The talking cats are just the start
Rick Wallace on the challenges of translating Haruki Murakami
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