A Letter to E.L. KONIGSBURG
The second letter
August 12, 2003
Dear Mrs. E.L. Konigsburg:
Hello, Mrs. Konigsburg! My name is Yumi Shibuya. I am Japanese. I have taught music to children for the past 15 years. And, of course, I am a great admirer of yours.
When I was eleven, I read two of your books in Japanese for the first time. At once, Jennifer became my lifelong bosom friend. Just as Anne wrote her diary entries to Kitty. I wrote mine to Jennifer. And the Metropolitan Museum became a place I wanted to explore. After such a lovely experience, I read the rest of your books in the original language.
Though I am not a child any more, whenever I read your books I still find "me" in each of them. Not only the eternal child in me but also me as an adult.
I don't know how many times I have introduced Claudia and Elizabeth to my friends and my students.
One of my little students, Kana, a girl age 9, once covered the book I sent to her with a piece of floral paper. Guess what? She wrote the title on the wrapper, "Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, Elizabeth, and Me, Kana."
Since I was diagnosed with breast cancer 3 years ago, I often think of Bernadette and Eleanor. Their resolute attitude toward the world inspires me. Tallulah always says to me, "If you must complain in public, either be amusing or outrageous," and I am. I do so at work, at the hospital, wherever I have to.
I had been dreaming of writing a letter of thanks to you since childhood. The day came at last. Mrs. Konigsburg, thank you, thank you so much.
I have something to tell you about the latest translations of your books. I could not make up my mind for months whether I should mention this or not, but I've decided that you should know that the latest Iwanami's translations of your books are not good. The books are still charming and our children love them, but that is because the originals are so great. I am also sending a letter to the publishers to request that the translations be corrected. I am sorry to tell you this. Please understand that I really cherish your books. Let me illustrate the circumstances and my opinion.
In February, I bought three of the new Japanese versions of your books, because I wanted to send your books to my niece on her birthday. I thought she would come to love Sabrina and Ethan as much as Claudia. I decided to enjoy the books before talking with my niece.
While reading "The View from Saturday," I felt dizzy. The book was difficult to read even for me, an avid-grownup-reader, who read the original many times and knew the story completely.
The difficulty is not because of difficult language but because of ambiguous, awkward words and sentences, outdated structure, and strange grammar. They avoid difficult words and make everything too easy, as if they think that your books are beyond Japanese children's reading comprehension. There are needless adaptations, as well. So, your clear logic is unclear in the Japanese version. You will even find some contradictions in the book.
Besides, there are faddish words included which will die out in a few years. (Japanese dictionaries don't have them yet.) I don't like such vulgar words of the moment, for your books must be handed down from generation to generation.
I thought, "Gee... What is happening in the Japanese publishing world? Iwanami should be first-class... Don't they have any respect for children? ..."
Without delay I tried "Journey to an 800 Number"' and "Up From Jericho Tel." And, I decided I could not give these books to my niece.
To make sure of my impressions, I reread Fumiko Matsunaga's translations. Then, I got Hamae Okamoto's ones, which are now out of print, and read them. I bought "TalkTalk" too. I read all the books in my mother tongue twice or more.
Ms. Matsunaga's Japanese versions are beautiful. Ms. Okamoto's works are a bit solid but graceful. And, as I feared . . . I decided that I should not accept the latest translations. Your books are needed by the children especially who have logical minds and real sensibility, interpret words literally, hate inconsistencies, take every promise seriously, and might regard themselves as outsiders, like your loving leading characters. However, they will not be able to sympathize with these recent books.
I am sorry to tell you such dreadful things. Please excuse me, especially if your latest translators and editors of Iwanami are your good friends. I don't mean to blame them for everything. I think there must be big problems in Japanese publishing. Probably the artful translator, like the artful publisher, is a dying breed.
I know, of course, that making translations is a very delicate task. And, I know that telling good from bad is also delicate and it is often "a matter of taste." But I will give you a few examples in the attached appendix. In this letter, let me take up only Iwanami's attitude toward books.
The translator, Ms. Kiri Kojima, wrote about Trina Rose and Woody in her postscript to "Journey to an 800 Number."
It is difficult to find such sincere people.
If you do find such attractive ones, it is probably only in books
which are "Lies to tell the truth."
How could she say such things to the young readers? Even if children have unfortunately not had such attractive people around them, now they have got Trina and Woody who will always stand by them tenderly in their minds, and children will find "real" Trina and Woody in times to come. Surely some of them will be just like Trina or Woody.
You mentioned your 'brisket' in your "TalkTalk."
"Little Red Riding Hood," as written by the Brothers Grimm--politically incorrect, sexy, and scary--is part of my past and my children's past and in a few years I expect it to be part of my grandchildren's past. It is as integral to the culture I want to pass down as how I make my brisket. ("TalkTalk" -- P. 167）
Reading this paragraph, I remembered the taste of my grandmother's ohagi, a Japanese traditional rice-cake sweets. I understood that you considered cooking brisket a part of Jewish people's heritage. (Some of my friends in the U.S. explained this to me.)
But when I read the Japanese version, I was so shocked that I couldn't breathe. The following is Ms. Masako Shimizu's translation.
・・・I want to pass down as how I make my breast.
She translated 'brisket' into 'mune.' The 'mune' means a breast, a chest, a bust. This phrase--make one's breast--doesn't make sense at all in Japanese. We don't have such an expression. So, no one understands what you meant. Oh, perhaps my co-survivors of breast cancer and I might appreciate it!
Anyway, I am very sorry about this error. Where are the editors? Where are the proofreaders?
Nowadays, even a man on an isolated island could find out what your 'brisket' means if he wanted to know, I suppose. But everyone makes mistake sometimes, so I don't much care, if it were just a mistranslation. If they had used 'rib' instead of 'breast,' we could have guessed or misunderstood, "Oh, yes, E.L. Konigsburg's works are born from her rib by God's hand!" or "Wow, she does knitting which has ancestral patterns like a family treasure?" In such a case, of course you need corrections, though a funny story might settle the matter.
But, the phrase was left meaningless. I am deeply disappointed that they should have failed in that way.
Looking at these facts, I am sad rather than mad.
I wonder how many people took part in the project to publish these Japanese versions of my favorite books. Where is their love of words? Where is their respect for culture? Will things be better or worse?
I feel like crying... But I will keep back my tears, because I feel I have responsibility, yes, responsibility, to deliver your books perfectly to Japanese children. I supposed you could laugh at me, this quixotic girl, but I also somehow know you will understand me. And, that is why I am writing to you today.
Mrs. Konigsburg, I will write a letter to Iwanami Shoten and require them to make faithful translations of your originals. Your works deserve the highest quality of Japanese. And the manuscripts have to be checked by several excellent bilingual proofreaders.
As I am neither a specialist in literature nor language, the publisher may spurn me. In such a case, I will ask my friends and people who love your books to join with me in campaigning for accurate translations. I don't know if they will be able to make overall revisions soon, but I believe that they at least must correct a few critical errors. I will stick to this plan for my remaining years. There are so many children who need your books in our country. And, we must continue to pass down your works to the children in the far distant future.
You once touched on Anne Frank; "She has helped many children shape the masks of the ghosts of their childhoods." So have you. You are our Anne Frank. Certainly. You have helped many children enrich their life... and go on, go on...
Mrs. Konigsburg, thank you again... so much.
Love and Shalom,
The attached appendix
The second letter