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Tomoko Kikuchi's translations: From Japan with (lots of) love for India

Asad Ali | Updated on: 11 February 2017, 5:46 IST

Back in 1992, one young Japanese woman landed up in Agra to learn Hindi. Twenty four years on, she's managed to carve a unique cultural space for herself as a prolific translator, taking on the works of National Award winning literary figures in India and translating them with ease. She's just finished her most engaging project yet - translating a Japanese book of photographs and poems that are a sombre nod to the bombing of Hiroshima city, titled Sagashiteimasu - and it's set to be part of a month-long exhibition at the Japan Foundation onwards from 9 August. The launch of the book and the exhibition has been timed well - Hiroshima and Nagasaki were bombed in 1945 on August 6 and 9 respectively.

Hiroshima, through photos and poems

"Aap Hindi mein boliye," says Tomoko Kikuchi as I ask her about her latest project. "Sagashiteimasu looks back at the atomic bombing of Hiroshima through photographs and poetry," she says. "So in Hiroshima, where the bomb dropped, now stands a peace memorial park. There's a big museum inside the park which narrates the fateful day's events through photographs and everyday objects that were collected post the carnage. The museum has close to 21000 objects and the book features 14 of those," elaborates Kikuchi.

©2012 Tadashi Okakura

All the objects featured in the book are a nod to what happened, but, Kikuchi points out, they also have a unique voice of their own. "They're displaced from their original owners because of the bombing and are lost so to speak. Whether it's a clock or a cycle or a pair of gloves, the objects are, as if part of a quest to find out what happened to their owners and in the process, unravel the past they've lived through," explains the scholar. That also explains the title of Kikuchi's translation of the book - Main Dhoondh Raha Hoon, brought out by Bhopal-based Eklavya publishers.

American author to Japan's story

A number of books have been written about Hiroshima however, so how exactly does this picture book stand out? Kikuchi says that "the perspective is coming from objects that have survived the tragedy in this one. That really lends a stark reminder to us about the horror of the bombing and it tells us how it shouldn't happen again."

©2012 Tadashi Okakura

Another poignant factor, points out Kikuchi, is that the author of the original, Sagashiteimasu, happens to be American: "Yes, an individual from the same country which dropped the bomb is the author of this book. Arthur Binard studied in America but went on to learn Japanese. He started writing poetry in Japanese as well, and he's now an eminent name by himself for his poems. After coming to Japan, he visited Hiroshima and was so deeply influenced by the city's history that he decided to develop a project around it."

©2012 Tadashi Okakura

History definitely needs to be recorded but often, some baggages of history bear too heavy a weight to carry. Should a young Japan - or the world - cling on to such specifics of darker days? Kikuchi quickly says that's the wrong way to look at things. "The memories definitely are tinged with sadness but that's not the only way I look at it. I feel the objects are also yearning for a better time and want to reclaim the happier space they occupied before the bombing displaced them."

©2012 Tadashi Okakura

Reaching out to children

Memories - good, bad or as laced with horror as those of Japan's twin cities - can still ebb away with the passage of time. Kikuchi is aware of that and says that it's indeed true when it comes to Japan's youth. The horrors of the bombings aren't as vividly etched in their collective consciousness.

©2012 Tadashi Okakura

"Which is why efforts must be made - in creative ways - to ensure memories of the bombing and its implications remain alive in their minds," she says, further adding "This book manages to capture the attention of the younger demographic well. The images, by acclaimed photographer Tadashi Okakura, are especially evocative and leave a lasting impression. Binard's poems too, are very touching. The photo-poem combine makes it particularly attractive for children, though it's equally appealing for others young and old," says Kikuchi who also has a storytelling session planned for children.

But how does one translate the horror of the past - a crucial fragment no less - to children? Kikuchi smiles and says that kids will, in all likelihood, relate to the book more with their sensitivity. The language of the book, she clarifies, is quite simple as well.

With all this talk about Hiroshima, Kikuchi is quick to point out, Nagasaki also exists in every narrative. "Yes, there are fewer texts usually on Nagasaki but any book or discussion I do has to - and I make sure they do - include a perspective of not just Hiroshima but also Nagasaki. One discourse cannot exist in total isolation from the other."

Other works from the translator

This isn't Kikuchi's first shot at translating the story of the bombings. Nor is it the first time she's experimented with form to up the appeal of history to a contemporary people. In 2014 she translated into Hindi a Manga comic by Fumiyo Kono, called Yunagi no machi sakura no kuni ("Town of evening calm, country of cherry blossoms"). The book comprised two stories - both of which Kikuchi translated. One was Yunagi no machi (Nirav Sandhya ka Shehar) and the other was Sakura no Kuni (Sakura ka Desh).

Kikuchi has also translated works by eminent personalities from the world of Hindi literature including Padma Vibhushan and Jnanpith recipient Mahadevi Varma, Sahitya Akademi winner Krishna Sobti and Manu Bhandari - among many others.

Kikuchi's love for India and the Hindi language isn't a sudden surge of attraction. It was a measured romance which seeped into her at a young age, even as she consumed whatever was on offer on television by way of "Indian culture." Recalling her days in Fukushima where she was born, Kikuchi says that she always had a thing for India.

©2012 Tadashi Okakura
Tomoko Kikuchi at the launch of Neerav Sandhya Ka Shahar, Sakura Ka Desh -- the Hindi translation of a popular Japanese manga comic -- at the Japan Foundation in New Delhi last month

The obsession with India

"Books, the monuments, religions, the dresses and designs of women's wear - practically everything had my attention. It seemed so different from the culture I was ensconced in and yet so alluring. I decided that I would definitely shift to India at some point."

Kikuchi followed her love well. She learnt some Hindi in Tokyo and shifted to India on a scholarship at the Institute of Hindi in Agra, and then completed her graduation in Hindi from the Rajasthan University at Jaipur. Kikuchi went on to finish her MA and PhD in Hindi from JNU, Delhi.

Surely, there's something which sets India apart from Japan fundamentally? Kikuchi laughs and says that it's how relationships play out in both countries. "In Japan there's always some distance between people... but in India relationships are more intimate and people much more open."

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First published: 9 August 2016, 1:00 IST
Asad Ali @asadali1989

Asad Ali is another cattle class journalist trying to cover Current affairs and Culture when he isn't busy not saving the world.