Translating the New Murakami Novel

The Australian interviews J. Philip Gabriel, the long-time Murakami translator who is at work on the Japanese author’s latest novel, Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage.

There are some interesting tidbits here for Murakami-lovers and fans of translation alike. We learn, for instance, which Murakami translation gave Gabriel the most trouble.

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.

Seems like a sensible pick. Out of the books J. Philip Gabriel has translated, that probably would be the most difficult.

They also discuss some of the difficulties particular to Japanese:

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 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.”

I’ve heard this before about translating from the Japanese, particularly in regards to sentences often turning on the last work, or last few words. This is obviously difficult to reproduce in English—as Gabriel implies, English opts for much more clarity than Japanese. It’s likely true that reading Murakami in the original is a much different experience than getting him in Japanese, probably much more so than for a closer language, like Spanish.

And then there’s the explanation for why many translators do not write novels themselves:

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.”

This is indeed something that I’ve heard from many translators. For instance, it’s a point of discussion in my interview with Margaret Jull Costa on That Other Word.

We had Gabriel (along with co-1Q84 translator Jay Rubin) for an event in April 2012. Interested parties can listen to the audio of that event right here.

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