Saturday January 22, 2005
I hope this turns your stomach a little: "His men held Yamamoto down with their hands and knees while he began skinning Yamamoto with the utmost care. It truly was like skinning a peach. I couldn't bear to watch. I closed my eyes. When I did this, one of the soldiers hit me with his rifle butt. He went on hitting me until I opened my eyes. But it hardly mattered: eyes open or closed, I could still hear Yamamoto's voice. He bore the pain without a whimper - at first. But soon he began to scream."
This is just the beginning of the passage in Haruki Murakami's The Wind-up Bird Chronicle in which a Japanese espionage agent is skinned alive by a Mongolian army officer. It gets much worse. I remember living with this chapter day after day as I translated it from Murakami's gruesome Japanese into (I hope) equally gruesome English. Unlike the narrator, Lieutenant Mamiya, I did not have the luxury of closing my eyes - even for an instant - as I worked on it. I am occasionally reminded of the experience when I see people hiding their eyes at a violent film. I once tried to talk to Murakami himself about this passage, but he refused: it was just too sickening, he said.
Of course, he had it easy: he just had to write it. I, on the other hand, had to translate it, which is much slower. I'm not saying that translating a text is more intense than writing it to begin with - after all, the author had to imagine every detail he put into the scene - but it's safe to say that translating is the most intense form of reading you can do. Take the flaying scene. If it really grosses you out as a reader, you can make it go away. You can squint. You can skim. If you're translating, though, and you close your eyes, that soldier starts hitting you with his rifle butt until you open them again.
When you translate, you do not just passively absorb what's on the original page, you get actively involved in imagining every detail the author put in there - every sight, sound, smell, touch and taste - and in finding the right words for them in your own language.
It may be possible to translate technical documents passively and mechanically, but not literature. And the kind of active involvement required in the translation of literature takes time. You stay with the text far longer - probably longer than the author ever did. In the case of a blood-soaked scene, this can mean a lot of excruciating days at the computer.
Erotic scenes can be excruciating in other ways. Translating a humorous paragraph can make your day. I recently translated a samurai story by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, the author of Rashomon , and it was thrilling. Because the story was written in such dense language, I got to sit there watching samurai flicks in my head for days at a time instead of the 20 minutes it will take the reader when my translation comes out next year.
I have been translating Japanese fiction into English for 35 years, and spending so much time in this slow, painstaking but exciting process seems to have done odd things to my synapses. Because I squeeze every bit of juice out of a Japanese text when trying to recreate it in English, mere reading in my own language never quite measures up. It's crazy, because I know English far better than I will ever know Japanese, but even though I am a slow reader of English, I can never make myself slow down quite enough to savour the imagery the way I have to when translating Japanese. And merely reading English, I miss the active involvement of the re-creative process.
The search for ways to express the original text in another language is a large part of what makes translation so exciting. When you're dealing with two languages as dramatically different as Japanese and English in terms of vocabulary, sound, idiom and sentence structure, the translator has to do a lot of inventing to convey an approximation of the mood or imagery in the original. This is what makes the whole thing worthwhile. There is nothing quite like the thrill of having the perfect expression pop into your head from some inner space of which you were only vaguely aware.
If that appeal to the unconscious sounds suspiciously Mura-kamiesque, that is all to the good. This is what has made working on Murakami's fiction, which draws so richly from the author's unconscious, so satisfying. While you slowly read and write, you feel as if you're down inside the well with him. There is no better way to enjoy a work of literature.
· Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words is published by Vintage
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