Programs in Creative Writing and Translation, University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, Fayetteville, Ark.
Nathaniel Rich replies:
I’m grateful for Kathleen Heil’s note, and regret that, in my discussion of Murakami’s prose, I might have assumed too much knowledge about his English-translation process, which has been well documented over the years. As a translator myself, I’m sensitive to the sensitivities of translators. Perhaps even more sensitive than Heil, since the implication of her letter is that the person responsible for the clunky stretches of prose in Murakami’s new novel is not Murakami but the translator, Philip Gabriel.
I don’t believe that Heil’s theory holds up under scrutiny. For one, Murakami closely supervises his English translations, as he and his translators have often attested. Murakami is an excellent English speaker who has taught writing at Princeton and Tufts. In fact, Murakami is himself a prolific translator from English to Japanese. He knows what a cliché is, and he can recognize one in English. The same goes for repetition and clunky dialogue. It would be patronizing to insist otherwise. “The English version of my books is very important,” Murakami said in a Paris Review interview (conducted in English). “So it must be very precise.”
Consider, also, that he has been translated into English by three translators: Gabriel, Alfred Birnbaum, and Jay Rubin. Yet there is a remarkable uniformity of style and prose across Murakami’s translated fiction. So much uniformity, in fact, that the translation of Murakami’s previous novel, 1Q84, was split cleanly in two by Rubin and Gabriel. In my essay I quoted from seven of Murakami’s previous novels and discussed the full scope of his work with the intention of indicating that his prose (and his plots, characters, and style) has remained strikingly consistent throughout his career.
I think the most honest position is to accept that the intermittent clunkiness of Murakami’s prose is due not to incompetent translators but, rather, to translators who are doing their best to convey the original as accurately as possible.
Unfortunately Heil missed the main argument I was trying to make in this part of my essay, which is that the many stretches of dead prose serve an important function in his fiction. The prose is often flat on purpose; it is strategically flat. In my essay I explain why this might be.
The Big Question: Readers Respond to the November Issue
Who is the most underrated politician in history?
James K. Polk: He oversaw the transition to a bicoastal nation.
Cicero: He influenced law, politics, and literature, and increased the influence of Christianity.
— Karl Tarbox
Jimmy Carter: the only modern president who genuinely valued peace over war
— Jenny Sue Kakasuleff
Shirley Chisholm: After being elected to Congress in 1968, she ran for president in 1972—the first black woman to do so. Her service as a legislator through the early ’80s impacted racial equality, veterans’ affairs, education, and women’s issues.