Murakami’s Voice: In conversation with J. Philip Gabriel

The following interview was published in Times of India (Online)

It was at the stroke of midnight one Friday last April when a Tokyo bookstore opened its doors to more than a hundred people who had queued up to grab a copy of their favourite author, Haruki Murakami’s latest novel, ‘Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage’.

The midnight book launch was just the beginning. The book sold one million copies in its very first week on release in Japan; and translations in German, Spanish and Dutch have been topping the bestseller charts ever since. Translated from the Japanese into English by J. Philip Gabriel, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage is scheduled for release in August this year.

In an exclusive interview with us, J. Philip Gabriel talks about the challenges of being the voice of Murakami, the pleasure of working with an author who is generosity personified and why a Nobel Prize cannot be the supreme judge of any writer’s accomplishment.

Qs. In one of his previous interviews, Murakami revealed that, “he never reads his books once they have been translated for fear of disappointment”. As the translator of many of Murakami’s major works, do you think this ‘fear’ of an author is justified?

Ans. I am surprised to read this because he has also said the opposite. In the introduction to the short story collection Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, Mr. Murakami wrote, “Both Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel, my hardworking, skilled translators, have their own unique touch, and it’s been a real pleasure to read my stories again in their superb translations.” As a translator himself I think Mr. Murakami understands and appreciates the challenges of working between English and Japanese, which are such very different languages. As Jay has noted in an interview, it is always preferable to read any work of literature in the original if you can and I’m sure that Mr. Murakami—comparing the original and the translations—would sometimes feel disappointed at the difficulty of conveying the nuances and depths of one language into another. I wouldn’t be surprised if he feels the same way when he translates American literature into Japanese.

Qs. What is the relationship between an author and his/her translator. How does it work with you and Mr. Murakami. If we assume that Mr. Murakami does not read the final copy of the translated work, does he go through the initial drafts for suggestions and changes?

Ans. I work on my own, and when I have any questions I run these by Mr. Murakami via email. He is always generous with his time, responding quickly to any parts I have trouble with. Mr. Murakami and/or his staff read through the first draft of my translations and make numerous suggestions and changes, for which I am grateful.

Qs. Haruki Murakami is a writer ‘found in translation’. Do you agree with this statement?

Ans. I am not sure what this means. If it means he is best approached or understood in translation, I would have to disagree. If it means he has more readers who read him in translation than in the original Japanese, I am not sure if this is accurate, but wouldn’t be sure surprised if it is since he has been translated into so many foreign languages. Again, I’m not sure how to understand this question.

MuraQs. As one of the best-selling international authors, Murakami has been described as someone, “who is seen in Japan as the most ‘Western’ of Japanese authors”. As a writer/professor/translator; do you feel this kind of a deliberate comparison to the ‘West’ is patronising? To analyse/measure a writer’s work through the lens of the ‘superior’ West is normal?

Ans. I think there is a danger of promoting and translating mainly the type of writers who are more easily understood by Western audiences, or homogenizing the culturally distinct or culturally specific aspects of works to make them more easily digestible to a foreign audience. We see this in advertising for books when reviewers strain to fit a non-Western writer into a more understandable label (Endo Shusaku, for instance, being called the Graham Greene of Japan.) We are too comfortable with the familiar, when we should be trying to challenge ourselves and extend our understanding of difference rather than just confirm what we already know.

Qs. Murakami is a marathoner. He runs miles to keep fit for writing. He often writes late at night or very early in the morning, or so we have heard/read. What’s your routine like when you are translating Murakami. Is there a strict regime you abide by?

Ans. I don’t follow as strict a regimen as Murakami, and certainly am not the athlete he is, but I do try to work at a set time—early morning for me—and translate a set number of pages per day (a rough draft of 3-4 pages). It is daunting sometimes to consider the task ahead—translating books of 500-600 pages in some cases—and I just try to take it one day at a time and hopefully learn something new everyday about Japanese and the craft of translating. If you look up at the distant peak of the mountain you’re climbing you can get dizzy and discouraged, so I train my gaze on the path before me and take it a step at a time. I guess I’m more a hiker or walker than a runner.

Qs. How difficult is it to bridge the structural and grammatical gap between English and Japanese for a translator?

Ans. It’s a real challenge, since the languages are so different. Because the order of information in Japanese is often nearly the reverse of English, I sometimes feel as if I’m giving away the punch line too soon when I translate a Japanese sentence into English. On top of the structural differences are significant cultural differences that are exactly what I hope to convey but which are the most difficult aspects to really get across in translation. Day to day lifestyle differences, differences in interpersonal interaction, etc. are aspects of life and writing that Japanese readers take for granted but which become a kind of stumbling block to understanding for English readers. As an academic I sometimes wish I could add footnotes, but commercial publishers usually don’t allow these.

Qs. You have also translated works by Nobel Prize-winner Kenzaburō Ōe, Shimada Masahiko, Kuroi Senji, Yoshimura Akira, Oe Kenzaburo and Yoshida Shuichi among others. Which author have you enjoyed translating the most?

Ans. I have enjoyed all of them, but other than Murakami I would have to list Yoshida as one of my favorites. There is something about his style—the relaxed, straightforward tone combined with a sharp eye for detail and a real concern for the lives of struggling, ordinary people—that satisfies me as a reader. If you’ll allow me a plug, my translation of one of his books, Parade, will be coming out this week in the UK.

Qs. Apart from novels, you have translated Murakami’s short stories and works of non-fiction as well. Which one is the hardest and the most rewarding?

Ans. There is no real difference in difficulty between stories and novels, other than length. I did find Underground a challenge simply because, in the section I translated, I was dealing with the voices of eight different people—the cult members he interviewed—as well as Mr. Murakami’s voice as narrator and interviewer. But probably the most challenging work of all was Kafka on the Shore because of the unique voices of the two main characters—Kafka, a precocious young boy with a vocabulary and mind well beyond his age, and Nakata, a linguistically challenged old man who refers to himself in the third person. These characters were unlike any in his previous works, both stories and novels.

Qs. Almost the entire world, at least the millions of Murakami fans (also known as Harukists) went into mourning after the Swedish Academy awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature to Alice Munro in 2013. Were you too part of the Harukists club?

Ans. I’m sure Alice Munro’s fans didn’t feel this way! Of course it would a great accomplishment if Mr. Murakami wins the Nobel, but certainly I don’t think that is the ultimate yardstick for judging a writer. I am sure Mr. Murakami is much more focused himself on exploring new areas and growing as a writer. I love his writing, have been devoted to it since I first read it in 1986, and as a reader and translator I look forward to new and exciting works rather than new prizes.


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