Sunday, February 15, 2009

Turning Japanese

I’ve been reading A Wild Haruki Chase, a collection of pieces about Haruki Murakami, written mainly by those tasked with the translation of his works into other languages. It’s a mixed bag; some of the pieces are witty and perceptive; others are as clunky and pedestrian as those stock essays you can lift from the internet (the Russian contribution is especially bad). It’s inevitable, given that most of the pieces were written in Japanese by non-native Japanese speakers, then translated into English by native Japanese speakers, that some stylistic nuances are bound to disappear. But a question arises: if you’re translating something that’s badly written in the first place, do you have an obligation to convey that badly-writtenness in the new version?

In one of the better chapters, academic and critic Inuhiko Yomota points out that Murakami’s initial success on the international market came because he was one of the first Japanese authors who transcended Western notions of what Japan was – until the late 1980s/early 1990s, a hodgepodge of samurai, geishas, kamikaze pilots and yakuza. Given a name-change or two, his jazz-loving, spaghetti-eating protagonists could just as easily have been Danish or Polish.

But then, argues Yomota, just as Murakami’s global success began to build, our image of Japan began to change, and Murakami’s Japan became ours; to gaijin readers, his characters acquired a Japaneseness they had previously lacked, because Japan no longer equated samurai or geisha. Which opens up all sorts of chicken-and-egg arguments about stereotypes and perception and reality that I don’t have time for right now, but I would just like to highlight Yomota’s phrase for the transnational accessibility of Murakami’s world: “cultural scentlessness”.

7 comments:

pleite said...

When I'm translating stuff, I normally try to stick to the original level of writtenness. Not so difficult when the writing's shit but when someone's got a way with words in their own language, bugger but it can be difficult to do them justice. But often I think a translation - I'm not talking literature here - might be better than the original text.

I'm in the middle of something at the mo and there's a mistake in the original which it might be nice to somehow leave in but I probably won't. It's a stuffy old fart complaining about the youth of the day and he spells the word marijuana wrong. Rather endearing. But I might make him spell it right in English (though perhaps with a note to the guy I'm translating it for to let him decide).

patroclus said...

I hadn't realised until I set up a little translation division at my old place of work what an emotive business translation is. Never get a person from Madrid to check over a Spanish translation done by a person from Barcelona, for example. It gets very ugly.

Incidentally Tim, you seem to be missing an [/a] tag somewhere, and it's turned your whole blog into a giant hyperlink.

Tim Footman said...

Pleite: Might be quite a nice touch to use an archaic spelling ('marihuana' was perfectly acceptable at least until WW2). I'm trying to reintroduce the spelling "shew" for "show", which was still doing nicely in the 1950s.

I suppose the Anglo equivalent would be US vs UK spelling, Patroclus: the usual difference being that a UK writer knows the US variants better than vice versa.

Not sure about the hyperlink thing though - I'd missed a href, losing the Amazon link for the book, but that looks like the only problem from this end. What am I linking to, as far as you can see? Is it something sordid?

patroclus said...

It seems to be fixed now. I didn't actually click on it to see where it led. Also now I'm wondering if perhaps imagined the whole thing.

violetforthemoment said...

Ooh, I must seek this book out. I am rather fond of Haruki Murakami (tend to find Ryu boring as hell though, how many Bret Easton Ellis novels does the world need?) and definitely notice a big difference in the pleasantness of the work of the two main English translators, whose names escape me at present and two hours of my laptop on my knee means I'll probably fall over if I try to go upstairs and check right now. One seems to make him a bit clunky and often cold, but I feel rather lost and ill-equipped to judge really: it disconcerts me that I profess to love the author but in truth possibly have little idea of how good he actually is...

Tim Footman said...

No, there was certainly something odd going on, Patroclus. I got a little pointy finger, not an arrow, if you get my drift. But it didn't seem to be pointing anywhere in particular. There's a message there for us all.

Ah, Violet, you speak of the Rubin vs Birnbaum wars, that have Murakami fans so agitated that they scratch their John Coltrane LPs and even overcook their spaghetti. Before getting manual relief from a slightly mental Japanese girl, of course.

dh said...

I think a good translator conveys tone as well as content. Hope that helps. Feel free to quote me.