You can also listen to this essay:

I was hired by Penguin Random House to narrate the English translation of The House of the Lost on the Cape (Japanese title: 岬のマヨイガ: Misaki no Mayoiga) written by Sachiko Kashiwaba.

The PRH producer Ms. Beard set up a zoom meeting for me with the author Ms. Kashiwaba and the translator Ms. Udagawa. Not only was this a wonderful opportunity to connect with the book’s creators, we had the chance to make sure we were all on the same page when it came to – Authenticity.

This fantasy book contains a lot of Japanese words, names and concepts. Pronunciation was one of the main concerns of the author and translator. Why does pronunciation matter?

The quickest way for me to show you is to give you some real-life examples. All of these situations really happened to friends who were studying Japanese.

At a party, a woman wanted to introduce her husband to a group of Japanese. She wanted to say:

Watashi no shujin desu. (This) is my husband.

What she actually said:

Watashi no shuujin desu. (This) is my prisoner.

On a subway train in Tokyo, a man wanted to ask a woman if he could sit in the empty seat next to her. He wanted to say:

Suwatte mo ii desuka? Is it all right if I sit (here)?

What he actually said:

Sawatte mo ii desuka? Is it all right if I touch (you)?

A college student wanted to praise his professor. He wanted to say:

Kare atama ga ii desu. He is very smart.

What he actually said:

Kare tama ga ii desu. He’s got good balls.

You get the idea. A slight difference in one vowel sound can make the best intentioned person sound like an idiot. And most often, the Japanese are going to be too polite to correct you.

The translator and author of “The House of the Lost on the Cape” kindly provided me with a list of over a hundred Japanese words, their original kanji (Chinese characters) and hiragana (Japanese phonetic characters). But even a list will not provide all the answers.

Japanese often mashup or distort words. Ms Kashiwaba seems to delight in these words. Mayoiga is the name of one of the fantastic characters. In the list it appears as katakana (foreign word phonetic characters) マヨイガ. I’m guessing Mayoiga is a mashup of the words mayou = get lost and ga = house.

The old woman in the story uses a phrase Mugashi mugashi, atta zumo na. Google translate made an attempt to translate this as: “No one died of starvation, no matter what happened.” But this phrase is actually the local dialect of the common phrase: mukashi mukashi, aru tokoro ni which means: “Once upon a time, in a certain place.”

I was stumped by the name of the cat, Kofuku 小福. I was tempted to pronounce these kanji as Koufuku but somehow that seemed clunky. The Director, Dr. Mann, came to the rescue and got me a link to the Japanese anime of the book. Even though the characters/story are slightly different, the cat was still there

Ms Kashiwaba told me the importance of the tsunami in her story. At the time she originally wrote this story for the Iwate Nippo daily newspaper, her readers were still so traumatized, Ms Kashiwaba avoided mentioning the tsunami itself. The absence is just as important as the presence.

As you can see, Google can’t tell you how a lot of Japanese words are pronounced, what they mean or how they are used. AI can’t show you the deeper meaning of the story Ms Kashiwaba created to heal psychic wounds.

No audiobook narrator, including myself, is going to get everything right. But being able to directly communicate in Japanese with the author makes a huge difference. I hope part of the joy of listening to this audiobook will be the opportunity for listeners to learn new Japanese words and concepts. Although the Japanese might be hard to catch initially, by the end of the story, listeners will begin to recognize the many fantastic characters who appear.

Ms Kashiwaba’s writing career spans four decades and her works have garnered the prestigious Sankei, Shogakukan, and Noma children’s literature awards. Her novel “The Marvelous Village Veiled in Mist” inspired Mr. Miyazaki to create his film “Spirited Away”. Millions of fans are sure to pay attention to how her stories are presented outside Japan.

Authenticity isn’t just a matter of appealing to today’s more demanding audience. Pronunciation, tone, and subtext of a book like this must be true to the intent of the author. The Japanese must feel confident that this story presents authentic aspects of their language, culture and the issues of that moment in time.

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