International Opinion

How to Find Authentic Books About Asia, From Asia

By David Jacobson — November 20, 2018 6 min read
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Editor’s Intro: It’s often difficult to find authentic international literature, so in this piece, David Jacobson, the author of “Are You an Echo? The Lost Poetry of Misuzu Kaneko” and a board member of the Global Literature in Libraries Initiative (GLLI), suggests ways to find books about Asia that are appropriate for students, written locally by Asians, and available in English. He also spearheaded the GLLI’s effort to create a database of children’s literature in translation, which so far includes works originally published in Chinese, Korean, Japanese, German, and Polish.

So you want to assign (or recommend) a book to your students about Asia—written by an Asian? Let me guess: You are having a hard time finding one, right? Rest assured, however, that finding “own voices” from Asia is not impossible, and the gleanings are well worth the effort.

Why “Own Voices” Are so Hard to Find

Why is it so difficult to find books for children about Asia? For one thing, the United States doesn’t publish very many translations in English. The conventional wisdom is that translations amount to about 3 percent of the total books published every year. And when you are looking for children’s books translated from non-European languages, the pickings are even slimmer. According to a survey I conducted that includes tabulation of data from the University of Wisconsin’s Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC), nearly 55 percent of all translations published between 2003 and 2016 come from three languages—French (27 percent), German (19 percent), and Spanish (8 percent). By contrast, those from Japanese amounted to only 5 percent; Korean, just under 4 percent; and Chinese, fewer than 1 percent.

Source: CCBC translation logs, as reported in “Survey of Translations of Children’s and YA Literature from Chinese, Japanese and Korean”

This doesn’t mean that “own voices” from Asia are not available. Rather, it reflects the fact that we don’t do a good job identifying them. The CCBC, I suspect, misses a lot of titles because most translations are published by small U.S. publishers, or by publishers abroad, which don’t submit them (the CCBC’s data are based on voluntary submission by publishers). Prominent reviewers of children’s works, such as the Horn Book, don’t review titles published outside the United States. What’s more, the most prestigious prizes, such as the Caldecott and Newbery Medals, which flag the best-regarded books, don’t even consider works by non-American citizens or residents.

Follow the Translators

So what is a well-meaning (but time-strapped) teacher to do? Let me give you a few general and a few country-specific strategies for finding translations from Asia.

My first suggestion is to follow the translators. Translators probably know more about what’s available in translation from a particular language than anyone else. Moreover, since translation of children’s literature remains a publishing backwater, there are relatively few translators who specialize in kid literature in each language. If you’re interested in a particular country, find the handful of translators that specialize in it and read their work.

Take Chinese, for instance. I learned of Helen Wang after reading her wonderful translation of Bronze and Sunflower (by Hans Christian Andersen Award winner Cao Wenxuan). She has translated at least 11 other picture books and YA novels from Chinese, which you can find listed at the Global Literature in Libraries Initiative database. Along with Minjie Chen and Anna Gustafsson Chen, she is the co-editor of the blog “Chinese Books for Young Readers,” which is a font of information about Chinese children’s literature. If you want to see a free sample of Helen’s work, check out her translation of Cao’s short story, “A Very Special Pigeon.”

In Japanese children’s literature, Cathy Hirano plays a similar role as Helen Wang. She has translated 14 novels and picture books, most notably two series of fantasy titles by Hans Christian Andersen winner Nahoko Uehashi, and three books by Batchelder Award winner Kazumi Yumoto. Another Japanese translator to watch is Avery Fischer Udagawa, who edits the “Ihatov” blog of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) Japan Translation Group. The blog publishes reviews of books you might never find in the English-language press (such as this new book by Uehashi) and pieces about authors (such as recent Hans Christian Andersen Award winner Eiko Kadono) who are rarely profiled despite their prominence abroad. Avery also posts widely about Japanese and world kid lit in English translation (for instance, this list of 100 translated children’s books from around the world).

Small Publishers Are Responsible for Most Translations

Another strategy would be to identify the few specialized publishers whose releases match your interests. There is a small group of publishers based in different countries that specialize in translated children’s literature. They include the U.K.'s Pushkin Children’s, New Zealand’s Gecko Press, and Canada’s Groundwood Books. In the United States, check out Elsewhere Editions, the Yonder imprint of Restless Books, and Enchanted Lion Books. Note, however, that Elsewhere Editions and Yonder have so far only published one title each from Asia: Elsewhere has published a new picture book by Cao Wenxuan, and Yonder has released a beautifully illustrated version of the Ramayana.

If your interest is China, you have it easy, in a way. Nearly 60 percent of the 64 Chinese children’s books I identified in the survey linked to above come from just three publishers: Balestier Press in the United Kingdom, Starfish Bay Publishing in Australia, and Candied Plums in the United States. So a glance at their respective websites will give you an overview of what’s available in English translation from China. But that does point out just how few translations are available.

Japanese children’s books, by contrast, have been published by a broader array of publishers, so there is no similar shortcut. However, there is a small number of publishers that have specialized in works about Japan in English—Tuttle, Stone Bridge Press, Kodansha, and Vertical Inc.—that have all published works for kids, some in translation and some not.

On the other hand, India, which itself is the second largest market for English-language children’s books, has its own set of specialized children’s publishers, a number of which have made a splash abroad. They include Tara Books (known for its handprinted illustrations), Duckbill Books (co-founded by “India’s Dr. Seuss” Anushka Ravishankar), and long-standing Tulika Books and Karadi Tales.

New Prizes Will Highlight Standouts

Thanks to the growing recognition that our children are not getting exposed to enough writing from around the world, a number of new prizes have been established to highlight translated literature. Just recently, the National Book Foundation, which administers the National Book Awards, announced the finalists in a new category honoring translated literature. None was works for children, though several translations from Asian languages were named.

The Global Literature in Libraries Initiative is similarly planning to award YA books in translation, in hopes of bringing attention to the noticeable gap in translations of world literature for young adults. The first winners will be announced at the American Library Association’s midwinter conference in January 2019.

Starting in 2016, the National Consortium for the Teaching About Asia initiated the Freeman Book Awards, which recognize “quality” children’s and young-adult books about East and Southeast Asia. Similarly, the South Asia Book Award has been recognizing top-flight books since 2012. Neither prize, of course, is limited to “own voices” or translated literature.

You should also peruse the winners of the ALA’s long-standing Batchelder Prize and the annual USBBY Outstanding International Books list.

There is also a plethora of country-specific book lists that will help your search, as well as worthy sources from abroad. But naming all of them would require another column. In the meantime, happy searching!

Connect with Heather and the Center for Global Education on Twitter.

Chart created by and used with permission of the author.

Image created on Pablo.

The opinions expressed in Global Learning are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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