Sunday, August 31, 2014

The Totally Invisible Translator? Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki No 1 on NYT Fiction Hardcover Bestseller List

The Atlantic published a review of Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki by Nathaniel Rich ("The Mystery of Murakami," August 14, 2014). Mr. Rich criticizes Murakami's formulaic writing, which uses the same type of main character and similar plot devices and elements (like "eastern-European composers") in every novel. He summarizes the book, commenting on its "wistful, mysterious, winsome, disturbing, seductive" tone. But later, Rich proceeds to say something astonishing that will interest any readers who have wondered about the translation process: 

And page after page, we are confronted with the riddle that is Murakami's prose. No great writer writes as many bad sentences as Murakami does. His crimes include awkward construction ("Just as he appreciated Sara’s appearance, he also enjoyed the way she dressed”); cliché addiction (from a single, paragraph-long character description: “He really hustled on the field … He wasn’t good at buckling down … He always looked people straight in the eye, spoke in a clear, strong voice, and had an amazing appetite … He was a good listener and a born leader”); and lazy repetition (“Sara gazed at his face for some time before speaking,” followed shortly by “Sara gazed at Tsukuru for a time before she spoke”). [my underline]

Next follows a fragment about dialogue in the novel being "robotic" (although "charmingly so"), illustrated with an example. 

As a translator I am left speechless upon reading this. Nowhere in the review does Rich mention the name of the translator, Philip Gabriel. That in itself is not unusual. Many reviews forget to mention the translator. But if one is to engage is such a meticulous listing of "bad sentences,""awkward construction," etc., is it not necessary to reflect on the simple fact that every word one has read was in fact Gabriel's, not Murakami's? Rich, however, seems oblivious to the fact that Gabriel was the means that made it possible for him to read Murakami at all. 

I am not saying that all the awkwardness and bad sentences Rich found in Tsukuru Tazaki are necessarily Gabriel's "fault" (there is indeed a fair amount of verbal repetition in much of Murakami's writing).  It is not as simple as that.  Translation, needless to say, is a very complicated and nuanced process: it is disappointing, not to say shocking, to read in a leading magazine a review by someone with claims to be a serious critic who, in describing a work written in a foreign language, refuses to take the translation process into account and who seems to labor under the mistaken impression that he is in fact reading the book exactly the way Murakami has written it.  

Rich does not let such technical details get in his way, and finds an explanation for Murakami's "ugly sentences." Following a comment about some passages being examples of "elegant, inventive, figurative" prose, he writes: 

How is the author of these lines capable of an atrocity like “Her smile had ratcheted up a notch”? The most charitable explanation is that in Murakami’s fiction, his ugly sentences, though often distracting, serve a strategic purpose. Like the hokey vernacular and use of brand names in Stephen King’s fiction, Murakami’s impoverished language situates us in a realm of utter banality, a simplified black-and-white world in which everything is as it appears. When, inevitably, we pass through a wormhole into an uncanny dimension of fantasy and chaos, the contrast is unnerving.

Perhaps. But without having bothered to consult the Japanese (or even consider the possible need to do so), Nathaniel Rich is surely in a poor position to make any comment on Murakami's prose at this level of detail.

It seems that I am not the only one surprised by Mr. Rich's review. In today's New York Times (31 August 2014), Jennifer Szalai refers to this review in her commentary on the fact that Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki was number one on the hardcover bestseller list the week of August 10-16.  Referring to Rich's criticism of Murakami's prose, Szalai says: "But does the trouble originate with Murakami or with his translator, in this case Philip Gabriel. Then again, is the trouble really troublesome all all?"  

To read the original review, go to:  Let me know what you think!

And here - just for fun - are some comments from posted under the review. Many readers seem to share my view:

"iago" writes:
Is it possible that, as Murakami writes in Japanese, the "bad sentences" are provided by the translator (Philip Gabriel in this case)? Or are you critiquing the original Japanese as being badly constructed?

to which somebody responded:
Actually this is an idea that seemingly hasn't occurred to Mr Rich, considering the length of this article he would most likely have mentioned it otherwise. To mock Murakami's language while not realising this is quite idiotic, frankly.

Kathleen Putnam commented:
Idiotic is precisely the word. I suggest Mr. Rich might consider the problems of translation. To do so, he might read Tim Parks' various posts on the New York Review of Books' website, or (if he can read Italian) Umberto Eco's "Dire quasi la stessa cosa" [Saying Almost the Same Thing].

and the first respondent finished with:
Hehe, i seriously doubt the good Mr rich reads Japanese.

A reader using a name GIJ said:
"No great writer writes as many bad sentences as Murakami does."
Uh, maybe others disagree, but if Murakami himself is *not* writing these "bad" sentences as they are rendered in English from the original Japanese, then why credit/blame Murakami for writing them?

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