“A love full of bias is, in the face of this uncertain world, one of the things I adore most, with a deeply biased love.”

First Look at Murakami and Translation
By Dennis Abrams

As those of you who have been part of my other reading groups know, translation is a major issue for me. When reading a translated work, how close are we really getting to the “real” text? Is it ever possible to read a translated work and have the same experience as reading the original?

This is a subject I’ve thought about a lot, ever since I was hanging out in my favorite bookstore in New Orleans and a woman came in to ask for a copy of Turgenev’s Fathers & Sons for her book club. The owner and I showed her a few different editions, but what surprised us both was how much each differed from the other.

For example, just the opening lines:

“’Well, Piotr, not in sight yet?’ was the question asked on May the 20th, 1859, by a gentleman of a little over forty, in a dusty coat and checked trousers, who came out without his hat on to the low steps of the posting station at –“

Compared with:

“’Nothing to be seen yet, Peter?’ was the question asked on 20th May 1859 by a landowner of a little over forty, in a dusty overcoat and checked trousers, as he came out on to the low front steps of a post-station…”


“Well, Pytor? Not in sight yet?”

“The question was put on 20th May 1859 by a gentleman of rather more than forty years as he came out, hatless and dressed in a dust-stained overcoat and check trousers, on to the low porch of the posting-house…”

All very different, not only in voice but in meaning. In two he’s a gentleman, in one he’s a landowner. In one it’s said that he’s hatless – no mention of a hat in the other two. Translation, and picking the right translation is a tricky business. (Fortunately (or not) with Murakami, we don’t have a choice of translations – at least so far.)

But I suspect , with Murakami, that translating is even more of an issue than it is with other foreign language writers — As we saw in my previous post, even translating different words for “I” changes how we read the text. So, as we continue on our chase, I’m going to take period looks at how Murakami is translated, what the issues are, and what it means for us as readers.

First, this from Murakami himself.

“To Translate and To Be Translated”

“I never reread my own works unless there is some very special reason. It may sound impressive for me to say that I do not look back on my past, but the truth is that I find it a bit embarrassing to take my own novels in my hands, and I know I would not like them anyway if I were to read them. I would rather look forward and think about what I will be doing next.

So it is not unusual for me to completely forget what and how I wrote in my earlier books. Quite often, when a reader asks me what a particular passage means in a certain work, I wonder if there is such a passage at all. It also sometimes happens that I read something that catches my attention in a book or magazine and think, ‘This stuff isn’t bad at all,’ only to discover that it is an excerpt of my own writing. As presumptuous as it sounds, that is what happens.

On the other hand, I am quick to recognize my writing when the passage being quotes is one that I do not like. For whatever reason, I can always tell. I tend to forget the good work but remember clearly those places that I am unhappy with. It is a strange thing…

Anyhow, typically by the time a novel of mine is published in another language a few years after I have finished writing it, I can no longer remember clearly what I wrote. Of course I never forget the entire plot, but much of the detail will have been wiped clean from my memory – not that I have a very good memory to begin with – just as the moisture from a summer shower on an asphalt road evaporates quickly and soundlessly.

I usually leaf through translations of my novels if they are in English. Once I started reading one, I often find it absorbing (because I have forgotten how it goes) and fly through to the end, thrilled and occasionally moved to laughter. So when a translator asks how the translation is, all I can say is, ‘Well, I was able to read through it smoothly. Seems good to me.’ There are hardly any technical comments that I can make – ‘This part was so-and-so, that part was so-and-so.’ Although I am asked what it is like to have my novels translated into other languages, I honestly have little such awareness.

If a translation can be read smoothly and effortlessly, and thus enjoyably, then it does its job as a translation perfectly well – that is my basic stance as the original author. For that is what the stories that I conjure and lay out are really about. What the story says over and beyond that in the realm of the ‘front room’ that awaits after a translation has safely cleared the ‘front yard’ portion of the work, or of the ‘central room,’ that lies further on.

For me, one of the joys of my works being transformed into another language is that I can reread them in a new form. By having a work converted into another language by someone else’s hand, I can look back and reconsider it from a respectable distance and enjoy it coolly as a quasi-outsider, as it were, whereas I never would have read it again if it had remained only in Japanese. In so doing, I can also reevaluate myself from a different standpoint. That is why I am very thankful for the translators who translate my novels. It is certainly a delight to have my works read by readers in other countries, but at the same time, it is a joy that my works can be read by me myself – though, unfortunately, for now this is limited to English.

Put differently, when a literary world that I have created is transposed into another linguistic system, I feel as if I have been able to dissociate me from myself, which gives me a good deal of peace. One may say, then, that I might as well write in a foreign language from the start. But this is not so easily done, for reasons of skill and capability. That may be why, in my own way, I have tried to write my novels using prose that I have constructed by first converting Japanese, my mother tongue, into a mock language in my head – that is, by clearing away the innate everydayness of language that lies in my self-consciousness. Looking back, it seems as if that is what I have always done.

Seen in that light, my process of creative writing may closely correspond to the process of translation – or rather, in some respects they may be two sides of the same coin. I have been translating (from English to Japanese) for many years myself, and I know how hard the job of translation is, as well as how much fun it is. I also understand to some extent how immensely the flavor of the text can vary from one translator to another.

What is most needed for a good translation is probably linguistic skill. But another quality that I think is equally important, especially in the case of fiction, is a love of personal bias. Put most radically, I would say that this is all you need. What I expect above all in translations of my work is just that. A love full of bias is, in the face of this uncertain world, one of the things I adore most, with a deeply biased love.”

Of course…this was translated from the Japanese “Honyaku suru koto to, honyaku sareru koto.”

And to conclude, an excerpt from Roland’s New Yorker essay, “Lost in Translation,” which seems to contradict some of what Murakami wrote:

“…I can’t help but wonder if the translation of literature, where the strengths and even personality of the original are embedded in the language, is futile, however heroic. ‘When you read Haruki Murakami, you’re reading me, at least ninety-five percent of the time,” Jay Rubin, one of Murakami’s longtime translators, told me in Tokyo last month, explaining what he says to American readers, most of whom prefer to believe otherwise. ‘Murakami wrote the names and locations, but the English words are mine.’ Murakami once told me that the never reads his books in translation because he doesn’t need to. While he can speak and read English with great sensitivity, reading his own work in another language could be disappointing – or worse. ‘My books exist in their original Japanese. That’s what’s most important, because that’s how I wrote them.’

But he clearly pays attention to the process of translation. Rubin said that the first time he translated a Murakami novel, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, he phoned the author several times one day to nail words choices and correct inconsistencies. ‘In one scene, a character had black-framed glasses. In another, the frames were brown. I asked him: Which one is it?’ I found Rubin’s anecdote revealing. The Japanese language acquires much of its beauty and strength from indirectness – or what English-speakers call vagueness, obscurity, or implied meaning. Subjects are often left unmentioned in Japanese sentences, and onomatopoeia, with vernacular sounds suggesting meaning, is a virtue often difficult if not impossible to replicate in English.

Alternatively, English is often lauded for its specificity. Henry James advised novelists to find the figure in the carpet, implying that details and accuracy were tantamount to literary expression. Is it possible that Japanese and English are two languages so far apart that translators can only reinvent their voices by creating entirely new works? Last week [translator and professor Motoyuki] Shibata, [translator Ted] Goosen, and a lineup of Japanese and American writers were in New York to host a series of events to introduce the third and latest English version of Monkey Business, as part of the PEN World Voices Festival. At their Asia Society dialogue, Gossen quoted Charles Simic’s take on the magical absurdity of translating poetry: ‘It’s that pigheaded effort to convey in words of another language not only the literal meaning of a poem but an alien way of seeing things…To translate is not only to experience what makes each language distinct, but to draw close to the mystery of the relationship between word and thing, letter and spirit, self and world.’

Murakami would likely agree. In a recently published essay on his decision to render The Great Gatsby in Japanese, the sixty-four-year-old author reveals that it has become something of a lifelong mission. He told others about his ambition in his thirties, and believed them then that he’d be ready to undertake the challenge when he reached sixty. But he couldn’t wait. Like an overeager child unwrapping his presents, he translated ‘Gatsby’ three years ahead of schedule. Translation, he writes, is similar to language and our relationship with our world. It, too, needs to be refreshed:

‘Translation is a matter of linguistic technique…which naturally ages as the particulars of a language change. While there are undying works, on principle there can be no undying translations. It is therefore imperative that new versions appear periodically in the same way that computer programs are updated. At the very least this provides a broader spectrum of choices, which can only benefit readers.’”


My next post:  Tuesday, May 20th — a look at Chapters 9-18 of Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World

Enjoy your weekend


12 thoughts on ““A love full of bias is, in the face of this uncertain world, one of the things I adore most, with a deeply biased love.””

  1. I understand your position, enjoy Murakami in translation, enjoy your posts… very much… But still think we are not reading or discussing Murakami’s works. But then, I speak as a translator of classical Japanese and some Chinese works with a bit of Sanskrit and Pali as well. Don’t mind me. (Though if I find other posts or essays relevant to the topic of Murakami and translation that I think you’d like to see, I will continue to post them.) I don’t mean to throw a “Spaniard” into the works, as Lennon put it.

  2. Anzanhoshin: Of course, Rubin said the same thing — we’re reading his words, not Murakami’s. And that’s fair enough as far as it goes. But in the world we live in, if we want to read authors who write in language other than English, we have to read translations and hope for the best. Some get close (I think of Proust) and other’s not so much. From what I understand, Murakami is largely happy with the work done on his books (depending on who and what you read) so I’ll take it for what it is — as the closest approximation that I can get without learning Japanese. (And I didn’t know that you’re a translator…that’s very cool — and of course, gives you an insight into the process that I can’t have.)

    1. Dennis, I certainly want to and do and always have read works written in languages I cannot read. But when someone who has read Shakespeare only in Romanian praises a play I feel so heart-broken that they cannot actually know just how much better it actually is… As a translator I know the chasm. I also feel the chasm when reading, say, Berlin Alexanderplatz. And I think that always knowing the chasm is there can in some ways add to the thrill: always knowing that there’s an edge beyond the text…

      By the way, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: You’re doing a wonderful thing with these series of commentaries.

  3. Anzan: Point taken, and thank you for your very kind words. I might argue though, that the very fact that Shakespeare (to use your example) is so universal would indicate that even with the loss of language, more than enough remains. I’m also wondering whether Murakami in Japanese is known as a prose stylist or more for his plots, ideas, imagination.

  4. I have four of the five books we are reading, and, I discover, three different translators.
    Hard-Boiled etc: Alfred Birnbaum
    The Windup Bird … Jay Rubin
    Kafka … Philip Gabriel
    1Q84 Jay Rubin & Philip Gabriel
    I’m not sure I’ll be able to pick differences among them and the joint one is interesting (did they take alternate chapters, or what?)
    i wouldn’t have noticed without this post.

    1. Peajayar: I’m not sure if I’d be able to pick up the differences either (I suspect we’ll be talking a lot about translation throughout this project.) I’ll get into it in greater detail when we get to it, but in its original form, 1Q84 was a three volume novel — for translation purposes, Rubin translated the first two volumes, Gabriel did the last.

  5. I always wonder what it would feel like to read a Murakami book in Japanese. I wish I knew an articulate someone who could read the same book in both languages and share their thoughts on the experience. Is there no one in the great wide world of the internet and Murakami fandom who has done this? I should start googling. In any case, I do notice a consistency in the style from book to book, even with different translators, a sense of sparseness, a very straightforward, matter of fact approach to language. I wonder if that is specific to Murakami or the Japanese language itself and the way it feels in English. Anyway, it’s all very interesting : )

  6. I find this topic of the “problem” of translation fascinating, as we had discussed previously in the Proust group. Not to get sidetracked in irrelevancies, but a little nitpick in your examples of translations of Turgenev – you state that one version says the character is “hatless” and the others do not mention a hat, but the first version says, “who came out without his hat”, so actually 2 versions mention that the character does not have a hat. Still, your point remains unchanged and valid.

    It always concerns me when reading translated works that I am not able to judge the original writer’s prose style since I’m getting a reworded version. I believe I commented on this in the Dosteoevsky discussions at some point. Especially when you point out such things as the different words for the first person “I”, both just rendered as “I” in English, losing the different connotations (which would be lost to westerners anyways, without footnotes to explain them, etc., but even then not having the same signficance to us).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s