By Brian Fee

I'd nearly completed reading The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle in Japanese when I found this impressive "liveblog" of Haruki Murakami's magnum opus1Q84 on Daniel Morales' site howtojapanese.comOh yeah, I thought, I need to get on this. In September 2009, I picked up the first two volumes of1Q84 (volume three was published in Japan in April 2010) and made it my goal to tackle 'em. I noted the English translation wouldn't be out until fall 2011. What the hell, I'll read and translate!

The translation was arduous, funny at times and painful in others. Example: spending ten minutes chipping away at a paragraph, cringing as 睾丸(testicles) gave way to 蹴る (to kick). Another recurring hiccup was Murakami's aforementioned pop culture name-dropping, peppering the text with names like バーニー・ビガード (jazz clarinetist Albany Leon "Barney" Bigard) and トラミー・ヤング (trombonist James "Trummy" Young). I have a newfound appreciation for Louis Armstrong's All-Stars. Plus, I learned tons of vocabulary, which helped hugely in my coursework at the Japan Society (and hopefully impressed some girls). Translating forced me to read1Q84 slowly, savoring each surreal, mundane or salacious passage. It also ensured a very personal way of understanding Murakami's text.

When The New Yorker ran an excerpt from 1Q84 in early September 2011, nearly two months ahead of its English publication, I felt oddly wary. It was "Town of Cats," originally Chapter 8 of Book 2 (and over 700 pages deep) in the Japanese text. Murakami calls this place and its namesake in-text fable 「猫の町」, which I worded as "Cat Town." Now it's in print as "Town of Cats." I suppose both "sound" like a fable, but this simple incongruity didn't sit too well with me. I read "Town of Cats," enjoyed it overall, but now awaited the English publication guardedly.

So guardedly that I've yet to read fully the English 1Q84, translated by Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel. I've spent hours flipping through the pages, remarking on its considerable heft and Chip Kidd's awesome design. But those bits I was worried about? Here's my take on an early passage, from Chapter 1 of Book 1:

Aomame inhaled deeply and then exhaled. She then climbed over the railing while continuing to chase the melody of "Billie Jean" in her ears. Her miniskirt rolled up over her hips. "Who cares!" she thought. If they want to look, let them look. It's not like they're going to see what kind of person I am just from seeing under my skirt. Besides, her firm, alluring legs were the part of Aomame's body that she was most proud.

And the official translation:

Aomame took in a long, deep breath, and slowly let it out. Then, to the tune of "Billie Jean", she swung her leg over the metal barrier. Her miniskirt rode up to her hips. Who gives a damn? Let them look all they want. Seeing what's under my skirt doesn't let them really see me as a person. Besides, her legs were the part of her body Aomame was the most proud.

Incidentally, I didn't add that "firm, alluring" part: that's in the original. It's the little rhythmic jazz, like "railing" vs. "metal barrier", "chase the melody" vs. "to the tune"—inherent in Murakami's words—that's missing in the official translation.

Murakami's classic weirdo teenage girl here is ふかえり, which for language students is written entirely in hiragana (like long-form Japanese script, often seen in some degree in women's proper names). It's her nom de plume, a takeoff from her real name 深田絵里子, or Fukada Eriko. I translated it as Fukaeri, running the sounds together rather mellifluously. That's how it would sound in Japanese! Nope: in English 1Q84, it's Fuka-Eri, overemphasizing that fact she's contracted her given and family names together.

Also: how Fukaeri/Fuka-Eri speaks. Murakami emphasizes her flat, laconic tone by writing her dialogue in only in hiragana/katakana, the two syllabic Japanese writing systems, versus intermingling them with kanji. Here's my version of one of her exchanges with Tengo (the second major protagonist, one of Murakami's most classic thirtyish, slightly clueless males):

"You know me?" Tengo said.
"you teach math"
Tengo assented. "That's right."
"i've heard you twice"
"My lecture?"
There was something peculiar about her way of speaking. Her sentences were scraped of embellishment, and there was a chronic lack of accent, limited (or at least presenting that limited impression to others) vocabulary. Like Komatsu had said, certainly odd.

And the official translation:

"You know me?" Tengo said.
"You teach math."
He nodded. "I do."
"I heard you twice."
"My lectures?"
Her style of speaking had some distinguishing characteristics: sentences shorn of embellishment, a chronic shortage of inflection, a limited vocabulary (or at least what seemed like a limited vocabulary). Komatsu was right: it was odd.

This girl speaks, like, teenage-angsty cool. Even changing that trite "yeah" into a "yes" feels a bit polite. Murakami has a history of writing characters with unusual ways of speaking, like the Sheep Man in Dance, Dance, Dance(depicted in English conversing in long run-on phrases), the plucky old scientist in Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World (hillbilly accent), and old savant Nakata in Kafka on the Shore (simple English, even simpler than Fukaeri/Fuka-Eri). But how much of their conversational quirkiness makes it into the English?

It's not totally surprising I feel so strongly about my first Haruki Murakami novel, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, which I read in English, and reading1Q84 entirely in Japanese ahead of its English translation. I can practically recite from memory passages from both, and though I'm pleased to have read ねじまき鳥クロニクル belatedly in Japanese, Rubin's English text will forever remain close. I'm sure I will come around to fully reading the Rubin/Gabriel translation of 1Q84, though I'll be unable to shake the notion that what I'm reading is just their interpretation.

Photo: Mr. Fee