by Bruce Rutledge,
Two of Japan’s all-time best-selling writers, the late Shigeru Mizuki of Gegege no Kitaro fame and contemporary writer Haruki Murakami, have translators who live about seven
miles apart from each other in the Seattle area. My company, Chin Music Press, decided to get those translators together at the most recent Sakura-Con, a large anime and manga festival held in Seattle every Easter weekend. Folklorist Zack Davisson, Shigeru Mizuki’s English translator, versus academic Jay Rubin, most famous for his Haruki Murakami translations, in a translation battle. The J-E translation community was excited.
We had Rubin translate the opening pages from Gegege no Kitaro, a manga he was utterly unfamiliar with, while Davisson translated the first page of Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood. The result was fun and illuminating. First, Rubin had all sorts of questions about the setting of Kitaro and the character Nezumi Otoko. Was this set in modern times? Who was this little rat man and why did he wear a cloak? What exactly was this bizarre world? Once Davisson gave him some context, Rubin deftly translated the text in the speech bubbles with an eye toward brevity so that the text would fit.
Davisson, unhinged f rom the constraints of the speech bubbles, turned in a loquacious translation of page 1 of Norwegian Wood that was more than 50 words longer than Rubin’s published version. It turns out that Rubin cuts and snips where he desires to keep the prose flowing right. Davisson, a devout Lafcadio Hearn reader, says he tends toward the wordy when writing. He opened Norwegian Wood with:
“I was 37 years old, ensconced in the seat of a Boeing 747. The massive plane slipped through the dense rain clouds, descending on Hamburg Airport.”
Rubin’s version was four words shorter: “I was 37 then, strapped in my seat as the huge 747 plunged through dense cloud cover on approach to Hamburg airport.”
Davisson then talked about his own editorial decisions. For one, he’ll completely rewrite jokes if they don’t work in translation. The point, he said, is to make the reader laugh, not to render a clunky, humorless but accurate translation. Rubin agreed that the emotional truth is what a literary ranslator should aim for.
In the end, it seemed to me that these two successful translators had more in common than I expected. They both aggressively interpreted the text they were working in, making bold editorial decisions that less confident translators would shy away from.
They also both doggedly pursued the work of the writer they fell for. Rubin was focused on Meiji Era translations when someone recommended he take a look at this hot new writer Haruki Murakami. He demurred for awhile, but when he started reading Murakami’s work, he couldn’t stop. Davisson heard that Drawn & Quarterly was going to translate Shigeru Mizuki’s work and already had a translator in place. He implored the Canadian publisher to
consider his own translation first, and if they found it superior to the person they chose, fire that person and hire him. That’s exactly what they did.