Reviews 2010

Aspects of the Translation and Reception of British Children's Fantasy Literature in Postwar Japan: With Special Emphasis on The Borrowers and Tom's Midnight Garden

Aspects of the Translation and Reception of British Children's Fantasy Literature in Postwar Japan: With Special Emphasis on The Borrowers and Tom's Midnight Garden. Mihiko Tanaka. Tokyo: Otowa-Shobo Tsurumi-Shoten, 2009. 497 pages. 8000¥ (hardback).

This book is a doctoral dissertation prepared by Tanaka and defended in Japan in 2008. Tanaka sets two objectives for her study. The first is to study British children's fantasies, especially those which have been translated into Japanese in postwar Japan namely Philippa Pearce’s Tom’s Midnight Garden and Mary Norton’s The Borrowers. The second is the reception of British fantasy in Japan and the extent to which the translation of British fantasies has contributed to the establishment of the genre in this semiosphere. The book is divided into three parts.

Part I is a historical overview of fantasy and its predecessors both in Britain and Japan. Tanaka links British Fantasy to fairy tales and stories about little people and embarks on a discussion of the conceptual differences between fairy tale and fantasy as conceived by Tolkien and his followers (44-7) and details major works in the first and second golden ages of British children’s literature. The introduction to British fantasy is followed by an introduction to Japanese fantasy. Tanaka insists that little people have a long tradition in Japanese folk tales and were popular until the nineteenth century. These characters are called ‘kobito’ or ‘shohjin’ and are often said to inhabit the mysterious island of ‘kobito-jima’ or ‘shohjin-jima’. However, by the 1920s, the connection between little people and the mysterious islands was no longer common knowledge and ‘kobito’ simply ‘ meant little people’ (86). Tanaka suggests that Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels might have been inspired by these stories (83).

Part II is devoted to the study of the manipulation strategies (or divergences as Tanaka calls them) adopted by translators whether consciously or inadvertently to alter controversial content in the British fantasies translated for Japanese children and adults. The causes of manipulation are diverse ranging from linguistic to poetic and cultural. The two translations Tanaka sets to investigate are Philippa Pearce’s Tom’s Midnight Garden and Mary Norton’s The Borrowers. Tanaka surveys some of the translation techniques utilised by translators to manipulate the translated works. Most of the techniques used are gathered by Tanaka under the umbrella concept of ‘paraphrasing’. These manipulation strategies are adopted for lexical, syntactic and cultural reasons. For instance, Tanaka states that the abundant use of abstract nouns that characterises Pearce’s writings and British fantasies in general is missing in Japanese. For this reason, “British unemotional expressions are changed to Japanese emotional expressions” (152).

Part III starts with an analysis of how The Borrowers was received in Britain especially among critical circles. This introduction is followed by a review of critical response after the publication of the translation of The Borrowers in Japan, although she admits that the literature available about the translation of fantasy in Japan is scarce (198). Tanaka cites Yohko Inokuma, who is critical of the passivity of the little people in The Borrowers who, unlike Tolkien’s hobbits, “never carve out their destiny” (200), although she admires Norton’s style and her construction of plot. For her, a true fantasy should pursue possibilities (200).

After surveying critical interest in The Borrowers, Tanaka moves to study the influence this fantasy had on Japanese fantasy writing. This section provides a parallel depiction of the works created in Britain after the publication of The Borrowers and those created in Japan after the publication of the translation of the same fantasy. Tanaka claims that The Borrowers triggered the production of the first two original fantasies only three years after its publication (221). The first is Tomiko Inui’s Little People under a Shady House and Saturu Satoh’s A Little Country Nobody Knows. The influence of The Borrowers on Inui, who edited the translation of The Borrowers, is unmistakable. While Satoh’s little people have Japanese origins, Inui’s little people are European. Many books were to follow bearing many similarities to The Borrowers.

In Chapter 6 of Part III Tanaka studies the reception of Philippa Pearce’s Tom’s Midnight Garden (1958) in Britain and Japan. Tanaka starts with a detailed overview of the books which were published in both contexts after the publication of Tom’s Midnight Garden and its Japanese translation and the influence they had on both British and Japanese fantasy. The influence of Tom on Japanese time-slip fantasy was not noticeable until the early 1970s. Its impact could be seen on different levels: form, characters and setting as Japanese time-slip fantasies generally take old Western houses as their favourite setting.

Chapter 7 is devoted to analysing the distinctive features of Japanese fantasy. Tanaka starts by acknowledging the difficulty of integrating fantasy within Japanese literary polysystem. She admits that fantasy was misunderstood by Japanese ‘general readers’ who “tend to associate the smallness of little people only with the cuteness or the vulnerability of children, failing to see them as a metaphor for refugees or anybody powerless” (276). Another reason lies in the fact that old houses, which are generally the preferred setting of British fantasies, are hard to find in postwar Japan. Moreover, the past in Japan is quite often associated with death and unhappiness. It is described “as a thing that one does not want to repeat or wants to avoid” (278). Moreover, according to Tanaka, the Japanese language cannot successfully depict clear contrasts between the ordinary and the supernatural, which enables the readers to ‘suspend disbelief’ and believe in the hidden reality in the created world. For her, Japanese is suitable for expressing “monologue or describe jottings and impressions beautifully, rather than to construct the reality by accumulating detailed (sometimes even paranoiac) description and logic”(285).

Tanaka insists that the outcome of published time slip fantasy in Japan is very modest (301). However, attempts to establish fantasy are still underway. The difficulty of depicting the past that impeded earlier authors has been overcome by the new generation of authors who did not know war and its woes and see no harm in integrating Western features in Japanese fantasy. The new fantasy thus created is appealing to the young Japanese readers largely influenced by Western culture.

The book as a whole contains certain inaccuracies that are worth pointing out. First, while the book is about the reception of fantasy in Japan, the space devoted to its reception in Britain is greater. Second, back translations are not always provided, which complicates the reader’s task. Third, although the thesis deals mainly with translation product and function, there is a near total absence of the appropriate theoretical framework. Tanaka only cited Susan Bassnett once or twice and provides no convincing analysis. Moreover, the thesis starts with a metaphor describing the translator as a traveller. Apart from the inappropriateness of the metaphor, Tanaka never develops this notion. Fourth, it is clear that the book has not been proof-read for English properly and there are many instances where the style is very poor possibly probably because of interference from Japanese.

The book offers an introduction to both British and Japanese fantasy, and constitutes a helpful starting point for investigating the role of context in translation. Tanaka’s insights into the importance of translation in introducing new literary genres within the target semiosphere is valuable, and it is to be hoped that these will be prepared for publication in a more accessible format.

Sabeur Mdallel
University of Jendouba, Tunisia/University of Tampere, Finland