January 12, 2013

"To Translate and be Translated" by Haruki Murakami


Haruki Murakami is 64 years old today, born on January 12, 1949.

I can't properly express how much his writing means to me. The fact that I am able to read it all, in English, is a huge gift. So perhaps the best thing to do, in honor of his incredible skill which has been translated to non-Japanese readers like me, is to leave an excerpt from A Wild Haruki Chase: Reading Murakami Around the World. This is a chapter he wrote himself, entitled "To Translate and 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 quoted 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 start 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 is a question in the realm of the "front room" that waits 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 foreign 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 skills. But another quality that I think is equally important, especially in the case of fiction, is a love full of personal bias. Put most radically, I would say that is all you need. What I expect above all in translations of my works is just that. A love full of bias is, in the face of this uncertain world, one of the things I adore the most, with a deeply biased love."
I don't profess to completely understand his books. But Haruki Murakami has taught me to suspend my disbelief. He has shown me a world as unpredictable as I know it to be, with characters who are often as elusive as they are present. His writing, with a formidable humility and an honesty, makes me love him all the more.

A Wild Haruki Chase

Here are links so that you can visit his website,  facebook page, or Twitter. And, thanks to Stone Bridge Press who sent me this book.

11 comments:

  1. I also posted about him today :) and I spent the day reading his "Kafka on the shore". Simply perfect!

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    1. Kafka on The Shore was the first Murakami I read, and I think it will always be my favorite. I liked it even more than Norwegian Wood, somehow. I think your day does indeed sound perfect; wish I could have read with you. :(

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  2. I enjoyed Murakami's novels also.


    "I tend to forget the good work but remember clearly those places that I am unhappy with. It is a strange thing..." Is it a surprise?

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    1. I think some of us more easily recall that which is flawed. Or troubles us. The trick is to remember the good more often. Right?

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  3. Not sure I admire his views on translation that much, a point which I made when reviewing Jay Rubin's book this week...

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    1. I'm not quite sure what "a love full of bias is" but I think I agree with him that the translator ought to carry a certain amount of love: for the language, or the story, or the author or hopefully all three.

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  4. I really must read more by him! I have only read Norwegian Wood! So many authors... so little time...

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  5. Great birthday post for the writer & it's interesting just to see a writer's perspective on their work in translation.

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  6. This is a wonderful tribute to Haruki Murakami! And how interesting his remarks are! It sounds as if he's completely able to "let go" of his work once it's published, and work on something altogether new.

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  7. Very interesting - it is good to read some affirmation of the translation process from such an important writer. A very good post - thank you

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  8. What a fascinating quote! Thank you for sharing it.

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