Picture of Author    From the Desktop of Haruki Marukami

TRANSLATING MURAKAMI: an email roundtable

From: Philip Gabriel
Sent: Monday, December 18, 2000 5:28 PM
To: Gary Fisketjon; Jay Rubin
Subject: Re: A email roundtable: Translating Murakami

This is Philip Gabriel. I'm an associate professor of Japanese literature at the University of Arizona in Tucson. I've done my academic work on postwar literature, particularly that of the writer Toshio Shimao, about whom I wrote a book entitled Mad Wives and Island Dreams: Toshio Shimao and the Margins of Japanese Literature. I've also co-edited an anthology of writings on contemporary Japanese literature entitled Oe and Beyond. As far as translation is concerned, I've done one novel by Masahiko Shimada, one by Senji Kuroi (forthcoming), two by Haruki Murakami(plus half of his non-fiction work UNDERGROUND), and four short stories by Murakami--counting just the ones that have been published. Right now I'm submitting another Murakami short story for possible publication, and am working on a translation of Kenzaburo Oe's latest novel. [My whereabouts this week--I'll be here in Tucson, but will be leaving for Japan on Dec. 27.]

I first learned about Murakami's fiction in 1986, as I prepared to go back to graduate school. I was living in Nagasaki and was actively involved in a translation study group made up mostly of Japanese literature professors (of both English and Japanese literature.) Just before I left to return to the U.S., one of the professors and I went to a book store together. I'd asked him to recommend four or five writers he thought worth studying. This proved to be a memorable day for me, since three of the four he recommended were writers I ended up either studying or translating: Shimao, Kuroi, and Murakami. I read all of Murakami's short stories (they were in two collections) as soon as I could, and was really bowled over by them. I loved his light touch, his humor, his often quirky take on life, as well as the touch of nostalgia for the past that often appeared in these early works. In graduate school (at Cornell) I wrote a paper on one of these stories, and translated it as an appendix. I'd done some translation before, and enjoyed the challenge, and went on to translate three or four more of Murakami's stories for my own enjoyment. The editor of ZYZZYVA, a literary journal published in Berkeley, California, somehow heard I'd done some of Murakami's stories, and asked me to submit one. This was "Kangaroo Communique," which was published in the fall 1988 issue, making it, I believe, the first Murakami story published in the U.S.-- Murakami's agent in Tokyo was contacted at this time, and all the translations I had done eventually found their way into her hands, and into the author's.

In 1989 I went to Tokyo on a Fulbright to work on my dissertation. There I was able to meet Murakami; I had hoped to do a collection of his short stories, but he told me this was already in the works by someone else. I got involved in translating a novel by Masahiko Shimada, and in trying to find a permanent teaching position back in the U.S., and did not do much more in the way of translating Murakami until The New Yorker contacted me in 1992 asking to include my translation of "Barn Burning." After that two more of my translations appeared in The New Yorker (the latest one the Dec. 4, 2000 issue), and I was fortunate enough to be allowed to translate the novels SOUTH OF THE BORDER, WEST OF THE SUN and SPUTNIK SWEETHEART as well as the non-fiction work "The Place that was Promised," which became Part Two of the English book UNDERGROUND.

Before settling down in Tucson, by the way, I was briefly a junior colleague of Jay Rubin's at the University of Washington. I remember at least one discussion in his office about our shared interest in Murakami, and I'm looking forward to this email conversation as a way to continue our conversation after a hiatus of many years.

The happiest moment translating Murakami's work, of course, is when you finish and can look back over what it's taken many months to accomplish. When I'm working on a novel, I try to translate four pages a day; my not very original analogy for it is that it's like climbing a mountain--if you look up, you may get dizzy and give up, but if you struggle on, step by step, one day you'll find yourself standing at the summit. (Exhausted and out of breath. But exhilarated.) Then comes the process of wending your way back down the slopes, which in translation is the process of reworking the finished draft--retracing your earlier steps. I always recall Raymond Carver's comment about his favorite part of writing being the slow, careful re-writing process after he was finished a decent draft of a story. The polishing and repolishing part. I really enjoy this part of the process, too, and spend a great deal of time going over the translation as an English text--before going back to re-check it against the original.

One moment that stood out to me most recently was when I was working on SPUTNIK SWEETHEART: In chapter five there was a short quote from Pushkin's poem Eugene Onegin. In cases like this--quotes in Japanese from other languages--of course you need to find the original language, and with languages other than English, I try to locate a reputable, existing translation. I hadn't realized Eugene Onegin was a book-length poem, and visualized myself sitting there for hours trying to locate these lines in the English version. Fortunately, the lines came early in the poem. What was interesting was that I located four different versions of the poem, from which I copied out these translations of the lines:

(1) He had no itch to dig for glories/ Deep in the dust that time has laid.
(2) He lacked the slightest predilection/for raking up historic dust.
(3) He lacked the yen to go out poking/Into the dusty lives of yore--
(4) He had no urge to rummage/in the chronological dust.

I copied all these down in my notebook, and ended up choosing (final answer?) number one to include in the translation of SPUTNIK SWEETHEART. Seeing all four versions side by side was a mini-revelation to me. When I got home I pinned these all to my bulletin board--where they still remain--as a reminder of a simple truth, namely that there are so many possible translations of even one line. So very much depends on the voice you hear in your head as you read a piece of fiction. That's the voice you're trying most to reproduce when translating something like a Murakami piece. People ask me what's the most challenging part about translating Murakami, and I guess that's the answer: finding, and staying true to, the voice you hear as you read the original.

Here's a question to the other panelists: Do you detect a change, over time, in Murakami's style, voice, and vocabulary? In terms of his "themes" I sense a more serious approach these days, and I wonder if you see this reflected in the way he writes. And another question: Why do you think Murakami become the one "breakthrough" Japanese writer in the West (apart from Banana Yoshimoto)?





From: Philip Gabriel Sent: Monday, December 18, 2000 5:28 PM
From: Jay Rubin Sent: Wednesday, December 20, 2000 5:23 AM  
From: Philip Gabriel Sent: Wednesday, December 20, 2000 12:17 PM  
From: Jay Rubin Sent: Wednesday, December 20, 2000 8:43 PM  
From: Jay Rubin Sent: Wednesday, December 20, 2000 10:21 PM  
From: Jay Rubin Sent: Tuesday, January 9, 2001 8:22 PM  
From: Philip Gabriel Sent: Tuesday, January 9, 2001 8:22 PM  
From: Fisketjon, Gary Sent: Tuesday, January 16, 2001 2:14 PM  
From: Philip Gabriel Sent: Jan. 18, 2001 
From: Gary Fisketjon Sent: Thursday, January 18, 2001 5:50 PM