The Wind-Up Tower of Babel

In the way that the Tower of Babel is an allegorical warning against too much ambition, being God-like, the translator acts like a god for readers who place their trust in his skill to deliver a sound, coherent text as the author created it; but what if the translator, the author, and the publisher conspired to create another work altogether?

Such is the case with Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle: A Novel. Let us be clear: Jay Rubin is, along with Gregory Rabassa, Edith Grossman, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, one of the best translators working today. Unfortunately, Mr. Rubin became unintentionally embroiled in a literary sleight-of-hand that had the author’s and publisher’s fingerprints all over it.

On the copyright page of the American version of The Wind-up Bird, one finds these words: “translated and adapted from the Japanese by Jay Rubin with the participation of the author.” This is somebody’s attempt at transparency, but I don’t know whose idea it was – Rubin’s, Murakami’s, Knopf’s or whether all three had had a hand in it. Rubin was hired out to translate Nejimake-dori kuronikuru, the Japanese original, which takes up three volumes; and that might be the problem, there were three books. We got one.

In a detailed email, about equal to a reconstruction of the scene, Rubin explained that Knopf wanted to trim about 25,000 words, which seems reasonable, but why did they task him and not an editor? He is just the translator (written with sarcasm). In the grand scheme of things, the excising of 25,000 words, with a snip here and a snip there, is nothing more than strategic editing. Rubin confesses in the email that he picked the runts among the letters. He admits that he had that pride in knowing Murakami’s work so well that his selections would not damage the canvas. He admits that he was afraid that Knopf would hire out some punk who might creep onto his turf and leave dirty footprints. Gloves off after he had done the deed, Rubin handed the manuscript off to Knopf. He says Knopf accepted what he had given them. Did Knopf not have a dedicated editor for Murakami?

Next on the scene is the author himself. In Rubin’s opinion, Murakami was able to pare down Books One and Two, but not Book Three. Translator and author are in near agreement on the excised text from books One and Two, but Rubin would discover later that Murakami had taken an even bigger bite out of the apple. It is very confusing, but the end result is that the Japanese hardcover and paperback versions of the novel differ. As for the English translation: “adapted” is the operative word; and I will remain mum about the British version of Wind-up, which has different spellings and expressions that would furrow American foreheads.

I take particular issue with “adapted from” because it is dishonest. At what point did Rubin cease to be a translator and change hats and become an editor? It is a fine line, indeed. A translator has to decide what will “come across” and what will simply fall to the wayside because of a cultural divide. One solution to this problem is to offer judicious footnotes without interrupting the reader’s experience of the text. A Spanish edition of Gabriel García Márquez’s Cien años de soledad had a mixed bag of distracting footnotes: one page would define yuca  (a cassava, which I daresay is the Spanish equivalent of our potato), and another page would relate the novel to other GGM works. The information was supplemental, but inconsistent in quality.

I’m not against notes, but I prefer a well-written Foreword that warns me if it has spoilers. As a reader, I want to know what Salman Rushdie put across in his Satanic Verses that earned him death threats. I want to understand what was so offensive about Naguib Mahfouz’s Children of Gebelawi that it had gotten him stabbed in the neck outside his home when he was eighty-two years old. Mahfouz would live another twelve years. An informative Foreword is where I look for important details. The norm is that a scholar writes the essay. A Translator’s Note is where I expect to learn any quirks or strategy. In his introduction to Kafka’s Metamorphosis, translator Joachim Neugroschel gives readers a taste of some of the grammatical challenges between German and English, and insight into Kafka’s style.

I feel ambivalent about Murakami’s “cooperation.” On the one hand, I understand that he’d want to change things because time affords distance, hindsight. Orson Welles would not watch Citizen Kane, because he didn’t see the masterpiece that we saw; he saw every single imperfection, every scene that he would have shot differently through his expert eyes. Us mortals would not have known a difference, and this is just what someone in an Oliver Twist voice should have told Mr. Murakami. Leave it alone.

The higher the Tower of Babel became the greater the din for understanding grew and the more hands involved in the construction the more that the tower leaned sideways until it finally toppled. The literary landscape has two different formats of Wind-Up in Japanese and English-speaking readers have the screenplay version (sarcasm). Rubin said that he translated all three volumes. I can understand an editor at Knopf knocking off a few words to save some trees or kilobytes, with the author’s permission, of course. Translation and editing are two different spheres of activity.

An editor might have sat down and said, “Herman, why all these cetological digressions? It’s Shakespeare against the white whale, right?” or, “Victor, why the dissertation on currency?” or “Leo, what is it with you and all this damn wheat?” He might have, but he didn’t. I mentioned in a previous post that English-speaking readers did not have a complete Les Misérables until 1976. This is called an “abridged text.” As far as translations are concerned, they are needed from time to time. John E. Woods has given us a fresher, more ironic Thomas Mann than H.T. Lowe-Porter ever did – and she was Mann’s chosen translator with Knopf, which is an irony that Mann would have appreciated. Lydia Davis led the translation effort to modernize Proust. The same can be said of the Volokhonskys’ methodical effort to refresh and revitalize the eastern literary canon after Constance Garnett’s monumental effort to bring Russian literature to the West.

Abridged is the quick, fast, and dirty way to get to the essentials, like those notes that teachers forbade in literature classes. Adaptation is the process between media, from page to film screen. That is a different form of translation. Exposition sinks and dialog floats. What Murakami and his co-conspirators have done is create an indeterminate text, a revised third, which will inspire a generation of graduate dissertations on comparing editions. The reader is left with a translator as an approximate guide for the strange building behind him, a publisher shoveling sand to make concrete, and an author way up there in the air, who is either trying to talk to God or has mistaken himself for the deity. Metaphorical or not, God gave up on the sixth day and rested on the seventh. He was done tinkering. The work was either done or abandoned.

About gabrielswharf

gabriel’s wharf is a blog on the random thoughts and writings of author Gabriel Valjan. His stories continue to appear online and in print journals. Winter Goose Publishing publishes his Roma Series.
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