Translator Showdown: Where Manga Meets the Novel — by publisher Bruce Rutledge

May GLLI Blog Series:  Japan in Translation, No. 21 

Two of Japan’s all-time best-selling writers, the late Shigeru Mizuki of Gegege no Kitaro fame and contemporary writer Haruki Murakami, have translators who live about seven miles apart from each other in the Seattle area. My company, Chin Music Press, decided to get those translators together at the most recent Sakura-Con, a large anime and manga festival held in Seattle every Easter weekend. Folklorist Zack Davisson, Shigeru Mizuki’s English translator, versus academic Jay Rubin, most famous for his Haruki Murakami translations, in a translation battle. The J-E translation community was excited.

We had Rubin translate the opening pages from Gegege no Kitaro, a manga he was utterly unfamiliar with, while Davisson translated the first page of Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood. The result was fun and illuminating. First, Rubin had all sorts of questions about the setting of Kitaro and the character Nezumi Otoko. Was this set in modern times? Who was this little rat man and why did he wear a cloak? What exactly was this bizarre world? Once Davisson gave him some context, Rubin deftly translated the text in the speech bubbles with an eye toward brevity so that the text would fit.

Davisson, unhinged from the constraints of the speech bubbles, turned in a loquacious translation of page 1 of Norwegian Wood that was more than 50 words longer than Rubin’s published version. It turns out that Rubin cuts and snips where he desires to keep the prose flowing right. Davisson, a devout Lafcadio Hearn reader, says he tends toward the wordy when writing. He opened Norwegian Wood with:

 “I was 37 years old, ensconced in the seat of a Boeing 747. The massive plane slipped through the dense rain clouds, descending on Hamburg Airport.”

Rubin’s version was four words shorter:

“I was 37 then, strapped in my seat as the huge 747 plunged through dense cloud cover on approach to Hamburg airport.”

Davisson then talked about his own editorial decisions. For one, he’ll completely rewrite jokes if they don’t work in translation. The point, he said, is to make the reader laugh, not to render a clunky, humorless but accurate translation. Rubin agreed that the emotional truth is what a literary translator should aim for.

In the end, it seemed to me that these two successful translators had more in common than I expected. They both aggressively interpreted the text they were working in, making bold editorial decisions that less confident translators would shy away from. They also both doggedly pursued the work of the writer they fell for. Rubin was focused on Meiji Era translations when someone recommended he take a look at this hot new writer Haruki Murakami. He demurred for awhile, but when he started reading Murakami’s work, he couldn’t stop. Davisson heard that Drawn & Quarterly was going to translate Shigeru Mizuki’s work and already had a translator in place. He implored the Canadian publisher to consider his own translation first, and if they found it superior to the person they chose, fire that person and hire him. That’s exactly what they did.

Coming tomorrow:  Kirkus Young Adult Editor Laura Simeon on the cultural messages implicit in Japanese children’s books

BruceheadshotBruce Rutledge first went to Japan as a Monbusho English Fellow in 1985. He spent 15 years living there and working as a newspaper and magazine editor before moving to Seattle to set up Chin Music Press in 2002. He has been publishing books ever since.


10339360_10203703467893736_1000817698243960595_oDavid Jacobson organized this series on Japanese literature in translation. He is the author of Are You an Echo? The Lost Poetry of Misuzu Kaneko, a 2017 NCTE notable poetry book. A longtime journalist, David has written news articles and TV scripts that have appeared in the Associated Press, The Washington Post, The Seattle Times and on CNN and Japan’s NHK. Since 2008, he has worked with Seattle book publisher Chin Music Press. An experienced Japanese translator, he is on the board of the Global Literature in Libraries Initiative.

And in case you missed it…

May 1:  Roger Pulvers on Ishikawa Takuboku (Japan-in-Translation, No. 1)
May 2:  Kathryn Hemmann on outsider stories in contemporary literature (Japan-in-Translation, No. 2)
May 3:  Deborah Iwabuchi on memorable translations (Japan-in-Translation, No. 3)
May 4:  Eve Kushner on kanji’s punning potential, part 1 (Japan-in-Translation, No. 4)
May 5:  Eve Kushner on kanji’s punning potential, part 2 (Japan-in-Translation, No. 5)
May 7:  Translator roundtable on Shiba Ryōtarō’s Ryōma!, part 1 (Japan-in-Translation, No. 6)
May 8: Translator roundtable on Shiba Ryōtarō’s Ryōma!, part 2 (Japan-in-Translation, No. 7)
May 9: Librarian Ash Brown on manga in translation (Japan-in-Translation, No. 8)
May 10: Excerpt from Mori Eto’s Dive!! (Japan-in-Translation, No. 9)
May 11: Tony Malone on translations of Natsume Sōseki (Japan-in-Translation, No. 10)
May 12: Poet Michael Dylan Welch on translating haiku (Japan-in-Translation, No. 11)
May 14: Smithsonian BookDragon’s favorites, part 1 (Japan-in-Translation, No. 12)
May 15: Smithsonian BookDragon’s favorites, part 2 (Japan-in-Translation, No. 13)
May 16: Sally Ito on Misuzu Kaneko’s compassionate imagination (Japan-in-Translation, No. 14)
May 17: Frederik Schodt on The Four Immigrants Manga (Japan-in-Translation, No. 15)
May 18: Stone Bridge Press Publisher Peter Goodman (Japan-in-Translation, No. 16)
May 19: Melek Ortabasi on Japanese literature as world literature (Japan-in-Translation, No. 17)
May 20: Selected Japanese picture books by Andrew Wong (Japan-in-Translation, No. 18)
May 21: Murakami translator Jay Rubin (Japan-in-Translation, No. 19)
May 22: Zack Davisson on translating sound effects in comics (Japan-in-Translation, No. 20)



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