Tuesday 01 October 2002

The fine art of translation

Via Arts & Letters Daily comes a marvellous essay by Wendy Lesser, titled The Mysteries of Translation, about how different translators mediate the voice of the original author:

This is not to say that a Margaret Jull Costa translation of the Portuguese novelist José Saramago sounds like a Margaret Jull Costa translation of the Spanish novelist Javier Marías — not at all. If it did, Costa would have failed in her primary aim, to let us hear the writer’s voice as she herself hears it in the original language. But it does mean that a Margaret Jull Costa translation of Javier Marías sounds slightly but noticeably different from an Esther Allen translation of Javier Marías… If I were pressed, I would say that Allen’s Marías sounds more like a Spaniard, Costa’s more like a native English speaker. Which is preferable? I suppose it depends on what kind of reader you are — or, more likely, on which translation you encountered first.

Ms Lesser discusses translations of W.G. Sebald by Michael Hulse, Anthea Bell, and Michael Hamburger and recommends new translations of Dostoyevsky by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky: “What I found when I read their Demons — the novel that, in earlier translations, was usually called The Possessed — was that I understood, for the very first time, the source of the unease in a Dostoyevsky novel.”

But she directs most of her attention to the replacement of Murakami Haruki’s first translator, Alfred Birnbaum, with Jay Rubin. She discovers that, in addition to translating A Wild Sheep Chase, Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, and Dance, Dance, Dance, Birnbaum translated an edition of Murakami’s first (1987) novel, Norwegian Wood, which was only ever published in Japan.

Murakami Haruki, Norwegian Wood, Volume IIn the Translator’s Note to the first American edition, Jay Rubin notes that the Birnbaum translation was produced to enable Japanese students “to enjoy their favorite author as they struggled with the mysteries of English” and that English speakers should not try to obtain this earlier version because “the present edition is the first English translation that Murakami has authorized for publication outside Japan.”

I came late to reading Murakami Haruki and read The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (in English) four or five years ago, at the insistence of one of my Japanese teachers. I was pleasantly surprised and, following my usual custom, went back and started at the beginning. Except the beginning was Murakami’s second book, A Wild Sheep Chase, for the reasons outlined above.

Murakami Haruki, Norwegian Wood, Volume IIBut on my next trip to Japan, I bought the two small Norwegian Wood paperbacks that cost Wendy Lesser over US$100 to have sent to the US. It remains my favorite Murakami novel, though only now do I understand how much of the credit is due to the skill with which Alfred Birnbaum recreates “that weird, youthful, but never annoyingly with-it voice in which Murakami’s narrator-protagonists [speak] to themselves.”

Finally, Wendy Lesser’s essay is worth reading just for the way in which she defines the essence of a great translation—by comparing the opening paragraphs of Jay Rubin’s version of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle with that of Alfred Birnbaum.

Rubin: “Perfectly good English sentences presented by a reasonably interesting narrator.”

Birnbaum: “In this translation, the logic of cause-and-effect English sentence structure has been jettisoned in favor of some other mode, and it is that mode — the intrusion of the surprising and the foreign and the unknowable into the mundane regime — which marks the world of a Haruki Murakami novel.”

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good morning ,

i'm looking for the email address of of Wendy Lesser, could you help me?

thank you

alessandro macelloni

Posted by alessandro macelloni on 2 June 2003 (Comment Permalink)

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour