Mysteries of Translation

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Wendy Lesser

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The Mysteries of Translation
Date September 27, 2002  
Media The Chronicle Review  

I am an avid reader, but a shockingly monolingual one. The English language is the golden prison I inhabit: richly and divertingly adorned, but with all the exits closed off, preventing me from making my escape to French or Russian or Italian or Chinese. Only the Spanish door is slightly ajar, but its opening is just barely wide enough for me to peek through longingly. That is, I can read a novel in Spanish if I'm desperate, but I will get far more out of it if I read the same thing rendered in someone else's English.
Because of this handicap, I am heavily dependent on the work of translators; they are the social workers, you might say, who bring essential luxuries to my cell. I could dispense with these do-gooders, I suppose, if I chose to read only works written originally in English, and I did so choose, during a brief period of callow youthfulness. But even the great outpouring of 19th-century English fiction can seem insufficient and tedious after a while, and if you start venturing into the 20th century, particularly the late 20th century, you will soon find yourself in need of foreign companionship.

So rather than resent my helpers, my crutches, I have come to feel a deep affection for these selfless workers, these brilliant shadows, these people whose highest aim is to remain at the very margin of visibility. No translator wants his achievement stolen or denied; yet just as certainly, no translator wants her voice to overpower that of her source author. It's a very careful balance: However well the disappearing act is done, something of the translator's own sensibility invariably enters into the work we're given in English.
My most intense experience with translation, thus far, has involved a Japanese author. Like Javier MarÌas and W.G. Sebald, Haruki Murakami is a writer who is intimately acquainted with Anglo-American culture even as he remains outside it. (I think writers of this kind may well make the most interesting test cases for translation; at any rate, I find myself repeatedly drawn to them.) Murakami, who has translated Raymond Carver, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Paul Theroux into Japanese, is quite attached to the Beatles, jazz, Scotch whiskey, Marx Brothers movies, and many other products of Western culture. He repeatedly injects something akin to an American sensibility -- a rebellious, non-salaryman's sensibility -- into his hapless fictional protagonists. Yet the novels are written in Japanese and set, for the most part, in Japan, so when we read them in English, we get (as with Marías and Sebald) a strange sensation of foreignness mixed with familiarity, of worlds collapsing in on each other.

The first three novels I read by Murakami -- A Wild Sheep Chase, Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, and Dance, Dance, Dance -- were all translated by Alfred Birnbaum. When I finished the books, I was mildly curious to know more about Murakami; I was desperate to know more about Birnbaum. Who was this guy who could come up with two completely different kinds of English, an old-fashioned fairy-tale diction and a sharp-edged modern idiom, to render the two intertwined plot strands of Hard-Boiled Wonderland? How did he manage to do that weird, youthful, but never annoyingly with-it voice in which Murakami's narrator-protagonists spoke to themselves? How, in short, could he make a Japanese writer sound so remarkably American without losing any of his alien allure? All I could find out, from the jacket notes, was that Birnbaum was born in Washington, D.C., in 1957, grew up in Japan, and lived at various times in Los Angeles, Tokyo, London, and Barcelona.
Then The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle came out. This may still be Murakami's best-known novel in America; it was his first crossover book, the one that signaled his emergence from the ghetto of Kodansha to the classy precincts of Knopf. I started the first chapter as soon as the book was available, but right away I sensed that something was wrong. Turning to the front of the book, I noticed the name of a new translator: Jay Rubin. What had happened to my beloved Birnbaum? I called Kodansha, Knopf, the Society of Translators -- no answer. Nobody knew anything about the missing Birnbaum. He had apparently completed the transformation required of the Ideal Translator and become a figment, a ghost, an invisible man.
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