Monday, April 23, 2012

Norwegian Wood, Translation & the Other

Hello all (two of you),

Rather than introduce myself or my blog, I'll simply light the fire with a post on one of my favorite authors: Haruki Murakami.  I think this shall serve as introduction enough--for now. :-)


It's been a number of years since I've read Norwegian Wood in its entirety, though it still stands out as one of my favorite contemporary novels and probably my favorite Murakami novel along with The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.  I love so many aspects about the novel from the evocative descriptions of doomed romance to the novel's subtle questioning of nostalgia and so-called "coming of age" stories.  And while the novel is certainly part "coming of age" story itself, it's also an existential crisis novel, a "coming apart" novel, if you will, in which a middle-aged man is still haunted by events that took place in his youth.

Well, I'd been taking a bit of a break from Murakami of recent months, but he popped up again when I decided to assign one of my students his short story, "TV People," and an article titled, "Haruki Murakami and the Ethics of Translation" by Will Slocombe.  The article was of particular interest because my student's assignment centered around the pros and cons of translated literature.  As I'm sure you know, there are many cons: lost meaning due to differences in language and culture, reliance on the translator's aesthetics and choices, et cetera.  Jay Rubin, Murakami's longtime translator, has even gone as far to state that he doesn't recommend reading literature in translation.  Tell that to Murakami fans!  Ha.  That said, so much of the literature I'm interested in these days is literature in translation, and I think the pros of being exposed to new literature and cultures make it more than worthwhile.

And, as Slocombe and others have pointed out,  Murakami is a bit unique in that he's infatuated with the West to the point where some have said that his prose reads as if it were translated into Japanese from the English (Murakami actually tried this when he was younger).  This dynamic strikes me as very much fluid and open to cross-cultural exchanges.  Slocombe suggests that Murakami is very aware that he's writing for audiences outside of Japan.  The most interesting part of the article, though, is the suggestion that translation isn't just from "source language" (SL) to "target language" (TL), but also between author to text, text to reader, ect.  The implications of this are quite interesting when one considers that we are all translating our own thoughts and actions into words on a constant basis.  Slocombe points out that this distance between Self and Other is a fundamental theme in Murakami's writings, and gives us several quotations as evidence.  I like this one he includes from Norwegian Wood, "I wondered if she was trying to convey something to me, something she could not put into words … something prior to words that she could not grasp within herself and which therefore has no hope of ever turning into words."  I've always thought that words are imprecise, messy things, yet Slocombe rightly points out that Murakami's fiction always entertains the possibility of becoming close with the Other--always suggesting that this effort is worth our while--however imprecise such a connection might be.

So, while Murakami has a reputation as being a bit of pessimistic, and he certainly asks hard questions of his characters, I've never read him as being nihilistic.  He's always struck me as a writer with a worldview. To the point, here's a quote of his from a recent NYT article (talking about the tsunami and its aftermath):

"It was a nightmare, but still it’s a good chance to change. After 1945, we have been working so hard and getting rich. But that kind of thing doesn’t continue anymore. We have to change our values. We have to think about how we can get happy. It’s not about money. It’s not about efficiency. It’s about discipline and purpose. What I wanted to say is what I’ve been saying since 1968: we have to change the system. I think this is a time when we have to be idealistic again.” 

I asked him what that idealism looked like, if he perhaps saw the United States as a model.

“I don’t think people think of America as a model anymore,” he said. “We don’t have any model at this moment. We have to establish the new model.” 

I'm not supposed to tell anyone this, as someone vaguely involved in literary criticism, but I have a hard time divorcing this worldview from Murakami's fictional edifices.  His characters frequently experience their own existential nightmares, sometimes against the backdrop of a (post)apocalyptic world.  Frequently these characters begin his stories malleable and/or vapid, only to take form as the stories progress.  Furthermore,  Murakami's embedding of Western references and aesthetics into his novels questions the Japanese literary establishment and begins to establish something new, more heterogeneous in its place.      


As an aside, I've been looking forward to the DVD release of the movie by the same name, especially for the cinematography, and I'll be sure to post some thoughts when I get the chance to see it.  I have to say, I was a bit annoyed that the film wasn't playing anywhere near me in its (limited) U.S. release. So much for American movie theatres! I'm sure I would have enjoyed it more than The Artist.

Well, I hope you enjoyed my first post.  Thanks for reading!


Further reading/Citations:

NYT Article

Slocombe Article

CLCWeb Volume 6 Issue 2 (June 2004) Article 6
Will Slocombe, "Haruki Murakami and the Ethics of Translation"


  1. Haruki Murakami! he's my fave Japanese author, I wish my japanese is good enough to read his books in japanese :)

  2. Hey, thanks for commenting! It's so cool to have someone in Japan comment on my first post, which happens to be about Murakami no less.