Thursday, May 28, 2015

The New York Times Review of Murakami Audio Books

On May 15, the NYT Book Review published a review of the audiobook versions of The Strange Library and Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. The review is by Daniel Handler, a novelist, who writes that the audio versions "turn out to be the perfect way to experience this strange entry into Murakami's own strange library." (You can buy the audiobooks here or here -, shown in the pictures.)

Handler notes that there is "no discernible reason I have devoured every one of his [Murakami's] books, often late into the night. And I am hardly alone," but by the end of the piece he comes up with a statement that, in my opinion, quite aptly expresses the charm and quality of Murakami's writing:

"Murakami does not conform to our ideas of plot or structure, nor does his language conform to any admirable characteristic; he does not conform to expectations about Japanese literature, or translated literature, or arguably even literature at all. All he conforms to is our expectations of Haruki Murakami, and it may be that this little puzzle — equal parts logic problem and joke — is exactly what makes him so mesmerizing."

However, what is most unusual about this review is that it repeatedly refers to translation. As most translators reading this will know, it is rare to find any mention of translation in most reviews of Murakami; reviewers feel at liberty to comment at length on Murakami's style, seemingly unaware that they are not, in fact, reading the original, but a translation, and that what they are really commenting on is the style of the translator.

Handler does not commit this error.  When listening to readings of the books, Handler is quite well aware that what he is hearing are not Murakami's words, but the the words of Ted Goossen and Phil Gabriel, respectively. When talking about Murakami's writing style, he says:

            As for his language — well, most of us New York Times readers are receiving Murakami in 
            translation, but even so there’s little to indicate we’re missing some grand linguistics in the original. 
            His language is accessible, plain-spoken, even banal, perhaps purposefully so.

He follows with this statement:
           Of course, it can be argued that reading Murakami in English — as with any author in translation — 
           is inevitably a filtered experience, and that the act of translation has already interfered with the 
           genuine text. Certainly I’ve puzzled over this — my favorite Murakami novels were all translated by
           Alfred Birnbaum, but who knows what that means? 

This is clearly a thoughtful reviewer! We wish there were more like him.

His comment, that the reason he may have liked Alfred Birnbaum's translations may have had to do more with Birnbaum's style rather than Murakami's, reminds us of an essay by Wendy Lesser, "The Mysteries of Translation," in which she also says she prefers Birnbaum's version of Norwegian Wood to Jay Rubin's translation. If you are a subscriber to The Chronicle of Higher Education, you can find her essay here.  If not, you can always read her book, Why I Read, where she writes about the same issue in Chapter 6.

Another option for those wishing to compare the style of the two translators would be to look at the first chapter of Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, translated by Rubin, and the short story, "The Wind-Up Bird and the Tuesday Women," from The Elephant Vanishes, translated by Birnbaum.

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