Haruki Murakami and the Culture of Translation

Written in English by Ted Goossen

| A specimen of Babel: Stories on the loss of the earth’s one speech and the confusion of languages


Japanese culture is often characterized as a culture of translation. In fact, the Japanese language of today is the result of centuries of effort by translators struggling to match Chinese characters and Japanese words, affixing native pronunciation in some cases, adopting approximations of Chinese pronunciation in others, and developing two different syllabaries: one—katakana—initially used by men; the other—hiragana—by women (the eleventh-century Tale of Genji was written in the latter). At no time, however, was translation more crucial to the Japanese than in the second half of the nineteenth century, when Western colonial pressure was most intense. At first it was young samurai, handpicked by their feudal lords, who labored over foreign documents (often written in Dutch) to try to ferret out what was required to defend and develop their fiefs. Later, when the Meiji period (1868–1912) was under way and the national system of education established, “modern” learning necessarily focused on the mastery of Western texts and their transmission to a broader public. At the outset, the goal was purely practical—to strengthen the country militarily, technologically, and institutionally—but by the 1880s the focus had broadened to include European literature, philosophy, and the arts, now seen as key to the construction of an advanced society on a par with the West. 

It was no accident that the founders of Japanese modern literature tended to be either scholars of Western literature or translators. Ogai Mori, for example, is known outside Japan for his stories and novels, but at home he is also revered for his translations of Goethe and Hans Christian Andersen; Japan’s first great novelist, Soseki Natsume, wrote essays on Shakespeare and modern literary theory before giving up his prestigious day job as Professor of English at Tokyo’s Imperial University to concentrate on his fiction. Although Soseki’s novels, the most famous of which is Kokoro (a word that means both “heart” and “mind”), were profoundly influenced by his study of English literature, they were hardly derivative. In fact, Kokoro, an elegiac romance whose latter half is comprised of an apparent suicide letter from the hero to the young narrator, anticipates an authorial strategy (the reader never learns the narrator’s reaction) that had not yet been used in the West. 

Novelist/translators are not a uniquely Japanese phenomenon, of course—similar figures are common throughout the world, although much more rare in French and English literary cultures. Even so, however, the number of modern Japanese novelists who have turned their hand to translation (or vice versa, since many translators eventually turn to fiction) is striking, no case being more remarkable than Haruki Murakami. Murakami is an internationally successful novelist, with legions of readers in places as far-flung as China, Russia, Europe, and South Korea. Yet in Japan he is equally celebrated as the translator of American writers such as Carver, Chandler, Fitzgerald, Capote, and Salinger. His translations are best-sellers too, since Japanese readers tend to select books based on their translators, something hard to imagine in a culture such as ours in which the name of the translator seldom registers in a reader’s mind. A few years ago, for example, when Murakami’s version of Carver’s complete works was just out, I saw red banners flying in front of the Kinokuniya bookstore in Shinjuku promoting the series; not surprisingly, perhaps, Murakami’s name was placed above Carver’s and printed in larger characters.

The Japanese profile of American authors whom Murakami translates thus soars the moment his translation appears—even the original English texts are snapped up, though few can read them easily. That Murakami is aware that this affects the reputations, and the pocketbooks, of previous translators of the same work can be seen from his afterword, which takes pains to commend their efforts on the one hand while lamenting their inability to capture “his Gatsby” on the other. Indeed, beneath the modulated modesty (de rigueur in the Japanese afterword genre), Murakami’s announcement that all of American literature is fair game hurls down a literary gauntlet. In the process, he also raises the bar for his fellow translators by stressing the importance of being able to reenact the creative process itself—that is, “how we would have written it, had we been the author.” Tackling The Great Gatsby, and by implication any other good novel, means occasionally stepping back from the surface meaning of words to try to capture the bigger picture in a style that sings. 

The problem facing his fellow translators is that no one sings quite like Murakami, whose distinctive rhythms—drawn from his lifelong love of jazz—characterize all that he writes, including his translations. As Jay Rubin puts it in Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words, “It is a wonder that he did not become a musician himself—though, in a way, he did. Rhythm is perhaps the most important element of his prose.” Fitzgerald and Murakami are thus beautifully matched: just as Fitzgerald established a style for his times by giving his writing a jazz swing, so has Murakami drawn from Stan Getz, Billie Holiday, and other jazz greats from a later era—as well as from American novels such as The Great Gatsby—to fashion his literary voice. 

The influence of jazz and American literature on Murakami has led some Japanese critics to call his writing “unnatural” (read “un-Japanese”), especially in the 1980s when he first became popular. Today, though, such criticisms seem rather moot—having been read by so many for so long, the “Murakami style” now feels quite normal, especially for those raised on it (I include myself in this group). Still, some continue to lament its effects on today’s readers, whose view of literature has been narrowed, so the argument runs, by the likes and dislikes of people such as Murakami and his occasional collaborator, Motoyuki Shibata, another star translator of American fiction. Given America’s postwar military occupation and the decades of American influence that followed, the impact of American culture on Japan (and the rest of the globe) is bound to remain a heated issue, and Murakami’s writing is placed squarely in the middle of it.

Nevertheless, thanks to this deep and long-standing tie with America, Japanese readers come to a work such as The Great Gatsby with considerable background knowledge. Although few can speak the language very well, many are comfortable reading English at some level, and almost everyone has a basic vocabulary. They are also likely to have a vague image—formed primarily through films—of what the Roaring Twenties looked like. Murakami can count on this experience, which means that Part II: The Translator at Work 186 when he comes to a crucial yet untranslatable phrase such as “old sport,” he has the option—which he takes—of leaving it in English, and then discussing it in the afterword. Far better, he insists, to stick with the original than replace it with a Japanese phrase whose associations are markedly different. 

Translators of Murakami’s books into Western languages face similar problems, but have no recourse to a similar solution. The word kokoro (mind/heart), for example, which was the title of Soseki’s masterpiece, also plays a central role in my favorite Murakami novel, The Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. There, the hero loses his kokoro when his shadow is forcibly detached from his body and spends the rest of the narrative trying to reunite with it. In English, however, the hero is trying to save his mind, a word that subtly alters the emotional and spiritual aspects of his dilemma. Had translator Alfred Birnbaum been given the option, you can bet he would have left kokoro in the original and then explained his choice in a translator’s preface. It is hard to imagine a Western publisher going along with such an arrangement, however, since translators here are kept tucked safely out of sight to perpetuate the illusion of “seamlessness.” For English readers, it appears, books need to be dubbed, not subtitled.

– – –

The myth of Babel tells of the loss of the earth’s one language and one speech, and the confusion of languages. Suddenly every object and every idea assumed a plurality of names, and the oversized tower, symbol of human imagination and hubris, was abandoned within the shadow foreboding its destruction. With an unprecedented series of correlated texts, Specimen explores these magnificent ruins, hearing echoes of the multiplicity of languages and the birth of translation. This collection includes texts about Babel, translation or language, and special translations. In September 2021, 20 years after 9/11, the Babel festival will focus on the multiplication of languages and the present diaspora from the regions of ancient Babylon – the scattering of the children of men over the face of all the earth. >> www.babelfestival.com

Published August 24, 2021
Haruki Murakami and the Culture of Translation by Ted Goossen was first published in “Brick” 82, Winter 2009.
© 2009 Ted Goossen


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