Translator Cathy Hirano balances her time between freelance translations and young adult literature, and has earned accolades for both. Although her most recognized translations are for lifestyle guru Marie Kondo’s wildly popular works, starting with “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up,” Hirano’s translations have also won awards in children’s literature.
While she was growing up in Canada, however, Hirano had no specific interest in Japan. It was her desire to take chances and go beyond her comfort zone that led her down a path she did not expect. After graduating from high school, she pursued a certificate in carpentry, hoping to get an apprenticeship.
“At that time, it was the beginning of a recession, so for a woman just starting out in a man’s field, I could see there wasn’t much future for me in Canada,” Hirano, 63, says. Although she had little interest in attending university, she had a passion for learning. “I really wanted to learn, and I thought the best way to do that would be to travel the world.”
When a serendipitous opportunity arose — a Japanese-Canadian former classmate was planning a trip to Japan and asked Hirano to accompany her — Hirano jumped at the chance. Even though her friend backed out at the last minute, Hirano went anyway, staying with her friend’s parents in Kyoto. It was 1978, and not the education she was expecting.
“Profoundly influenced as a teenager by the teachings of Bahaʼu’llah (a Persian religious leader who advocated universal peace), I had expected to see the oneness of humanity. Yet, when I got to Japan, it was a big shock to realize I held so many assumptions that were different from the Japanese surrounding me. Even the way a door opens — I would get up in the middle of the night and couldn’t open the door because I was trying to find a doorknob. But I gradually began to glimpse that oneness on a deeper level and it fascinated me.”
Her experiences inspired her to study cultural anthropology. A year after arriving in Japan, she enrolled at International Christian University in Mitaka, Tokyo. “It was two years of semi-intensive Japanese study first,” Hirano says. “ICU had a really innovative Japanese language program, and I had to learn Japanese so I could study cultural anthropology.”
During her studies, a friend from ICU found work at a publishing firm and asked Hirano to read children’s books in Japanese and provide English summaries for promotional use. Hirano loved it: Growing up as the granddaughter of a librarian, books were always in the house, and she welcomed the chance to receive free books of any kind.
Hirano went on to make translation her career, at first working in-house at a consulting engineering firm for three years. When she and her Japanese husband moved to the countryside in Kagawa Prefecture, Hirano started freelancing while raising their children. Although she translated everything from construction engineering texts to inspirational books, children’s and young adult literature continued to be her passion. Her translation of Kazumi Yumoto’s middle-grade novel “The Friends,” won the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award in 1997, and Nahoko Uehashi’s “The Beast Player” won a Michael L. Printz Honor in 2020.
Why do you translate?: “I want to share that experience of coming into another culture and learning to see through different eyes. We’re all looking at the same thing. But when you come into another culture and learn another language, you get to see it from a whole new perspective. It’s so mind-opening. That’s why I kept translating children’s books — I wanted kids to have that door to another world.”
Why young adult fiction?: “Some people write for kids and they have a set idea of who kids are. But the Japanese children’s writers I’ve been lucky to translate are writing for people. They’re writing stories that they want to read or exploring issues that they want to understand. These books speak directly to my heart. They allow me to see life in a new way.”
Advice for translators: “For me, translation tends to be fairly isolated work, so it’s easy to lose confidence in what I’m doing because it’s not possible to translate with exactness. You simply can’t get everything across. But every time, just do your very best because it’s better than if the work had never been translated. You’re the one being given this chance.”
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