Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Lost in translation and Japanese obsession to the West and “their” English - why does Haruki Murakami choose not to write in English?

When discussing credentials for Standard Canadian English versus Standard American English, the professor asked the class, “What about Japanese English? What criterion does Standard Japanese English need to have? Who speaks Standard Japanese English?” We came up with a vague idea that it’s a variety that many educated Japanese people speak, with a Japanese accent. Some suggested that we might find features of Standard Japanese English in translations and interpretations in literature. It got me thinking.

The majority of Japanese novels, as far as I know, are translated by American English speakers or British English speakers, or other Inner-Circle speakers—usually not Japanese English speakers. I can’t think of any well-known Japanese authors who directly write in English either (in the way that Ha Jin does). We are beginning to see the emergence of Chinese English writers, Indian English writers, Thai English writers, etc. But not Japanese English writers, yet.

Haruki Murakami is by far the most popular and can be considered to be the most influential Japanese writer today. His novels and stories have been translated into English and forty other languages. All of his work in English is translated by American translators. It seems that he particularly likes using Jay Rubin as his translator (Rubin is currently a professor at Harvard). There are many quite well-known Japanese translators in Murakami’s own country who are his Japanese cultural contemporaries and who grew up in Japan along with him and who intimately understand the shared culture and background of Murakami’s work. They would love to translate his work. So why doesn’t Murakami choose them?

The flavor of the original text can vary from one translator to another. Moreover, by using translators from outside, some important cultural concepts/ideas, certain subtleties, and other intentional ambiguities may be lost in translation. It’s true in any editing work as well. When it is filters through a moderator, your work naturally becomes less original. Murakami doesn’t seem to mind some features of his originality getting lost in translation. He instead, he seems to worry about the readers in the West getting lost in some peculiar Japanese English and its rich characteristics. If he used Japanese translators for his work—or if he wrote his work in English (he has translated all works of Raymond Carver and about 20 other books from English into Japanese, so he is clearly a skilled translator)—it would be a great opportunity to use his fame to help raise awareness about Japanese English, as a variety of English, to rest of the world. However, it seems that Murakami couldn’t care less of sharing Japanese English, nor does he see any value in doing so.

“Wild Haruki Chase” (2008) is a collection of literary reviews of Murakami works, and the first chapter, “To translate and to be translated” is written by Murakami himself. There, he states that he never re-reads his own works, because he finds it embarrassing to take his own novels in his hands. Instead, he said he would rather look forward and think about his new novels. This may be the legitimate reason why he does not translate his own works. However, then, why does he seem to prefer American translators to Japanese translators? Later in that chapter Murakami states, “I have tried to write my novels using prose that I have constructed by first converting Japanese… into a mock foreign language in my head—that is, by clearing away the innate everydayness of language that lies in my self-consciousness” (p.30). It becomes obvious now that, to some degree, Murakami does not really want to sound Japanese. He rather wants to clear away the everydayness—in part, really, the Japanese-ness, of his writing. By erasing that everydayness, he is actually devaluing his own cultural background, because he thinks it’s too mundane, less worthy—and he perhaps feels a bit of shame in sharing “warts and all” features of his own culture.

In Clark (2011), the pianist Mitsuko Uchida says  “there’s a lack of confidence about tradition because the Japanese are still enthralled with western culture (Clark, 2011, I think that is a plausible observation. I would like to find out why Expanding-Circle speakers—especially Japanese people—are still fascinated to the Inner-Circle variety of English and fail to acknowledge their own varieties. In the research paper, I would like to explore historical and cultural background of Japanese English and how to overcome its negative self-perception.

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