Rhythm is the most important element of Murakami’s prose: Jay Rubin

Jay Rubin, the Japanese-to-English translator, on the author, the process of making sense of unpredictable turns of phrase, and the new writers to look out for

Updated - September 25, 2022 05:57 pm IST

Published - September 23, 2022 09:01 am IST

Japanese-to-English translator Jay Rubin

Japanese-to-English translator Jay Rubin

The Japanese way of referring to one of its most celebrated living writers would be Murakami Haruki because in Japan, the family name comes first, unlike the custom in the West. It is perhaps fitting in the scheme of things that Murakami, 73, who often delves into surreal mysteries and dichotomous worlds, can be addressed as MH or HM. Jay Rubin, 81, who has translated several Murakami novels, including Norwegian WoodThe Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Books 1 and 2 of 1Q84, is privy to the writer’s fluid inner world. He has also written a book, Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words (2012). Rubin says he penned it for other fans who feel a similar kinship with the perpetual Nobel Prize for Literature contender, and would like to know more about his life and art. Several of Murakami’s books have seen film adaptations, too. Edited excerpts from an e-mail interview:

When we read Haruki Murakami in English, how much of it is him, how much of it is you, considering the fact that the Japanese and English languages are so different, grammatically and phonetically?

In terms of the words on the page, it is 99% Rubin, 1% Murakami precisely for the reasons you spell out. Of course, Rubin would never have put the words there if he hadn’t read Murakami first. Much of the process is intangible and involves unpredictable turns of phrase that have nothing to do with the mechanics of grammar. That’s what makes literary translation so fascinating and, yes, an art.

Japanese writer Haruki Murakami

Japanese writer Haruki Murakami | Photo Credit: AP

Murakami is a music fan — jazz, classical, folk, rock. He ran a jazz bar for several years and collects records, goes to concerts. How has this influenced his style?

He has enlarged upon this in many places. I called my book Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words because of the centrality of music to his literary vision. Rhythm is perhaps the most important element of his prose. He enjoys the music of words, and he senses an affinity between his stylistic rhythms and the beat of jazz. As he noted in a talk at the University of California in Berkeley, “My style boils down to this: first of all, I never put more meaning into a sentence than is absolutely necessary. Second, the sentences have to have rhythm. This is something I learnt from music, especially jazz.” For Murakami, music is the best means of entry into the deep recesses of the unconscious, that timeless other world within our psyche.

The story goes that Gabriel García Márquez told his translator Gregory Rabassa that his English translation of One Hundred Years of Solitude is better than the Spanish original. Is such a feat possible?

Funny, I just had dinner with somebody who was convinced that my translations were better than Murakami’s originals. I think that’s crazy — or at least it has a lot to do with totally subjective factors related to the reader’s education in two languages. As for Murakami, he knows how stories are told, and heard. He is sensitive to the rhythms of exchange between teller and listener, and is conscious of the mechanics of this process to recreate it — which he often does — in a fictional setting.

For The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories, there are the stalwarts like Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, Yūichi Seirai and some young, unknown writers. Who are the Japanese writers to watch out for? What are you working on?

I’m working on English translations of Itō Seikō’s modern Japanese translations of medieval Noh plays. Itō Seikō is one of the most interesting contemporary writers. Kawakami Mieko is another.

At the movies 

A still from Drive My Car.

A still from Drive My Car.

‘Drive My Car’ is the first story in Haruki Murakami’s short-story collection Men Without Women (2017), translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel and Ted Goosen. The road story, adapted by Ryusuke Hamaguchi for screen, revolves around the life of Yusuke Kafuku who is driven around by a young woman driver as he tries to cope with loss and grief. The film won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 2022. 


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