For Deborah Davidson, Hokkaido is not only home, it is a door to other worlds. As a child, she played with Ainu children and watched them care for the frolicking cubs of the “iomante” (bear ceremony). As a translator, she now focuses on bringing Ainu folk tales to an English-speaking audience.
A devoted fan of Ayako Miura, a famous novelist from Asahikawa, Hokkaido, Davidson also followed Miura’s creative path around the prefecture to translate her historical novel “Kairei” into English under the title “Hidden Ranges.”
As the cross-cultural adviser for the small coastal town of Setana in southern Hokkaido in the 1990s, she joined cultural circles and learned to paint etegami, hand-drawn postcards using traditional Japanese sumi ink and washi paper. Building on those artistic skills, she now concocts original illustrated recipes, inspired by Hokkaido and Japanese cuisine.
Davidson, 56, suffers from severe osteoarthritis and other health issues, which have left her virtually housebound since 2005. Still, she has found another world through her many creative endeavors.
“Even though I hardly leave the house these days,” Davidson says, “I feel like I am traveling all over the world, all the time, meeting many interesting people.”
Davidson’s interests and creative drive widened her view from an early age. From the time she was a small child in Asahikawa, Davidson tagged along with her father to Saturday School in the Ainu community of Chikabumi.
As her missionary father taught the Ainu children English, Davidson became absorbed in the lives of the local indigenous people.
“It became a comfortable place for me,” she says, “and I saw things an outsider to Ainu society normally would not see, like the bear cubs raised for the iomante ceremony, which is central to the Ainu worldview. It was all part of my background, something natural to me and not something to study.”
Japan itself was not something to study yet; it was simply home. Davidson attended Hokkaido International School near Sapporo. At that time, the school only extended from kindergarten to ninth grade, so after junior high, she moved to Tokyo to live in a dormitory at the American School in Japan until high school graduation in 1973.
Like many foreigners raised in Japan, Davidson took her awareness of Asian culture and mash of Japanese and English for granted. She was not prepared for the culture shock of university in the United States.
“Because I am an American citizen and I look American, I wasn’t given the same leeway as a foreign student would be given,” she says. “So if I didn’t laugh at a joke, or if I didn’t make sense when I was talking, or if I was confused about an American bank or supermarket — people didn’t cut me any slack. It was very hard.”
Davidson started her studies at a small university in Tacoma, Washington, but after a year, she moved to a bigger city to embrace the familiar by finding a university that specialized in her interests — Asian studies.
“I realized if I was going to overcome culture shock and feel that I had a place in college, it would have to be among people who had an interest in Japan,” she says.
Davidson found her place at Washington University in St. Louis, majoring in Asian studies and specializing in Japanese literature.
Her interest in words and stories led to one of many part-time jobs in the university, and also started her on what would be a lifetime career.
“If left to nature, my Japanese ability would have stayed at a young child’s level while my English matured, but I have always loved language. I love English, too; I love words,” Davidson says.
Washington University’s Asian Studies Department frequently received calls for Japanese translations throughout St. Louis and Chicago, and Davidson soon became the go-to translator.
The summer before transferring to Washington University, Davidson had already set her interests on literary translation by discovering the works of the novelist Miura. With friends still in the U.S., Davidson was bored in Japan and picked up one of Miura’s novels, “Hitsujigaoka.”
“My Japanese reading ability had gotten really poor, but I just plowed through it without taking the time to look up words in the dictionary or anything,” she says. “I was so caught up in the book, I did not want to eat or sleep for three days. The book was so powerful, I decided I wanted to be a translator. It was like a meeting of fate — a deai — with Miura and her works,” she says.
For her senior thesis, Davidson translated some of Miura’s works for academic purposes and started a correspondence with the author until her death in 1999. Literary translations would wait, however, as Davidson spent four years in St. Louis working part-time in business translation. She also taught Japanese while her husband completed graduate school.
Married immediately after graduation to a fellow Asian Studies major, they welcomed their daughter in 1978. The young family moved to Nagoya in 1980. With their daughter and later a son, Davidson became active in the Japanese school and local communities. As her children grew and the family moved to Osaka, she started translation work again full time with a little help from technology.
“It was the 1990s, and fax machines were the big breakthrough for translators,” Davidson remembers. “You could receive and return the completed translation to your clients so quickly.”
With the added flexibility, she started her own company and steadily increased her work in business translation. Davidson and her family moved back to Hokkaido in 1995 — this time settling in Sapporo — when her husband accepted a job at Hokusei University, and her company thrived in the age of the Internet.
“Now a translator really could accept a job from anywhere in the world,” she says.
Drawn into her own childhood memories, Davidson joined forces with a friend from her days at the international school in Sapporo to help publicize the stories of the Ainu.
“The Japanese government had just started a foundation, the Foundation for Research and the Promotion of Ainu Culture, and my friend and I formed a project team along with others,” she says. “We focused on Ainu folk tales, or uepeker, and our primary goal was to introduce Ainu folk tales in English.”
The Project Team Uepeker has successfully published two books of Ainu folk tales, and sends in proposals each year for more.
“I was worried the world would not have a chance to understand and value the oral tradition of the Ainu before it disappeared,” she says.
In addition to her work with the Foundation, Davidson also helps publicize Ainu folk tales through her blog and published stories in a variety of magazines. The newest translation, “Where the Silver Droplets Fall,” will be included in an upcoming anthology of young adult fiction from Stone Bridge Press due out next spring.
Her declining health forced Davidson to officially shutter her translation business in 2005, but this opened the door to more creative endeavors.
She had learned the art of etegami while acting as a cultural advisor for Setana. Although her original intent was to use the traditional art form as a way of better understanding the coastal town’s community, it quickly captivated Davidson.
“I became very serious about etegami, creatively focusing on the art form in waking moments and even while sleeping,” she says. “But it also opened up the online world of art for me, as I discovered and began social networking with illustrators, artists and all sorts of people all over the world who were doing art for a living and showing it online.”
Davidson’s journey online started with her own blog, a popular site devoted to etegami that feeds into her other sites and interests: Ainu folk tales and Japanese cooking, among others.
With more time after retirement, she has also been able to sharpen her literary translation skills. Although she had translated “Hidden Ranges,” published by Dawn Press in 1993 at Miura’s personal request, she has recently completed a revision of the novel in her lifelong ambition to unlock Miura’s words for an English audience.
And Davidson has not given up her early dream to translate all of Miura’s works, despite the complicated process of getting the author’s writings published in English posthumously. She consistently works on translations — even without a copyright guarantee.
Another lifelong love — recipes inspired by Japan — recently combined with her etegami work as Davidson’s creativity found yet another outlet with “They Draw and Cook,” a popular website featuring illustrated recipes. Her work was chosen out of hundreds of entries to be part of the site’s first published cookbook, due in stores in this month.
From her home in Sapporo, Davidson embraces the world and reaches out across Japan: After the March 11 disasters, she posted on her blog a popular etegami sequence from March until July, The Earthquake Series. Her creative response to the event has been featured throughout the U.S. at several disaster relief events and will be part of an upcoming museum exhibit in St. Louis, near her alma mater.
As Davidson explains, “Because the early media reports were so overwhelming and horrific in a numbing sort of way, my purpose was to bring the event down to the human scale by drawing attention to each prefecture and its people affected by the quake and tsunami. The rich culture of each region reveals how individual Japanese people are struggling to face the current difficulties.”
To see Davidson’s etegami works, visit her blog etegamibydosankodebbie.blogspot.com
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