When Japanese animated film director Hayao Miyazaki announced in 2017 that he was coming out of retirement to make a film about the classic Japanese coming-of-age novel How Do You Live?, interest in the book surged. Miyazaki, who turned 80 this year, said that the film would not be an adaptation of Yoshino Genzaburō’s 1937 book; instead, the film would portray it as a source of inspiration for the main character. Nevertheless, sales of How Do You Live? skyrocketed. A manga edition of the novel, created by Haga Shōichi, sold a staggering two million copies.

Yoshino’s estate and its publisher, Iwanami Shoten, saw opportunity in Miyazaki’s announcement. With the director’s global fan base in mind, they offered translation rights to How Do You Live? to U.S., U.K., and European publishers.

Elise Howard, the founding editor of Algonquin Young Readers, thought it was a project worth taking on. “The market for YA translation is small, but there are people in this country who want to read this book—people who have lived in Japan, readers who like fiction that’s a little quieter, and fans of Miyazaki who want to understand what the master loves and is inspired by.”

Before proceeding, Howard needed someone to read and assess the novel in the original Japanese. “We always want someone who’s a specialist in YA to read a prospective work. The reader was a student of Japanese and translation, and not too far from the target readership. He compared the story to the movie Stand by Me, and that really resonated with me.”

How Do You Live? is a schoolyard drama about 15-year-old Copper and his three classmates, boys with markedly different personalities and backgrounds. As in Stand by Me, they’re menaced by bullies—in this case, snide upperclassmen from the judo club. The story’s central drama leads Copper to confront some hard truths about himself before he can summon the courage to do the right thing.

But in between the action sequences, long, thoughtful conversations and essay-like meditations call to mind a work more like The Little Prince. Copper’s father has recently died, and Copper’s young uncle, who has just graduated from university, takes a lively interest in him. (The uncle isn’t named; in the original he’s referred to as ojisan, the Japanese word for uncle.) It’s the uncle who gives Copper his nickname; it’s a reference to Copernicus, whose genius allowed him to defy conventional wisdom and theorize that the Earth revolves around the sun. It took centuries for Copernicus’s view to gain acceptance, the uncle tells Copper: “Human beings have a natural tendency to look at and think of things as if they were always at the center.” He hopes that Copper will hold onto the truth no matter what others say.

The two take long walks through the streets of Tokyo, exploring ideas as they talk, and the uncle writes his own reflections on their conversations in a notebook that he leaves for Copper to read. In this way, the book pivots back and forth between action and contemplation. The uncle’s notes take on all kinds of complex subjects: what it means to be a hero, the nature of scientific discovery, the global economy, and more. All these thoughts course through Copper’s mind and heart as he considers how he will live.

Translation as a "Balancing Act"

Howard noted that the novel’s pre-war Tokyo setting, the cultural differences between Japanese and American school systems, and other disparities required a balancing act from the translator. “We needed a translation that would appeal to modern readers,” she said, “but we didn’t want Miyazaki’s fans to be disappointed.” She felt that Bruno Navasky, a writer who had lived in Japan and had studied and translated Japanese poetry, would bring the right sensibility to the work. “We looked at some other translators and pretty quickly it became clear that Bruno understood the book, and that we could have a close collaboration,” she said.

Navasky responded warmly to Howard’s trust. “I was captured by what Elise said. She had the vision. And she has a keen marketer’s sensibility. Part of the work we did together was to define the book that was going to find its audience. She had a light touch, but everything she said was right on point.”

He tried to stay true to the vision he and Howard had shared as he worked, asking himself, “How do you carry over into English those elements of culture that are impossible to translate but are also necessary to convey, because they’re the reason that people read the book?”

It was crucial to get the characters’ voices right. “The uncle has to be an uncle,” Navasky explained. “He can’t be a textbook. The loving concern for his nephew has to come through.” The voice of Katsuko, the sophisticated older sister of one of Copper’s friends, took time, too. “She’s a modern girl who embodies the attitude of following your heart and not letting anyone stand in your way. I worked hard to make sure that she came through as a powerful character, but at the same time to be sure that people wouldn’t cringe when they met her.”

Navasky had a precious and unexpected source to consult when it came to questions about the novel’s physical setting. “My father-in-law grew up in Tokyo at just this time. He was invaluable as a resource for the translation. He had stood in the temples mentioned in the book and had lived on one of the streets it describes.”

Yoshino wrote How Do You Live? under a repressive militarist regime that tightened the screws on dissidents. He had already spent 18 months in prison after being court-martialed for organizing political meetings; no one would give him a job. He was saved when a fellow writer named Yamamoto Yūzō hired him to help create a series of nonfiction books for children. How Do You Live? was its final volume.

Written for a younger audience and bearing the patriotic title A Library for Young Japanese Citizens, the series evaded the eye of the censor. How Do You Live? was steadfast in its resistance to far-right politics, from its sympathetic portrait of Copper’s working-class schoolmate Uragawa to its assessment of Napoleon as a heroic figure at a time when Hitler and Mussolini were being championed by right-wing propagandists. The schoolyard bullies echo the country’s military leadership as they accuse Copper and his friends of insufficient school spirit: “Students with no love of school,” one sneers, “will surely become citizens with no love of country.”

“As it turns out, this is very much a book for our time,” Navasky said. “In addition to his strong personal connection to the book, Miyazaki senses that relevance. Again, now, a wave of countries are under the sway of autocrats—people whose rule hinges on bullying, contempt, and repression. People are really hungering for an answer to the question, ‘How do you live?’ ”

Yet the novel is never strident. One of its pleasures is its sense of innocence and idealism. “Yoshino has a gentle humor that I labored to carry across into English,” Navasky said. “There’s real poetry in the descriptions of nature and human creation, the beauty that exists in the byways of the city, the trees and the light and the air. He comes as close in prose to poetry as it’s possible to get in some of those passages. I felt a strong sense of responsibility to get it right.”

As a final fillip to the project, Neil Gaiman agreed to provide the book’s foreword. The British fantasy writer had worked on the English-language version of Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke and had spent time with the filmmaker at Studio Ghibli. He calls Navasky’s translation “gentle and winning,” and describes Miyazaki’s work in progress: “It’s a film he has said that he is making for his grandson, as a gift to the future.”

While the wait for the animated film’s release continues—it’s now scheduled for 2023—English-speaking readers don’t have to wonder. They can experience for themselves the story that inspired Miyazaki to make one more film.

How Do You Live? by Genzaburo Yoshino. Algonquin Young Readers, $17.99 Oct. 26 ISBN 978-1-61620-977-3