“So when a Murakami character makes himself an egg salad sandwich, Japanese readers are going to feel something a little different from what American readers are going to feel about it.”

Additional Thoughts on Translation
By Dennis Abrams


As I mentioned last week, translation is, for me (and apparently given the responses for you as well) a major issue.

I recently was having a conversation with one of our readers about the subject of translation. But not just about “literal” translation, but what I’m going to have to call cultural translation. Or, how does a Japanese audience “read” a certain thing, an article of clothing, a dish of food, etc. as opposed to the way we see or read it? How do they see the “hero” of the Hard-Boiled Wonderland section as opposed to the way we see him? How do we read those differences, and can they, in fact, actually be translated?

In this excerpt from a roundtable discussion on Murakami from Borzoi Reader, translators Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel, along with Knopf editor Gary Fisketjon, look at that topic:

From: Jay Rubin
Sent: Tuesday, January 9, 2001 8:22 PM
To: Gary Fisketjon; Philip Gabriel
Subject: Re: An email roundtable: Translating Murakami
Some additional thoughts on translating from Japanese to English — in general, the Japanese have a far more sensitive and sophisticated awareness regarding food than most Americans. The number of food-preparation shows on TV–PRIME TIME–is amazing. So when a Murakami character makes himself an egg salad sandwich, Japanese readers are going to feel something a little different from what American readers are going to feel about it. There is no way to convey the cultural context regarding that sandwich in a translation, except perhaps through scholarly footnotes, which would only succeed in destroying anyone’s enjoyment of the text. So you just have to have the character make his sandwich in English and figure it’s not going to be THAT different. The fact that the word “sandwich” is written in a phonetic script reserved for recording foreign terms, that the Japanese reader’s eye travels vertically down the page to take in that word and the other words of the sentence, that the Japanese word for “cut” has a tiny picture of a sword in it: all these facts about the Japanese writing system are fascinating but are of interest only to foreign students of the language and are no more exciting to a Japanese reader than the snake-like shape of the “s” in the word “sentence.” As I pointed out in my book Making Sense of Japanese (Kodansha International), the Japanese language is not processed in either hemisphere of the brain but in the left elbow, which makes for a certain calcification of style in literary works, but no translator has yet figured out how to convey this in a foreign language. The Japanese language is SO different from English–even when used by a writer as Americanized as Murakami is–that true literal translation is impossible, and the translator’s subjective processing is inevitably going to play a large part. That processing is a GOOD THING; it involves a continual critical questioning of the meaning of the text. The LAST thing you want is a translator who believes he is a totally passive medium for transferring one set of grammatical structures into another: then you’re going to get mindless garbage, not literature.
From: Philip Gabriel
Sent: Tuesday, January 9, 2001 8:22 PM
To: Gary Fisketjon; Jay Rubin
Subject: Re: An email roundtable: Translating Murakami
Phil here. I thought Jay’s comments on food were interesting. I remember seeing a translation (Jay’s?) in The New Yorker a few years back that opened with the characters preparing Japanese food. As I recall, none of the dishes were translated, just romanized (e.g. miso shiru, etc.). When dealing with culturally bound vocabulary there are three choices for the translator: leave them as they are, add some simple explanation, or find a rough English equivalent. (As an example of the last case, in translating one of Osamu Dazai’s novels Donald Keene translated shochu–a Japanese type of liquor–as “gin.” Which wouldn’t have been my choice, by the way!) To give you an example from SPUNICK SWEETHEART, one of the characters, Sumire, is at one point eating a “Mont Blanc” in a cafe in Tokyo. I originally just left this as “Mont Blanc,” but Murakami was worried that people in the west would think she was eating an expensive fountain pen, instead of a type of cake, so we decided to make it a generic “cake” instead. This isn’t an ideal solution, since it eliminates some specificity that existed in the original, but it does avoid the possible misunderstanding.(Sumire is a writer, a bit neurotic, so who knows, maybe she DOES chew on her fountain pen. Just kidding…)Another recent example is from “Man-Eating Cats,” the story in The New Yorker I did recently. There, two characters are eating breakfast at a “Royal Host” in Tokyo. Again, I left it as is, but Murakami thought Americans aren’t familiar with this restaurant chain, and asked that it be changed to “Denny’s.” And that’s what we went with. Royal Host, though, is a pretty nice chain of restaurants, often found in the major airports as well as elsewhere, and a step above Denny’s, I think. So this is an example of “rough equivalent.”
All the culturally bound items in a text are a challenge to the translator; part of the reason that Western readers read Japanese literature is to learn something about a different culture, yet flagging these culturally bound items and loading on an explanation makes the reading experience far different for the western reader; in other words, the western reader would dwell on things the Japanese reader would skim right over. Another example of this is vocabulary related to the interior/exterior of Japanese houses. I remember having a heck of a time translating the word engawa in a story by Yoko Ogawa; the word roughly means a kind of verandah, but in the story the character was dangling her legs down to the ground from the engawa, something difficult from your usual porch or verandah, at least in the part of the world I grew up in. In the novel by Senji Kuroi I just translated, entitled “Life in the Cul-de-Sac,” there is a lot of detail about the interior of homes that make it very difficult for the translator. At times I felt like just including a couple of photos or drawings of a Japanese house and saying: here! study these and then let’s move on! The idea of a “cul-de-sac,” too, is very different between the two cultures. The cul-de-sac in the neighborhood described in Kuroi’s novel is a narrow, cramped little space, yet in the U.S. often a house on a cul-de-sac is a very desirable location. Fortunately, I was given a translator’s preface in which to address some of these issues. The use of extra space between sections of each chapter in SPUTNIK SWEETHEART is unusual at times, with breaks between sections that, to the western reader, should not be there. The editors often suggested eliminating the spaces where two sections most “logically” belonged together. I generally resisted this change; there might be some vague analogy between these spaces and the ways a director such as Ozu lingers over certain “empty” moments. This may be a false analogy, but at the very least these spaces give the reader are meant to give the reader pause, and a moment to reflect. Eliminating them was, to me, an example of overly “naturalizing” or domesticating a foreign text. In other words, the spaces were put there for a reason, so let’s ponder the reason first instead of just reacting in light of the models we’re used to. In an interesting article on translation several years ago, Edward Fowler made the point that, in translating from a language such as Japanese into English, rather than always fitting Japanese into what English can do, we should consider how this process could enrich the possibilities of English.
Regarding the use of a mixed writing system in Japanese and its effects on the reader, I agree with Jay that it’s basically a non-issue. The one thing I would bring up, though, is the basic word order difference between Japanese and English. One writer I’ve worked on is Toshio Shimao, who tends to write long sentences that twist around a number of perspectives before arriving at a settled conclusion. In translating these, I find the English tends to reverse things, giving away the punch line that, in Japanese, is delayed. I am struggling with the same thing in my present translation of Kenzaburo Oe’s novel.

Your thoughts?

My next post: Tuesday, May 27 — Chapters 19-28

Enjoy. And enjoy your weekend.


6 thoughts on ““So when a Murakami character makes himself an egg salad sandwich, Japanese readers are going to feel something a little different from what American readers are going to feel about it.””

  1. Here’s a link for some more on the issue of “I” in Japanese. Presents quite an issue for the translator!

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