Cathy Hirano Translator Interview

marie kondo cathy hirano bookblast interview

Book Blast interview with Cathy Hirano, translator of young adult books from the Japanese.

Cathy Hirano, tell us a little bit about yourself.
I grew up in Canada and came to Japan when I was 20 without knowing any Japanese. After a year of studying the Japanese language in Kyoto, I entered a university in Tokyo where I majored in Cultural Anthropology. My first job after graduating was translating project reports from Japanese into English for a Japanese-based consulting engineering firm. I worked there for 3 years, learning how to translate on the job. During that period, I got married to a Japanese architect and, just after our first child was born, we moved to the island of Shikoku. I began translating freelance while raising two children and have continued translating in a variety of fields ever since.

When you were growing up, what books had an impact on you?
From a fairly young age, I read anything and everything I could get my hands on, which in our house was a lot as my grandmother was once a children’s librarian. Books were my escape from the reality of school life, which I found quite unkind at times, so I read a lot of fantasy, adventure stories and historical fiction. Books I particularly remember and that I kept going back to include The Chronicles of Narnia, Lord of the Rings, The Earthsea Cycle, Alice in Wonderland, especially all the crazy poetry, The Last Unicorn and The Once and Future King. I also loved things like Ann of Green Gables, Emil and the Detectives, Heidi, Paddington, Who Has Seen the Wind by W.O. Mitchell, and Russian Fairy Tales, as well as such authors as Margaret Lawrence, Farley Mowat, Gerald Durrell, Rosemary Sutcliffe, Madeleine L’Engle, and Patricia McKillip. I could go on and on so I will stop here!!

Why do you translate?
Learning the Japanese language and coming to understand the Japanese culture was a mind-opening experience for me. It certainly changed my life for the better. I translate because I want to share that experience and give people a chance to explore the world and life from a different perspective.

Your advice to new translators just starting out? 
Read, read, read good books, especially in your target language (English for me). Do the very best you can at that moment in time. Your skills will improve with each job. Welcome any feedback you get, positive or negative, as a chance to learn. Cultivate collaborators in both languages. If you want to specifically go into children’s literature, in my experience, you will need to have another source of income to support you while you do that work, whether it is translating in a field that pays, teaching, or whatever.

How did you kick-start your career as a translator, what was your strategy? 
I had no strategy and no thought of a career. I took the first job I could find in Japan that wasn’t teaching English and it happened to be translating. I also fell into children’s literature translation by accident. Someone I had known at university was working as an editor for a Japanese publisher. When she found out I was a translator, she asked if I would help and that’s how I got started. I did it, and still do it, because it’s fun! Although sometimes it’s hard to balance children’s and YA projects with income-generating projects, there is a lot of love, compassion and creativity poured into producing literature for children, and that really nurtures and inspires me as a translator. The feedback from authors and editors, the creative leaps required to bridge the cultural gap, these all help me hone my writing skills, which are essential for translation. At the same time, the research I need to do on a wide range of topics for commercial translation hones my investigative skills and keeps me asking “why”, which are also essential features of translation. In other words, whatever I learn in the one contributes to better translations in the other. And without commercial translation, I couldn’t afford to translate children’s and YA literature.

How and why is the role of the translator important as a UK editor engages in the acquisitions process? And how important is funding?
I don’t actually know much about the UK acquisition process. However, with chapter books and YA, I think an acquiring editor would need a good sample or full translation to accurately judge the quality of the original and decide whether it is suitable for publication and how best to market it. A good translation is also crucial for English readers to be able to enjoy the book. Good translators are good creative writers with an understanding of both cultures. They will do their utmost to make sure the author’s voice comes through accurately in a way that crosses the cultural gap but that still allows the reader to experience the uniqueness of the original. A good translator can also work collaboratively with the editor, and the author (if they’re still alive), to produce the best possible result while making sure edits don’t compromise the original. As for funding, translators of children’s and YA literature are seriously underpaid compared to commercial translation and are doing it mainly out of love. Funding of translation projects that provide translators with proper recognition, better compensation and opportunities to improve their skills would help raise up more competent translators and result in better quality translations. Because there is greater risk involved for a publisher to take on a book from another language and culture, funding for such projects, as well as awards, would certainly help more publishers to take the plunge.

What are you most proud of translating?
I don’t know if “proud” is the right word but I look back at every project and think, “Wow, how did I manage to do that while juggling multiple projects and family life?” The biggest surprise in my translation career was the response to The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo. I never would have guessed that a book on tidying could have struck such a chord with people all over the world .

What is your biggest failure?
Again, I can pick up any book I’ve translated and find myself cringing and thinking, “Oh, why did I do that? I should have…” So I try not to read them when I am feeling fragile, and to remind myself that each translation was the best I could do at that time under those conditions.

What are you working on at the moment?
As usual, I am balancing children’s and YA literature translations with non-fiction projects. The English translation of The Beast Player, a thought-provoking YA fantasy by Hans Christian Andersen Award winner Nahoko Uehashi, is being published by Pushkin Press while the translation of Look, a Butterfly, a board book by Yasunari Murakami, is being published by Gecko Press. Both are scheduled for release in the UK in March 2018. Meanwhile Nobu: A Memoir, the inspiring story of celebrity chef Nobuyuki Matsuhisa, will be coming out this November from Emily Bestler Books. In addition, I am just finishing up the first volume of The Deer King, another complex and fascinating fantasy by Nahoko Uehashi. While working on the second volume of The Deer King, I’ll also be tackling a book on the philosophy of Japanese businessman Kazuo Inamori as well as an art-related translation project.

Your views on book publishing and translation?
I personally feel that the translation, publication and promotion of good literature from many different cultures and languages can nurture intercultural understanding and meaningfully contribute to creating a more peaceful world! We can’t all go and live in another country and learn the language and culture. Books can be great vehicles for experiencing and appreciating what it means to be human in all its wonderful variety.

Has the perception of books in translation in both the book trade and the Media changed during the time you have worked as a translator?
Overall, interest in publishing and reading translated works in the English-language world and the UK in particular seems to have increased gradually over the last decade, which is great, and I hope it continues to increase. But the percentage of English translations published in the UK of books for children and young adults appears to be about 1% (Outside In 2016), and the number of languages translated is still very limited. The situation in Japan is a bit different. The publishing industry has a long history of publishing books in translation from many different languages, especially in children’s literature. Many publishers of children’s books here believe that reading the best literature from around the world nurtures the mind. According to the Japan P.E.N. Club, in 2014, 30% of children’s books published in Japan were translations, although picture book translations still dominate. Translators are admired and their names are prominently displayed on book covers. During the last decade, however, there has been a decline in the publication of translations overall, mainly due to the decline in book reading that accompanied the digital age. But some Japanese translators I have spoken to also believe this is a result of the recent trend towards the more inward-looking, narrowly nationalistic perspective that seems to be affecting many countries today. Japanese children’s publishers have actually managed to hold their own so far despite all this, but the latter in particular is a very worrying trend.

Your views on how new technology has (or has not) impacted books in translation and your translating life?
The Internet has made background research so much easier, quicker and cheaper!! I don’t need to buy a whole bunch of reference books that I’ll only use once, and when I do need a book, I can get it very easily. The main drawback is getting sidetracked by other interesting articles and forgetting what I was originally searching for. Also, when editing my translations, I still find that it’s much easier to spot my mistakes with a printed version than with a digital version.

Do you enjoy reading ebooks?

How involved are you, in the promotion of the books you translate?
I live in Japan and do most of my translations for Japanese publishers or agents who want to sell the copyright. So I am not directly involved in pitching the work to English-language publishers or in pitching the published translation to readers. However, the quality of my translation certainly impacts the sale of the copyright. I think social media has given translators the tools and opportunity to promote their published translations to a wider audience, but it’s something I need to learn more about!

Who are the five people, living or dead, you’d invite to a party?
Not a good question to ask a shy person who enjoys one-on-one conversations over a cup of tea or during a walk in the park.

Your bedside reading?
At the moment, The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery.

Your favourite prose author?
I can’t choose!

Your heroes in real life?
People who choose to love and forgive in the face of fear and hate. People who care about others and who make a positive difference in their lives. Everyone involved in producing good books for children and young adults.

Your chief characteristic?
Compassion and warmth (Answered by my brother-in-law!).

Your chief fault?
Taking on more than I can handle.

Your favourite motto?
“Little by little, day by day.”

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About Georgia de Chamberet 379 Articles
Bilingual editor, rewriter, anthologist, French-to-English translator. Has written for 3am magazine, words without borders, The Independent, The Lady, Banipal, Prospect Magazine, Times Literary Supplement. Currently writes for The BookBlast Diary. Founder (1997) of London-based writing agency BookBlast.