“I felt confident that I was reading Murakami as he intended with Rubin’s translation.”

By Dennis Abrams

I know we’ve talked a lot about translation in these “off book” posts, and I hope you’re finding it as interesting as I do.

One thing I’ve been wondering about is the style of Murakami’s prose. In translation, the prose seems fairly simple and straightforward (one can sense, at least in translation I think, a bit of his admiration of Raymond Carver), but how close is that to the original version?

This from Matthew Strecher:

“One of the more interesting reviews to come out in the United States was that by Luc Sante (New York Magazine, Oct. 13, 1997), both for its on-the-mark estimation of the force that drives Murakami as a writer, and for its rather naïve criticism of the translation of the work.

“Sante points out, to begin with, that Murakami teases us with a series of facts and ideas, but probably does not himself understand fully the connections that hold them together. ‘He is writing you a letter, artless, urgent, perplexed – in which he tries to make sense of some odd events, giving you all the facts in proper order, hoping you will see the pattern that eludes him. This of course is a measure of just how devious he is.’ This is probably truer than Sante realizes, for Murakami…has always seen writing as a process by which he himself my comprehend the events in his life and the society that surrounds him. As he writes hoping to enlighten his readers about their place in the world, he hopes equally to enlighten himself.

“By and large, Sante’s view of The Wind-up Bird Chronicle is positive; the work, like all literature, he says, ‘is not a tool or a code or a map but an object, period.’ Its potential, in other words, lies in what the readers makes of it.

“He has harsher words on the subject of Rubin’s translation of the work, which he describes as ‘slipshod,’ and in which he suspects elisions and even inaccuracy.

The dialogue in particular has all the rhythm and nuance of a hastily overdubbed foreign movie: ‘Look, I know how busy you are, but give me a break. I want to know what’s going on. What’s with the cat?’ To come across such formulations in a novel not written by Franklin W. Dixon raises questions about how many shadings the translator might have flung overboard expeditiously, both there and in the less demotic passages.

“I am not inclined to be very sympathetic to Sante’s complaint here. As one who has read both the original and the translation of the novel carefully, as Sante obviously has not, I can detect no major flaws either in the idiom or in the tone of Rubin’s rendering. What he has done, and quite effectively in my opinion, is to reproduce the flavor of Murakami’s original brand of what might be termed ‘plainstyle,’ an intentionally simplified writing style popular among many contemporary writers in and outside of Japan. This style claims as one of its integral parts the very idiosyncrasies noted by Sante in his review.

“As part of his emphasis on using simple language, Murakami’s writing comes across as neither polished, nor even especially neat. It lacks the subtlety that many associate with other major Japanese writers of this century, and this too is intentional. Perhaps more than any other writer alive in Japan today, Murakami rejects the idea of complex language as an art form, and focuses instead on getting his story across with as little distraction as possible. One thing Murakami has done with his language – and this is an achievement for Japanese writing as a whole – is to redefine its expression in ways that reflect the increasing influences on Japan of other languages and cultures around the world. His purpose in doing his is not to destroy the uniqueness of Japanese language, but rather, as he told Jay McInerney in 1992, to bring Japanese culture – including its literature – into closer proximity with the rest of the world.

I think what young Japanese writers are doing is trying to reconstruct our language. We appreciate the beauty, the subtlety of the language Mishima used, but those days are gone. We should do something now. And what we are doing as contemporary writers is trying to break through the barrier of isolation so that we can talk to the rest of the world in our words again.

“In this regard Murakami and his contemporaries have been remarkably successful, and this has been picked up by a great many scholars and critics around the world who remark on the seamlessness with which Murakami’s prose seems to slide into other languages and cultural contexts. Rubin’s translation of The Wind-up Bird Chronicle reflects Murakami’s attempts to refine his language, and while some will, like Sante, find it troubling and unsatisfactory, there is no denying that the plainstyle developed and employed by Murakami has achieved its objective: in ways that the works of Mishima and Tanizaki never could, it has helped to dispel much of the cloud of mystery that has shrouded popular perceptions of Japanese literature in the West since it began to be widely translated into English in the 1950s and 1960s.”

And there’s this, from Brian Fee at The Airship:

“A few fun-facts about Haruki Murakami, Japan’s most celebrated contemporary author and the man behind the year-end publishing sensation1Q84: he name-drops classical études as frequently as 20th century jazz and rock greats; he once ran a coffeehouse-jazz bar in Tokyo; and he’s a triathlete. The man is a well-rounded badass.
I knew little of Murakami when I began reading The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle—some six hundred pages of potent modern-day Surrealism—back in university. Jay Rubin, one of his three longtime translators, handled the English edition, a necessary thing for me then as a just-budding student of Japanese. In addition to the silky prose, I was enraptured by the directness of dialogue and description despite Murakami’s continual bending of reality.

I compared Rubin’s translation with an earlier one by Alfred Birnbaum, who’d translated the first chapter of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle as The Wind-Up Bird and Tuesday’s Women (it originally ran in The New Yorker several years prior but reappeared in the short story collection The Elephant Vanishes), and instantly sided with Rubin. The interplay between Murakami’s classic thirtyish male protagonist, Toru Okada, and the author’s equally classic weirdo teenage girl, May Kasahara, just felt better in Rubin’s words:

Strange, the girl’s voice sounded completely different, depending on whether my eyes were open or closed.
“Can I talk? I’ll keep real quiet, and you don’t have to answer. You can even fall asleep. I don’t mind.”
“OK,” I said.
“When people die, it’s so neat.”
Her mouth was next to my ear now, so the words worked their way inside me along with her warm, moist breath.
“Why’s that?” I asked.
She put a finger on my lips as if to seal them.
“No questions,” she said. “And don’t open your eyes. OK?”
My nod was as small as her voice.
She took her finger from my lips and placed it on my wrist.

Compare that with Birnbaum’s earlier translation. That directness, that humidity-induced curtness, is lost:

Strange, I think, the girl’s voice with my eyes closed sounds completely different from her voice with my eyes open. What’s come over me? This has never happened to me before.
“Can I talk some?” the girl asks. “I’ll be real quiet. You don’t have to answer, you can even fall right asleep at any time.”
“Sure,” I say.
“Death. People dying. It’s all so fascinating,” the girl begins.
She’s whispering right by my ear, so the words enter my body in a warm, moist stream of breath.
“How’s that?” I ask.
The girl places a one-finger seal over my lips.
“No questions,” she says. “I don’t want to be asked anything just now. And don’t open your eyes, either. Got it?”
I give a nod as indistinct as her voice.
She removes her finger from my lips, and the same finger now travels to my wrist.”

Years later, after moving to New York, I re-engaged my Japanese language studies hardcore. I picked up The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle in its original Japanese at Kinokuniya. This was my first attempt at reading novel-length Murakami, and I reveled in it. His prose is delightfully unembellished, and while it will prove difficult to first-time language students accustomed to manga or Harry Potter in Japanese, I found myself speeding through it. Comparing the original Toru-May passage to the translations, I believe Rubin still captures its mood better than Birnbaum. He nails the girlish, fearless ‘tude of May’s back-and-forth with this older, slightly naïve guy.
I felt confident that I was reading Murakami as he intended with Rubin’s translation. It’s a fairly well-known fact that large chunks were excised in the English text (highlighted here in a roundtable email conversation between Murakami translators Rubin and Philip Gabriel, with Knopf editor Gary Fisketjon). Did I miss these sections when I first read it in English? No, but discovering them in Japanese—like an entire chapter’s worth—was welcoming. Still, I’ve spent so much time living in Rubin’s translations, navigating well-worn pages, that I return to the comforts of the English-language book without hesitation.”

Thoughts? Questions?

My next post: Tuesday, June 24th, The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, Book One Chapters 9-13, Book Two Chapters 1-2

Enjoy. And enjoy your weekend.


3 thoughts on ““I felt confident that I was reading Murakami as he intended with Rubin’s translation.””

  1. I’ve read Murakami in both English and Japanese, and I haven’t found his Japanese to be particularly elegant or refined. He just doesn’t seem like the sort of author you read for his language.

    The English translations I’ve read haven’t been obviously bad either, though I’m sure the author himself can easily find things he disagrees with. So I dunno…. maybe Rubin is a bit better, but does it really matter very much?

    1. Miles: I agree with you on the fact that he doesn’t seem to be the sort of author you read for his language or the beauty of his prose — not to stretch the comparison too far, but in that regard he reminds me of Vonnegut — not the greatest prose stylist, but loved for his ideas and imagination.

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