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Haruki Murakami on "The Great Gatsby"

Haruki Murakami on "The Great Gatsby"

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Read Haruki Murakami's essay on translating "The Great Gatsby" into Japanese from "In Translation: Translators on Their Work and What It Means"
Read Haruki Murakami's essay on translating "The Great Gatsby" into Japanese from "In Translation: Translators on Their Work and What It Means"

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Published by: Columbia University Press on Apr 22, 2013
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02/27/2015

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THIRTEEN
As Translator, as Novelist The Translator’s Afterword
HARUKI MURAKAMI
T R A N S L AT E D B Y T E D G O O S S E N

To the best of my recollection, I was in my late thirties when I started telling people I was going to translate The Great Gatsby when I turned sixty. Having made that pronouncement, I then conducted my daily affairs as if I were moving toward that fi xed point, so that much of what I did was pushed along by a kind of reverse calculation. Metaphorically speaking, I had placed Gatsby securely on my kamidana, the high shelf that serves as a household shrine to the Shinto gods, and then lived my life glancing up at it from time to time. For some strange reason, however, it became harder and harder to wait till my sixtieth birthday. Restlessly, my eyes sought the book in the shrine more and more often until I fi nally had to give in. So, three years ahead of schedule, I sat down to work on this translation. Initially I told myself that I would just pick away at it in my spare time, but once I got going I found I couldn’t stop, and I finished the whole translation with unanticipated speed, in a single burst of energy. I was like the impatient child who can’t wait until his birthday to open his presents. This tendency to jump the gun never seems to change, no matter how old I get. I had decided to wait until I was sixty to translate The Great Gatsby for a number of reasons. For one thing, I figured (or hoped) that by that age my skill would have improved to the point where I could do the job properly. Given Gatsby’s importance to me, I wanted my translation to be as precise and thorough as possible so that I would have no regrets. Another reason was the existence of several prior translations, which meant

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there was no need to rush yet another into print, especially when so many contemporary novels had to be translated as quickly as possible. Finally, there was the picture I had constructed of myself at sixty. By that stage, I thought, life will be more leisurely, and I can enjoy playing with Gatsby in the same way that old men enjoy puttering around with bonsai on their verandas. When I was in my thirties, the world of sixty seemed absurdly far away. Once the reality of the problems and possibilities of that age had come into clear view, however, I became acutely aware that “bonsai on the veranda” wasn’t going to fit my situation at all. When I stopped to think about it, I could see clearly that no sudden, drastic change was going to take place when I turned sixty; for better or worse, I would be the same man continuing the same very undramatic life. That being the case, I reconsidered my position and decided there was no need to wait. Moreover, at the risk of sounding presumptuous, I had gained a fair degree—only a degree, mind you—of confidence as a translator. The time had come, I realized, for me to tackle Gatsby. I could feel it in my bones. There was another reason, too, which probably has something to do with my age: the number of current works I felt the urgent need to translate was gradually shrinking. Most of the important books by writers crucial to my generation were already available in Japanese. As for the new crop of younger novelists, well, I could leave their work to a new group of eager young translators. Such a move would allow me the luxury of stepping slightly outside the current of the times to translate works I had long dreamed of putting my hand to. This would not mean that I would forgo contemporary literature altogether. Indeed, I fully expected—or at least hoped for—new works to pop up that I would want to translate. What would certainly change, though, was the ratio between old and new: now classics and semiclassics would come to make up the greater part of my repertoire. These were the texts I had kept close at hand over the years, the books I loved. Most of them, of course, already existed in standard translations; yet if I could refresh them—“wash them anew,” as we say—even slightly, my efforts would have been worth it. My translation of J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, which I published several years ago, is part of this “rewashed” series, as is, of course, this version of The Great Gatsby. I have no desire to take exception with the translations of my predecessors. Each is outstanding in its own way. In fact, if a reader who had grown attached to a novel through one of

Part II: The Translator at Work
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those translations were to demand to know why I had gone to the trouble of producing yet another version, I would find it hard to justify myself. Nevertheless, it is my conviction that, as I wrote when my version of Catcher came out, every translation possesses its own “best before date.” Although numerous literary works might properly be called “ageless,” no translation belongs in that category. Translation, after all, is a matter of linguistic technique, which naturally ages as the particulars of a language change. Thus, while there are undying works, on principle there can be no undying translations. Just as dictionaries eventually become outdated, so, to some extent, does every translation (including, of course, my own) grow obsolete as times change. I would even go so far as to say that when a specific translation is imprinted too deeply on the minds of its readers for too long, it runs the risk of damaging the original. It is therefore imperative that new versions appear periodically in the same way that computer programs are regularly updated. At the very least this provides a broader spectrum of choices, which can only benefit prospective readers. In the case of The Great Gatsby, I found that none of the translations I looked at satisfied me, regardless of their quality. Inevitably, I would think, This feels a bit (or a lot!) different from the Gatsby I know. I must hasten to add that this reaction was personal, based on the image I carried in my mind, and had nothing at all to do with objective—or academic— critical assessments of the works at hand, such evaluations being beyond my power anyway. All I could do was scratch my head at how wide the gap was between “my Gatsby” and the impression I received from the translations—this again from a purely subjective perspective. I don’t normally discuss my reactions to others’ work so frankly. But this is The Great Gatsby we are talking about, so I am willing to stick my neck out. Put differently, I translated Gatsby at an extremely personal level. I wanted to make my long-standing image of Gatsby clear and concrete, so that readers could picture the distinct colors and contours of the novel and feel its textures. To do this, I strove to eliminate anything that was the slightest bit obscure or that might leave the reader feeling as if they had somehow missed something. I have always felt that translation is fundamentally an act of kindness. It is not enough to find words that match: if images in the translated text are unclear, then the thoughts and feelings of the author are lost. In this particular case, I tried hard to be as kind a translator as possible. As I went over passage after passage, I attempted to clarify the meaning of

As Tr anslator, as Novelist: The Translator’s Afterword
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each in Japanese to the best of my ability. Still, as with everything, there were limits. All I can say is, I tried my best.

I have written of the crucial importance that The Great Gatsby holds for me. As a responsible translator, therefore, it behooves me to try to explain that importance in more concrete terms. When someone asks, “Which three books have meant the most to you?” I can answer without having to think: The Great Gatsby, Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, and Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye. All three have been indispensable to me (both as a reader and as a writer); yet if I were forced to select only one, I would unhesitatingly choose Gatsby. Had it not been for Fitzgerald’s novel, I would not be writing the kind of literature I am today (indeed, it is possible that I would not be writing at all, although that is neither here nor there). Whatever the case, you can sense the level of my infatuation with The Great Gatsby. It taught me so much and encouraged me so greatly in my own life. Though slender in size for a full-length work, it served as a standard and a fi xed point, an axis around which I was able to organize the many coordinates that make up the world of the novel. I read Gatsby over and over, poking into every nook and cranny, until I had virtually memorized entire sections. Remarks such as these are bound to perplex more than a few readers. “Look, Murakami,” they’ll say, “I read the novel, and I don’t get it. Just why do you think it’s so great?” My first impulse is to challenge them right back. “Hey, if The Great Gatsby isn’t great,” I am tempted to say, inching closer, “then what the heck is?” Yet at the same time I am not without sympathy for their point of view. Gatsby is such a finely wrought novel—its scenes so fully realized, its evocations of sentiment so delicate, its language so layered—that, in the end, one has to study it line by line in English to appreciate its true value. Fitzgerald was a master stylist, and when he wrote Gatsby at the age of twenty-eight he was at the absolute peak of his craft. Unavoidably, Japanese translations have stumbled over some of the fine points of his novel, while others have been entirely omitted. As they say, a delicate wine doesn’t travel well. Try as one may, it will lose at least a portion of its aroma, mellowness, and texture en route. The only answer, I guess, is to read a work such as Gatsby in the original; yet that is more easily said than done. The beauty of Fitzgerald’s fluent, elastic prose lies in his ability to alter tone, pattern, and rhythm
Part II: The Translator at Work
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to create infinitesimal shifts in atmosphere. To be perfectly honest, a work that achieves this stylistic level is too difficult for a person with limited English to comprehend—only a truly advanced reader is able to see what he is really up to. This is why, if I may be allowed to exaggerate in a somewhat highhanded manner, it is my impression that Japanese readers have never truly appreciated The Great Gatsby. At the very least, judging from the overall reaction of those I have exchanged views with (most of whom are, at least to some extent, professionally connected to the literary world), I can only be pessimistic about Gatsby’s reception in Japan. And standing behind this pessimism is the imposing barrier of the translation process itself. I cannot be so presumptuous as to claim that my translation of Gatsby clears that barrier entirely. No one is more aware than I am of what a heavy undertaking it is to translate Gatsby, so I am not being falsely modest when I concede that my effort, too, is bound to have some faults. Whoever looks hard enough, I fear, can probably locate any number of places where I have failed. Yet is there a way of transferring a work of such beauty and completeness in English into another language without the occasional failure? Until Gatsby, I had always tried to keep the fact that I was a writer far from my mind when translating: I wanted to make myself invisible, like a black-garbed puppet handler on the Bunraku stage. What mattered, I believed, was fidelity to the original. True, my being a writer had to be involved to a certain degree, since it formed part of the context I brought to the work, but that was something that arose naturally, without any conscious intent on my part. Gatsby, however, was a different story. From the outset, I set my sights on putting my novel-writing experience to as good a use as possible. This did not mean that I translated loosely or substituted my own phrases for those of the original. Rather, it meant that, at strategic moments, I brought my imaginative powers as a novelist into play. One by one, I dug up the slippery parts of Fitzgerald’s novel , those scattered places that had proved elusive, and asked myself, If I were the author, how would I have written this? Painstakingly, I examined Gatsby’s solid trunk and branches and dissected its beautiful leaves. When necessary, however, I stepped back to take a broader view, forsaking a wordby-word approach. Had I gone about translating Gatsby any other way, I wouldn’t have been able to convey the power of Fitzgerald’s prose. To fully grasp its essence, I had to plunge into its heart—then and only then could his writing burst into bloom.
As Tr anslator, as Novelist: The Translator’s Afterword
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Contents

Acknowledgments ix Introduction: A Culture of Translation xiii PART I
THE TR A NSLATOR IN THE WOR LD

E S T HE R A L L E N A ND S US A N BER N O FSK Y

1

One Making Sense in Translation: Toward an Ethics of the Art P E T E R C OL E 3 Two Anonymous Sources (On Translators and Translation) E L I OT W E I NBE RG ER 17 Three Fictions of the Foreign: The Paradox of “Foreign-Soundingness” DA V I D BE L L OS 31 Four Beyond, Between: Translation, Ghosts, Metaphors M I C HA E L E M M E RI CH 44

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Five Translation as Scholarship C A T HE RI NE P ORTER 58 Six Translation: The Biography of an Artform A L I C E KA P L AN 67 Seven The Will to Translate: Four Episodes in a Local History of Global Cultural Exchange E S T HE R A L L E N 82 PART II
THE TR A NSLATOR AT WOR K

105

Eight The Great Leap: César and the Caesura F ORRE S T GA NDER 107 Nine Misreading Orhan Pamuk M A URE E N F RE ELY 117 Ten On Translating a Poem by Osip Mandelstam
J OS É M A NUE L P RI E T O, T RA NS L A T ED BY ESTH ER ALLEN

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Eleven Are We the Folk in This Lok?: Translating in the Plural C HRI S T I A . M E RRI LL 143 Twelve Choosing an English for Hindi JA S ON GRUNE BA U M 156 Thirteen As Translator, as Novelist: The Translator’s Afterword HA R UKI M URA KA M I , T RA NS L A T ED BY TED GO O SSEN 169
Contents
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Fourteen Haruki Murakami and the Culture of Translation T E D GOOS S E N 183 Fifteen Translating Jacopone da Todi: Archaic Poetries and Modern Audiences L A W RE NC E V E NU TI 187 Sixteen “Ensemble discords”: Translating the Music of Scève’s Délie RI C HA RD S I E BURTH 209 Seventeen Translation and the Art of Revision S US A N BE RNOF S K Y 223 Eighteen The Art of Losing: Polish Poetry and Translation C L A RE C A V A NA GH 234 Permissions 245 Contributors 247 Index 253

Contents
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