Haruki Murakami, the Japanese writer, is known for many things: mostly for quirky novels such as The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1997) and1Q84 (2011), which have helped spur a renaissance of writing in Japan and interest in it among readers around the world, but also for his passions for running, jazz, the Beatles, and many other things.
He is less well known as a translator with a near-native command of English, one whose work has brought writers as various as Raymond Carver and J.D. Salinger to Japanese readers. And let’s not forget F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose The Great Gatsby Murakami translated into Japanese and who has long been cited as the chief inspiration for Murakami’s own work.
Even so, and even though Murakami wrote some of his first novel in English and then translated it into Japanese to hear his words as they carried from one language into another, Murakami relies on translators to bring his writings into English and many other languages. Two of those translators, Philip Gabriel and Ted Goossen, teamed up to bring his newest novel, the 700-page Killing Commendatore, into English. That’s an unusual arrangement given differences in temperament and dialect (Gabriel is American, Goossen Canadian, and their languages don’t always overlap). But, Goossen tells Kirkus from his office at Toronto’s York University, the pairing was not without precedent, and it was done for a reason. “Both Philip and I had lots of experience translating Murakami,” he says. “But it was in the interest of speed, I think, that we worked together to bring out the book, which is new in Japanese, too. The book is split into halves, and so we each took one and went to work.”
There were a few difficulties along the way, most of them, Goossen says, at a micro level: “We had, for instance, to reconcile whether we use ‘however’ or ‘although.’ ” Some were at a slightly more fraught level, such as a discussion over whether the book’s title, originally Kishidancho goroshi, ought to add a definite article: “Killing the Commendatore.” For that, they turned to Murakami, who, Goossen says, “was very generous and never intrusive but who always had good ideas about how to handle our questions.”
Gabriel has characterized Murakami’s writing as “clear and logical” even though Japanese discourse often plays on a sense of vagueness and indirection. Asked whether the translators encountered any difficulties in words or concepts that resisted translation in the first place, Goossen allows one stumbling block, the superficially simple, often used Japanese word kokoro. “It’s one of the most difficult Japanese words,” says Goossen. “It signifies both the mind and the heart, words we carefully distinguish….We can fudge and translate as ‘soul,’ but then we’re mapping on a word that most Western readers will hear with a Christian connotation, and we don’t want that, either….It’s a word I sometimes wish we could just keep in Japanese and let the reader try to sort out what comes closest: heart, mind, or soul.”
Murakami has reportedly figured on shortlists for the Nobel Prize in literature for several years now, the result of a body of work that numbers dozens of novels and short stories. He is unquestionably the best-known Japanese writer at work today, at the head of many writers who have yet to be heard from in English. That Murakami is so well known is the result of his ingenuity and skill as a writer, of course—but also of the work of his translators, crossing borders and cultures, bringing the world closer together.
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor.