Japanse novel translation excerpt: “Little Bird”(ことり) by Yoko Ogawa (小川洋子)

By | February 26, 2018

Last year I reviewed Yoko Ogawa’s wonderful novel “Little Bird” and at the time I was even considering translating a small portion of the book for translation practice, and to give English-speaking readers a taste for the style of the book. But I got busy with other articles and translation projects, and never got around to it.

But after completing a few projects, that same scene kept popping back into my head. While it’s only a few paragraphs, the scene had somehow left a major impression on me.

I liked this passage not only because of a unique action of one of the characters, but also because of how it was described. I won’t give much context here, though you can read my review if you want to read more details. While I think of it as a key scene, I don’t think it gives away much in terms of plot development.

I hope my translation (taken from pages 42-43 of the paperback version of the book) can capture at least some of the author’s skillful prose and the underlying emotions of the characters.

Please note that this is a completely unofficial translation. If you enjoy this, please consider purchasing one of Ogawa Yoko’s other books that have been translated into English.

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Perhaps the main reason for my brother’s great fondness for the Poepoe candies was because their company had a small bird as their logo. Each wrapper had a picture of a bird (whose exact type was unclear) sporting a tiny beak and gently rounded chest, its color matching that of the candy inside. Wings spread and chest puffed out in delight, the bird flew through the sky with a hint of a smile on its face.

Brother never threw away the wrappers. Each time he finished eating one of the candies he would carefully smooth out the wrapper’s wrinkles and place it in a special box. I always gave him my wrappers, of course.

One day, when the box became full, brother began gluing together the wrappers, one by one. He became absorbed in this task for a period of days, an assortment of materials strewn across the kitchen table.

“What are you doing?” I asked him a few times. But brother, his hands refusing to rest for even a moment, only responded vaguely with, “Nothing really…”

I understood that this task was not as easy as it looked. Brother was not simply gluing together the wrappers, he was shifting their edges little by little to draw a smooth arc, at the same time making sure there was an aesthetically-pleasing gradual transition of hues without any colors darkening too much from overlapping with other wrappers.

Working above the newspaper, he took each wrapper and put a dab of just the right amount of glue on his index finger, spread it on the back of the wrapper, and pasted it onto the others–eyeballing the measurements with a sub-millimeter accuracy. This process was repeated endlessly. I sat on the opposite side of the kitchen table, staring at him for hours on end as he worked, and never once did I get bored. By now, brother was able to manipulate the wrappers with a level of mastery beyond anyone else in the world; I doubted even a worker in a candy factory who wrapped candies day after day could surpass his skill. There was never an excess of glue oozing out or an unnatural curve from an error in estimation. Despite looking identical, in actuality the size of each wrapper varied slightly as a result of the way they were cut. But brother’s fingers were quick to sense these differences and had the uncanny ability to make the subtle adjustments needed.

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Translator’s notes

This book is the story of two brothers, referred to as お兄さん (oniisan, “older brother”) and 小父さん (ojisan, a generic term for an older man). While it is told in the third person, I felt like the younger brother (ojisan) here was essentially the main character, and as a result I have rendered this short passage in English using the first person “I” to represent his viewpoint. This also has the advantage of making this passage easier to understand without giving too much background information. I chose the basic, emotion-laden term “brother” as opposed to the more literal “my brother” or “my older brother”.

Having said that, if I was translating the entire book I would have to rethink this decision and might end up keeping the third person for both characters.

The candy name referred to here is written in Japanese as ポーポー, which would be normally rendered in romaji as “poopoo”. However, to avoid it reading like fecal matter I used “poepoe”, which sounds closer to the Japanese pronunciation. By the way, in Japanese, ポーポー is one way to express the birdcall of a dove.

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