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I have recently been reading Murakami’s latest work, 1Q84, in fact, I just finished Book 2 today. I will review the novel once I am done with the third part, but I can already say that I wasn’t particularly impressed by the first 600 pages. Despite this, articles like Nathan Heller’s “The secret to his success. Hint: It’s not great writing” – published on Slate yesterday – really irk me. Why? Because much of Heller’s criticism focuses on Murakami’s writing style, comments that are completely unjustified given that he is reading a translation. A few quotes from Heller’s article:

“Reading Murakami’s prose as an adult can feel like listening to an 18-year-old trying to convey some inner revelation and having trouble finding the words.”

“And yet for all of its plotting flourishes, 1Q84 reads, paragraph-to-paragraph, as some of Murakami’s weakest writing in years. Obvious things are overexplained. (“If we’re through choosing, we’d better close the menus,” Aomame at one point instructs. “Otherwise the waiter will never come.”)”

“Figurative language is often forced. (“Little children might pee in their pants, the impact of her frown was so powerful,” goes one description.)”

We do not know what words Murakami chooses in the original (quote 1). We do not know whether what seems like overexplanation in English, does not in fact function like emphasis in Japanese (quote 2 – see also grammar points below) or serves some other purpose. And we certainly don’t know what kind of figurative language Murakami uses in the original text (quote 3, I’m guessing, is a comment on the alliteration/consonance of the /p/ sound in “pee”, “pants”, “impact” and “powerful”).

Heller is aware that he is reading a translation (something that reviewers ignore surprisingly often), but quickly dismisses that this could be a contributing factor for the issues he has with Murakami’s style:

It is tempting to explain these weaknesses in terms of what is lost in translation, just as it is tempting to dismiss Murakami as an artless writer. Neither judgment is fair. Unbelievable characters, forced exposition, and rambling dialogue are unlikely to read any less awkwardly in Murakami’s native tongue.

I never warmed up to the characters of 1Q84 myself and found the plot somewhat lacklustre, but the justification Heller presents for his criticism is unconvincing. He has not read the Japanese 1Q84 and is in no position to judge whether or not the dialogue is “unlikely to read any less awkwardly in Murakami’s native tongue”. You cannot assess the style of a literary work when you have no knowledge of the original language and never consulted the original text at all – and it’s a fairly sure bet that Heller speaks no Japanese.

I barely know any Japanese myself, but what I do know – what I have already learnt now that I’m trying to study the language – is that Japanese is very different from Indo-European languages (I speak four fluently and studied – but don’t speak – another two in high school, so I have some frame of reference). One major difference is in what is not verbalised in Japanese, i.e. things that are left out because it is assumed that they can be derived from the context of an utterance. Wayne P. Lammers’s Japanese the Manga Way (some fun reading I was given by my genius linguist supervisor) explains those differences well.

In the opening pages of his very accessible grammar, Lammers writes:

Japanese is built on three basic sentence types: verb, adjective, and noun. And the simple sentences of each type could hardly be simpler. A verb – an action word, like “go” – all by itself makes a complete sentence. An adjective – a describing word, like “cold” – by itself can make a complete sentence, too, because in Japanese the meaning of the verb “to be” is built right in. A noun – a word that names a person, place, thing, or idea – must come with a separate verb “to be”, but only a single noun has to be stated. So to give English comparisons, the simplest Japanese sentences are like:

Goes. Went. Came. Will come. (verb type: action)
Is cold. Was fantastic. (adjective type: describing)
Is phone. Were friends. (noun type: naming/identifying)

In English, these are sentence fragments because they don’t have subjects – that is, they don’t say who’s doing the action, or what is being described or identified – and a native English speaker who spoke this way would sound rather silly. In Japanese, though, sentences like these sound perfectly normal; in fact, it often sounds unnatural to include the subject when it’s already obvious from what came before in the conversation, or simply from the situation. (p. 2)

Here is another basic example from Lammers’s book (p. 9):

ムスメ です。
Musume desu.
girl/daughter is.
This is my daughter.”

What is fluent English is, from the Japanese point of view, rather verbose. We can also backtranslate “This is my daughter” more literally:

Kore  wa                     watashi  no                            musume   desu.
This   [subject marker]   I           [possessive marker]   daughter   is.

To the mind of an English speaker that is beginning to learn Japanese this sentence seems more complete than Musume desu (although it is still awkward, given the different word order and various grammatical markers), yet in most circumstances it would be a marked and unnecessarily wordy utterance for a native speaker of Japanese. These examples, I think, are a good reminder of how immersed we can be in our own language(s), forgetting – or perhaps never realising to begin with – that speakers of other languages might perceive things in a completely different way. The languages I speak are all comparatively similar and I’m in fact rather grateful for my genius linguist supervisor telling me that I should study something “non-Indo-European”, because it would provide me with a much deeper insight into languages generally. I think he is right: the little Japanese (and Korean) I have learnt so far has forced me to completely rethink the way I use language, because suddenly I have had all kinds of particle markers, missing words and an inverted word order to deal with.

But back to Murakami: We don’t know what Murakami’s style is like in Japanese, whether he uses the simplest sentences possible, or is, from a Japanese point of view, wordy. I don’t want to make any assumptions either – I simply want to object to critics commenting on the style and language of an author when they are reading something that has been written by a translator. Nor do I want to criticise translators – their task is hard enough, and even harder when languages as distinct as English and Japanese are concerned.

Languages differ greatly, in their vocabulary and grammar, in the way they construct the world around them, in the way that they feel – and that’s something that seems to be forgotten at times, particularly by people who are monolingual (or nearly monolingual). But it’s something that can be demonstrated very easily: simply watching the subtitled version of a film versus the dubbed version presents us with an extremely different experience. The whole film feels different – it’s not the same film, no matter how well made the dubbing or the subtitles are.

In fact, I think we can note this difference even within a person that speaks multiple languages: that person isn’t exactly the same one ‘in English’ as ‘in Japanese’. I have seen viewers (in online forums) make comments on Mizushima Hiro’s Ryusuke in Beck, observing how he – accent aside – sounded different. He did – because the tone of voice, the pitch, changes depending on the language spoken, and change the person too. I’ll say it based on my own experience: I’m not exactly the same person when I speak one language or another. I sound different. I feel different too. I even prefer, when possible, specific languages for specific things because of their inherent differences.

I don’t mean to reconstruct the Tower of Babel here and insist that we cannot communicate across languages, that we should never translate, or watch subtitled/dubbed films, but we shouldn’t forget about the differences in languages. And, most of all, we shouldn’t judge an author’s style on the basis of the language of a translation.

Bonus Link: Article that discusses Murakami’s ‘lost voice’ in translation.
Reference: Lammers, Wayne P. Japanese the Manga Way. Berkeley, CA: Stone Bridge Press, 2004.