Submitted by Ryan P. Mihaly on Saturday, 10/11/2014, at 4:36 PM

My conversation with Jay Rubin, one of Haruki Murakami's English translators, appeared on Asymptote journal's blog on October 9th. See an excerpt below, and read the full article here.

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Jay Rubin’s translations include Haruki Murakami’s novels Norwegian Wood, The Wind-Up Bird ChronicleAfter Dark, 1Q84 (with Philip Gabriel), and a number of short story collections. Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words, Rubin’s part-biography, part-analysis of Murakami’s work, was published in 2002 and updated in 2012. Rubin is also a translator of Ryūnosuke Akutagawa (Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories) and Natsume Sōseki (The Miner; Sanshiro). He holds a Ph.D. in Japanese literature from the University of Chicago. While teaching at Harvard in 2005, he helped bring Haruki Murakami to the university as an artist-in-residence. 

Ryan Mihaly: I want to start by considering the role of the translator in today’s global society. 

In Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words, you recount an incident where a re-translation of Murakami’s work into German (they translated English into German rather than the original Japanese to German) caused quite an uproar. One critic you cite accuses Murakami of supporting the “globalization” and “Hollywoodization” of his own work, effectively considering the Japanese versions as “mere regional editions.”

I think of a few other essays I’ve come across in my research—Eliot Weinberger pointing out that the translator is considered a “problematic necessity,” or John Ciardi, translator of Dante’s Divine Comedy, declaring translation “the art of failure.”

Can you think of a time when translation and translators have been looked upon favorably? What does it take to cast translation in a positive light? 

Jay Rubin: Ha, interesting question. I’d like to know the answer to that myself. The German translations of Shakespeare are highly regarded as literature in their own right, I gather. And translators get a lot more respect in Japan than in the English sphere; there, readers choose authors by who has translated them. In general, I suspect translation is seen in a more positive light in less-than-dominant cultures that have to translate to keep up with the mainstream. American complacency keeps the incoming volume of translations low. Your question can only be answered by a wide-ranging multi-cultural survey. Good luck.

RM: Very interesting. I suppose this need to keep up with the mainstream is reflected in Murakami’s desire to be translated quickly.

What does it take, then, for a translator to gain respect in Japan? I wonder if they must be seen as good writers, first. Who are some of these respected translators? 

JR: Murakami of course knows that he needs to be translated in order to be read widely. He is very conscious of the power of translation, being himself one of Japan’s most important translators of American literature. He has long collaborated with Motoyuki Shibata, a well-known professor of English literature at the University of Tokyo, who has his own flourishing career as a translator. Of course, both men are admired as great stylists in Japanese, and that attracts readers to the authors they choose to translate.

Murakami does his translation work in the afternoons, for relaxation, after doing his own writing in the morning. By now, he must have over 50 volumes of translated literature (see a sample in the bibliography of my Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words). Shibata recently retired his professorship to give himself more time to translate (Paul Auster, Stuart Dybek, Barry Yourgrau, Steven Millhauser, Thomas Pynchon [Mason and Dixon in 2 fat volumes!]).

In a development unthinkable in America, Shibata was the subject of a 150-page feature in a glossy magazine, complete with moody photos of the translator in evocative settings. Earlier, he and Murakami were subjected to a more academic book-length study demonstrating how their translating had influenced literary style in general in Japan.

(Read the rest of the conversation here).

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