Thursday, May 20, 2010

"Translation as Detour"

Being that Japanese Literature is one of my major predilections, I was thrilled to receive an invitation to the May 10th lecture given by Harvard University Professor of Japanese Literature Emeritus, and former Dawg (Husky), Jay Rubin.

If you read Haruki Murakami, you have likely read some of his translation work. He is essentially Haruki Murakami's go-to translator. If he's busy with another project, the work will go to someone else, but he's the first one to receive an offer. The English editions of Norwegian Wood, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman were all translated, masterfully, by him.

He also translates the works of Modernist classics such as Natsume Soseki and Ryunosuke Akutagawa. Now, I don't want to deviate too much with fanboy-ish endorsements, but I have things to say. First, if you're looking for beautiful prose and stories with feeling, look no further than the work of Natsume Soseki. Second, if you're a fan of short stories, you simply must give Ryunosuke Akutagawa a whirl. Have you seen the Akira Kurosawa film Rashomon? It's based on one of Akutagawa's stories (it's adapted from his adaptation of an ancient Japanese tale), and I would highly recommend checking out the collection of the same name (Rashomon: And Seventeen Other Stories).

Back on track with Professor Rubin, his lecture was titled "Translation as Detour: from Genji to 1Q84," and it was a great opportunity to nerd out. Professor Rubin focused much of his lecture on different translations of The Tale of Genji (which is a tome as historically important as it is interesting) and his own work translating the works of Murakami.

If I were to recount to you exactly what was said, it would be the superiority of the Royall Tyler translation of The Tale of Genji, and the interesting difficulties inherent in translating from Japanese to English.

Professor Rubin shared one anecdote that involved his current project translating the first two volumes of 1Q84 for Haruki Murakami. He assured us that this isn't a spoiler, but some of the characters see two moons in the sky. These folks are in the minority, as everyone else sees a single moon. But in Japanese, there is no distinction between plural and singular nouns. So the struggle, for him, has become sorting out how many moons each character sees. It occurs to me that only a certain kind of person will think that's funny, or even remotely interesting, but I'm absolutely of that variety.

At any rate, it was a wonderful lecture, and Professor Rubin effortlessly established himself as both intelligent and funny. Meanwhile, those of us in attendance ate it up, and gleaned what we could about his future projects.

So, for those of you interested in the process of translation, exploring the worlds of Japanese language or literature, I would recommend perusing his catalog. I'm currently thumbing through Making Sense of Japanese: What the Textbooks Don't Tell You, and hoping it manages to live up to its bold claim.



  1. Good post, Griffin. I'll check out Akutagawa, as I've never read him. As for you, though this may seem obvious: Kawabata? Tanizaki? Mishima? Shusaku Endo? Oe?

  2. Thanks, Brad. I think you'll enjoy Rashomon. As for Kawabata, I have the Sound of the Mountain on my stack at home. I've read Seven Stories by Tanizaki (as well as In Praise of Shadows, which is fantastic) with the Makioka Sisters in the ol' queu. Of Mishima's, quite the curious fellow, that one, I've only read the Sound of Waves (though I've heard Spring Snow and Confessions of a Mask are quite good, too). Then, for Kenzaburo, I have A Personal Matter somewhere in my stack as well.

    Shusaku Endo is completely off my radar, though. Any suggestions?

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  4. slightly off topic: Murakami's 'What I Talk About When I Talk About Running' (Hashiru koto ni tsuite kataru toki-ni boku-no kataru koto, translated by Philip Gabriel) is one of the best books I've read about running - with good observations on the nature of the writer's work and public image.


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