Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Interview with TOMO Contributor Sako Ikegami

Sako Ikegami (translator of the Tomo story “Hachiro” by Ryusuke Saito) Sako Ikegami can lay claim to various titles (clinical pharmacist, medical translator/writer, children’s book reader), but best enjoys working with YA books. She aspires to bridge her two cultures, American and Japanese, by translating children’s literature in both. Her translations include Ryusuke Saito’s The Tree of Courage and Angela Johnson’s First Part Last into English. Visit her website:

Can you tell us a bit about your own background and your relationship with Japan and the U.S.?

Sako Ikegami with her mother in Hawaii en route to New York
Back in the mid-1960s, I was the four-year-old excess baggage that tagged along when my dad, a corporate samurai, was transferred to the Manhattan office to attempt to addict Americans to Japan's electric products. By the time we returned to Japan eleven years later, I had grown up illiterate in Japanese, so English is my native tongue.  Trying to transition into a Japanese high school student was a disaster. My mom got called into school almost every single day.

"Sako came to school wearing a coat! Is there something wrong with her health? Maybe she should try kanpu-masatsu (stripping down and scrubbing one's body with a dry rough towel)."  "Sako was seen walking home with a boy after school!" (Old Japanese adage: Never allow boys and girls in the same room beyond the age of seven. And they wonder about our dwindling population.)

At fifteen, I didn't fit in with the other Japanese teens. Even today, I remain an anomaly in a culture where conformity and blending in are paramount. But there are perks. Being Japanese, but not quite, gives me both an insider's and outsider's view of this country. Translating YA and children's books is my way of making up for missing out on my Japanese heritage while growing up. Hopefully, I can help introduce new readers to the things about Japan that I have learned to love and respect.

“Hachiro” is an Akita tall tale, originally told in Akita dialect. Can you discuss some of the challenges presented by this dialect during the translation process?
Hachiro by Ryusuke Saito, illustrated by Jiro Takidaira (C) Fukuinkan-shoten
The original language is almost musical, involving repetition and onomatopoeia in the delicious cadence of the Akita dialect. I churned out various renditions, trying to get it into readable English, and even tried American dialects, but nothing really clicked. Finally, I asked for help from a senpai (a more experienced mentor or upperclassman), Tomo contributor Deborah Davidson, who has worked extensively with the Ainu yukar, and she had some great advice. Some of the expressions were also difficult to understand, but reading the Japanese repeatedly out loud helped to solve the mystery language. Limited by time and talent, I finally had to give up on a truly faithful reproduction of the dialect, but I hope at least a hint of Saito's flavor comes through intact.

Can you tell us a bit about Ryusuke Saito and his works?

Ryusuke Saito (photo courtesy of Kodomo to gakuryoku)
Ryusuke Saito was a young reporter working for a newspaper in Akita when he wrote this story in 1950. It was initially published in the Akita Newspaper for middle school students. Although he was from Tokyo, he loved the Tohoku region and its people, and many of his most famous tales are situated in this part of Japan. Saito specialized in short stories that sounded like ancient folklore, but were in fact, originally crafted tales. Together with his collaborative partner, kirie artist Jiro Takidaira, he created a series of beautifully illustrated books that have become children's classics. Like Hachiro, many of the stories focus on the beauty of self-sacrifice for the greater good, which some may find a little didactic for modern tastes. Many of these stories were written in the immediate post-WWII period when Japan was undergoing drastic changes in culture and ideology. These two creators felt it was important that the youths of "new" Japan retain those traditional values that have always been treasured here.

What we've witnessed over this past year proves those values are still intact in the people of Tohoku and reassure us that Japan will pull through in spite of the huge losses it's suffered.

You have lived in the U.S. and Japan, and have actually translated fiction in both directions, J-E and E-J. Which direction of translation do you prefer? What challenges do you encounter in both?

Like most translators, I prefer working into my stronger language, English. Also, so very little of Japanese YA literature has been translated and ii's about time that changed. Japan is not just about manga and anime. Unfortunately though, translated books rarely do well in the English language market. While huge numbers of children's books are translated into Japanese from English and lots of other languages every year in Japan, it just doesn't happen in the opposite direction. Talk about trade imbalance!  But even here with one of the highest literacy rates in the world, we have trouble getting our teens to read, and publishers struggle to keep even the most outstanding books in print.

The great thing about translated books is that you get an authentic look into a completely different culture without having to learn the language! So next time you're in the bookstore or library, take a chance. Pick up one of those books that has “translated by...” on the cover, and prepare to enter unfamiliar territory.

Hachiro Lake was the second largest lake in Japan. It was a shallow, brackish water lake, but it has been mostly landfilled for agricultural purposes beginning in the 1950s. Perhaps we need to write a sequel to the story! This folktale seems even more important as a memory of the unfilled Hachiro Lake. What do you think the author would say today? What do you think Hachiro would do?

The sad fate of Hachiro Lake has much to do with a post-WWII Japan rushing to get back on its feet and started in creating a thriving rice industry for its starving population. Unfortunately, back then, they didn't understand the risks of changing an ecosystem or foresee that westernization of Japan would lead to a decrease in rice consumption. Arable land has always been in short supply in Japan and communities needed a way to increase their income. “Hachiro” was written at a time when they were still arguing back and forth on the merits and demerits of landfill. If his thoughts were with the local people, it is possible Saito believed that sacrificing part of Hachiro Lake was a sad but acceptable choice. Perhaps a sequel could have an ecological slant where Hachiro would return the lake to its former glory.

Hachiro Lake's name originates from a series of pourquoi stories that explains how the three great lakes of Tohoku came into being. Perhaps we can tell those stories here at a later time.

Do you have any message for teens in Tohoku?

When I visited Miyagi and Iwate twenty years ago, my first impression was that here, finally, was the Japan that my mom had always taught me to be proud of while I was growing up in the U.S. The old folktales passed from generation to generation by your kataribe storytellers speak of the contentious yet loving relationship that you have always had with nature. It doesn't seem fair that your land has been the target of so much destruction throughout history. But adversity comes only to those strong enough to conquer it. Nourished by the rice and fish so abundant in your beautiful region, Tohoku represents the foundation upon whic

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