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On February 26, 2023 I attended an online presentation co-sponsored by the City of Asylum, the University of Pittsburgh Department of East Asian Languages and Literatures and Stone Bridge publishers. The event featured Japanese author Hiromi Itō and her translator Jeffrey Angles who read selections from The Thorn Puller, Ms. Itō’s first novel to appear in English. The readings were in both English and Japanese.

Hiromi Itō is a highly prolific author of poetry, prose and essays and a winner of several important literary prizes. She first came to the attention of the Japanese reading public in the 1980’s with her ground-breaking poetry focusing on themes of pregnancy, childbirth and female sexuality. After emigrating to the US in the 1990’s, her themes shifted to those of the immigrant experience and biculturalism. Her most recent works reflect her concern with death and dying and how those forces impact the lives of women caretakers.

Ms. Itō is also an experienced translator. Her translations of American literature for young readers include Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat and Oh, the Places You’ll Go! as well as Out of the Dust and Witness by Karen Hesse. She has translated Buddhist texts into modern Japanese and has also written a modern Japanese translation of a short story by Meiji era author Ichiyō Higuchi, Japan’s first professional female writer of modern literature.

Translator Jeffrey Angles is a scholar as well as a poet who writes in his second language which is Japanese. An award-winning literary translator, he is a professor of Japanese language and literature at Western Michigan University. He has a long standing relationship with Ms. Ito, having met her in the year 2000 when he was a graduate student.

The title The Thorn Puller refers to the Japanese divinity Jizō, a bodhisattva revered in East Asian Buddhism. Ms. Ito stressed the importance of Jizō to many Japanese women. There is a site in Tokyo dedicated to him often visited by Japanese women which included some of her own ancestors. Japanese women view Jizō as able to remove the thorns of human suffering from human beings.

The bi-lingual readings from the novel were darkly humorous and serious as the author addresses issues of particular concern to women such as the stress of being a caretaker to one’s parents while taking care of one’s own family. In the novel, the author is raising a family in California while her aging parents in Japan depend on her to ease the burden of their failing health. The novel deals with issues such as guilt and feelings of failure as the author tries to meet the expectations of both her husband and her parents.

Punctuating the novel are many references to Japanese folklore and religion, including Jizō. The translator Jeffrey Angles mentioned in the Q&A how rich the novel is in these references and what a challenge is was to translate them. The book includes quotations from many different Japanese sources, both classical and modern, in which the language varies from the highly refined to the very humble. Some of the quotations come from eras when the Japanese language was the equivalent of our Middle or Old English. Mr. Angles made the decision to translate the more ancient quotations into modern English.

It was enjoyable listening to the highly idiosyncratic readings by the author and to learn about her bi-cultural journey.  Hearing about the challenges that her translator faced when translating works of such diversity was also illuminating and informative.

Patricia Stumpp


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