Ben Peek (benpeek) wrote,
Ben Peek

Murakami Translations.

Last week, I was given a copy of Haruki Murakami's Norwegian Wood. That, in itself, is not very special, especially when you add the fact that I've already read it; but this copy was actually not the Jay Rubin translation, which is the readily available version for us Westerners. Instead, it was a copy of the Alfred Birnbaum translation, which was produced inside Japan, reportedly for students to study English. I once read about one fan paying a hundred bucks for the two tiny books that form the novel. Of course, that's not how my world works, and how I ended up with the copies was because J. borrowed the books ten years ago, lost them, and then found them in a move. Since my love for Murakami is well known and I am now old and almost dead, they have been given to me.

So, for the last couple of hours I've been flipping through each book, comparing the styles. It's been quite interesting and I figured I'd share with you the opening and closing of the novel. First, the opening of Norwegian Wood:

Rubin Translation:

I was 37 then, strapped in my seat as the huge 747 plunged through dense cloud cover on approach to Hamburg airport. Cold November rains drenched the earth, lending everything the gloomy air of a Flemish landscape: the ground crew in water proofs, a flag atop a squat airport building, a BMW billboard. So--Germany again.

Once the plane was on the ground, soft music began to flow from the ceiling speakers: a sweet orchestral cover version of the Beatles' "Norwegian Wood". The melody never failed to send a shudder through me, but this time it hit me harder than ever.

I bent forward, my face in my hands to keep my skull from splitting open. Before long one of the German stewardesses approached and asked in English if I were sick.

Birnbaum Translation:

Here I am, thirty-seven years old, seated in a Boeing 747. The giant plane is diving into a thick cover of clouds, about to land at Hamburg Airport. A chill November rain darkens the land, turning the scene into a gloomy Flemish painting. The airport workers in their rain gear, the flags atop the faceless airport buildings, the BMW billboards, everything. Just great, I'm thinking, Germany again.

The plane completes its landing procedures, the NO SMOKING sign goes off, and soft background music issues from the ceiling speakers. Some orchestra's muzak rendition of the Beatles' "Norwegian Wood." And sure enough, the melody gets to me, same as always. No, this time it's worse than ever before. I get real bad. I swear my head is going to burst.

I crouch forward and cover my face with my hands, and I just stay like that. Eventually a German stewardess comes by to ask if I'm feeling ill. I'm fine, I answer, just a little dizzy.

The differences are interesting, are they not?

I am not a huge fan of Norwegian Wood, it must be said, and I don't think this is Murakami's best novel at all. In either translation I find the arrival of the narrator's memories, the physical pain of his past returning, to be heavy handed and jarring. Nonetheless, I think Birnbaum plays it best in his translation, trying to find a way around the ham fisted emotions and action by downplaying it with the 'same as always' line. Rubin, in response, just opens his hand and slaps the emotion down, going for the cliche of a skull split and a shudder that tears through the narrator. Oddly, I sympathise, as I often shudder when I hear the Beatles too.

I do find myself, it must be said, leaning more in favour of Rubin's description of the airport. There's nothing wrong with Birnbaum's, but his just doesn't evoke the scene as readily as the first.

However, it must be said, I much prefer Birnbaum's opening line to Rubin's. The "Here I am, thirty-seven years old, seated in a Boeing 747" has more style, more rhythm, more personality than Rubin's two steps away from being passive "I was 37 then, strapped in my seat as the huge 747 plunged through dense cloud cover on approach to Hamburg airport." I almost want to pin the plunging plane he's strapped in to Rubin and his tendency to be dramatic where it's not needed, but since Birnbaum's next line is about diving, I guess the problem is with Murakami and the way he lands planes in his novels.

Now, the final lines of each book:

Rubin Translation:

Where was I now?

Gripping the receiver, I raised my head and turned to see what lay beyond the phone box. Where was I now? I had no idea. No idea at all. Where was this place? All that flashed into my eyes were the countless shapes of people walking by to nowhere. Again and again I called out for Midori from the dead centre of this place that was no place.

Birnbaum Translation:

Where was I now?

I looked up, receiver in hand, and spun around in the phone booth, taking in my surroundings.Where the hell was I? I couldn't tell. Not a clue. All I could see about me were people, scores of people, all tired of walking about aimlessly. I held onto the line to Midori from there in the middle of nowhere.

It's that over played dramatic that does Rubin in, and leaves Birnbaum with the preferred translation, in my mind. Rubin has the narrator calling out and the description of the dead centre... and none of those are doing the final line of the book any service. It's bad Hollywood. Syntactically, the Birnbaum last line is a bit awkward, and could have been cleaned up, if only by dropping the 'from there' and rearranging it so that it read "In the middle of nowhere, I held onto the line to Midori". Though that's not fantastic, either. But I'm sure there's another way to end the book without using 'middle of nowhere'. Or perhaps not. Murakami obviously gave the sense of nowhere, no place, and that's why it is there.

Still, I think the answer to this translation issue is obvious: I need to learn Japanese.

That's what, like a week or something, yeah?
Tags: review
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