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?