The illusion of literalness

The illusion of literalness

Jay Rubin (translator of much of Haruki Murakami’s work) on the challenge of translating Japanese:

[He] offers up two sample translations of a paragraph in the Murakami short story “The 1963/1982 Girl from Ipanema.” He notes that while one version is awkward and the other smooth, both are linguistically equidistant from the original Japanese. The awkward version just has an “illusion of literalness” simply because it isn’t as good.

Then Rubin offers up a real literal translation of the same paragraph. English loan words are in italics.

High school’s corridor say-if, combination salad think-up. Lettuce and tomato and cucumber and green pepper and asparagus, ring-cut bulb onion, and pink-colour’s Thousand Island dressing. No argument high school corridor’s hit-end in salad specialty shop exists meaning is-not. High school corridor’s hit-end in, door existing, door’s outside in, too-much flash-do-not 25 metre pool exists only is.

Here’s one of the translations Rubin offers — the more literary one.

When I think of my high school’s corridor, I think of combination salads: lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, green peppers, asparagus, onion rings, and pink Thousand Islands dressing. Not that there was a salad shop at the end of the corridor. No, there was just a door, and beyond the door a drab 25-metre pool.

Two people pass one another on the street. “How are you? one says. Or perhaps, ”What are you up to?“ It doesn’t really matter. ”Fine,“ we respond. ”Nothing.“ Or worse, ”How are you?“ the other responds in return, not even responding with anything more than a question. These provocations are greeting defaults, our greeting autopilot, as we try to move forward with our days.

Perhaps any answer would be linguistically equidistant from a true response, as nickmamatas says, since the initial question wasn’t seeking a true answer anyway. When we receive a less than “fine” response to a greeting, it’s curious for us to consider which now feels literal and which just the illusion of literalness. Translation is hard work.