The talk­ing cats are just the start

Rick Wal­lace on the chal­lenges of trans­lat­ing Haruki Mu­rakami

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Rick Wal­lace is The Aus­tralian’s Tokyo cor­re­spon­dent.

WITH ob­tuse and enig­matic char­ac­ters, sur­real plot­lines and even talk­ing an­i­mals, the work of cel­e­brated Ja­panese author Haruki Mu­rakami is no pic­nic for trans­la­tors. It took a team of two to pro­duce, in 2011, the English trans­la­tion of his epic 2009 novel 1Q84.

Mu­rakami, reg­u­larly touted as a No­bel prize can­di­date, is back on the Ja­panese best­seller lists with a new novel, Colour­less Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pil­grim­age. And the man cho­sen to pro­duce the English ver­sion is one of the duo who worked on 1Q84, J. Philip Gabriel.

In an in­ter­view with Re­view, Gabriel, a pro­fes­sor of East Asian stud­ies at the Univer­sity of Arizona, says English read­ers can ex­pect a more tightly fo­cused novel this time. The book, which has sold more than one mil­lion copies in Ja­pan since its re­lease in March, fol­lows the jour­ney of a 36-year-old en­gi­neer who de­cides to re­visit trau­matic events from his past.

Af­ter com­plet­ing his sec­ond year in col­lege, Tsukuru Tazaki slumps into a deep de­pres­sion when his four clos­est high school friends sud­denly and painfully os­tracise him. As the ti­tle sug­gests, Tazaki al­ways felt a sense of un­ease within this seem­ingly tight-knit group, as he was the only one with­out a kanji sym­bol for a colour in his name. Six­teen years on, Tazaki has not seen th­ese friends again. On the sug­ges­tion of the woman he is dat­ing, he sets out to find the true rea­son for what hap­pened to him. Mu­rakami probes fa­mil­iar is­sues of vul­ner­a­bil­ity and hu­man frailty as Tazaki vis­its each friend in turn.

Gabriel de­scribes Mu­rakami’s new work as som­bre but is re­luc­tant to ex­pand on the book while in the mid­dle of the lengthy trans­la­tion. He is happy, though, to talk about his highly spe­cialised craft and what it’s like to ren­der Mu­rakami’s words into an­other lan­guage.

‘‘ I think you have to love lan­guage, have a lot of pa­tience and en­ergy, and be able to live with frus­tra­tion,’’ he says.

Gabriel, who has met Mu­rakami only once but com­mu­ni­cates with him fre­quently via email, says he trans­lates three pages of the author’s orig­i­nal text a day. The re­la­tion­ship be­tween the two goes back to 2000 when Gabriel was se­lected to trans­late Mu­rakami’s South of the Bor­der, West of the Sun. He also trans­lated Kafka on the Shore, which ce­mented the author’s in­ter­na­tional rep­u­ta­tion in when it was pub­lished in English in 2005 and won Gabriel an in­ter­na­tional lit­er­ary prize.

Gabriel rates Kafka as the hard­est of Mu­rakami’s works to ren­der into English.

"The two main char­ac­ters — a su­per­in­tel­li­gent 15-year-old boy and a 60-ish man with learn­ing lim­i­ta­tions — were un­like any other Mu­rakami char­ac­ters I’d seen and [it] re­quired a lot of thought to ad­e­quately cap­ture the voices,’’ he says. ‘‘ Nakata, the old man, also speaks in third per­son of­ten, which doesn’t work so well in English. And then there were the talk­ing cats . . .’’

Mu­rakami’s more re­cent works may pose fewer chal­lenges on the sur­face, but Gabriel says the job is never easy. ‘‘ 1Q84 was much more epic in scope, while Tsukuru Tazaki is more lap­idary, more tightly fo­cused on one per­son’s jour­ney,’’ he says.

‘‘ In terms of trans­lat­ing, with 1Q84 I was part of a team, with Jay Ru­bin, while with the new novel I’m back on my own. I can’t say that trans­lat­ing one or the other is eas­ier — trans­la­tion is al­ways a day-to-day strug­gle with lan­guage.’’

Mu­rakami knows first-hand the chal­lenges of which Gabriel speaks, hav­ing trans­lated works by Ray­mond Carver, JD Salinger and F. Scott Fitzger­ald into Ja­panese. He told author and cul­tural scholar Roland Kelts, for a re­cent ar­ti­cle in The New Yorker, that he never reads his books once they have been trans­lated for fear of dis­ap­point­ment.

‘‘ My books ex­ist in their orig­i­nal Ja­panese. That’s what’s most im­por­tant be­cause that’s how I wrote them,’’ Mu­rakami said.

In Ja­panese, sub­jects are of­ten omit­ted, which tends to make sen­tences in­di­rect and vague, and ca­pa­ble of mul­ti­ple mean­ings. English sen­tences, on the other hand, tend to be more pre­cise and com­plete. Ja­panese has the added di­men­sion of the mul­ti­ple in­ter­pre­ta­tions of kanji sym­bols and the word games and dou­ble en­ten­dres that this lends it­self to.

In bridg­ing this struc­tural and gram­mat­i­cal gap be­tween English and Ja­panese, the trans­la­tor can’t help but thrust them­selves and their style into the work.

‘‘ When you read Haruki Mu­rakami, you’re read­ing me, at least 95 per cent of the time,’’ Ru­bin told Kelts for the same ar­ti­cle.

Gabriel agrees it is im­pos­si­ble to pro­duce a trans­la­tion that’s not flavoured in part by the trans­la­tor’s ex­pe­ri­ences and pref­er­ences.

‘‘ In­di­vid­ual trans­la­tors have their own style and imprint, just as much as in­di­vid­ual writ­ers,’’ he says. ‘‘ I don’t think we can, or should, aim at hav­ing the trans­la­tor be some in­vis­i­ble man.’’

Gabriel says trans­la­tors who write orig­i­nal works — such as Mu­rakami — are a rar­ity as the skill sets re­quired are dif­fer­ent. ‘‘ Star­ing at a blank page and com­ing up with an orig­i­nal story seems so dif­fer­ent from re­work­ing an ex­ist­ing story into an­other lan­guage. Many peo­ple have asked me why I don’t try my hand at writ­ing a novel, and I have played with writ­ing a lit­tle, but it be­came clear to me early on that my in­ter­est lay in trans­la­tion rather than writ­ing orig­i­nal work.’’

Gabriel says Ja­panese writ­ing tends to omit ex­pla­na­tion in some ar­eas and over-elab­o­rate in oth­ers, and ad­dress­ing this im­bal­ance is part of the trans­la­tor’s chal­lenge: ‘‘ I some­times find my­self want­ing to make clearer cer­tain un­spo­ken con­nec­tions and ton­ing down parts that re­state the same idea.’’

Since the Ru­bin trans­la­tion of Nor­we­gian Wood was re­leased in 2000, Mu­rakami has gained a de­voted fol­low­ing in the English­s­peak­ing world and he is eas­ily Ja­pan’s best­known author. If the Ja­panese sales of Colour­less Tsukuru are any in­di­ca­tion, its English lan­guage re­lease will be keenly awaited. Just when that will be is not cer­tain, with ne­go­ti­a­tions with pub­lish­ers on­go­ing, al­though Gabriel says he as­sumes it will be some time next year.

Trans­la­tor J. Philip Gabriel

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