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“Literal Translation”

by nickmamatas

It’s the first of the month, and like many people who live in college towns, I took advantage of the summertime to find a new and better apartment. I also got the chance to look through my books while packing and unpacking, and remembered something I wanted to share with you all.

The subject is dear to our heart—translating Japanese into English. Jay Rubin is probably one of the most important translators of Japanese in the United States. He’s well-known as the translator of much of Haruki Murakami’s work, and he also wrote a wonderful literary biography of the author called Haruki Murakmi and the Music of Words, which I highly recommend.

In one of the appendices, he talks about the challenge of translating Japanese, and 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. I’m keying this in from the UK edition, thus the alternative spellings of the words “color” and “meter.”


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.

Can you manage to come up with a coherent paragraph from that raw material? I sure couldn’t. 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.

Translation is hard work, folks. Don’t try it at home!

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2 Responses to ““Literal Translation””

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  2. […] has a short post on Jay Rubin’s (known for translating Haruki Murakami’s fiction) approach at translation: In one of the appendices, he talks about the challenge of translating Japanese, and offers up two […]

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