Monday, February 29, 2016

Murakami with a Fake Accent?

Recently somebody told me that the audiobook of Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage (Random House Audio 2014) is read with a fake Japanese accent.  I couldn't believe my ears. It seemed absurd and impossible: how could such an Orientalist practice still be condoned today?  It's not the 1930s, after all.

So I ordered the audiobook from my local library and started listening.

I am sorry to say, Dear Readers, that it's true: Tazaki Tsukuru and all other characters in the novel are characterized with artificial Japanese accents.  (One notable exception is Kuro's Finnish husband, whose voice is read in an attempted European accent.)  The reader, American actor Bruce Locke, is of Japanese ancestry, but was born and raised in the United States, and to judge from his other work speaks without much of an accent.  So why impose a Japanese (or rather, pseudo-Japanese) accent upon the dialogue in the narration?

If the story featured Japanese characters in non-Japanese settings, where they would be speaking in languages other than Japanese, one might still understand the decision to voice characters with an accent.  But in this case most of the plot takes place in Japan, and the characters speak unaccented Japanese to each other.  No accent is called for.

I can think of only one explanation, which is that someone -- the publisher? the producer? the actor? -- decided that the book was otherwise insufficiently "Japanese" and wanted to ensure that the reader wouldn't forget that s/he is listening to a Japanese novel.  This is no small irony, given Murakami's widely acknowledged position as a writer who just happens to write in Japanese and who has spent much of his career deliberately seeking to undermine the cliches surrounding modern Japanese fiction.

Beyond this, it is really discouraging to think that in this day and age somebody thought this was a good idea.  Does Shakespeare have to be performed with phony British accents? Does a performance of Molière require actors to sound like Inspector Clouseau? Or is it because Japan is more "exotic" that Tsukuru, Sara, Ao, Shiro, Kuro, and Aka are voiced as Japanese-y caricatures of real people? I used to think that only Hollywood did this, but clearly I was wrong.

I started wondering whether other Murakami novels are also read with an accent in their American audiobook versions, so I borrowed 1Q84 and after dark.  I am happy to report that no such experiments were made in either of those. after dark (Random House Audio, 2007is read by Janet Song, and 1Q84 (Brilliance Audio on MP3-CD; Unabridged edition, 2011) by Alison Hiroto, Marc Vietor, and Mark Boyett.

Curious to see if others shared my negative feelings about the accent, I checked the reviews on It looks like I am not alone in my dismay:  

Reviews like this continue for a few pages. One person compared the narration style of Bruce Locke to the Charlie Chan accent: "The narrator has the worst fake Japanese accent. Sounds more like the old racist Charlie Chan movies. It was astoundingly bad. There was absolutely no need for that fake accent. It was as though the narration was making fun of Murakami being Japanese. I stopped listening because it was so distracting to the story. Why didn't anyone else notice ? Amazing. As a Japanese I felt insulted." 

To see more comments go here.

Let's just hope that when the time comes to produce and direct the audio performance of the next Murakami novel no one makes the same mistake again.

Friday, February 12, 2016

"The Translator Is Always Wrong": On Dialect and the Dutch Translation of "Men Without Women" from Its Translator

The Dutch translation of Men Without Women is coming out very soon from Atlas Contact: the de luxe limited edition with each story as a separate booklet on February 15, and the regular edition on March 1. You can see large pictures of all the covers on Facebook. The stories were translated by James Westerhoven and Elbrich Fennema.


James, who has contributed to this blog in the past, has been following the Osaka dialect discussion on this page and has kindly sent me his opinion to share with the readers. 

James writes: 

"It is always difficult to deal with dialect in translation. My own policy is to ignore dialect if at all possible. In my translation of Tanizaki’s Manji, which is almost completely in the Kansai dialect, I purposely opted for a garrulous form of Dutch. But Kitaru’s Kansai-ben in ‘Yesterday’ requires special treatment. Kitaru is not from the Kansai, but born and bred in Tokyo. He chooses to speak Kansai-ben for reasons of his own, and each time he opens his mouth, the people around him (and the Japanese readers as well) are reminded how weird he is. His Kansai-ben alienates him from his environment and from the girl who loves him. It also marks him as the inverse image of the narrator, who does hail from the Kansai but rejects his origins and speaks beautiful standard Japanese. That’s why the narrator feels a certain kinship with him.

"If the translator tries to solve this with a sweeping statement that ‘Kitaru spoke Kansai dialect’, his readers will get neither a sense of Kitaru's weirdness nor of his loneliness. In this case, a special effort should be made to convey the pathos of Kitaru’s situation, or the entire point of the story is lost. In other words, his speech should be made to look or sound different. Here the translator has one of three options: a colloquial form of speech, an existing dialect, or an artificial dialect. There may be more, but I can’t think of any. The disadvantage of colloquial speech is that it doesn’t really sound weird enough, at least not in most of the languages that I know, but maybe this is an option that works in some cases. And the disadvantage of an artificial dialect is of course that you run the risk of it sounding unnatural.

"My personal preference was to have Kitaru speak a form of Belgian Netherlandic. What is known as ‘Flemish’ in English is really a group of three distinct dialects of the Netherlandic language, all of which are spoken south of the Dutch border. They are grammatically the same as Dutch Netherlandic, but their pronunciation and vocabulary are distinct enough to be immediately recognizable, and what is more important, the Belgian Netherlandic dialects have a rich cultural history. Flanders, like the Kansai, never was a cultural backwater. It would be closer to the truth to call Belgian Netherlandic a ‘variant’ rather than a dialect, just as American English is a variant, not a dialect, of English.

"However, my editors strongly disagreed and suggested a form of colloquial Dutch (to refer to the language by its more familiar name). So I wrote a draft version with Kitaru’s words translated into colloquial language. Then they gave me Elbrich Fennema, an experienced Murakami translator, as collaborator. Elbrich saw right away that Kitaru’s speech should be set off more distinctly, but she did not agree with my idea of using an existing dialect. Instead, she offered to design an artificial one. I liked the results. Kitaru certainly sounded weird and fantastic enough to raise eyebrows all around, so that was the version we finally submitted to the publisher, but in the proofreading stage our editors decided that they preferred the colloquial after all, though not exactly the version I had submitted at the beginning. So all Elbrich’s hard work had been in vain. Anyway, back I went to my draft and tinkered around a bit until I came up with something that satisfied everyone except myself. Because I still think that another dialect would have been the proper choice.

"For how different is colloquial Dutch from standard Dutch? Not very. Mostly it is a matter of contractions, like writing ‘it’s’ instead of ‘it is’ – in other words, writing the way people actually speak, with a few interjections thrown in to show you’re being colloquial. And that does not make Kitaru sound particularly alienated, now does it? 

"The Polish and Norwegian translators have been criticized for their use of dialect, and the Danish translator as well. But then, the translator is always wrong anyway. Maybe I won’t be criticized, because I did not use dialect. But I was wrong too, because I wanted to and didn’t. And all the reviewers who missed the point because they didn't read the story properly were wrongest of all."

Curious to know what other readers of the blog might have to say on this point!

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Norwegian Translation of "Men Without Women" and Dialect in "Yesterday"

The Norwegian translation of Onna no inai otokotachi just came out from Pax. The translator is Yngve Johan Larsen and the title is Menn ten kvinner, with "men" and "women" both in plural. (For more on different translations of this title see the post of March 30, 2015.) 

I wrote to Yngve to ask how he handled the dialect in the story "Yesterday." To my surprise, I learned that the solution used in Norwegian is somewhat similar to the solution used in Polish, in that a dialect from the Western part of the country was chosen to represent Osaka-ben. In the Norwegian case, however, the process was slightly different: after a number of solutions suggested by the translator, the editor decided to seek outside help. 

Here is a quote from Yngve's e-mail explaining what happened: 

The decision on the dialect was left to the very end. We tried several dialects, and also the other written language in Norway, nynorsk (new Norwegian), but in the end my editor asked a quite famous Norwegian writer to translate my lines into his own dialect. His name is Frode Grytten:
He previously wrote the foreword to my translation of "Hashiru koto ni tsuite kataru toki ni, boku no kataru koto", and he's a Murakami fan.

His dialect is from the western part of Norway, and it is very far from written Norwegian. It's not a city dialect like Osaka-ben, but it can be considered "hearty" and "melodic." There is, as I am sure you remember, a description of Kansai-ben at the beginning of "Yesterday," and Grytten's dialect fits this nicely. There has only been one review so far as I know, and the critic commented positively on the choice to use Grytten.

Thank you, Yngve!