawing fears of brothers Zenta and Sanpei in Children in the Wind, when the police take their father away and he fails to return . . . The feelings with which Sanpei calls up to his older brother perched high in a tree and asks, “Can you see the ocean? Can you see the war?” . . . The fact that I hold those experiences in common with my Russian friends who read the same story . . . These children live in the same world, on adjoining lands, and have the same expressions and mannerisms, the same uncertainties, failures, and regrets, the same tears and smiles as those who appear in Tolstoy and Chekhov and the countless other books I read in those days. And as readers, we all get to share in that same world.

After all, if we’re feeling a little forlorn, all we have to do is say, “Remember the scene in that book where Sasha bawled his head off?” or “Remember how Zenta was left by himself and feeling lonely, so he pretended that his brother was with him and played hide-and-seek by himself?” And we can rehearse those events with whoever happens to be sitting next to us, talking on and on to our heart’s content. It is in this way that literature will continue forever to link people across time and space.

What, then, is the state of translated literature in Russia today? It has undergone a dramatic change. As with all other sectors following the collapse of the Soviet Union, literature now competes in a market dominated by big box bookstores and Internet outlets. Like other categories, there are bestsellers among translated books as well. Translations from Japan include numerous advice books on the subject of child discipline. And because of the large number of manga and anime fans among the younger set, many publishers are pushing fiction that ties in with those interests.

I certainly have no desire to rain on that parade, but I can’t help thinking about how much more there could be—especially among long-selling titles targeted at the difficult age from around mid-elementary to a few years older. I think, for example, of the countless children who are sure to be captivated by Russian (and other) translations of Makiko Satō’s Kugatsu zeronichi daibōken (September Zero-day Adventure) and Futari wa yaneura-beya de (Encounter in the Attic)—titles that I loved as a child, and that are still popular today in Japan.

The YA category of books for children who have outgrown picture books is quite understated. Awareness remains relatively muted in both Japan and Russia. A child might become utterly captivated by a book in the school library, and the parent might never have the slightest inkling of her interest. Perhaps that is why the category remains overlooked by translators and publishers.

It seems like such a shame—when there’s so much more of “childhood” and “adolescence” that we could be sharing!


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Yuri Nagura (1982–) was born in Tokyo. She is a part-time lecturer at Waseda University. She graduated from the Maxim Gorky Literature Institute in Moscow before going on to complete doctoral studies in the Graduate School of Humanities and Sociology at the University of Tokyo. Her fields of specialization are the history of Russian poetry and contemporary Russian literature. Her many translations from Russian into Japanese include Mikhail Shishkin’s Tegami (Letters; original title Pismovnik), Ludmila Ulitskaya’s Yōki na o-sōshiki (The Funeral Party), and Boris Akunin’s Toruko sutegoma supai jiken (The Turkish Gambit). She also co-translated Andrei Sinyavsky’s Sobieto bunmei no kiso (Soviet Civilization: A Cultural History).