Lost in translation

Living in liminality

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I am always enamored with the opening scene of “Lost in Translation.”

The echoes of an airport intercom welcome the image of Bill Murray dozing off in a cab, as neon billboards create a liquid light show in the window. The intercom announces “Welcome to New Tokyo International Airport” in a friendly female voice, before continuing on in Japanese. Murray awakens, and stares out with a doe-eyed expression at the city flashing by. The camera lingers on a strobe-lit sign, but the expected white translated text on the bottom of the screen fails to appear. As a viewer, I feel stuck in Murray’s gaze: someone who is lost for words and lost in translation. 

When I first saw Sofia Coppola’s sophomore film, I empathized with the miscommunications of an American abroad, whose curiosity leads to a series of faux pas that toe the line between endearing and insulting. Even when I’m not physically abroad, I find myself grasping at an understanding of other cultures, on the screen or between the pages. 

And yet, I often fail to allow myself the appropriate time and space to draw a complete picture of the unfamiliar. I instead rely on translations as a passport into a language unbeknownst to myself. 

Translation, however, is a double-edged sword. While the production of knowledge may transcend borders, I lose so much meaning from reading a work distanced from its mother tongue and birthplace. To speak to the works of one of my favorite authors, Haruki Murakami, translation is imminent to my understanding of his texts. 

Whenever I encounter Murakami’s works, they always succeed in immersing me fully within his ukiyo-e (“floating world”) dreamscapes. A marriage of the fantasy and the fanatic, the environments that Murakami creates elevate everyday normalcy. While his characters are incredibly intricate, it is the lyricism of his language where the dreamscape awakens. 

To my dismay, many of the novels I read are not even from Murakami’s own translations. Jay Rubin, one of Murakami’s longtime trusted translators, is an essential part of the production of the texts for English-speaking readership. What Rubin offers is an English adaptation, which I fear will never suffice to communicate Murakami’s intended words. 

In one of the six stories in his work “After the Quake,” a giant frog attempts to save the city from another earthquake by battling a worm underground. The frog eventually combusts, and turns into scattering bugs. 

Murakami’s tactful choice of a frog holds greater meaning in Japanese: The word for frog, “kaeru,” as a verb means “to return.” Murakami’s meditation on the 1995 Kobe earthquake is grounded in the cyclical nature of life. From the earth the frog was born, and to the earth the frog returned. The thematic commentary is lost within the English translation, and the relationship between Murakami and myself is further dismantled as the line of communication breaks. 

As I approach a translated work, I am often conflicted about whether I am introducing myself to the text with the arrogance of ignorance. My sweeping claims and analysis in my university courses over Murakami are incomplete, as I remain incredibly distanced from the original work. 

When I first read Murakami’s works in a formal classroom setting, my professor supplemented our understanding with these translations — a necessary insight into the duality of the texts. At the time, I was wrought with doubt that I could ever fully comprehend the complexities of Murakami’s writing. I questioned whether I even had the right to make claims about the text, as I didn’t even attempt to encounter the original. Instead, I was communicating with a reflection of the text, a ghost of what was intended to be on the page. 

But even Murakami himself is known to dance with translation within his works. He gives consent to his works being translated, instead of denying access to those outside of his first language. 

With his first novel, “Hear the Wind Sing,” Murakami wrote the first few pages in English before translating it back into Japanese to test out how the text would sound in both languages. Many of his works are created in this transitory stage of translation, with Murakami paying particular attention to the aesthetics of sound. The back and forth movement of the texts between the language binary enhances their liminality and adds another layer to their lyricism. 

The phantasms of Murakami’s works float in between the original language and the translated, in the liminal space where intentions may be alternatively interpreted and then recreated. While some meaning is lost to me through reading translations, I still am able to interact with some sides of Murakami’s works — most notably the lyricism. I may never be able to read his texts in the original language, but I can still pursue what is lost in translation in order to close the liminal gap between language and understanding. 

Francesca Hodges writes the Monday A&E column on exploring liminal spaces within art and identity. Contact her at [email protected]. Tweet her at @fh0dges.