Turning Japanese

by Deirdre Kelly

photography by Sofie kirk

For roughly 25 years, Ted Goossen, a professor of Japanese contemporary film and literature in York University’s Department of Humanities, has been translating into English the literary works of Japanese writer Haruki Murakami, helping to make one of the world’s most popular authors even more well known.

Last year, Goossen translated Murakami’s short story collection, Men Without Women. and before that, two short novels that in 2015 were published in a single volume entitled, Wind/Pinball. This year, it’s Killing Commendatore, Murakami’s 2017 novel whose hotly anticipated English-language version is scheduled to come out later this fall in the U.K., the U.S. and Canada.

Goossen, an American who initially learned Japanese as an exchange student in Japan in the late 1960s, has spent many months translating the two-part novel in collaboration with Philip Gabriel, a professor in and former head of the University of Arizona’s Department of East Asian Studies. He says the experience has been a bit like walking a tightrope with a pole.

“On one side, you’ve got literal meaning,” he explains during a break from his rigorous daily work routine over a cup of green matcha tea in a Japanese cafe close to his home in Toronto’s Kensington Market. “On the other, you have all the things that are felt – aesthetics, auditory rhythms, emotion and a character’s voice. It’s a balancing act.” If there’s anyone who can teach him how to do it is Murakami himself, who has become a friend – he first visited Goossen in Toronto over 20 years ago to talk about literature and music, his other obsession, in between writing his bestselling books.

Like Goossen, Murakami is an expert translator but in reverse – converting modern English-language literature by such authors as J. D. Salinger, Raymond Chandler and F. Scott Fitzgerald into Japanese. “When he translated The Great Gatsby into Japanese, sales of the novel just rose,” says Goossen, who translated the introduction to the 2013 edition, which took Murakami 20 years to realize. Killing Commendatore, a novel about art and its creation, borrows from some of Murakami’s American literary models, including Gatsby.

The story involves a painter recently separated from his wife. While staying alone in a friend’s mountain-top cottage, he discovers a painting in the attic depicting the killing of the Commendatore in the Mozart opera Don Giovanni, but with the setting transposed to 7th century Japan from 18th century Spain as in the original. Contemporary cultural references abound, with Murakami spicing up his hallucinogenic prose with everything from the Beatles to jazz music. Goossen says the novel also involves a trip under the surface of the Earth, which is symbolic for a journey into the subconscious. Many marvellous and terrible creatures are encountered there, making the translation particularly challenging.

“There are many speaking characters who are not people – they are “ideas,” or manifestations of things – they are not realistic – so it has been difficult to get the voices right,” he says. “But as a translator that’s what you need to do. When you are translating you are always listening for the voice. You are always trying to hear the dialogue between the narrative, and the characters speaking the lines.”

It’s not just a linguistic technique, in other words. What Goossen is doing, actually, is using translation to bridge cultures, and providing a portal into foreign worlds for readers to explore. “I remember when I read Murakami for the first time, as a newly minted PhD, and it changed my attitude,” Goossen says. “I remember his novel giving me so much energy. In retrospect, it really showed me where I would go and what it was I would do.”

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