A conversation with Arthur Binard

Arthur Binard has won awards for his Japanese poetry and has translated some of the world’s most beloved children’s books from English to Japanese. He splits his time between Tokyo and Hiroshima, is active in campaigns related to nuclear issues, has a dizzying number of interests and ongoing. It was a long and wide-ranging conversation, a highly edited version of which appeared in the summer 2015 issue of the GetHiroshima Mag. The full transcript of the interview will appear, in instalments, here. The first discusses his translation work and his current kamishibai story telling project.

Matt Mangham: Okay, let me start. What are you working on at the moment, and do you have any projects in mind for the future?

Arthur Binard: Translations come to mind first, because they’re more concrete from the start. So I’m working on a new picture book by Eric Carle.

MM: Oh, the Very Hungry Caterpillar guy?

AB: Yeah. His new book is called Friends, and this will be the fourth book of his that I’ve done. So I’ve sort become his translator.

MM: Into Japanese.

AB: Into Japanese. Yeah. So the first book I did was Pancakes, Pancakes!

MM: Any good?

AB: It’s great. He published it when I was three years old.

MM: Did you have it when you were a child?

AB: Yeah! Which is great, I mean, you translate your favorite books from childhood into Japanese? It’s so fun, and exciting. So I’ve translated it, and I’m working with my editor now.

MM: The new book Friends?

AB: Yeah, it was published in the U.S. about a year ago. So I’ve been working on that for about a year, and it should be published here within the year. And I’m also working on a book by Maurice Sendak, which is another book I loved as a child. He published a trilogy of picture books, that are sort of his most representative works. One is Where the Wild Things Are, and the
other one is In the Night Kitchen. And then the third one is Outside Over There.

MM: And you’re doing all three?

AB: No! Where the Wild Things Are was published when I was a little kid, in Japanese, and it was my favorite book as a kid. And In the Night Kitchen was also published a long time ago, in Japanese. And Outside Over There was also published, but that translation didn’t work, and so it sort of fell out of the trilogy, and wasn’t read. Eventually the publisher just gave up on it, and then another publisher said, “This is ridiculous, this is Maurice Sendak’s third masterpiece and it’s not being read.” So they came to me, and we’re doing a new translation of it. But it’s been forgotten.

MM: In Japan?

AB: Yes, it’s forgotten in Japan. Not in the U.S., not in the world. So these projects, for me, of course I’m the translator, and that’s the role I have to take, but at the same time I’m translating a book that is important for me, in my life. A book I’ve been influenced by. It’s also a book, in the case of Outside Over There, that has failed once. So I feel even more responsibility. It has to succeed. I have to succeed. Failure is not an option here.

So, I’m translating this, but I’m on my fifth draft, and every draft is different. And I haven’t even started working with my editor yet. My poor editor, he keeps calling me up to see how it’s going
and I say, “Call me next month.” It’s not that I’m NOT working on it, but I need to try every option. I need to translate it, then forget about it and go back to it a month later and start with
something totally different, just to see what’s going to be the best approach. Because Sendak’s work, there’s so much symbolism, so much is left to the imagination, especially in Outside Over There. It’s a story that just has to work beyond conscious, logical thought. So to make that work for the Japanese reader, in a way that it works for the English reader, well…I don’t take illegal drugs (laughs), so I have to use everything else that I have to get out far enough. Because he’s out there! He’s way out there. That’s why both kids and adults are willing to go there with him, but I have to be as far out as he is.

MM: What else are you doing?

AB: So those are those the two translations that I have to get out this year. At the same time I’m working on this kamishibai. And with this kamishibai, too, I’m on my fifth version, just trying everything to get something that’ll work. I found that the kamishibai form is even more difficult that picture books, because so much is left to the performer. I mean, the picture book sometimes an individual thing between the reader and the book, then sometimes it’s someone reading the book to a child, but still, the book has sort of more control of what happens. Whereas a play depends so much more on the person who performs it. So the story really has to tell itself. The storyteller can add a lot to the story, but even if the storyteller isn’t quite up to the task, it still has to work, otherwise it fails completely.

So right now, this is the latest version, and it’s told from the perspective of a cat in Hiroshima.

MM: So you’ve got the text on the back of the illustrations?

AB: Yeah, well, some of these are too new to have the text yet, but it’ll go on the back.

MM: I saw you speaking somewhere else about this project, and you’d given it a trial run in Saitama.

AB: Oh yeah, at the museum.

MM: Right, and it said that some of the audience members had recommended that you try to incorporate more Hiroshima and Nagasaki dialect.

AB: Yes, yes.

MM: Have you tried that?

AB: I’ve tried it, and I’m sort of falling back from it again. The reason that I tend to pull back from that is because, if it succeeds it’ll be performed everywhere, and I don’t want to set the bar too high for performers.

MM: Right.

AB: There is a little bit, in the old man’s speech, when he talks to his granddaughter, yeah. That isn’t quite the issue I’m concerned with right now though, because I’ve pulled away from earlier versions and I’m rewriting it from the perspective of a cat.

MM: At one point the narrator was a girl. So that’s changed?

AB: That’s what I’m trying now, it’s not the girl but the cat. If that doesn’t work, it’ll be the girl. Her name is Sacchan, Sachiko.

MM: And what prompted you to try a kamishibai project?

AB: Well, from what I know about kamishibai, and from what people have told me, this is the first time that anyone has tried to do a kamishibai with paintings that already existed. And now I understand why no one else has done it (laughing) because it’s really hard to do. I thought I could do it, and I still believe it’s possible.

MM: You haven’t given up.

AB: No, I haven’t given up. I thought I could do it, first of all because the original works, a series called the Hiroshima Panels, Genbaku no zu in Japanese, this series of fourteen huge panels, is so vast, and there’s so much detail, so much in the paintings that Maruki Toshi and Iri have left us. You know, I’ve been to the museum in Saitama thirty times, and every time I go it’s a different experience. Every time I see someone I’ve never noticed, every time I go I see animals that I’ve never seen before. So I’ve seen the Panels so many times, and every time I see them they’re different, because there’s just so much detail. So I thought, you know, there’s so much in these panels, that if I can choose the right characters and details, and pull out what will speak to the readers, then the project must be possible.

MM: Sure.

AB: So that’s one reason I still think it’s possible. Another is that I’ve been lucky in my career as a picture book artist and writer, in that I’ve been able to work with great painters (laughing) who are dead.

MM: Huh.

AB: I worked with Ben Shahn. When I was one and a half, he died. He was my father’s favorite painter. He left this series, called the Lucky Dragon series, about the fishermen who were
exposed to the Bikini Atoll Castle Bravo Test. And he didn’t know that he was doing all the paintings necessary for a picture book, but once I started looking at all the paintings he’d left, all the drawings and the little ink illustrations, I realized I could tell the story with his paintings.

MM: Right.

AB: So, Ben Shahn didn’t have anything to do with the actual editing or arrangement of the story, but I was able to use his paintings.

MM: For that kind of thing, and that project specifically, did you have to work out some kind arrangement with the estate?

AB: Yeah, right. His daughter. But they’ve sort of handed all those issues of rights over to an arts association, so it was more a financial deal. But yeah, when we did this book, and there were certain scenes where I wanted to have a blue background instead of a black background for an ink drawing, then we had to go to the family for permission. So all these things are complicated, but they’re possible.

And then this other book that I did, in that book I worked with Monet and Van Gogh and Kumagai Morikazu and Maeda Seison. It’s a book called Where Air Appears. It’s a book about air, which is something that you can’t paint because it’s invisible, but all the great painters that we love actually give us a sense of air, of that atmosphere that we can’t see. So I did a book about that, and that book too, it took three years…

MM: Was that in Japanese?

AB: In Japanese, yeah, that hasn’t come out in English. It’s called Kuuki no Kao, the face of air. So, I’ve been fortunate in that editors have worked with me and brought projects to me that have allowed me to work with painters from the Sengoku period, and there’s another book about the creatures that live inside our bodies, from 500 years ago. And there, I’m working with a painter and I don’t even know his name, I just know his nickname. But he lived 500 years ago, and I’m able to work with him.

MM: These are old medical texts?

AB: Yes, very interesting. So that’s a picture book I did about ten years ago. And so I’ve done these projects working with pre-existing paintings and visual works, and they worked, so I figured this was the next step. But I also want to bring the Hiroshima Panels into now, into this age, because I think they speak to us with, I don’t want to say infinite, but multifarious voices, there are all these voices in there. And people tend to see them as sort of two dimensional, they say “Oh yeah the Genbaku no zu, I know what that’s about, that’s the Hiroshima thing.” And so people tend to see them as works of the past. And I think they’re more immediate than that, they have a richer ecosystem, and people aren’t quite seeing that. So if the kamishibai works, people will say, “Oh wow. I don’t remember that in the Hiroshima Panels.” And then maybe they’ll go back.

MM: Where are they usually housed?

AB: In Saitama. So they’re not in Hiroshima, which is really interesting. If you want to see them, you have to go to Saitama. And there’s almost nothing there. It’s actually my wife’s hometown, just by coincidence. So you go there, and there’s not much to do in Higashi Matsuyama. But if you go to the museum, if you actually are interested and you go there, you’ll be there all day. It takes forever to actually view the paintings.

MM: So I read about the first trial showing at the museum. Is part of your process continuing to show it to people?

AB: Yeah, yes.

MM: And what kinds of audiences do you usually have?

AB: Nursery schools, I’ve done it at nursery schools. Elementary schools. Then as part of a talk given at different places. And I performed a later version of it at the Japan Kamishibai Culture Association.

MM: Was that in Tokyo?

AB: The meeting was in Tokyo, but people from all over Japan come, so they gave me some great advice. So I’ve been learning not just about kamishibai, how to do a kamishibai, but how people react to kamishibai. In a sense, it’s really confusing, because I think, “Oh, this will work,” and then it’ll work for some people and not for other people. So I’m here with too many cooks in the kitchen. So each time I do it I get all this feedback, then I go back and I go, “All right, what do I want? What are the paintings, and what are the materials telling me to do?” Because I can’t take everyone’s advice.

MM: Are you getting any feedback from the artists themselves, the couple?

AB: They’re dead.

MM: Oh, they are?

AB: Yeah. I wish they were alive. Because, well, if Ben Shahn had been alive he probably wouldn’t have allowed me to do that book, because he would probably have gotten mad at me
because I changed the order and did all this stuff to his paintings, and he was finicky about that. But the Maruki’s were like, “Yeah cool, whatever.” I mean they were very detailed in their own
work. But whenever it came to using the Panels or reproducing them, they were very open and forgiving.And you know, the Panels, they first showed them in Hiroshima, and then they showed them all over Japan.

MM: And when was that? When were they done?

AB: This is at the end of the 1940s?

MM: They’re that old?

AB: The originals were completed by, like, 1950. So this is while the Press Code, the American Occupation Government’s censorship is in full force. So the paintings are illegal! You’re not allowed to tell the story of the atomic bombing! So the first panels, they did them not as byobu, now they’re byobu, the folding panels. But they were hanging scrolls. And they were exhibited as hanging scrolls. Why were they hanging scrolls? Because no matter where they did an exhibition the police would come and shut it down. So if they were scrolls, then you put people outside all around the town…and they were doing them in broken down warehouses or some burned out building next to the A-Bomb Dome, so you hang these scrolls, and then you put guards outside, and when the Occupation Forces show up, you roll them up into a bag, and you’re out. And so the exhibition was a guerrilla peace, not warfare, but a guerrilla peace event. So that’s the Maruki’s basic stance as artists. So I feel that they are kind of with me on this project.

MM: And they don’t have children that you’ve had to work with at all?

AB: No, no. Their niece has the rights, but she’s been, well the museum and the niece who has the rights have been so cooperative. And I’m going way beyond what I really should be able to do with the paintings, but I think we understand that…well, I haven’t shown them this new version, so I don’t know if they’ll be cool with the cat, but I think that everybody who’s involved in the project, including the editor and the publisher, we want it to end up being a work that will be able to stand on its own. And ten years from now, if I’m dead, if everybody’s dead (laughing) if something happens and none of us can stand by the work, it’ll be fine. It’ll just go on as it is.

And that’s really what I feel like I have to do with every project that I work on. If the project depends on me performing it, or me reading it, or me stumping for it or selling it, giving speeches, then it won’t continue. I think that’s the main hurdle that I have to get over, is to make sure the work walks on its own, and goes ahead, and does its own stuff.

MM: So right now you’ve got the Carle and Sendak translations, and you’re doing this kamishibai. Is that difficult for you to have three or four things going at one time?

AB: I usually have…I won’t even tell you what I sign up for, if I start telling you I’ll start hyperventilating.

MM: So have you ever had the luxury of just putting it all into one project? And just finishing that?

AB: Well, what happens is, eventually I have to finish something. So, like I have this weekly radio show, and a weekly TV show.

MM: Is that the one up in Aomori?

AB: The one in Aomori is monthly or bimonthly. The weekly show is in Tokyo. So there’s all this stuff that happens daily. And now, because we’re in the 70th year after the bombing of Hiroshima, the 70th year after Okinawa was destroyed, now I’m doing this radio program, and it’s a weekly recorded radio show. So all these things constantly happen, but in order to finish something, even if it’s just an essay, but definitely a picture book or a collection of essays…I’m working on a book about poetry now, and eventually I have to be isolated, and shut out everything and do it. So I find those days or hours someplace, and then the people working on the other projects freak out, because I disappear for a day or two.

But people think that I’m from another planet now because I don’t have a cell phone (laughing).

But the main reason I don’t have a cell phone is because I would never be able to finish anything.

Matt Mangham

Matt Mangham is another unlovely scribbler adding regularly to the 2.5 quintillion bytes of data churned out daily for the betterment of mankind. He sometimes wishes he was a bear. And not some second-rate species like the contemptible Sun Bear either. A proper arctic monster, stalking the windswept rise of tundra and making thoughtful noises best transcribed as "hrraunnngggppPPHH." Mostly, though, Matt Mangham wants to be allowed to wear pretty things without being laughed at.