May 8, 2015

On Translating Haruki Murakami, and New Japanese Storytellers

From left to right: Roland Kelts, Jay Rubin, Ted Goossen,
Motoyuki Shibata, Aoko Matsuda, Satoshi Kitamura.

Literary translation and Japanese masters fictions were the topics last night at a Japan Society talk that brought together two North American translators of international cult favorite Haruki Murakami, a Japanese translator of American fiction, an emerging Japanese novelist and a top Japanese illustrator.

Is translation art or merely the mechanical act of transcribing one language into another? What happens when the novelist who is being translated is an accomplished translator himself? What inspires the longtime translator to attempt penning a novel? These were some of the issues addressed in "The Magical Art of Translation: From Haruki Murakami to Japan's Latest Storytellers."

Jumping right into the craft of inspecting words and phrases, panelist Ted Goossen, a Murakami translator from York University in Toronto, expressed uncertainty that there was anything "magical" about the act of translation. His colleague Jay Rubin, emeritus Japanese literature professor at Harvard, opined that yes, translation did involve some sort of magical alchemy, yet flatly denied that the process was in any way creative. Okay, every person has his or her own take on the matter.

Motoyuki Shibata, who recently retired from his post teaching American literature and literary translation at Tokyo University, pointed out that both Murakami and his predecessor, Futabatei Shimei, (whose novel Ukigumo, or The Drifting Cloud, published in 1887, was one of my grandfather's favorites), both wanted to break free of the stifling Japanese literary conventions of their day. Shimei, a translator of Turgenev, wrote his first fictional paragraph in Russian, and Murakami, who has translated Raymond Carver, wrote the first paragraph of Hear the Wind Sing in English.

Rubin was incited to write his first novel, The Sun Gods, out of sheer anger, he explained, over the illegal roundup an imprisonment of Japanese Americans during World War II. His book is set in Seattle and the Minidoka concentration camp in Idaho before, during and after the war. Rubin was shocked to learn of this chapter of U.S. history when he was in graduate school, and urged audience members to read Monica Sone's Nisei Daughter to learn more about the period.

Rising Japanese novelist Aoko Matsuda said that she valued her translation work (of the writer Karen Russell) as much as her fiction writing, explaining that both occupy the same part of the brain that tries to fix free-floating voices on the page, and that both have made her "love literature more and more."

Picture-book artist and illustrator Satoshi Kitamura deftly brought the discussion of translation into the realm of images, explaining that he is trying to translate the feeling and tone of the text into pictures. He's worked with poets John Agard and Charles Simic, and showed work from those books as well as his charming illustrations from the children's book The Yesby Sarah Bee. Shibata interjected here, saying that often when he feels that a poetry translation of his falls short it is Kitamura's illustration that helps bridge the gap and make the translation feel whole.

Panel moderator Roland Kelts told us after the discussion that far from micromanaging his translators, Murakami adopts a fairly "laissez-faire" attitude, leaving his translators free to do their work unhindered. The panel also introduced me to new Japanese fiction writers that I'm eager to check out. Several, including Mieko Kawakami and Hideo Furukawa have been published in the journal of new writings from Japan Monkey Business, which is edited by Goossen and Shibata.