On Translationese.

I’ve long been curious about the idea that certain foreign writers, wittingly or otherwise, produce novels in language that has been slanted toward easy translation into English or excessively influenced by English style, and Masatsugu Ono’s Paris Review essay from last year addresses exactly that issue with some fascinating insights into Japanese literature:

The next time I encountered those books was after I moved to Tokyo for university. I came across a large stack of them right by the entrance of one of the city’s largest bookstores. They were the two parts of Haruki Murakami’s novel Noruwei no mori (Norwegian Wood). I was already familiar with him as a master of short essays. My landlady had the bad (or good?) habit of reading books in the bathroom, and Murakami’s essays were among her favorites. One day, she handed me a collection she had finished. In these essays, he writes about literature and music and even cooking in such a natural way that it feels as though he’s addressing the reader personally. Something delightful and friendly in his style fascinated me (it’s a shame that those early essays of his haven’t been published in English). I couldn’t say how exactly, but I immediately felt that his style was different from other contemporary Japanese writers I had read. Probably because one of my professors (who was from Belgium) had translated it into French, A Wild Sheep Chase was the first of Murakami’s novels I read. And I soon found myself reading through them all.

In 1978, Murakami went to Jingu Baseball Stadium, located near the jazz bar he ran, to watch the opening game of the season. The moment the lead-off hitter slammed the first pitch cleanly into left field, a thought struck him: I think I can write a novel. […] Murakami describes this event—even in Japanese—using the English word epiphany. Late that night, he sat down at the kitchen table and began to write. Several months later, he finished a first draft. But it disappointed him. Murakami placed his Olivetti typewriter on the table and began to write again, this time in English.

The resulting English prose was, unsurprisingly, simple and unadorned. However, as he wrote, Murakami felt a distinctive rhythm begin to take shape:

Since I was born and raised in Japan, the vocabulary and patterns of the Japanese language had filled the system that was me to bursting, like a barn crammed with livestock. When I sought to put my thoughts and feelings into words, those animals began to mill about, and the system crashed. Writing in a foreign language, with all the limitations that entailed, removed this obstacle.

It may seem paradoxical that his mother tongue prevented him from writing. But writing in a foreign language liberated him, and he finished the beginning of his novel in English before translating it into Japanese […] The style Murakami describes as “neutral” was deemed by some critics “translationese.” When Murakami became a success in the global literary market, Kojin Karatani—one of the most influential Japanese critics—attributed this success to the “non-Japaneseness” of Murakami’s style.

I wonder why I felt that Murakami’s writing was so natural and atmospheric when I first read his work. The writing did not feel like translationese to me at all. Rather, I had a strong feeling that his Japanese was our Japanese, one that I also lived and breathed. I was struck by the fact that one could write a novel in that kind of language. When reading Murakami, I never experienced the difficulty or resistance I felt each time I read Kenzaburo Oe’s later novels, which were written in a highly elaborate style that I considered “literary.” […]

I’ve heard that Oe didn’t much appreciate Murakami’s early books, but when Oe made his debut in the late fifties, his writing style was also considered translationese. In an interview with Oe, Karatani said: “Your early works were among the first contemporary Japanese novels I read. Your writing was very new to me. It felt very close to the Japanese used in translation; for example, the Japanese translations of Pierre Gascar or Norman Mailer.” Oe’s early works were so spontaneous and vivid that he quickly gained a huge audience, especially among young people. But the sensual nature of his first few books was gradually replaced by an intellectually elaborated style, one that also has been described by critics as translationese.

So while Murakami’s translationese makes him clearer and more natural, Oe’s translationese makes him more difficult and more artificial. However, according to Karatani, Oe’s clearer and more natural early work was already translationese, too.

In Novelist as a Vocation, Murakami says he developed his own original writing style, little by little, specifically by reading foreign novels—either in translation or in the original. He has also said that, having read very few Japanese novels, he didn’t have a firm idea about what a Japanese novel was when he first tried writing one himself.

Oe, on the other hand, said he was largely influenced by Japanese writers in the postwar era, but over time, he became less interested in Japanese fiction and began to read foreign books in their original languages. Generally, Oe is considered in Japan to be influenced by the French. In Oe’s early works, there are resonances of his reading of French existentialism. But Oe’s English influences are also clear: his close reading of English poets like William Blake, William Butler Yeats, Edgar Allan Poe, and T. S. Eliot occupy an essential role in his influential autobiographical novels.

I don’t think anyone would object if I said Oe and Murakami are the two novelists that represent contemporary Japanese literature from the end of the war through the present. Is it surprising that reading foreign literature in the original played a crucial role in their literary development? They are always writing through the experience of the “foreign.” As Proust said: “les beaux livres sont écrits dans une sorte de langue étrangère (beautiful books are written in a kind of foreign language).” Even if Oe and Murakami seem to be writing in Japanese, they might truly be writing in some kind of foreign language.

(I have silently corrected a typo in the Proust quote, which is from Contre Sainte-Beuve.) Lots to chew on there.


  1. John Emerson says

    I have a premonition that this can of worms isn’t going to be closed soon. It has a lot of ramifications. People say something like this about Borges I know. And an enormous amount of 19th c world literature was Frenchified.

  2. “attributed this success to the “non-Japaneseness”

    I heard that Akutagawa is so and I heard that Kurosawa is so. Should I consider it a genre?

  3. Rather, I had a strong feeling that his Japanese was our Japanese, one that I also lived and breathed. I was struck by the fact that one could write a novel in that kind of language.

    Sounds as literary vs. vernacular registers.

    Though, when I just began learnign Arabic, I asked my friend, are there works (novels) in Arabic that she particularly loves because of their language? She said yes, I can name them easily, but the strange thing is that they are translations.

  4. @drasvi
    Add Natsume Soseki to that list as well.

    Looking at this from a larger viewpoint, this is not so unusual, to be influenced by another language one knows. The works of writers from the English Renaissance period, for example, are full of Latinisms: Milton comes to mind.

  5. I’d be curious to know what Ono would say about the style of Sōseki’s Botchan. That one, at least in English translation, also comes out as simple and unadorned. My understanding is that it reflects the speech of its narrator, a pointedly unrefined young man from Tokyo. How does Sōseki (incidentally, a scholar of British literature, who lived two years in London) compare in style to Murakami?

  6. John Emerson says

    Japanese has already been through this with Chinese and maybe Sanskrit.

    I think that it’s definitely more than just a Japanese thing.

  7. David Eddyshaw says

    Haruki Murakami’s works always strike me as basically very superior airport novels.

    I liked Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World, but everything after that makes me feel like the bracketed “Editor’s” comments in Private Eye’s spoof opinion articles: “You’ve done this bit.”

    (Mind you, I have actually read them all, which presumably proves something.)

  8. It goes the other way as well. I went to a book reading by Kazuo Ishiguro a few years (decades?) back where he addressed this exact topic. He said he avoids excessive topicality and regional language because he wants his writing to appeal to a wider international audience and wants it to be translatable.

    JK Rowling also toned down the “Englishness” of the Potter novels significantly over time. Much to their detriment I thought.

  9. @ook

    William Shakespeare’s plays have always struck me as full of Italian references and characters.

  10. Trond Engen says

    The young reader reads the young Murakami and finds him vibrant with living language. Murakami himself tells that he managed that by throwing out his draft in Japanese, starting from scratch in English, and then translate the English draft into Japanese. It’s been said already, but I’ll try to restate it: This sounds like a way to avoid the trap of established literary register. Since translations avoid those traps in the same way — for good or bad — it reads like a translation to those who’ve internalized the literary register and as refreshingly natural to those who haven’t.

    FWIW, the Norwegian singer-songwriter Jan Eggum recently told that he first conceives of his songs with lyrics in mock English. The Norwegian lyrics are written when the song is finished.

  11. I’ve been trying to read A Wild Sheep Chase in Japanese (“trying” is the right word–I speak a little Japanese, but reading it is a different story), and there certainly seem to be things lost in the English translation. The big thing is his use of repetition, which is something he seems to love to do; my wife, who is Japanese, commented that you can see in some of these passages that Murakami is a fan of jazz, playing variations on a theme. Most of that is wiped out in the English version. I assume this is because in English we have a restriction on reusing vocabulary–you’re just not supposed to use the same words over and over again. Japanese doesn’t have that (my wife finds it very odd that we have this in English), so Murakami is making use of something Japanese lets him do that would just sound weird in English.

  12. January First-of-May says

    Murakami describes this event—even in Japanese—using the English word epiphany.

    This is surely not that unusual in modern Japanese, which borrows English words left and right (admittedly often changing them so much in the process that an English speaker would be hard-pressed to recognize them). At this point a Japanese language with loads of English influence is probably not translationese in any way – it’s just how the people in Japan speak (and write, for that matter).

    Sounds as literary vs. vernacular registers.

    Indeed; and it’s probably not just Japanese where the vernacular register is far more filled with foreign (these days usually English) borrowings than the literary.

    Of course when checking out the quality of works from translation there’s always a danger of the Rabinovich pitfall, whereas the original might have been good or bad but the translator sucked and this colored the result so far that it’s hard to say how good the actual work was.
    OTOH, I agree that good translations have some of the best language, and having a good reason to escape from the standard literary register might well be a big part of it. Or it might just be that world literature is far bigger than any one nation’s literature, and only the best specimens tend to get translated, so the comparison is fundamentally slightly unfair.

  13. my wife finds it very odd that we have this in English

    As do I. It’s very stupid — of course you don’t want to randomly repeat words to no good effect, but when it’s a stylistic choice it needs to be kept.

  14. There are Greek terms of rhetorics to describe various types of “using the same words over and over again”. I mean, I don’t know that there are, but I’m certain that there are.

  15. Stu Clayton says
  16. John Emerson says

    The no-repeated-words rule can be traced to the accursed and detestable Flaubert.

  17. I have elegant variation so ingrained in my writing style* that I can easily overdo it, and I sometimes have to restrain myself from using too many synonyms. This can be a particular issue in my scientific writing, where having a single precise term for a potentially complicated concept can be very important for clarity. My physics papers definitely have a somewhat more literary style than most scientific writing, but I occasionally struggle to find the optimal balance between literary fluidity and dry scientific prose.**

    * I mean my style in English. I feel like my German is too functional for it to have much of a style. In any case, I have forgotten far too many less-common German words for me to be able to swap synonyms around with significant frequency.

    ** The dry/fluid contrast here was an accident. but I like it.

  18. I recently had to read a book about the Secret History of the Mongols — written in Japanese by an important Japanese researcher in the field — as translated into Mongolian.

    It was a strange experience. The translator had directly rendered all those little oddities of Japanese style, in particular the belaboured development of points and ideas that make it sound like the writer is saying the same thing over and over again. It took a while to get used to it, but I gradually found that I was able to see right through to the idiosyncrasies of Japanese style (a style I am familiar with) and understand it quite easily. Had it been written in conventional Mongolian style it would have been far more difficult for me to understand. My feeling is that Mongolian writing is more elaborated than Japanese. Maybe influenced by Russian? I don’t know. I would have to learn Russian to find out.

  19. The Moroccan writer Abdelkébir Khatibi’s Love in Two Languages (1983; Amour bilingue) uses the vehicular restriction of French to represent a polylingual reality and moment of indecision between French and Arabic languages and cultures as it plays itself out in the mind of the Maghrebine protagonist/narrator of this transmesis. Of the several texts considered in this book, Khatibi’s supplies the most explicit links between the act of translation and the situation of the “postcolonial subject.” I read this transmesis as a companion piece especially to Khatibi’s critical work published in the same year, Maghreb pluriel, but also to his art and literary criticism. In Maghreb pluriel, Khatibi characterizes Orientalism as an immense translation project that seeks to transfer univocality and that therefore cannot tolerate the untranslatable. The untranslatable, in defiance, becomes the hero of Amour bilingue.




  20. Russian impact on Mongolian is restricted to vocabulary (and obviously alphabet). There isn’t much else, the languages are just too different.

    Basically, Russian is 100 times closer to English than to Mongolian.

  21. In Motherless Tongues, Vicente L. Rafael examines the vexed relationship between language and history gleaned from the workings of translation in the Philippines, the United States, and beyond. Moving across a range of colonial and postcolonial settings, he demonstrates translation’s agency in the making and understanding of events. These include nationalist efforts to vernacularize politics, U.S. projects to weaponize languages in wartime, and autobiographical attempts by area studies scholars to translate the otherness of their lives amid the Cold War. In all cases, translation is at war with itself, generating divergent effects.


  22. “I recently had to read a book about the Secret History of the Mongols — written in Japanese by an important Japanese researcher in the field — as translated into Mongolian.”

    Who was the Japanese researcher, and what was the title of the book in Japanese? Just wondering whether it’s someone I know and whether it’s a book that I might have overlooked.

  23. 小沢 重男. The book appears to be a translation of『元朝秘史』, which is an introduction to the Secret History (when it was written, who wrote it, the nature of the representation in Chinese characters, etc.).

    In Mongolian the book is transalted as “Монголын нууц товчооны ертөнц”.

  24. There isn’t much else, the languages are just too different.

    Well, modern-day Mongolian goes in for relatively complex sentences. The abstract (high-brow) vocabulary can also be confusing for someone coming from Chinese or Japanese. I get the feeling that the style is partly based on Russian. From what I’ve seen of Russian, it tends to be high-brow and “overblown”, perhaps in a European sort of way. This is not meant prejudicially but as a contrast to the (relatively) simpler style of Chinese (although Chinese has also picked up a lot of stodgy language from the West).

    But this is just an impression. If I knew Russian I could be more definite.

  25. Mongolian literary register always tended to have complex sentences – long before any Russian impact.

    If anything, current Mongolian standard is simpler and more vernacular than before 20th century when it was highly influenced by Classical Mongolian.

  26. From what I’ve seen of Russian, it tends to be high-brow and “overblown”, perhaps in a European sort of way.

    That very much depends. It’s true of editorials and speeches, but not of most literature, which has always remained more or less close to the spoken language in feel.

  27. Trond Engen says

    From Ono’s essay:

    I’ve heard that Oe didn’t much appreciate Murakami’s early books, but when Oe made his debut in the late fifties, his writing style was also considered translationese.

    There’s a lively scholarly debate on whether Contemporary Translationese is directly descended from Early Modern Translationese, and whether both — or either one — are descended from Old Translationese.

  28. John Emerson says

    There’s also Proto-Translationese, which developed directly from Proto, the language of the Garden of Eden.

  29. @ Trond Engen

    I don’t follow lively scholarly debates much (although I have my own views). Where can I find it?

    (I don’t know where I said it, but my own feeling is that Murakami isn’t actually engaged in “translationese”; rather he’s writing how he imagines English to be, as a way of getting away from past styles. He’s not “translating” at all.)

  30. I suspect Trond was joking.

  31. But his comment actually makes sense.

    Old translationese was based on kanbun.

    Early modern translationese was based on translation from European languages.

    Murakami has developed his own ‘imagined translationese’ style that owes nothing to actual translation.

  32. Trond Engen says

    Let’s say I had no real clue, but I thought the descriptions of the different approaches were close enough for a joke.

  33. PlasticPaddy says

    What I was impressed by (if this is the right word) is the undercurrent of sadism in Ichiguro and Murakami–Ichiguro wrote an entire book, in order, it seemed to me, to show a scene where a sweaty Chinese warlord belabours an English woman with a whip. Murakami seems to involve the reader in questions like “can having sex with children be a blameless action?” and “do women invent stories of violent rape against innocent school friends?” (for extra credit the reader is encouraged to answer “and if so, why?”).

  34. Transformations of Sensibility: The Phenomenology of Meiji Literature

    First published in Japan in 1983, this book is now a classic in modern Japanese literary studies. Covering an astonishing range of texts from the Meiji period (1868–1912), it presents sophisticated analyses of the ways that experiments in literary language produced multiple new—and sometimes revolutionary—forms of sensibility and subjectivity. Along the way, Kamei Hideo carries on an extended debate with Western theorists such as Saussure, Bakhtin, and Lotman, as well as with such contemporary Japanese critics as Karatani Kojin and Noguchi Takehiko.


  35. The Japanese original is 『感性の変革』by 亀井秀雄.

    It’s really annoying that publishers don’t list the original Japanese title of translated books. It seems that translations from French or German usually give the original title because these are easy and familiar languages. But Japanese? That’s obviously a bridge too far, even in romanisation. If you are interested in Japanese literature, why the hell wouldn’t you want to know the name of the Japanese original?

    Kamei Hideo can potentially be written a number of ways in Japanese, including 亀井秀夫, 亀井英郎, and 亀井英夫. Fortunately it was easy enough to find this “Kamei Hideo” (1937-2016) by adding 文学 (literature) to the search terms. Still…

    BTW, thanks, juha, for the reference.

  36. It’s really annoying that publishers don’t list the original Japanese title of translated books. It seems that translations from French or German usually give the original title because these are easy and familiar languages. But Japanese? That’s obviously a bridge too far, even in romanisation.

    Yes, that is really annoying, and it’s a problem with Russian too — I don’t ask for Cyrillic, just give the original title in transliteration and I’ll be happy, but they usually don’t. WorldCat can sometimes help.

  37. This quotation from Proust creates strange situations. I searched for it in Yandex, and it immediately offered me a paper written in French by a Russian translator: ‘Traduire celui qui veut écrire “dans une sorte de langue étrangère”‘, about translating Deleuze. And here I am, reading in French an essay by a Russian translator, about tranlsating people who want to write in a sort of foreign langauge, and I feel like a ping-pong ball, between Russian and French.

  38. I know a Mongol woman whose Russian is better than mine. I do not mean grammatical errors, she makes them, nbot often but she does. I mean, better.
    She studied here, but I wonder if it is the Mongolian “accent” that makes her texts such a pleasure to read.

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