Lost in Tongues: The Problem of Translation

Reading a work in translation always means that I have to undergo some internal adjustments.  There’s a sense that I’m coming at the story from the far end of a series of rewrites, of dubious quality and questionable fidelity.  I’m currently reading Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami, whose works I absolutely love.  There’s a niggling sense, however, that I’m not getting the whole picture here.

On a surface level, the writing feels right – the protagonist drily deadpan, the plot clipping along at a great pace, the emotional beats falling regularly – but how would I even know?  I haven’t read the original Japanese, and I’m relying on translator Alfred Birnbaum’s interpretation of the novel.  I’m taking his word as gospel that this is the story Murakami meant to tell, and relying on him to have a reasonably good grasp of Murakami’s style.  As a reader, I’m giving Birnbaum my trust and hoping for a return in the form of story satisfaction.

For the most part, multilingual writers and speakers will say that there are certain phrases or feelings that are just untranslatable.  You can reach an approximation but never the full sentiment of the phrase, or the “true meaning.”  Reading Murakami in translation has always given me this feeling, since he loves to synthesize different traditions, with a Godard-like love of American pop culture and a tendency to reference Shinto customs, and since feelings like longing, nostalgia, and malaise are often central to his plots.  On top of all this, Murakami’s novels usually bend the boundaries of dream and reality, jetting between the two and mixing them together.  That’s a lot of material for a translator to first understand and then communicate faithfully.  Undoubtedly there is an essential meaning in the original that can then be translated into English, but inevitably details of varying importance will get lost in the mix.

I know that when I read a work in translation, I am getting basically the same experience as the reader of the original work.  Plot, character, and even most description remain generally unchanged from one side of translation to the other (unless your translator is particularly terrible).  The question becomes, what happens to the writer’s style?  What’s a translator (or reader!) to do with those “untranslatables” and idiosyncrasies particular to each writer?

With the upcoming release of Murakami’s new novel, 1Q84, in English, I’ve been thinking more about this question of translation.  On the one hand, translation is a necessary evil; my grasp of foreign languages is limited, and I’d never limit myself to novels published originally in English – some of my favorite books have been originally published in Spanish, or Japanese, or what have you.  There still persists that feeling of not getting the whole story, however.  Have you experienced this, readers?  Does translation diminish a novel?

Join the discussion 2 Comments

  • Dear Mallory,

    I feel you. What is even more problematic is the question of how New Critics would look at the translated text. While I do have my issues with these language purists, I think their work is still relevant and important to those of us looking at literature. If the text holds the answer, what do we do if the text is not “authentic?” I had a professor in Russian Lit who would constantly knock down my close readings because, “You misunderstand. Bad translation.”

    Ultimately though, I suppose I comfort myself by acknowledging that this is no longer just a Murakami work, but rather, a Murakami and Birnbaum work, which is further altered by the reader of the text. For surely, we as readers are capable of inferring and creating our own personal meaning from it. I guess what I’m trying to say is that the text is simply no longer owned by one person in one language. Instead, it is transformed into a more collective work. Whether or not this is ideal, I cannot say. However, it’s kinda cool.

    Good post.

  • mjbedford says:

    Hi Mallory,
    great post. I’m a translator myself (though I’ve only been marginally involved in doing whole books) and I particularly agree with your point about not getting the full story. Book translators aren’t usually paid as much as those who are in marketing/website/industrial manual translation and so, unfortunately, there is often a tendency to rush through translations at the expense of quality.
    I read Garcia Marquez’s “100 years of solitude” and I thought it was lovely, the style was as mystical and unworldly as the story-line and it seemed that it could have been originally written in English; BUT then I read his “memories of my melancholy whores” and I thought it was dreadfully translated, far too literal and you could “see through” the translation and understand what the original Spanish must have been, which was a pity. I think, as general rules, IF:
    a) you can’t understand by reading it that it’s a translation,
    b) the main facts of the story have been kept to, and
    c) if the prose style generally meets what you’d expect from the author/the subject matter,
    then the translation can be considered a success and you’re probably not losing anything. Whether or not the book is any good, of course, is another story!