The Sound of One Hand Clapping (Against Another): Murakami and Shibata Discuss Translation

Kevin KIRTON (ケビン・カートン)

If I had to offer a single compelling reason for translators to read 『翻訳夜話』(Hon’yaku Yawa) by Murakami Haruki 村上春樹 and Shibata Motoyuki 柴田元幸 (文春新書、2000 年、 ISBN コ-ド 4-16-660129-6), it would be this: it’s a very pleasurable way to find a renewed sense of wonderment for the impossible art of translation. If you’ve ever—after translating something that you really wanted to re-express perfectly—felt a sudden sense of joy or accomplishment, a feeling of discovery or artistic achievement, you might well feel it again while reading this book.

Murakami, however, doesn’t make any such ambitious claims in the introduction to the co-authored work. He says that he’ll be happy if the reader merely ends up thinking:

「なんだ、こいつらはずいぶん楽しく翻訳をやっているみたいだな。 翻訳ってそんなに楽しいのかねえ。」

As might be expected of Murakami, the book is interesting right from the very title. Transliterated, 翻訳夜話 is Hon’yaku Yawa. Translated using only the entries for 翻訳 and 夜話 which appear in the second edition of Shôgakukan’s Progressive Japanese-English Dictionary, it would be something like ‘Evening / bedtime stories of translation’. Clearly, that’s not going to work. So, going a little bit further, we can see deeper layers of meaning for the word yawa if we use the second edition of the monolingual Daijirin dictionary(『大辞林』第2版). Yawa can be used to mean both a conversational or laid-back style of writing, and a type of pep-talk intended to comfort meditators during rigorous Zen Buddhist training. The famous 18th-century Zen master and writer Hakuin 白隠 used yawa in the titles of some of his works. This one word carries quite a lot more weight in meaning than one might first expect.

The book is written in a relaxed conversational style because it consists, in fact, mainly of dialogues between Murakami and Shibata about translation. While this makes it very accessible, the book also includes two short stories by Raymond Carver and Paul Auster, each story presented in its original English with twin translations by Murakami and Shibata. So while the book is very casual in some aspects, it includes English writing of the very highest level, and translations of it by two thoroughly accomplished Japanese translators, one an associate professor at Tokyo University, the other one of Japan’s most (deservedly) popular novelists. Murakami refers to their translations as「競訳」(competitive translations), so if Hon’yaku Yawa had to be given an English title, I think there would be a lot of room to work with a title that plays with all, or at least some, of these aspects of the original. Considering the probable audience of J-E translators, I think something like the following would be appropriate: ‘How to be simultaneously Zen and competitive about translation: Murakami and Shibata talk’, or ‘Not a lot of Zen, but quite a bit about the art of translation’, or even ‘The sound of one hand clapping (against another): Murakami and Shibata discuss translation’.

One of the translation issues that this book illustrates very clearly is that if you intend to translate anything, you have to be prepared to make yourself completely vulnerable: vulnerable in the sense that there is no perfect translation, only good translations and bad translations−or, more precisely, subjectively better or subjectively worse translations. You will always be open to criticism that you have not captured the original completely, that the nuance of your translation is off target, that this sentence is weak, that this word is wrong. How many native Japanese-writing translators would feel more competent than Murakami and Shibata to translate Raymond Carver? Even still, comparing their translations side by side with the original, you will come across sections where it is clearly possible to see that one translation is somehow better than the other. Murakami and Shibata note numerous examples of this while discussing their parallel translations. So, whether you decide to view this aspect of translation as a challenge, or as a reason to take comfort in imperfection, the message is the same: prepare to make yourself as vulnerable to criticism as Murakami and Shibata have so graciously offered to be in this book.

Raymond Carver is well-known for the opening lines of his short stories. For some reason, his openings seem to support a huge amount of meaning with only a meagre framework of words, and they immediately set the tone for the rest of the story. Murakami and Shibata’s book features Carver’s 1975 short story entitled Collectors. The story opens like this:

‘I was out of work. But any day I expected to hear from up north. I lay on the sofa and listened to the rain. Now and then I’d lift up and look through the curtain for the mailman.’

Murakami translates this as:

「僕は失業していた。でもいつなんどき北の方から報せが舞い 込んでくるかもしれなかった。僕はソファに横になって雨の音 を聞いていた。そしてときどき身を起しては、郵便配達夫の姿 が見えないかとカーテン越しに外を眺めた。」

Shibata translates the same opening passage as:

「私は失業していた。でも北の方から今日にも連絡があるはず だった。ソファに寝転がって、雨の音を聞いた。時おり顔を上 げて、郵便屋が来ないかとカーテン越しに見てみた。」

I’m in no position to determine whether either of these is better than the other. If for some reason one had to be chosen above the other, I could only base my choice on the differences between the two. Why does one translator use 僕 (boku) and the other 私 (watashi)? (They discuss this in the book.) Why does one refer to ‘hear(ing) from up north’ as 報せ (shirase) and the other as 連絡 (renraku)? Why is ‘mailman’ translated as both 郵便配達夫 (yûbin-haitatsufu) and 郵便屋 (yûbin’ya)?

If this passage was something other than a story, if it were the opening of a print advertisement for an overseas company trying to enter the Japanese market, or if it were the first paragraph of a sensitive diplomatic correspondence, how would one translation be chosen over the other? On what basis could the decision be made? It’s likely that the writer of the original and the person paying for the translations would not be able to judge for themselves. Would they ask trusted native Japanese-speaking staff members for evaluations and opinions? Would they ask the translators to try and defend their wording? Would they try to beat the translators down on the agreed price and then choose the work of the one who puts up the most fight?

Very soon afterwards in the story, the man lying on the sofa becomes anxious when he hears someone outside walking up to his front door. The sense of unease that Carver creates in these first few paragraphs is quite remarkable. The man initially considers lying still and not responding to the visitor, but eventually calls out apprehensively, ‘What is it you want?’ A man’s voice responds saying, ‘I have something for Mrs Slater. She’s won something. Is Mrs Slater home?’

Carver has his character respond to this with the line:

‘“Mrs Slater doesn’t live here,” I said.’

This seemingly simply line is important for what it doesn’t reveal. It doesn’t tell us whether the man knows Mrs Slater, or whether perhaps she lives next door. More importantly, it doesn’t tell us if Mrs Slater used to live at that address but has moved. All this would be resolved if the line had one extra word: Mrs Slater doesn’t live here anymore. This single extra word would inform us that the man knows the person in question, that she used to live at the address, but that she has since changed addresses. Obviously the absence of this word is quite important, and this is borne out at the eerie ending of the story.

Shibata translates this important line as:


Murakami translates it as:

「ミセス・スレイターはもうここには住んでいないんですよ、 と僕は言った。」

It’s interesting that Murakami uses もう here. This corresponds to the word that is so importantly absent from the original: ‘anymore’. It’s only a difference of one small adverb that does not exist in the original, and it could be argued that using もう here makes the Japanese more natural. But it could then be counter-argued that the absence of ‘anymore’ in the original is intentionally unnatural. I won’t spoil the end of the story for anyone who hasn’t read it, but it I would contend that this addition of the single word もう effectively reduces the number of interpretations that are available at the end of the story compared to when it is read in the original English. If this is true it means that translation is a minefield and each word is as important as your next step. Boom!

Murakami and Shibata discuss another line that appears shortly after in this same story. The main character goes to the front door and opens it to find ‘an old guy, fat and bulky under his raincoat’, standing there holding a large suitcase ‘contraption’. This man holds out his hand and introduces himself, to which the main character responds simply but unusually:

‘I don’t know you. …’

Why does the main character say this? The man is introducing himself so it seems clear that the main character won’t know him. Are these words merely intended to fill the awkward situation of not shaking the other man’s hand, or are they intended to confront him? Carver seems to be building up the atmosphere of foreboding.

Murakami translates this line as:


Shibata’s version is:


In their discussion of this, Murakami admits that he prefers Shibata’s translation of this line. Again, I’m obviously not in the position to be able to say which is better, but I could imagine that many people might consider the confrontational sound of Murakami’s line to be more appropriate than the line offered by Shibata. On the other hand, it could be argued that Shibata’s line better fits the pattern of terse statements delivered by the main character later. Is there really no way to write the perfect translation? Perhaps there is if we can ensure that the original piece to be translated is completely free from the possibility of being open to interpretation. Oh … .

This compact book offers numerous levels of enjoyment and can be approached in many different ways. It will appeal to translators interested in literature in general, and to fans of Carver and Auster in particular. Readers interested in the academic works of Shibata or the novels of Murakami will also find lots to appreciate here. Personally, I found it fascinating to see how two highly articulate native Japanese-speakers express their views about translation. Murakami talks about 論理的 (ronriteki, logical) and 感覚的 (kankakuteki, instinctive) translations. He also mentions the feelings of 乖離 (kairi, estrangement) and 遊離 (yûri, separation) he feels toward his own works when he reads them in the form of translations.

Shibata and Murakami have known each other for over ten years. Reading their friendly and open exchanges about the art of translation may lead you to concluding that it is an impossible art. But you’ll probably also feel that you want to make just one more attempt at it anyway.