Translator sees U.S. influence in Murakami's humor and writing style
BY AKIRO WADA ASAHI WEEKLY
Jay Rubin, a former Harvard University professor of Japanese literature, has translated many of the novels of Haruki Murakami into English. He is now translating Murakami's latest book, "1Q84."
In an e-mail interview, Rubin, 68, discussed Murakami's literary style, his impressions of the writer and other issues surrounding the translation of Murakami's works. Excerpts follow:
Question: You're in the middle of translating "1Q84." How is it going?
Answer: I sent in Book 1 in January and am now on page 423 of Book 2 (as of Sept. 20). My deadline is Nov. 15, and I believe that is also (translator) Philip Gabriel's deadline for Book 3.
Q: When did you first read Murakami, and what was your first impression?
A: I first read him in 1989 when an American publisher asked me to evaluate "Sekai no Owari to Hado-boirudo Wandarando" (Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World). I loved the book and started reading Murakami from that point almost exclusively for the next 10 years or more.
Q: What originally attracted you to Murakami as his translator?
A: I especially liked his short stories, so I looked up his contact information in Bungei Nenkan, an almanac of writers, and wrote him a letter introducing myself as a translator of Natsume Soseki and asking permission to translate "Pan-ya Sai-shugeki" (The Second Bakery Attack), "Zo no Shometsu" (The Elephant Vanishes) and a few other pieces.
Not many months later, I had my first translation published in Playboy magazine, which was a big change after academic journals such as Monumenta Nipponica and the Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies.
Q: What is Murakami like in person?
A: Quiet, funny, modest, a lot like the "Boku," or "me," narrator in the early works.
Q: Which of Murakami's works do you think is his masterpiece? And why?
A: "Sekai no Owari to Hado-boirudo Wandarando." It is the most architectonically perfect of his longer works, and it makes the reader experience firsthand the functions of the human brain that so fascinate Murakami (and me).
Q: John Irving and Raymond Carver are Murakami's favorite American writers. Do you feel the influence of them in Murakami's works?
A: Yes, in the humor and the simple style.
Q: When you have questions on your translation, how do you approach him? Could you give us a recent example of questions?
A: I e-mail him or his editor at Shinchosha Publishing Co. He is a good e-mail correspondent. Many passages of "1Q84" could be translated into either first or third person, and I have asked him which he prefers in certain cases. He usually advises me to do whatever works best in English.
Q: What are the major difficulties in translating Murakami novels compared with novels by Soseki and other writers you have worked on?
A: Because Murakami's style is so strongly influenced by his deep knowledge of English, it is naturally easier to translate "back" into English than other writers I have worked on. Soseki also has an English-influenced style, but he also allows his vast knowledge of the Chinese classics to show through.
Akutagawa Ryunosuke often attempts to mimic classic or medieval Japanese. I almost decided against translating his "Ogata Ryosai Oboegaki" because so much of its interest in Japanese is the use of a medieval documentary style known as sorobun, for which there is no English equivalent. Finally, though, I felt so strongly that the story should be translated that I decided to sacrifice that aspect of the style and opt for a formal style such as might be used in an official document.
In Murakami's case, there are no such problems. He often uses newspaper style when supposedly quoting directly from newspaper reports, but that is about as extreme as it gets. Because Murakami's style is generally simple, the challenge is to write simple sentences in English that still have rhythm and don't sound flat or boring.
Q: Murakami sometimes directly incorporates English phrases into his novel. Does that fit well in your translation? For example, in "Nejimaki-dori Kuronikuru" (The Wind-up Bird Chronicle), he used the phrase, "Kojinteki ni toranaide kure," which is obviously from "Don't take it personally."
A: The problem is to translate it "back" into English that is as unusual as the Japanese, but often I lazily go for the "original" English expression. This way, the batakusasa (Western air) of Murakami's style is lost. Sorry.
Q: Tell me something about your translation process. Do you read the book all the way through first before starting on the translation?
A: Yes, I always read the work first in case there are special key phrases that need to be handled in a certain way from the beginning. I get up early in the morning and work until my brain turns into tofu, which is usually around 11:30 a.m. My brain is not of much use for the rest of the day.
Q: Do you think Murakami's works have contributed to the growing interest in Japanese literature in the United States?
A: Of course. He started this almost single-handedly.
Q: You translated the original text of the "Wall and Egg" speech at the 24th International Book Fair last year in Israel where Murakami received the Jerusalem Prize literary award. Did he make any comments about your text?
A: Not that I remember. He thanked me for it, of course, but I don't think he had any problems with my translation.
Q: Murakami's works have been viewed as a candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature for many years. What do you think are the chances of this someday?
A: I can't imagine any other Japanese writer getting it before Murakami. It's just a matter of time.