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Posts Tagged ‘translationese’

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Murakami photo: Elena Seibert
Oe photo:
Paris Review
Haruki Murakami, left, and Kenzaburo Oe are Japanese novelists who write first in a different language and later translate into Japanese.

Today’s topic is a little esoteric, but for some reason it fascinates me. It’s about two Japanese novelists who write their books first in a foreign language, not in their own.

In the case of Haruki Murakami, it was apparently because when he tried writing a novel in Japanese, his saturation with the traditional Japanese writing style weighed him down. By writing first in English and later translating, he felt freer and came up with a style that was more his own. Critics are calling this process translationese.

Masatsugu Ono, a novelist, too, writes at the Paris Review, “I clearly remember the vivid colors of the two books — one red, the other green — that a high school classmate of mine was reading. … I was from a small fishing village that didn’t even have a bookstore, and having come from a junior high school with fewer than forty students, I was intimidated by how he already had clear taste in music and literature. …

“The next time I encountered those books was after I moved to Tokyo for university. I came across a large stack of them right by the entrance of one of the city’s largest bookstores. They were the two parts of Haruki Murakami’s novel Noruwei no mori (Norwegian Wood). …

“I immediately felt that his style was different from other contemporary Japanese writers I had read. Probably because one of my professors (who was from Belgium) had translated it into French, A Wild Sheep Chase was the first of Murakami’s novels I read. And I soon found myself reading through them all.

“In 1978, Murakami went to Jingu Baseball Stadium, located near the jazz bar he ran, to watch the opening game of the season. The moment the lead-off hitter slammed the first pitch cleanly into left field, a thought struck him: I think I can write a novel. … ‘It was like a revelation. Or maybe “epiphany” is a better word.’

“Murakami describes this event — even in Japanese — using the English word epiphany. Late that night, he sat down at the kitchen table and began to write. Several months later, he finished a first draft. But it disappointed him. Murakami placed his Olivetti typewriter on the table and began to write again, this time in English.

The resulting English prose was, unsurprisingly, simple and unadorned. However, as he wrote, Murakami felt a distinctive rhythm begin to take shape:

” ‘Since I was born and raised in Japan, the vocabulary and patterns of the Japanese language had filled the system that was me to bursting, like a barn crammed with livestock. When I sought to put my thoughts and feelings into words, those animals began to mill about, and the system crashed. Writing in a foreign language, with all the limitations that entailed, removed this obstacle.’ …

“Writing in a foreign language liberated him, and he finished the beginning of his novel in English before translating it into Japanese: … ‘I wanted to deploy a type of Japanese as far removed as possible from so-called literary language in order to write in my own natural voice.’ The style Murakami describes as ‘neutral’ was deemed by some critics ‘translationese.’ …

“[When I read him], the writing did not feel like translationese to me at all. Rather, I had a strong feeling that his Japanese was our Japanese, one that I also lived and breathed. I was struck by the fact that one could write a novel in that kind of language. When reading Murakami, I never experienced the difficulty or resistance I felt each time I read Kenzaburo Oe’s later novels, which were written in a highly elaborate style that I considered ‘literary.’ …

“I’ve always been encouraged and inspired by the fact that Oe has continued throughout his career to write stories set in his hometown. And I’m strongly drawn to the original and imaginative way in which he develops local myths and small histories (in both senses of the French word histoire: history and story).

“I’ve heard that Oe didn’t much appreciate Murakami’s early books, but when Oe made his debut in the late fifties, his writing style was also considered translationese. … Oe’s early works were so spontaneous and vivid that he quickly gained a huge audience, especially among young people. But the sensual nature of his first few books was gradually replaced by an intellectually elaborated style, one that also has been described by critics as translationese.

“So while Murakami’s translationese makes him clearer and more natural, Oe’s translationese makes him more difficult and more artificial. However, according to [Kojin Karatani, one of the most influential Japanese critics], Oe’s clearer and more natural early work was already translationese, too.”

There’s a lot more here about similarities and differences among Japanese writers, but for me, the most interesting aspect of the article is learning how reading and thinking in a foreign language affects a writer’s style.

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