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”.