Not lost in translation

Haruki Murakami’s Hebrew translator will take the stage at Japanese Culture Week.

Haruki Murakami books on sale in English at a Japanese bookstore. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Haruki Murakami books on sale in English at a Japanese bookstore.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
It is hard to imagine two more disparate cultures than our own and the Japanese way of life. The art of translation involves not only making sure you arrive at an accurate corresponding word or phrase in the other language, but you also often have to ensure that you convey some of the background from the source society and make it comprehensible and appropriate for the culture of the person reading the translated version.
With both these points in mind, Einat Cooper surely has her work cut out for her when she translates the novels of such leading lights of the Japanese literary community as Haruki Murakami into Hebrew. All of which makes her a natural choice for the upcoming inaugural Japanese Culture Week, which will take place in and around the German Colony from October 19 to 25. Cooper will deliver her contribution to the Japanesebased program at the Jerusalem Cinematheque with a lecture entitled “How to Write a Murakami Novel.” Her talk will be followed by a screening of the movie version of one of Murakami’s best known books, Norwegian Wood.
Cooper’s slot will take place on October 20 at 8 p.m., and the organizers have done their utmost to try to cover as many Japanese cultural bases as possible over the week-long program. Naturally, culture in this part of the world means also sinking your teeth into some tasty victuals, and the culinary side of the Japanese mind-set is addressed at a cooking workshop in which Japanese chefs will join forces with some of their Israeli counterparts. The session will not only offer some insight into how to put together Japanese dishes but will also address various philosophical topics, such as the connection between Buddhism and veganism.
In addition, various eateries in the vicinity of the German Colony will feature Japanese dishes during the week. And of course, tea ceremonies will also come into the festival fray.
There will also be an abundance of visually aesthetic items on offer, from calligraphy to street art, origami and flower arrangements. Locals will even get a taste of traditional Japanese brawn with some sumo wrestling.
There will be several movie screenings, dance performances, demonstrations of the martial arts and concerts. And if you fancy getting a little light-headed, you can get into some sake tasting.
Cooper’s ongoing love affair with Japanese culture started more than 20 years ago.
“I got to Japan as part of my post-army trip,” she explains. “I was charmed by the local culture as a novice, and I really wanted to study the language. I wanted to learn how to speak the language, which sounded so amazing to me.”
Cooper duly signed up for a Japanese language course and became proficient in the language and even returned to Israel with a Japanese boyfriend. That led to her discovery of Murakami’s writing and eventually, in a very roundabout and pretty improbable way, landed Cooper the Japanese-Hebrew translator’s berth with a leading publishing company.
“My boyfriend had a copy of [Murakami tome] A Wild Sheep Chase, and I was supposed to translate a text for a hi-tech company, just to show them I was capable of translating Japanese material into Hebrew. I picked out A Wild Sheep Chase by chance, and I started translating it,” she recounts.
Cooper enjoyed the exercise so much that she ended up translating the whole book. When the Keter publishing house contacted her with a view to possibly asking her to translate Murakami books into Hebrew, she was able to offer them a ready-made Hebrew version of A Wild Sheep Chase.
Murakami is an interesting case in point when one considers the cultural gaps that have to be bridged when translating a book into another language spoken and read by people who bring a very different kind of cultural mind-set to the translated text. Murakami, like many of his generation, and certainly the ensuing generations, is heavily influenced by Western culture.
Before he became a writer he ran a jazz club, and his books contain numerous references to jazz, as well as contemporary commercial music, principally the Beatles.
That Occidental outlook, says Cooper, is a fundamental element of the renowned writer and is also an integral part of the work of Murakami’s contemporaries.
“In the olden days, you would have had more detailed descriptions of, say, the countryside and the way of life in Japan. But with Murakami and the other writers of his generation, you don’t get that. It is all more crystallized and succinct,” says Cooper.
In fact, she goes as far to say that Murakami’s novels are not even particularly representative of the way of life in the Land of the Rising Sun.
“His characters are, by chance, Japanese but they could just as easily have been Chinese or Swiss. He writes about a state of mind, not about ethnic or national characteristics,” she explains.
Then again, several of Murakami’s characters are lonely and plainly isolated, and that appears to be a common trait of urban Japanese living. That state of affairs is also starkly portrayed in Sofia Coppola’s 2003 comedy-drama film Lost in Translation. Or could the same be said for anyone living in any large Western city too? “Yes, it’s true that there is the loneliness element in Murakami’s books,” Cooper agrees, “but Japan is a harbinger of where Western society is going. The world of today is a world of technology and, as Japan is technologically advanced, the world will follow in Japan’s wake. Japan is doing something now and you’ll follow suit in, say, five years from now. You were not born into a technological world, but your grandchildren won’t know anything else. If someone talks about alienation, he or she can only do that if they have known anything different,” she says.
The loneliness depicted in Murakami’s books, proffers Cooper, is also a result of the writer’s individual outlook on life.
“He is an insular person. Of course, the fact that he is Japanese, as opposed to, say, being Brazilian, also contributes to this. The Brazilians are very open; the Japanese are generally not,” she says.
Cooper could have cited Israelis instead of Brazilians.
“I think the Jewish-Israeli way of life and Japanese culture are at the two opposite ends of the social and cultural divide,” she states.
Cultural chasm notwithstanding, Murakami’s books are extremely popular here. In 2009, the author was awarded the Jerusalem Prize for the Freedom of the Individual in Society.
Perhaps the gap between Israel and Japan will be slightly narrower by the end of Japanese Culture Week.
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