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Haruki Murakami's Chinese translators on emulating style


The first book of 1Q84, Haruki Murakami's new novel (in two books), was released in the mainland in at the end of May, and the second will follow next week. Sina's bestseller book lists said 1Q84 "sold 1.2 million copies in China and 'almost took up the entire month'" for the month of May. As with What I Talk About When I Talk About Running (当我谈跑步时我谈些什么), there was controversy when the novel was translated by Shi Xiaowei (施小炜) rather than Lin Shaohua (林少华), Murakami's mainland China translator for over 20 years.

The reasoning behind this was a change of publishing house, but it also sparked off a debate on the quality of Lin Shaohua's translations and whether he was monopolizing Murakami's writing estate in China.* The general impression was that Lin's classics influenced translations, laden with idioms (成语), didn't match Murakami's jazzy and colloquial Japanese style. Shi Xiaowei was picked to be Murakami's new translator from a pool of applicants.


In a new magazine launched by the same company as The Beijing News (新京报), Famous (名汇), a feature article reviewed Murakami's influences and reiterated again his bourgeois subject material and his unique style. They also asked Lin Shaohua and Murakami's Taiwan translator, Lai Ming-chu (赖明珠), who translates into traditional Chinese, their view on getting close to Murakami's original flair for writing a style that was 'Japanese yet also not Japanese.'

The "beautification" of the work in translation does not exist

by Lin Shaohua

According to what usually happens, whenever a new book of Murakami's is released in Japan, I would receive the text, take up my pen and begin to translate it, and when the rights have been settled over in Japan, I would basically be finished on this side. But after the storm over Running*, I didn't want to do this anymore. I understood that I could not control some things, so slowly I've started to not only translate other people's work, but I am also trying to write what would belong to myself as being limited by other people is a source of pain.

What I must "self-praise" is that my translations are, to some degree, a real expression of Murakami's literary style, specifically there are three points:

First we need to re-realize the simplicity, rhythm and humor of the original style. As for simplicity, compared to Japanese or English, Chinese has a natural advantage, translating it into Chinese means that at least one third of the length is cut. As for the rhythm, Murakami says that he gets his rhythm from music, and especially jazz, but I don't understand jazz, so where does the rhythm of my translations come from? Mostly it comes from the rhythm of classical Chinese. As for humor, I think that any reader will get a sense of this through reading the Chinese translation.

Secondly, I am careful in transferring the 'heterogeneous nature' of the original style. Haruki's style has an American flavor, even an unique style 'with several inventions,' which basically means that it's Japanese that doesn't look like Japanese, but Japanese with overtones of English in translation. What I do is simple, since Murakami's writing doesn't look like traditional Japanese, then my translation shouldn't look like literary work that has already been translated from the Japanese, and I try my best to dissipate the accent of normal Japanese translations, and take care to conserve the original text's freshness and appealing strangeness, as well as the beauty of its heterogeneity. At the same time, though, I try as hard as I can to transform it into natural and exquisite Chinese.

Thirdly, I think that the original form also has these characteristics: meaningful, introverted and reserved, this is also something that I am careful in transferring to the translation.

As for the issue of the "beautification." Whether domestically or internationally, criticism of clumsy translations usually centers on this, and you could say it is "target of public criticism." I think that there are at least two issues related to this in this:
First, on the whole I don't think there is a question of "beautification," at least objectively speaking I don't have this intention. Then objectively speaking, why do some readers, even academics, get that feeling? Thinking specifically, there are roughly two causes: one is related to my positioning of Murakami's literature. I don't think Murakami's literature blindly relies on its colloquialisms and its readability as popular literature, but that it is graceful and serious literature with its pursuit of knowledge and its aesthetic ambition, therefore in the process of translation I am conscious that it is a classic, it is meticulous, I feel like I am on thin ice. The second is related to my personal literary talents, I don't really need to be modest here, being involved in literary translation and literary creation means that you should have corresponding literary talents, and I liked literature as a child, I was almost entranced. Therefore, if I translated it to look more beautiful, that's still a little literary talent which has naturally seeped out, but it isn't caused by insisting on "beautification."

Also, if I step back and say, even if it is "beautification," what would be wrong with it? I don't need to say that the most ideal is to equalize, to translate with real value. But whether in theory or in practice, a complete equal value and equal translation doesn't exist. Translation has always been a process of limitless nearing to the original style, a slight divergence from this means that it touches on beautification or watering down, or even uglifying, this is committed by almost everything. If it's like so, then making it better, beautifying it, is better than watering down, or the uglification of it, isn't it?

Simple and trying hard not to use idioms

by Lai Ming-chu
  From the beginning Japanese and Chinese have different qualities. Ordinarily speaking, Japanese is more elegant and soft, Chinese is rather simple and tough. When a Japanese work is translated into Chinese, I try hard to retain the characteristic of Japanese. It might not be the most appropriate if we are using standard Chinese to judge whether the translation is good. When I first started translating Murakami’s work, he did not have the fame that he does today, so it was with a relaxed mentality that I began. At the onset I thought that his choice of words were simple, and that it shouldn’t be hard to translate. The sentences of his early works really were rather simple. On the basis of wanting to share something good with friends, I thought I was only doing something that I liked doing.

Early on, someone said that even if you read just one sentence, you would know that it was Haruki Murakami's writing. Perhaps some think that this is an exaggeration, but if you observe carefully, the really isn’t without its reasons. From when Haruki Murakami wrote his first book, he’d already decided that he was going to use a style that was different to anyone else’s. Even if it was just one character, or just one number. Just from the title 1Q84 it is obvious that Haruki Murakami is a naughty writer who likes to play word games. He likes putting heterogeneous things together; here it’s numbers and English letters.

Is Haruki Murakami’s writing style fluid? Of course, where it should be fluid it’s very fluid. However, sounding natural and unforced is not his only goal. Due to the fact that Haruki really likes music, he would intentionally inject a musicality and sense of rhythm into his writing. He often mentions the names of tunes in his novels, becoming background music for the novels. His novels have the relative urgency, allegro and adagio, the feeling of an ensemble or a solo, singing in chorus or singing alone or singing in rounds, sometimes there would even be a rest, which is a quiet pause, to the extent of silence, and then intentionally building a section where there is no fluidity for special effect.  

When I am translating I rather care about being loyal to the original. Although I have been rewarded by the support of most readers, some people also said it doesn’t look like Chinese, or it's too wordy. I often remind myself it needs to be more simplified. When I translate his novels I try hard not to use idioms, hoping to retain his usage, so that Murakami’s characteristics are still there when you’re reading the Chinese.

I am very impressed that Mr. Lin Shaohua’s achievements in Chinese are better than mine, but I also feel that if the translator’s own writing style is overtly obvious, this could take away the style of the writer. Due to the similar lifestyles, readers on the mainland should be more used to Mr. Lin’s translation. I’ve met Mr. Lin in Hong Kong and in Tokyo, and because we’re both translators of Haruki Murakami, we hit it off at once. I have also had the pleasure of reading his translation, and I have a deep impression of the many four-character idioms that he used. When we were chatting, I found that he is prone to be articulate and eloquent, he likes Tang Dynasty poems, so it feels most natural to him to use that kind of language to translate.

  1. Murakami's book about marathons and writing What I Talk About When I Talk About Running (当我谈跑步时我谈些什么) was translated by Shi Xiaowei rather than Lin Shaohua, after Nanhai publishing house (南海出版社) bought the rights.
  2. Zhong Hongjie (钟宏杰), MA Suzhen (马述贞) and Gao Xianghan (高翔翰) are all early translators of Murakami, but it's unclear where they have gone.
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There are currently 3 Comments for Haruki Murakami's Chinese translators on emulating style.

Comments on Haruki Murakami's Chinese translators on emulating style

I've always preferred the Taiwanese translations, perhaps because I read Japanese as well and have read some of Murakami's work in its original language (and English and French). Lin's translations never really sang to me (too pretentious and Chinesey) in the same way, but I could see how they would work well for a Chinese reader -- they felt very accessible, literate, and Chinese, just not Murakami.

English is not that hard for Chinese people. I suggest reading it in English because the writing makes a very bad impression in English and possibly, the Chinese are translating half-blind and it may actually be MORE charming in the Chinese translation which would not be accurate.

I haven't read any of Lai's translations, but the fallout from Lin's translations is instantly identifiable in the writing of many young mainland authors. Murakami seems to be this generation's Faulkner or Garcia Marquez -- the figure that everybody wants to emulate. More than once I've wished for a time machine so that I could go back and make it not so.

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