Teen Angst—Painful, Moving in Any Tongue

Although “Japanese (sub)culture” is now very popular among youth around the world, very little Japanese literature gets translated into English. And when it comes to young adult (YA) novels, name me a Japanese title if you can. The few that have been translated are winning awards, but even then, only rarely do new translations get published.

Regardless of this meager market, we J to E translators continue to dream, and YA novels present their own unique challenges and rewards.

First-person narrative is common, and voice becomes essential.

Teens tend to shy away from the unfamiliar, and they have highly sensitive BS radars.

It’s a challenging task to make a Japanese teen sound both authentic and appealing enough to keep your reader interested and engaged. School situations are different, cliques and alphas aren’t quite the same, and when it comes to club activities…well, you get the idea. While the unfamiliar has its own appeal, these differences can make the stories a hard sell outside Japan.

Yet the teen experience, the pain and beauty of coming into one’s own, is something that can shine through despite any differences in culture or language. And that is the translator’s challenge.


In young adult literature, voice is everything. 

Voice comes from within, and without. Try to recall how you used to speak and feel as a teen. If you have kids that age, try listening to them talk to friends or siblings. If not, sit in a mall, or a fast-food restaurant where they like to hang, and see if you can pick up language, mannerisms, what angers them, what makes them happy. Internalize that information to develop your own voices. Observe, but don’t get caught or you risk being called a creep or a pedophile. Imaging yourself as a teen can actually be kind of fun.


Another way to learn teen-speak is to study what your predecessors have done. Ideally, that would mean reading English translations of Japanese books, but unfortunately, publications are still limited. So the alternative is to read outstanding English-language YA fiction to get a feel for the kind of writing that appeals to young adults.


Here are some examples which include links to online excerpts on amazon. Again, these are just samples, and hopefully one (or more!) will appeal enough that you’ll wind up finishing the whole book! Many are available in Japanese and I’ve included titles for those I think have been well-translated.


My own experience is still limited, so I’m hoping to spend at least half of the session working with excerpts from Japanese literature which you’ll be receiving in advance. If you’re interested in attending my session, please write to me for a copy of the homework assignment. Is that groaning I hear? See, you’ve already developed a teenage mentality!


Reading List


Teen Pregnancy (A Boy’s POV) 

The First Part Last by Angela Johnson



The absolutely true diary of a part time Indian by Sherman Alexie (Native American)


Kira Kira by Cynthia Kadohata (Japanese American)

Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai (Vietnamese American)

A Step From Heaven by An Na (Korean American)


Battling Intolerance

Naughts and Crosses by Malorie Blackman* (UK)


Luna by Julie Anne Peters

Whale Talk by Chris Crutcher

Stop Pretending: What Happened When My Big Sister Went Crazy by Sonya Sones (Verse Novel)

Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco X. Stork* (Asperger’s Syndrome)



Fantasy, or is it?

Holes by Louis Sachar*


Skellig by David Almond* (UK)



Coming of Age

True Believer by Virginia Euwer Wolff

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green


Some Translated Japanese YA Fiction

The Friends by Yumoto Kazumi (translated by Cathy Hirano)

Guardian of the Spirit Moribito I by Nahoko Uehashi (translated by Cathy Hirano)

Guardian of the Darkness Moribito II by Nahoko Uehashi (translated by Cathy Hirano)

Brave Story by Miyuki Miyabe (translated by Alexander O. Smith)

The Devil’s Whisper by Miyuki Miyabe (translated by Deborah Stuhr Iwabuchi)

Kiki’s Delivery Service by Kadono Eiko (translated by Lynne E. Riggs)

Tomo edited by Holly Thompson (an anthology including translations from Japanese fiction)

The Fox’s Window and Other Stories by Naoko Awa (translated by Toshiya Kamei)