Friday, May 10, 2013

The New Yorker on Murakami and translation

MAY 9, 2013


Last month, Haruki Murakami published a new novel in Japan. Before anyone could read it, the novel broke the country’s Internet pre-order sales record, its publisher announced an advance print run of half a million copies, and Tokyo bookstores opened at midnight to welcome lines of customers, some of whom read the book slumped in corners of nearby cafés straight after purchase. But this time, the mania was déjà vu in Japan—a near-replica of the reception that greeted Murakami’s last novel, “1Q84,” three years ago. The response was news to nearly no one. Except, maybe, Haruki Murakami.
“The fact that I have been able to become a professional working novelist is, even now, a great surprise to me,” Murakami wrote in an e-mail three days before the release of “Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage.” He added: “In fact, each and every thing that has happened over the past 34 years has been a sequence of utter surprise.” The real surprise, perhaps, is that Murakami’s novels now incite a similar degree of anticipation and hunger outside of Japan, even though they are written in a language spoken and read by a relatively small population on a distant and parochial archipelago in the North Pacific.
Murakami would likely agree. In a recently published essay on his decision to render “The Great Gatsby” in Japanese, the sixty-four-year-old author reveals that it became something of a lifelong mission. He told others about his ambition in his thirties, and believed then that he’d be ready to undertake the challenge when he reached sixty. But he couldn’t wait. Like an overeager child unwrapping his presents, he translated “Gatsby” three years ahead of schedule. After all, translation, he writes, is similar to language and our relationship with our world, in that it, too, needs to be refreshed:
Translation is a matter of linguistic technique… which naturally ages as the particulars of a language change. While there are no undying works, on principle there can be no undying translations. It is therefore imperative that new versions appear periodically in the same way that computer programs are updated. At the very least this provides a broader spectrum of choices, which can only benefit readers.
Roland Kelts is the author of “Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the United States.” He divides his time between New York and Tokyo.
Photograph: Kevin Trageser/Redux
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