America Japan Literature Meta Non-fiction Translation

Wataya Risa and Kawakami Hiromi in translation: cover up?

Faber’s cover for the 50th anniversary edition of The Bell Jar is so horrifically misrepresentative that it’s almost endearing. If somebody can be tricked into buying it in Tesco because it looks like a proto-Bridget Jones, perhaps the ends justify the means. And imagining the editorial meeting where it was approved brings me joy:

“Hey, have any of you guys actually read this book?”
“Yeah, like back in college. I seem to remember her complaining about men and her job a lot?”
“Fuck it, give it the chick lit treatment. #YOLO.”

So the obvious question for this blog to consider is: how are modern female Japanese authors treated in translation? What stereotypes are represented on covers created for Western markets? I’m going to take a half-serious look at two favorites here, Wataya Risa and Kawakami Hiromi.

Wataya Risa (綿矢りさ):

Keritai Senaka (‘The Back I Want to Kick’ 『蹴りたい背中』)

The Back I Want to Kick (excerpt)  solo  22502979n  appel-pied-wataya-risa-L-1

In order: original, Italian, German, and French.
Translators: Antonietta Pastore, Andreas Regelsberger, Patrick Honnoré.

The Italian and German covers here are remarkable. It’s a long step from the awkward, skinned-knee drawing on the cover of the original to a schoolgirl bent over and giving the reader a saucy look as she sips from a water faucet. My Italian isn’t so good, but the translated title is, roughly, Only with the Eyes. All this makes me curious about how exactly the book was marketed in Italy or, more precisely, who it was marketed toward. Some buyers must’ve been incredibly disappointed, to say the least.

The German edition is a mess. According to Wataya, the translator, Andreas Regelsberger, is unhappy with the publisher for choosing a manga illustration for the cover, as it doesn’t fit the content and unnecessarily limits the book’s potential readership. The translated title is Behind Your Paper Doors, which doesn’t have anything to do with the book but does work with the manga and cherry blossoms to conjure a very specifically Japanese and feminine image. The overall effect here is young adult literature, quite possibly a ‘light novel’, which Keritai Senaka is definitely not.

Bonus image of the cover of the French translation of Install (『インストール』), because it really kind of sucks:

I know, right?

Kawakami Hiromi (川上弘美):

Sensei no kaban (‘The Teacher’s Briefcase’『センセイの鞄』)

Sensei no kaban (original)    Sensei no kaban (French)  Sensei no kaban (German)  Sensei no kaban (Spanish)

In order: original, US English, French, German, Spanish (Castellano)
Translators: Allison Markin Powell, Elisabeth Suetsugu, Ursula Gräfe & Kimiko Nakayama-Ziegler, Marina Bornas Montaña

When I first saw the US edition I hated it, because it’s quite dull and non-specifically Asian-y in a way that doesn’t make my skin crawl but exactly make me want to read it either. But compared to the French and German covers, it’s restrained and artful. Dear France, let’s telegraph the book’s origin a little harder because I don’t think you went far enough. You’ve got the sake flask and cup, the chopsticks, and the tray.  Couldn’t fit in a girl in a kimono serving it? Put some neon on it?

In fairness to Germany, the hardback cover looked exactly like the Spanish cover, which I like very much. But let’s be real: the German paperback cover is terrible. How disappointed would you be as a reader, thinking you’re getting some dramatic, old-timey geisha story, and instead you get a really awesome but completely different book about the relationship between a woman and her former teacher? Who do I call to report the publisher for misrepresentation of goods? I actually feel like I’ll be nauseated if I look at this any longer. It’s time to move on.

Manazuru (‘Manazuru’ 『真鶴』)

Manazuru (original)  Manazuru (English)  Manazuru (French)  Manazuru (German)  Manazuru (Polish)

In order: original, US English, French, German, Polish
Translators: Michael Emmerich, Elisabeth Suetsugu, Ursula Gräfe & Kimiko Nakayama-Ziegler, Barbara Słomka

All in all, a good crop. The English and French covers are pretty similar, unsurprisingly. ‘Woman by the sea’ was always going to be an easy and popular choice for Manazuru. And the Polish cover is SO EXCELLENT. I want a poster of that! All three manage to draw you in and give a hint of the content of the book.

But again, Germany, it’s a little hard for me to not hate you right now. Every other publisher was like, oh, Manazuru, that’s the name of the place, cool. But you’ve got to be different. It was retitled It’s Warmer by the Sea: A Love Story, for some reason (as with Sensei no kaban, above, which became The Sky is Blue, the Earth is White: A Love Story in both German and Spanish). And then, despite having a decent hardback cover from the ‘woman by the sea’ genre, you decide again to go hard on the paperback edition. Nice colors and all, but this reliance on old stereotypes of Japanese femininity is not probably not helping you sell books, if they wind up looking as offensively bland as this.


  • Germany, quit underestimating both the books you publish and the people who want to read them.
  • France, I’ve got my eye on you. Watch your step.
  • Poland, I like you. I don’t care if people say I shouldn’t have included you as a Western country. Keep doing what you’re doing, baby. Have you considered sending some book designers to Germany to school them as a gesture of goodwill?

3 replies on “Wataya Risa and Kawakami Hiromi in translation: cover up?”

The renaming of books and films is very common in German – it seems that they are unable to buy a foreign product without making up their own title (often they use the original title plus an invented sub-title).

I have to agree with you on Germany underestimating books and readers. Though renaming titles is not the biggest problem here (I think in some cases it’s necessary). In Wataya’s case, it’s just a ridiculous clichee out of any context. I’m glad they didn’t put a Geisha on the cover.
At least literary criticism didn’t seem to bother and treated the book fairly. In the feuilleton of the daily FAZ newspaper her novel is described as “critical reflexion on everyday life in Japaneses schools” and a “psychologically profound study on the modern information age.”
Still I doubt that judging by the cover anyone who is not interested in manga or anime or who is a teenager will give this book a chance.

I don’t know about other countries, but in Germany in most cases translators don’t have the last word when it comes to titles and cover illustrations (if they have any word at all).

By the way, the German translator for “Keritai senaka” was Sabine Mangold. Mr. Regelsberger is professor for Japanese literature at my University.

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