Marie Antoinette's pastry slave (mark356) wrote,
Marie Antoinette's pastry slave

Murakami Haruki's translation of Catwings

Now that I can read Japanese fast enough to finish a typical novel in 2 or 3 weeks, I figured it was time to check out the local library. Libraries have a lot of things not in bookstores, and besides, if I can read a book before it's due, why shouldn't I?

I was a bit surprised to see a whole bookshelf full of nothing but Western translations. Of course all of Earthsea-- the movie made the book much more popular-- but also the Inkspell series (translated from the German), Ella Enchanted, a bunch of others. Now, reading a Japanese translation of a book that was originally written in English is one of the least appealing ways to practice Japanese that I can think of. If I'm going to chew over a book for three weeks, I'd definitely rather it be a book originally written in the Japanese, instead of something that originally was English anyway.

I changed my mind, though, when I saw Murakami Haruki's translation of Catwings by Ursula K. LeGuin. I haven't actually read the original (and I am frustrated that it's not available for Kindle!), but I know it's not a rare book. Besides, it is written by one of my very favorite authors, and translated into the Japanese by Murakami Haruki. And if he says it's good Japanese, it's good Japanese. I've read English translations of books I've read in the Japanese before, and it can be interesting to compare them, so why not occasionally go the other way? (Besides, it's short.)

Anyway, although he wrote the book with no translator's footnotes, he did include an afterward with explanations of all of the parts worthy of comment. For instance, many of the types of birds Le Guin refers to are American birds. There is a Japanese word for "hummingbird" (it translates literally are "bee bird") but Murakami wrote that since he likes the sound of the word "hummingbird" he just used the English. Then he explains what a hummingbird is.

There were a few jokes and plays on words that he struggled to find appropriate Japanese for, and I thought he did well. In the beginning of the book, when Jane Tabby finds that her kittens have wings, one of the nearby cats says, "I suppose their father was a fly-by-night." "Fly-by-night" is an idiom that cannot quite be translated directly, so he just has to write out the meaning. The line becomes something like, "That's because their father was the kind of guy who only played and flew around." Then he explains the expression "fly-by-night" and the joke. There's even a wordplay on "human beings" and "human beans" that he managed-- there happens to be a type of bean(ingen) that sounds like a word for human (ningen), so he just used that.

The comment that I thought was peculiar, though, was his explanation of his translation of the following line: "Sitting in the catbird seat!" sang Harriet, perched on a pinnacle. I didn't know that sitting in the catbird seat was an idiom referring to being in an advantageous position, and here it's funny because you could definitely call Harriet a catbird. But then he goes, "I don't know if there's actually a song with lyrics like that. Or it may just be Harriet's improvisation." When I checked, I saw that he had translated "sang" literally. The easiest translation for sing (utau) refers to singing, like singing a song, or else it deascribes what birds do, and it can also refer to writing a poem or even praising someone. (That is, you actually can translate "sing praises" into Japanese easily; it has that same meaning too.) But as far as I know, it doesn't refer to chanting something in a sing-song voice, which is what I'm guessing Harriet was doing here. And even if it did have that meaning, Murakami wouldn't talk about lyrics or improvisation. Did he not know that meaning of "sing"? Did he know it and just assume that it wasn't being used in that sense? Maybe his talk of improvisation etc in the explanation is just a joke.

Edit: I spoke with a friend about this passage. She said that the word utau can indeed be used exactly as sing is used in English here-- that is, referring to a sing-song or enthusiastic voice, so therefore the translation is perfectly defensible. The only odd part is Murakami's comment that suggests he doesn't know the usage, and my friend could not say whether he was joking or not.
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