if you’ve ever read a novel or short story by Japanese author Haruki Murakami, and millions around the world have, there’s a good chance that you haven’t actually been reading Murakami’s words. At least not if you read his books in English, rather than his native Japanese. Although he is himself a noted translator of American literature, not the least of which is that of F. Scott Fitzgerald, J.D. Salinger, Tim O’Brian, and Truman Capote, Murakami doesn’t translate his own works into English. For this, he relies on others. Professor Jay Rubin of Harvard University and the University of Washington, is the most prolific of Murakami’s English translators (along with Alfred Birnbaum, Philip Gabriel, and Ted Goosen), the man chiefly responsible for introducing the world to Murakami’s fiction in the late 1990’s.
In the summer of 2017, as part of Vancouver’s annual Powell Street Festival, which celebrates the culture and history of the Japanese in Vancouver, I had the pleasure of not only meeting him, but also participating in a translation workshop he and Mr. Goosen hosted. Around twenty people attended.
Assembled into small groups, we were given by the hosts a piece of Japanese to translate into English. The text was the opening paragraph of Natsume Soseki’s The Grass Pillow (草枕, Kusamakura). It read as follows:
山路を登りながら、こう考えた。 智に働けば角が立つ。情に棹させば流される。意地を通せば窮 屈だ。とかくに人の世は住みにくい。
And here are each group’s translations:
1) While climbing up a mountain path, this is what I thought: If you live by your mind only, you’ll have a cold life. If you live by emotions only, you’ll be swept away. If you live by will only, you’ll be inflexible. Anyway, it’s tough to live with other people.
2) This is what I thought while I climbed the mountain trail. Working through the mind results in friction. Following emotion, one drifts away. Being willful is suffocating. regardless, the world of man is difficult.
3) This is what I thought while I climbed the mountain trail, if you assert your knowledge, you become sharp like a corner, and create hard feelings with others. If you rely on your emotions, you may get washed away like a stick in a river. If you force your will, you will find yourself hemmed in by your obstinance. Anyhow, the human world is a hard place in which to live.
A few days later, I glanced through my copy of the novel and checked how close to the published version my group’s translation had been, or how far. Here is how it reads, as translated by Alan Turney in the 1965 edition:
“Going up a mountain, I fell to thinking. Approach everything rationally, and you become harsh. Pole along in the stream of emotions, ad you will be swept away by the current. Give free reign to your desires, and you become uncomfortably confined. It is not a very agreeable place to live, this world of ours.”
The festival, as usual was fantastic, and the translation workshop great fun. Above all else, both Mr. Rubin and Mr. Goosen were lovely chaps, and it was an honour and pleasure to meet them. As for the accuracy of our various translations, I leave it to you to decide.