In our ongoing series of interviews with children's book translators, translators explain just what goes into their work. This month, David Boyd, a professor of Japanese at the University of North Carolina in the USA, discusses his love for translation, including children's books.

Words and Pictures: When did you first think about becoming a translator?

David Boyd: Probably the first time I read a novel in translation: The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea by Yukio Mishima, translated by John Nathan.

Nathan’s Mishima did things I’d never seen in fiction. I didn’t have a second language at the time, but that book made me start thinking about translation on some abstract level.

What got you interested in translations for children? Or do you prefer translating for adults?

I don’t have a preference. I enjoy doing both. One thing that I appreciate about working on books for children is the amount of effort that goes into a single word. I like the pace, that you’re free to really consider each syllable before moving on. When translating picture books, it can also be really enjoyable to think about how the translation agrees with the art.

What, what, what? by Arata Tendo, translated by David Boyd

What sorts of cultural things have to be spelled out in translation into English from Japanese?

On one level, everything seems to merit explanation. That said, you don’t have to explain anything. Especially when translating for children, I think it’s best to simply trust your reader. It isn’t always the case, but I feel like 'spelling out' usually means slowing down. That can cost you a lot in terms of readability and enjoyability.

In Every Color of Light, translated by David Boyd, we see a forest in a rainstorm, then watch it go to sleep

Do you ever make choices in favor of “transatlantic” English?

Not often. As a rule, I prefer to stick with my own English: American — or, more specifically, Californian — English. Of course, not everything needs to sound American. I suppose it depends on the text.

In this seventh book of the series, the twins on their trusty bicycles find a cafe that is open only on rainy days

Do you find any untranslatable nuances or language play that you have to leave out? Funny things that aren’t funny in translation?

I’d like to think that nothing’s untranslatable. That said, there are varying degrees of success. In other words, are some funny things less funny in translation? Of course. But you do what you can. There are ways to compensate. Ideally, you can make something happen in the same place, but sometimes you find an opportunity elsewhere in the book. Even when you have to give up a little, there’s a real joy in digging deeper to find the best possible solution.

"I like to think that nothing's untranslatable."

What do you hope to translate next? Or what do you hope will soon be translated?

I’d like to work on a couple of children’s books written by poets Tahi Saihate and Mimi Hachikai. Another picture book I’d like to see in translation is Baby Revolution, written by Ken’ichi Asai. Asai is a literal rock star, and Baby Revolution contains the lyrics to a song of his by the same name. I know that the translator Alisa Yamasaki is a fan of Asai’s band Blankey Jet City, so I’d love to see her translation of that book. It always shows when the translator is on the same wavelength as the author.

Baby Revolution, by Ken’ichi Asai, has not been translated into English

Are there any other translators you admire?

So many. At the top of that list is Motoyuki Shibata, who usually translates from English, but sometimes translates into it. I had the chance to study with him when I was in graduate school, and I learned so much from him — not just how to translate in a technical sense, but what it means to be a translator.

In Slow Boat, an adult book translated by David Boyd, the narrator is a young man desperate to get away from Tokyo.

Over the years you’ve been working, have your views on translation changed?

Absolutely. I’ve been teaching three undergraduate courses in translation every year for the past four years, and that’s definitely changed how I see what I do. Working with students, I’ve come to understand that there really isn’t one right way to translate. It’s such a personal thing, and that’s what ultimately makes it worthwhile.

Header image:Logo by Jess Stockham


David Boyd is assistant professor of Japanese at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, North Carolina, USA.

He has translated fiction by Mieko Kawakami, Tatsuhiko Shibusawa, and Izumi Suzuki, among others. His translations of novellas by Hideo Furukawa (Slow Boat; Pushkin Press, 2017) and Hiroko Oyamada (The Hole; New Directions, 2020) have won the Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission (JUSFC) Prize for the Translation of Japanese Literature. In the last five years, he has translated eight children’s books, all of which are published by Enchanted Lion Books.


Picture credits
Covers of What what what? and of Every Color of Light by Ryōji Arai

Chirra and Chirri A Rainy Day, written and illustrated by Kaya Doi

Cover of Baby Revolution by Yoshitomo Nara
Cover of Slow Boat by Nathan Burton

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