Interesting article on how Murakami’s novel was translated.
When translating 1Q84 and other Murakami works, do you feel any obligation to be respectful of the voice and feel of Jay Rubin’s and Alfred Birnbaum’s translations? Do you feel that you all are creating Murakami’s English oeuvre, and that it ought to feel unified, or are you more focused on each book in isolation?
I admire Jay’s and Alfred’s translations, but I just do my own thing, my own take on what Murakami should sound like in English. We each have our own styles–Jay, for instance, tending to use fewer contractions than I do. I’m the only one of the three Murakami translators who’s worked with the other two translators on projects. When Alfred and I did Underground, and Jay and I did Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, we didn’t try to intentionally create anything unified, but with 1Q84 the editor, at least, did try to smooth out any major differences, which makes sense since it’s a single novel. Because my portion of the novel came last, the editor had by then decided how to handle certain stylistic points, so I went along with them. (Thus, to get back to the earlier point, my part has fewer contractions than I usually use.)
This was the part of the interview that struck me the most, due to my current translation of Shin Kyung-sook’s I’ll Be Right There. One of the first questions I asked when I was offered the assignment was whether Shin’s agents wanted me to echo Chi-young Kim’s translation style or to just do my own thing. A translation carries the burden of representing a writer’s voice, and whatever hits the marketplace first could theoretically be setting the tone for that writer and establishing readers’ expectations. I wondered whether readers would understand the difference between the original writer and what we translators bring to the mix. In this case, her agents emphasized that I should just do my own thing and not worry about referring to pre-existing translations.
I do enjoy reading other translators’ work, though, especially if they’ve worked on the same authors as me. In translation, there’s always more than one solution and rarely a “right answer,” so it’s useful to see what other people come up with. But I still wonder whether readers are ever puzzled by the differences they come across in translation. I know that with poetry translation, I’m quick to favor certain translators over others and have in the past specifically not purchased books because they weren’t done by a particular translator. But maybe the differences are more apparent in verse than in prose since word choices way more heavily there.
Jay Rubin, in Making Sense of Japanese, broaches the stereotype that Japanese is more imprecise and mysterious than English.
There’s a generalization out there that Japanese is somehow imprecise or vague compared to English. I don’t buy it. Japanese communicate as well as anyone, and a writer like Murakami—though the overall atmosphere of his work may be dreamlike or surreal at times—lays out his ideas clearly.
Is there a Western language that’s at all analogous in structure and cadence? German, in that the verbs come at the end?
It’s unlike any other language I’ve studied, and I’ve studied Russian, Chinese, French, and German. With Japanese verbs coming at the end I sometimes feel that translating Japanese into English is like giving away the punch line.
This was another part of the interview that I thought was also relevant to Korean-to-English translation. I’ve also heard Korean described as vague or as relying heavily on context and reading between the lines. But what I’ve found in teaching K-E translation, and especially teaching close reading techniques to translators, is that the exact same issue arises with English. Things that are stated in plain and exacting language in Korean will be vague and figurative in English; and things that are clear in English will be vague in Korean. One small example is transition words. Korean prose uses a ton of transition words for textual clarity that can simply be eliminated in English. But when you have students who have been trained on a word-for-word translation model, it can be very difficult to get them to see that not every word equals a word. Sometimes a word in Korean equals a silence in English. Or a semicolon. Or a dash.
The punch line issue is one I personally wrestle with. I want so much to preserve that ta-da! moment, but more often than not you wind up with odd inverted sentences that do exactly the opposite of what you want them to do — lose the reader rather than pull them in closer. I find I spend a lot of time in class talking about how to create focus and emphasis in an English sentence. Our students tend to fall back on overusing “just” and “even” and other added words that clog up and slow down the sentence.
I could also add something here about irony and the myth that Koreans are never sarcastic, but that’s another story.