Found in translation

Haruki Murakami's interpreters discuss the art of building literature anew

Jay Rubin and J. Philip Gabriel help bring Murakami's literature to the English-speaking world.

Ludwig Wittgenstein once said "the limits of my language mean the limits of my world." So for the sake of expanded horizons, let's say thank you to professional translators, the diligent souls who dedicate their lives to the subtleties of language. When interpreters dissolve linguistic barriers, we are able to peer into the worlds articulated in literature of distant lands to understand them as our own.

But how do they do it? Surrealist Japanese author Haruki Murakami's translators Jay Rubin and J. Philip Gabriel have taken apart prose, sentence by sentence. Without their efforts, Murakami's mystic, cryptic worlds could not have become available to audiences in the United States and elsewhere. Rubin and Gabriel spoke with the Guardian in a phone interview preceding their Center for the Art of Translation presentation on the art of translation last week at 111 Minna.

San Francisco Bay Guardian: How were you introduced to Haruki Murakami?

Jay Rubin: By an American publisher in 1989. I was absolutely knocked out by him and stopped reading everyone else for a good 10 years after that. I was just so swept up in Murakami's world.

J. Philip Gabriel: I was living in Japan and a friend recommended his work. I became interested in translating his short stories, and one of the translations was published in The New Yorker a few years later. I became a regular translator from then on.

SFBG: How do you align yourself with the author so that even the subtlest aspects of their work are communicated?

JR: Maybe I'm not doing that. You never know, do you? I'm always saying that people shouldn't read translated literature, they should learn the language themselves. One way you can build up trust is by reading the translation and feeling to see if it moves you in the same recognizable ways as reading in your native language. There's never a guarantee that you're getting the unalloyed original. But if a piece of literature is able to make you afraid or delighted in some way, it's fairly likely that there's something in the original that does that too.

JPG: I work with writers who are fortunately still alive. I have the option of asking a question for clarification. Murakami's English is really good, and he is a translator himself, so he understands the challenges at hand and is happy to give suggestions.

SFBG: Humor often becomes diluted between languages, especially since a lot of humor is word-based. How do you retain the original comic flow?

JR: When you have languages as different as Japanese and English, it's virtually impossible to preserve a pun. You just simply have to make up wordplay that seems to work in a similar way. And since Murakami has obviously been influenced by Western literature, his humor is not too hard to convey.

JPG: Japanese culture has a huge appreciation for humor, but translated literature often ends up being serious or dark. You do the best you possibly can when translating humor, but it's difficult. In Kafka on the Shore, there's a set expression in Japanese, which means, "I'm so busy I would like a cat to lend a hand." This is especially funny because the story is about a guy who has the ability to talk to cats. I came up with a pun by using the word "paws" instead of "pause," and saying, "I would like you to take a paws in your busy schedule."

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