Friday, January 21, 2011

1st JLPP International Translation Contest

This just in!

It looks like the Japanese Literature Publishing Project is holding their first annual translation contest! Apparently they announced this back in late December, but I hadn't caught a whiff of it anywhere until I randomly decided to check out the JLPP website today.

The JLPP needs to advertise more!

One of the requirements is that this is for first-time translators only. Previously published translators (even those with just one story in an anthology) are inelligible. Also, curiously enough, there are no details about the prize for the winner, although there is a first and second prize winner, so hopefully there is one (especially publication!).

There are six total choices for the translation pieces - three short stories and three literary essays. Although the wording might be a little misleading, it sounds like the translator must submit one translation from each category, so a total of two submissions. They even provide PDF files of the pieces - no expensive shipping from Amazon Japan necessary (if you are indeed not living in Japan, like I am)! Also, for any German speakers out there, it's for both English and German translators!

You have almost all year to work on these you guys - the submission period is September 1st, 2011 to November 30, 2011. So get crackin'! Oh, and one of the judges is Stephen Snyder - who translated Yoko Ogawa's The Housekeeper and the Professor and Ryu Murakami's Coin Locker Babies among many other great contemporary works. So that's neat.

Clearly this is very exciting to me. You know I'm giving it a shot.

Anyway, check it out here!

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

A Translation Comparison of Haruki Murakami's "100% Perfect Girl"

In preparing for the soon arriving untitled project I mentioned in the last post, I went to the library today looking for some books and I found a somewhat old anthology of Japanese short stories called New Japanese Voices: The Best Contemporary Fiction of Japan. I was drawn to the collection of writers assembled for this book, including (Wednesday Afternoon Picnic favorite) Genichiro Takahashi, Masahiko Shimada, Amy Yamada (here under the spelling Eimi Yamada), Banana Yoshimoto, and everyone's favorite Haruki Murakami.

What struck me about the Murakami was that the story in the collection was called "On Meeting My 100 Percent Woman One Fine April Morning," subtly different from the title I'm used to, "On Seeing the 100% Perfect Girl One Beautiful April Morning."My interest piqued, I took it out along with an assortment of other books you may hear about in the near future.

The reason why the title is slightly different is that it was translated for this collection by a different set of translators than any of the "official" translators, i.e. Jay Rubin, who translated the version of this story for The Elephant Vanishes, Philip Gabriel or Alfred Birnbaum. And boy does it show.

Overall, I guess the problem is that the non-Rubin version is extremely literal. Checking against the original as collected in カンガルー日和 (A Perfect Day for Kangaroos), nothing seems wrong in any obvious way. But it's extremely wordy and structured in a way that when reading it just doesn't sound quite natural. And that's probably the deal-breaker. This early in his career, Murakami was a "cool" writer, a voice for the young, and consequently his style was decidedly not "literary" or flowery in the traditional sense, (my professor has called his style "flat" in many of his published work, to my dismay) but one that was extremely modern and accessible. And that has to come across in English too.

Today in a class on translation, we talked about how editors have the final say in the publishing world, and how ultimately editors will edit in a way that will get the book read by as many people as possible because in the end what is important to the company is if the book sells. And obviously different publishers and different editors have very different agendas and see the text in very different ways - a university press might go for something more scholarly than accessible and sell-able like a big publisher like Random House.

Therefore, I wish I could see Jay Rubin's original draft of "100%." Maybe at the end of the day it was his editor that gussied up the text. In terms of faithfulness, there are some slightly liberties: the most obvious are the additions of a handful of sentences that aren't even in the original text - although it is possible, however, that they may have existed at some point. Murakami is infamous for re-writes of his own work in later editions. But in this case, I think Jay Rubin/his editor at Knopf had it right. In my opinion, it is the better translation. I hope that this evaluation is as unbiased as possible - I did read the Jay Rubin first and many times over since, so obviously I'm "used to" that version. But let's take a look now at both.

For now, the first sentence:

Jay Rubin:
One beautiful April morning, on a narrow side street in Tokyo's fashionable Harajuku neighborhood, I walk past the 100% perfect girl.

New Japanese Voices version:
One fine April morning, I passed my 100 percent woman on a Harajuku back street. 

Obviously, the "Tokyo's fashionable neighborhood" part isn't in the original - every person in Japan knows Harajuku, although the same assumption can't be made for Americans, especially in the early 1990s (I'm talking about those innocent days before Gwen Stefani's appropriation of Harajuku fashion in the early 2000s' cultural zeitgeist). But one inclusion that IS necessary is the simple word "perfect" in Rubin's translation. No, it's not in the original. But it is clearly implied in the context of the story and sounds 100% weird without it. Continuing:

Rubin: Tell you the truth, she's not that good-looking. She doesn't stand out in any way. Her clothes are nothing special. The back of her hair is still bent out of shape from sleep. She isn't young, either - must be near thirty, not even close to a "girl," properly speaking. But still, I know from fifty yards away: She's the 100% perfect girl for me. The moment I see her, there's a rumbling in my chest, and my mouth is as dry as a desert.

NJV:  She wasn't an especially pretty woman. It wasn't that she was wearing fine clothes, either. In the back, her hair still showed how she'd slept on it; and her age must already have been close to thirty. Nonetheless, even from fifty meters away, I knew it: she is the 100 percent woman for me. From the moment her figure caught my eyes, my chest shook wildly; my mouth was parched dry as a desert. 

Rubin's "She doesn't stand out in any way" is an obvious addition - in my copy of the Japanese, anything resembling that sentence is not there, but it fits in perfectly (non-descript-ness has always been a favorite image for Murakami).  The same goes for "She isn't young, either" and "not even close to a "girl," properly speaking" - 100% not in the original. It's an interesting choice to be sure. Like I said, the NJV version is much closer to the original text, except for one change, for reasons I absolutely can't fathom: the NJV is in the past tense, when the original (and the Rubin) are in the present. Let's continue:

Rubin: Maybe you have your own particular favorite type of girl - one with slim ankles, say, or big eyes, or graceful fingers, or that you're drawn for no good reason to girls who take their time with every meal. I have my own preferences, of course. Sometimes in a restaurant I'll catch myself staring at the girl at the table next to mine because I like the shape of her nose. 
          But no one can insist that his 100% perfect girl correspond to some preconceived type. Much as I like noses, I can't call the shape of hers - or even if she had one. All I can remember for sure is that she was no great beauty. It's weird. 

NJV: Maybe you have a type of woman you like. For example, you think, women with slender ankles are good; or, all in all, it's a women with big eyes; or it's definitely women with pretty fingers, or I don't understand it, but I'm attracted to women who take a lot of time to eat a meal - something like that. Of course, I have that kind of preference. I've even been distracted, eating at a restaurant, by the shape of a woman's nose at the next table.
       But no one can "typify" the 100 percent woman at all.
       I absolutely cannot even remember what her nose looked like - not even whether she had a nose or not, only that she wasn't especially beautiful. How bizarre!

Again, the NJV matches the original pretty accurately, but this is where that translation really breaks down for me. The most egregious aspect of the NJV is that "typify" nonsense - in the Japanese it's a katakana word: タイプファイする. From personal experience, it is certainly extremely tempting to use the exact same word as in the original when it's presented in the text as a foreign loan word like this instead of a Japanese word. But this just doesn't make any sense. And that weird paragraph break after that sentence is NOT in the original, making it kind of an odd choice. Part of me likes the way the NJV keeps the sense that people are thinking to themselves "Oh, I like THIS about women" in the original, but it does come out a bit wordy, and the Rubin ultimately flows better. Maybe it was painful for even Rubin to have to cut that out. And "It's weird" matches the tone of the narrator in my opinion much better than the extremely emphatic (and overly dramatic) "How bizarre!" - the original, "なんだか不思議なものだ", would be something like "Rather mysterious" if we were to be super translation-ese about it.

I could continue, but this post is getting rather long as it is. Other weird things include the NJV version taking out that the narrator wants to see a Woody Allen movie in particular, for reasons I don't understand (maybe he has a patent on his own name and we have to pay him money every time he's even mentioned).

But look, before anyone starts judging, translation is hard, and it's not a science. If the translators for the NJV version and the book itself had any influence in getting more Murakami translated into English, then good for them. Something is better than nothing. And even though I'm worried about the qualities of the translation, I'm very much looking forward to reading the Shimada and Takahashi stories, simply because there is so little of them in English.

Anyway, The NJV version of the translation can actually be found online in a few places, including here, so check it out for yourself. If you feel I'm totally misguided in praising the changes Rubin/Knopf made in the name of commerciality and selling out, that the translator's integrity has been somehow compromised and that the New Japanese Voices version is the REAL Murakami voice, feel free to leave a comment. I'd love to hear what other people have to say on this matter.

One last comparison to prove that I'm right though:

Rubin: Now, of course, I know exactly what I should have said to her. It would have been a long speech, though, for too long for me to have delivered it properly. The ideas I come up with are never very practical.
Oh, well. It would have started "Once upon a time" and ended "A sad story, don't you think?"

NJV: Of course, now I know exactly how I should have spoken up to her then. but, no matter what, it's such a long confession I know I wouldn't have been able to say it well. I'm always thinking of things like this that aren't realistic. 
Anyway, that confession starts, "once upon a time," and ends, "isn't that a sad story?"

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Happy 1-Year Anniversary, Wednesday Afternoon Picnic!

Huzzah! As of today, I've been (fitfully) doing my blog for exactly one year!

I started Wednesday Afternoon Picnic partly as a means to stave off boredom, partly as a means to help my Japanese, and partly because it seemed like a fun thing to do anyway. This time last year, instead of being at school like I am now, I was waiting for my study abroad to Japan to start in late March. My girlfriend was still in school and I mostly worked nights at a movie theater trying to desperately save up for the trip, which meant that many of my daytimes were actually spent alone in our apartment, and when my girlfriend did get home she had to get through her homework.

Lonely and bored, The Kumozaru Project was the way for me to give myself weekly assignments that would be fun and help me improve my Japanese and get some experience in literary translation, which is something I see myself doing at least as part of my future career. For those of you who don't know, the Kumozaru Project was a weekly translation of Haruki Murakami flash-fiction from his collection Yoru no Kumozaru, which has not been published in English. Once a week I posted a translation and also a commentary on the process and any problems I had.

The amazing thing was, I actually kept up with this self-imposed assignment. I was on schedule for 6 weeks and well into the 7th installment when I got an email requesting on behalf of Murakami's rights management company that I not only stop but take down all the translations I had posted or face some serious consequences. A quick look through my archives will show you that I obviously complied.

Since then, it's been harder for me to keep the site active and regular without a clear goal like I had with the Kumozaru project. I've done the best I can to keep up with content that was diverse and (somewhat?) interesting, but there were certainly many dry spells, which was exacerbated by the fact that once I was in Japan, and back to school, I became incredibly busy. Looking through the posts, even without the Kumozaru posts those first three months had a lot more regular content that they do now.

I can't promise a complete turn-around in terms of frequency of posts, but I do love my little blog and will continue to add to it, with my New Year's resolution to always have a post at least within a two-week period. I know I've focused a lot on Murakami in the past, and I will tell you that I probably will continue to do so. He has so much unavailable in English, especially essays in little bite sized pieces, that as far as translation projects go, they're the perfect size for me to handle regularly on this site. I will also keep up with posts about Genichiro Takahashi, because of my misguided attempts to give him something akin to buzz - I really think he is one of today's most interesting active writers that English-readers would respond to. And since I've never gotten a comment about him that said "Hey! This guy sucks and no one cares!"I see no reason to stop. :)

But, for not just you anonymous members of the Internet, but also for myself, I want to diversify my writing and expand my knowledge of Japanese contemporary writers. At this very moment I'm formulating a new project to kick off the New Year that will help me achieve such a goal, so expect very soon an announcement regarding this new project. And although I've started projects that went nowhere and posts I wanted to do but couldn't get off the ground, I'm pretty excited about this one and really want to do it - so before I say anything more I'm going to figure out the logistics of it exactly so I don't regret anything down the line and have to drop it.

In the meantime, to all you out there who have started following me or just discovered an article or two by accident, thanks for coming and I hope you come back again! I hope to make this year bigger and better.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Genichiro Takahashi's "Life"

Today I'm going to share some excerpts from a short story that I translated recently by Genichiro Takahashi. It comes from his short story collection 君が代は千代に八千代に (Kimi ga yo ha chiyoni yachiyoni, "May Your Reign Last Forever and Ever") which I've already shared a little bit of here.

This particular excerpt comes from a short story called 人生, or "Life." The story follows Kento, a novelist with a wife and newborn. The beginning is extremely low-key, so much so that the lack of action is actually stifling. He drinks water while his wife drinks beer after beer watching the home shopping network. Eventually he goes to do his work, which of course is his writing. The reader learns that Kento has been suffering from writer's block, and is only able to begin stories. The majority of the "action," as it were, lies in the section where Kento sorts through the collection of his unfinished stories sitting on his computer. The first one he looks at (the one he's currently trying to work on) is called "Handicapped":
   The man was handicapped, ever since birth. He had a large badge attached to his chest, one of crisscrossing lines of green and yellow. It was the mark of the disabled. This badge was attached to him when he was in first grade. He took a test at school, and then they knew he was handicapped. And what's more, in a ranking of the disabled from level 1 to level 8, he was ranked level 1.
    His teacher put the badge on him. Then she said give this to your mother, and handed him a letter.
    The boy went home triumphantly. For he was the only one in his class to get a badge.
    His mother fainted as soon as she saw his badge. After a while, he sat down quietly next to his unconscious mother. After that his mother came to. When she saw the badge on his chest, she fainted again. Then his mother came to again. There was nothing she could do but come to. Truly, she wanted to stay unconscious like this forever. The boy handed the letter he was given to his mother. His mother read the letter. She fainted before she finished reading it.
    At some point, his father came home. He was tall; his face, hands and nose were big as well, and he had a stoop as if he was embarrassed by these things, and there was always creases in his shirt over his chest. As soon as he came home, his mother and father started to quarrel violently. It was regarding the matter of the badge pinned to his chest.
    “I don't get it. I work for this family from morning to night, and this is what I get in return. There's still twenty years remaining on our loan, and three years ago, when I thought we were gonna get a bonus, half of it was payment in kind. And on top of that, get this! The brat has a huge fucking badge on his chest.”
    “Are you saying it's my fault?”
    “If it's not my fault then whose is it?”
    Next to this fight the boy shined his badge. It somehow felt magnificent.

Writers writing about writing is certainly a theme of countless stories and novels, but I think the reason this story works is the way Takahashi focuses on the fragments that have been written instead of the inner life of Kento and his frustrations. Instead of something that could be seen as static (in lieu of another less helpful word like "boring" perhaps) Takahashi brings together pieces that are more dynamic. And as a reader, I found that it brings up the question of why the pieces that are shared with the reader in the story (the others are about a son finding out his father has cancer, which at the risk of sounding unsympathetic or meanspirited could be seen as a generic topic, and a man buying a sex robot that hilariously proves to be not what he expected) simply can't be pushed or tweaked into something usable. It's a fascinating idea to me - that something, that on paper sounds like perfect material for a story, cannot be manipulated or evolve into a worthwhile story - and one that sounds very realistic and true to life to me.

But I think that including the unfinished stories alone wouldn't make this story as meaningful or emotionally resonant as it is without picking at Kento's brain somewhat, and showing the reader that behind the frustration of not being able to write is really just fear - fear that he has nothing meaningful to say because his life is ultimately empty:

   Kento pulled out a number of novels from the bookshelf written by his peers.
   It seemed that everyone was writing about life. About how there was some sort of meaning in life, or something like that. They were writing about what was moving, what was full of hardships, and about the joy that existed afterward. They were writing about this and that, and the experiences behind them. And when he finished reading them, it seemed like this thing “life” wasn't so bad. If life is just like this, Kento thought, then I want to give this “life” a shot too.
    Kento stopped reading the books written by his peers. They won't be his references. No matter what, novels are written about life. There is no such thing as writing about anything else. What Kento wanted to know was what about life he should write about.

When Kento gives up on his writing for the night and leaves his study, he finds his wife the same way he left her:

   What the hell was I thinking, writing these novels? Kento leaned his head to one side, and gazed at the novels, one after the other; novels that were like streams that disappeared halfway through the desert. Just wasted time. Kento switched his computer off and went to the kitchen. His wife was still drinking beer. The home shopping network was still on. The products seemed endless.
   “Your mother called,” Kento's wife said without looking at him. “She's being treated badly by her daughter-in-law. Even though she knows her teeth are bad, she gives her only old and stale things to eat.”
    “That's awful,” Kento said.
     “If the time comes, I wonder if it would be OK if we take her in.”
    “Of course,” Kento replied.
    Kento spoke without moving his eyes from the TV. This is life, he thought.
    Therefore, I am living life. It's so quiet. But, Kento thought. But...yet...

 I wonder if the effect is not as chilling as it is coming from reading the whole story, but in my opinion "Life" is a powerful story, and a fascinating and important one from Takahashi, who as a writer, is characterized by post-modern tricks and outlandish premises. The outlandish premises color the story, certainly, in that the first and third of the unfinished stories shared are ever so slightly bizarre, but the real meat of the story, and Kento the character, are defined by the silence and the fear and insecurity that silence represents. "Life" is Takahashi proving that there is something very real and very vital behind all the post-modern noise of his fiction. 

Thursday, January 6, 2011

"Bands You Should Be Listening To" Volume 4: SuiseiNoboAz

Today's Subject: SuiseiNoboAz

I've been sitting on this for a while now (read: almost a year). I've wanted to talk about this band for just about forever, but I wasn't sure if it was a good candidate. The thing is, they only have one album out. No other EPs or singles. The ten songs on their self-titled album is all that they have offered so far to the world.

But holy shit was this not one of my favorite CDs in the last year - if not ever.

("From Mercury with Love")

The trio formed in Takadanobaba, Tokyo in 2007 and came out with their debut CD in March 2010. It was produced by Number Girl and Zazen Boys' Mukai Shutoku, which makes sense because the little Zazen Boy's I've heard is pretty similar in tone. They released it on their own record label.

And that's as much info there is readily available on the net. But seriously, did you listen to that song above? What? You need more? Go for it:

Damn I can't stand how awesome these guys are. I almost went to see them right before I had to go back the US, but it was really last minute and I was running out of money. Man I wish I had done it anyway.

I apologize that I don't have much else to say about them but just say how great they are. But even after only a single album they have this really defined and polished sound. And each member of the trio really know how to play - listen to those bass licks in that first video. And the drums in this:

プールサイド殺人事 (Poolside Murder Case)

I know this isn't how most people would describe them (cause it's not how anyone uses this word), but to me, these guys got swagger. I'm counting down the days until any news about a follow-up EP or album.

How to Get 'Em: Looks like CD Japan is your only option if you live in the US.

God Bless America