It may be only mildly surprising that Japanese translations of the first four “Harry Potter” titles have racked up 16.5 million sales to date. It is, though, quite astonishing that the publisher is not an industry giant, but a small Tokyo firm with no previous best seller to its name.

This is all due to the zeal and ability of Yuko Matsuoka, the president of Say-zan-sha Publications Ltd. After falling in love with the first of J.K. Rowling’s books while she was in England in 1998, she not only succeeded in acquiring the Japanese translation rights for the whole series, but then set about translating “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” herself.

“It was like magic,” Matsuoka says in the postscript of that book, which was her first-ever translation of a literary work. “It was like falling under a spell,” she says, recalling how she read the book from cover to cover one night, then picked up the phone the next morning and called the author’s agent to inquire about translation rights.

However, Matsuoka, who stepped into her husband’s shoes as president of Say-zan-sha after he died of cancer in 1997, is quick to acknowledge the unstinting assistance of her colleagues and friends such as U.S. artist Dan Schlesinger, who helped greatly with the books’ cover designs and illustrations.

Matsuoka, who graduated from International Christian University in Tokyo in 1966 and obtained an MA in international political science at Monterey Institute of International Studies in California, has had a long career as a simultaneous interpreter. Since 1981, she has been a conference interpreter at the annual general meeting of the Geneva-based International Labor Organization.

Working in both Geneva and Tokyo, Matsuoka is now translating “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,” the fifth in the series, which was published in English last summer.

Recently, she announced that the book’s Japanese version will be published next Sept. 1 — the same date on which the Hogwarts Express leaves platform 9 3/4 at London’s King’s Cross Station every year at the start of Hogwarts School’s new academic year.

Last month, while she was in Tokyo to promote the publication of the first “audio book” of the “Harry Potter” series, and to work on preparations for an international convention on ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or motoneuron disease) — also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease after the great Yankees’ hitter who died of the affliction in 1941 — Matsuoka made time for this interview, in English, with The Japan Times.

Now that you are translating the fifth “Harry Potter” title, do you find your style has changed since the first volume in the series?

Basically, nothing has changed. My commitment is the same, the sense of mission is the same; nothing has changed in that sense. But when I translated Volume 1, it was my first job as a literary translator. Of course I was, and still I am, a simultaneous interpreter. But translation is a different thing altogether.

At that time I had no experience in translating literary works, so I was very naive and a bit nervous. But in a way, it was simpler. Now I have learned some techniques and more people are waiting for my translation — which is expected to be good. So it was easier in the sense of my naivety at that time, and now it is more difficult because of the level of sophistication on my part and on the part of readers. But basically, I have the same passion. And I still enjoy translating the “Harry Potter” series.

Are there any particular difficulties translating “Harry Potter” into Japanese?

I faced up to translators’ problems for the first time in my life with Volume 1 — difficulties such as different manners, culture and food. For example, some English food does not exist in Japan, and there must be some techniques that experienced translators usually use, but I didn’t know such techniques at the beginning.

Also, J.K. Rowling poses all translators with special challenges such as alliterations and rhymes. Alliteration is very difficult. J.K. Rowling likes alliterations. It is impossible to translate [alliterations] into Japanese, but I have tried and somehow managed to give something similar in Japanese.

Also, I enjoy giving different translations for “I.” For example, watashi, watakushi, atashi, atai, ore, boku, oresama, etc. That technique doesn’t exist in English.

Other than language, does the Japanese “Harry Potter” series have any features that are different from editions in other languages?

Most of the 60 different languages into which “Harry Potter” is translated use the American or English jackets. But a few countries, which joined the project earlier, were allowed to use their own designs, and fortunately the Japanese version is one of them.

If you read the postscript of Volume 1, you would find out how I came across “Harry Potter,” and how the illustrations were done by a friend of mine, Dan Schlesinger, an American who lives in London. It was the first time he had done illustrations or the jacket design for a book. He enjoyed it. Both of us worked very hard to make it very attractive for the Japanese audience. It resulted in a midnight-blue cover for Volume 1, burgundy for Volume 2, English green for Volume 3 and soft purple for Volume 4. The color scheme was designed by another friend of mine. It’s really a project between friends who are dedicated to “Harry Potter” and love the stories.

As you are now translating your fifth volume, have you developed special feelings for the characters?

I love all of them. They are growing from the age of 11 and eventually become 17-year-olds, so there must be some changes. Of course, Harry didn’t have any friends at the start of Volume 1, but by the end of that book Ron and Hermione had become his best friends. In Volume 2, they got closer together, and in Volume 3 even closer. Of course the way of conversation changes as relationships change, so all those things must be reflected in the translation. J.K. Rowling is of course considering such changes and enjoying describing the process of growth. I am also enjoying the changing use of words with characters’ ages.

I love Hagrid the best of all. He speaks with a local accent that is not necessarily from anywhere particular in Britain. But J.K. Rowling said it is just that of somebody who is very kind-hearted and warm — and it is a northern accent. So, I gave him something like Tohoku-ben, the dialect of the region where I was born. I was born in Fukushima Prefecture.

How has encountering the “Harry Potter” books affected your life?

I wouldn’t have found the first book had it not been for my husband who died in 1997. He had this small publishing firm which never had a best seller, but he was a great editor and the books he published were of a high quality [mainly on historical subjects]. He really dedicated his life to that quality, which I tried to inherit in terms of content as well as design. I think I achieved his dream of publishing good books which sell well. He couldn’t achieve the second objective, but I did. My husband, who is in heaven, must be very pleased by this result, and I am very happy to have achieved his dream.

Also I would never have found this book in any other periods of my life. It was because my husband died, and because I decided to take over his firm because I was thinking of publishing translated books that I found this book. Everything has its time, and things need time to mature. In a way everything was prepared. You may be worried until that time arrives, but you are not just waiting idly but you are preparing yourself, thinking of what you want to do, what you can do and what you should prepare for. Without any effort, nothing can be achieved. I think I prepared myself well enough to meet “Harry Potter” in 1998. It was not just an accident. It was all prepared.

What has the success of these books brought into your life?

The meaning of Harry Potter in my life is not a big business success. Of course it was that, fortunately, but that’s not what I wanted to achieve. I really wanted to translate and produce a book which will entertain and be loved by Japanese readers, and which will be around for a long time. It should not be just a fashion, but it should be so-called classic literature. That’s what I aimed for.

So I didn’t expect a short-term success at all. When I published Volume 1, I was prepared to wait for seven years at least. And I thought that by the time all seven books had been published, Japanese readers would surely notice the excellence of the story.

Why do you think the “Harry Potter” books are so hugely popular?

Firstly, all the characters are very charming and interesting, so readers are fascinated by them. Secondly, readers must enjoy magical things, the world of magic, which is the world of fantasy. Thirdly, they must also enjoy the sense of humor. Of course, English readers have the advantage of reading it in the original language, and it all depends on the translator’s skill how the sense of humor in English can be translated so Japanese readers can enjoy it. But I really enjoyed the sense of humor in the books.

Fourthly there is the depth of the story. It is not just a simple children’s story. It has depth and breadth and covers a seven-year timespan. So once a reader is caught by the world of Hogwarts, he or she cannot leave it because it is so deep, so wide and so realistic that they . . . live in the world of Hogwarts. That is a sense of reality in a way, it is not just a world of fantasy which exists somewhere else.

Number five is the sense of happiness after reading. Although there are very cruel scenes in the books, and a lot of bad people show up in the story, eventually every story has a happy ending. Readers must feel that life is great and human beings are great. It is nice to be human. Of course the characters are witches and wizards, but they are human beings, too. There are lots of lessons to learn from the story — about courage, love and hope.

What expectations do you have for the new “audio book”?

“Audio book” is just simple, normal English, but we named it, christened it as that rather than rodoku-CD in Japanese, because it’s something different from the ordinary reading CDs. The Japanese market for such CDs is not ripe yet, and all the ones that have been published so far have been very short ones — just one disc or a collection of 10 discs of different stories.

This is the first time that 10 discs dedicated to one title — “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” — have been packaged as one book-reading. So we gave it the name “audio book,” because it is a combination of drama and the voice, and it’s not a printed book but a disc book. It’s a recording of 10 hours and 10 minutes by just one person, Toru Emori, who is a great actor who has actually done a great job expressing my feelings through his voice.

I am sure that listeners will find this audio book totally different from any other rodoku-CD they know. Again, I am not aiming at big sales or anything. If it is a good product, it will sell naturally. What I really want to start is a kind of new culture and new genre of expression. It is not theatrical drama, it is not a movie, it is not book — but it’s a “book by voice.”

Had you been thinking about the audio-books project for long?

Yes. Because I am a simultaneous interpreter, I listen to voices all the time. When I read “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” for the first time in 1998, I read it overnight and I could already hear their voices in my mind.

Can you tell me about the Japan ALS Association and your involvement with it.

ALS is amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or motoneuron disease. As the name signifies it is a neurological disease affecting the motor nerves, and nobody knows why it happens, so there is no cure yet. As patients [in the advanced stages] cannot move at all, the last thing they can do to communicate with others is to use their blinking.

The association was founded [in 1986] by my late husband together with ALS patients, families and medical professionals. He wanted to organize an international ALS conference in Japan in 2000, but because of his death it did not happen. Now it has been decided it will be held in Yokohama in 2006 — the 20th anniversary of the association.

How did your late husband get involved with ALS activities?

He published the diary of a patient and he learned how miserable sufferers’ lives were and he wanted to do something about it. So he established the [nonprofit, voluntary] Japan ALS Association, and he offered his service free of charge for 14 years before he died.

My husband wanted to help them to live with dignity. All human beings have the right to live with dignity, as the Japanese Constitution also guarantees. My husband wanted to help them to achieve the same status as human beings as normal people. . . . Now ALS patients themselves are trying to change the situation for themselves, which is a good thing. So I am just helping them to achieve their objectives to live with dignity as human beings.

What is the plan for the 2006 conference?

Its date was officially announced in Milan in November, but preparations have already been going on for two years. I think that researchers and doctors from Europe and the United States are expected to come over to exchange opinions with Japanese medical professionals. I am supposed to provide a very good simultaneous interpretation for the conference, as my husband wanted me to do. . . . I have to train interpreters for that as well. Also, since it is the first conference to be held in Asia, a lot of people from Asian countries are expected to come over.

Finally, returning to “Harry Potter,” I am intrigued to know how you ever managed to win the Japanese translation rights over major publishers.

At that time, I didn’t even know the names of other publishers, and I paid little attention to competition with them. All I did was to tell the agent earnestly that I had fallen in love with the story and I wanted to publish it in Japan. J.K. Rowling said her agent told her I was the most enthusiastic suitor. And she said she believes that passion is the most important thing in life.

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