Tuesday, January 18, 2011

A Translation Comparison of Haruki Murakami's "100% Perfect Girl"

In preparing for the soon arriving untitled project I mentioned in the last post, I went to the library today looking for some books and I found a somewhat old anthology of Japanese short stories called New Japanese Voices: The Best Contemporary Fiction of Japan. I was drawn to the collection of writers assembled for this book, including (Wednesday Afternoon Picnic favorite) Genichiro Takahashi, Masahiko Shimada, Amy Yamada (here under the spelling Eimi Yamada), Banana Yoshimoto, and everyone's favorite Haruki Murakami.

What struck me about the Murakami was that the story in the collection was called "On Meeting My 100 Percent Woman One Fine April Morning," subtly different from the title I'm used to, "On Seeing the 100% Perfect Girl One Beautiful April Morning."My interest piqued, I took it out along with an assortment of other books you may hear about in the near future.

The reason why the title is slightly different is that it was translated for this collection by a different set of translators than any of the "official" translators, i.e. Jay Rubin, who translated the version of this story for The Elephant Vanishes, Philip Gabriel or Alfred Birnbaum. And boy does it show.

Overall, I guess the problem is that the non-Rubin version is extremely literal. Checking against the original as collected in カンガルー日和 (A Perfect Day for Kangaroos), nothing seems wrong in any obvious way. But it's extremely wordy and structured in a way that when reading it just doesn't sound quite natural. And that's probably the deal-breaker. This early in his career, Murakami was a "cool" writer, a voice for the young, and consequently his style was decidedly not "literary" or flowery in the traditional sense, (my professor has called his style "flat" in many of his published work, to my dismay) but one that was extremely modern and accessible. And that has to come across in English too.

Today in a class on translation, we talked about how editors have the final say in the publishing world, and how ultimately editors will edit in a way that will get the book read by as many people as possible because in the end what is important to the company is if the book sells. And obviously different publishers and different editors have very different agendas and see the text in very different ways - a university press might go for something more scholarly than accessible and sell-able like a big publisher like Random House.

Therefore, I wish I could see Jay Rubin's original draft of "100%." Maybe at the end of the day it was his editor that gussied up the text. In terms of faithfulness, there are some slightly liberties: the most obvious are the additions of a handful of sentences that aren't even in the original text - although it is possible, however, that they may have existed at some point. Murakami is infamous for re-writes of his own work in later editions. But in this case, I think Jay Rubin/his editor at Knopf had it right. In my opinion, it is the better translation. I hope that this evaluation is as unbiased as possible - I did read the Jay Rubin first and many times over since, so obviously I'm "used to" that version. But let's take a look now at both.

For now, the first sentence:

Jay Rubin:
One beautiful April morning, on a narrow side street in Tokyo's fashionable Harajuku neighborhood, I walk past the 100% perfect girl.

New Japanese Voices version:
One fine April morning, I passed my 100 percent woman on a Harajuku back street. 

Obviously, the "Tokyo's fashionable neighborhood" part isn't in the original - every person in Japan knows Harajuku, although the same assumption can't be made for Americans, especially in the early 1990s (I'm talking about those innocent days before Gwen Stefani's appropriation of Harajuku fashion in the early 2000s' cultural zeitgeist). But one inclusion that IS necessary is the simple word "perfect" in Rubin's translation. No, it's not in the original. But it is clearly implied in the context of the story and sounds 100% weird without it. Continuing:

Rubin: Tell you the truth, she's not that good-looking. She doesn't stand out in any way. Her clothes are nothing special. The back of her hair is still bent out of shape from sleep. She isn't young, either - must be near thirty, not even close to a "girl," properly speaking. But still, I know from fifty yards away: She's the 100% perfect girl for me. The moment I see her, there's a rumbling in my chest, and my mouth is as dry as a desert.

NJV:  She wasn't an especially pretty woman. It wasn't that she was wearing fine clothes, either. In the back, her hair still showed how she'd slept on it; and her age must already have been close to thirty. Nonetheless, even from fifty meters away, I knew it: she is the 100 percent woman for me. From the moment her figure caught my eyes, my chest shook wildly; my mouth was parched dry as a desert. 

Rubin's "She doesn't stand out in any way" is an obvious addition - in my copy of the Japanese, anything resembling that sentence is not there, but it fits in perfectly (non-descript-ness has always been a favorite image for Murakami).  The same goes for "She isn't young, either" and "not even close to a "girl," properly speaking" - 100% not in the original. It's an interesting choice to be sure. Like I said, the NJV version is much closer to the original text, except for one change, for reasons I absolutely can't fathom: the NJV is in the past tense, when the original (and the Rubin) are in the present. Let's continue:

Rubin: Maybe you have your own particular favorite type of girl - one with slim ankles, say, or big eyes, or graceful fingers, or that you're drawn for no good reason to girls who take their time with every meal. I have my own preferences, of course. Sometimes in a restaurant I'll catch myself staring at the girl at the table next to mine because I like the shape of her nose. 
          But no one can insist that his 100% perfect girl correspond to some preconceived type. Much as I like noses, I can't call the shape of hers - or even if she had one. All I can remember for sure is that she was no great beauty. It's weird. 

NJV: Maybe you have a type of woman you like. For example, you think, women with slender ankles are good; or, all in all, it's a women with big eyes; or it's definitely women with pretty fingers, or I don't understand it, but I'm attracted to women who take a lot of time to eat a meal - something like that. Of course, I have that kind of preference. I've even been distracted, eating at a restaurant, by the shape of a woman's nose at the next table.
       But no one can "typify" the 100 percent woman at all.
       I absolutely cannot even remember what her nose looked like - not even whether she had a nose or not, only that she wasn't especially beautiful. How bizarre!

Again, the NJV matches the original pretty accurately, but this is where that translation really breaks down for me. The most egregious aspect of the NJV is that "typify" nonsense - in the Japanese it's a katakana word: タイプファイする. From personal experience, it is certainly extremely tempting to use the exact same word as in the original when it's presented in the text as a foreign loan word like this instead of a Japanese word. But this just doesn't make any sense. And that weird paragraph break after that sentence is NOT in the original, making it kind of an odd choice. Part of me likes the way the NJV keeps the sense that people are thinking to themselves "Oh, I like THIS about women" in the original, but it does come out a bit wordy, and the Rubin ultimately flows better. Maybe it was painful for even Rubin to have to cut that out. And "It's weird" matches the tone of the narrator in my opinion much better than the extremely emphatic (and overly dramatic) "How bizarre!" - the original, "なんだか不思議なものだ", would be something like "Rather mysterious" if we were to be super translation-ese about it.

I could continue, but this post is getting rather long as it is. Other weird things include the NJV version taking out that the narrator wants to see a Woody Allen movie in particular, for reasons I don't understand (maybe he has a patent on his own name and we have to pay him money every time he's even mentioned).

But look, before anyone starts judging, translation is hard, and it's not a science. If the translators for the NJV version and the book itself had any influence in getting more Murakami translated into English, then good for them. Something is better than nothing. And even though I'm worried about the qualities of the translation, I'm very much looking forward to reading the Shimada and Takahashi stories, simply because there is so little of them in English.

Anyway, The NJV version of the translation can actually be found online in a few places, including here, so check it out for yourself. If you feel I'm totally misguided in praising the changes Rubin/Knopf made in the name of commerciality and selling out, that the translator's integrity has been somehow compromised and that the New Japanese Voices version is the REAL Murakami voice, feel free to leave a comment. I'd love to hear what other people have to say on this matter.

One last comparison to prove that I'm right though:

Rubin: Now, of course, I know exactly what I should have said to her. It would have been a long speech, though, for too long for me to have delivered it properly. The ideas I come up with are never very practical.
Oh, well. It would have started "Once upon a time" and ended "A sad story, don't you think?"

NJV: Of course, now I know exactly how I should have spoken up to her then. but, no matter what, it's such a long confession I know I wouldn't have been able to say it well. I'm always thinking of things like this that aren't realistic. 
Anyway, that confession starts, "once upon a time," and ends, "isn't that a sad story?"


  1. I did prefer the NJV restaurant piece but I can agree that Rubin seems overall more readable. But even then it still seems a little stilted, but maybe that's part of the narrative voice. I'm nowhere near being able to translate Japanese but looking at the final English extracts I think i'd render it:

    Of course, now I know exactly what I should have said. It would have been a long spiel, far too long for me to deliver properly. But then the ideas I come up with are never very practical.
    Anyway, it would have started "Once upon a time" and finished "A sad story, don't you think?"

    Sorry if my little aside is irrelevant but I enjoyed trying to rephrase it.

  2. Share away, Anon, cause you're preaching to the choir. I love those kinds of little puzzles too - that's the fun of translating. Thanks for stopping by!

  3. Wow, thank you for sharing your thoughts. A spur of the moment thing, but this afternoon I wanted to look up comparisons of translations of Murakami's work. Your post, sir, was quite a satisfying read. I still want to look up more on the matter, but all the same thank you!

  4. I was puzzled by the 'flat' feeling of the prose in 1Q84 - searched for critiques of Murakami's translators. Would you believe that very very few people comment on the quality of the translation? Glad to find your blog post. Might even use the comparisons with my creative writing students, if I may. - Thanks - Jill

  5. This blog post is very very interesting! I'm italian, and the problem of translation is a very interesting issue for me. Are you sure that the original text is in pesent tense and not in past tense? 'Couse one of the italin translator of Murakami translates very close to the original and she translated into the past tense... It would be interesting to compare.

    Let me know