The Rumpus Interview with Jay Rubin

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I’m somewhat ashamed to admit I first heard of Jay Rubin, Haruki Murakami’s longtime English translator, after I had finished reading Murakami’s latest novel, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, around this time last year. I was not a fan of the book; or I was, but was put off by what felt like a rushed, “s’all good” ending. The book was translated by Philip Gabriel, not Jay Rubin. A friend who felt similarly about the book said: “Maybe Jay Rubin refused to translate it.”

This is not to say non-Rubin translations of Murakami’s work lack finesse, but that fans of the Japanese author had come to associate Jay Rubin with his work. After speaking with Dr. Rubin on the phone, it makes sense why. Japanese and English are so radically different—there are no similar sounding words, a completely different grammatical structure, so many intangibles that one language has but the other lacks—that it allows a translator an intimidating amount of freedom. “I very often feel I’m writing original—almost original—fiction,” says Rubin.

Rest assured, Haruki Murakami’s fiction is certainly different from Jay Rubin’s fiction, and I know this because Rubin actually published an original piece of fiction last month. It is called The Sun Gods, and it is a story of a Japanese mother and her white, adopted son, who are forced into an internment camp during World War II. It shifts between historical realism and a coming-of-age tale, with portrayals of racism that are at times hard to read because they ring so devastatingly true, even today.

Jay Rubin’s credentials hardly stop at having translated some of Murakami’s most beloved novels, including Norwegian Wood and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and publishing a novel of his own. He has translated classics of Japanese literature, such as Ryūnosuke Akutagawa’s Rashōmon, as well as text for the Xbox 360 game Lost Odyssey. He has taught Japanese language and literature at the University of Washington and Harvard.

I spoke with Dr. Rubin, who is based in Washington State, over the telephone.

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The Rumpus: What drew you to studying Japanese language and literature?

Jay Rubin: In my second year at the University of Chicago, I assumed I was going to be either an English or a Philosophy major, and I had about one free quarter where I thought, “Why don’t I do something non-Western, as this could be my last chance?” It just so happened that there was an Introduction to Japanese Literature course available in that quarter.

The professor would bring in not just the English translations that we were reading, but also the originals. He would read from the original and give literal translations. He gave the class a strong impression that as much as we were enjoying these translations, we’d enjoy them far more in the original.

I decided right there and then I was going to study Japanese. At the time, I was selling ice cream from a truck. I remember having my Japanese books with me, and on break, I would practice writing characters on banana skins.

Rumpus: Can you describe some of the difficulties in translating Japanese to English? What do you feel is lost and what do you feel is gained?

Rubin: You don’t have a grammatical structure that you can use in any way, when translating Japanese to English. You don’t have cognates. You certainly don’t have a sentence structure that’s anything like English. It’s just a totally different language. In fact, as many years as I’ve been doing it, it’s still fascinating to sort of sit back and realize that my brain is working in a totally different way when I’m functioning in Japanese.

The main thing you want to do of course is provide the images. As a translator, you’ll never get the sounds right. The sounds are totally different. If you want to write rain, the word in Japanese is ame. Ame doesn’t sound like rain. Fune is never going to sound like boat. You’re just in a whole different phonetic world. And then there are those intangibles that simply don’t exist.

In a way it makes you freer. I never feel that I’m going from a set of grammatical structures in Japanese and mechanically transferring them into a set of radically different structures in English. What I’m doing is getting whatever I get out of the Japanese text—the images, the rhythms—then do the best I can to write the English in such a way that I’m conveying what I’m getting out of the Japanese. It’s pretty subjective. I very often feel I’m writing original—almost original—fiction.

I’ve spoken to several audiences about this, and I find that they get very grumpy. They feel that what they are getting are my words, not the original author’s. I’m not trying to recreate. What’s on the page is Murakami’s prose, not his language.

Rumpus: What was the first Murakami book you published?

Rubin: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. But before that, I translated his stories for the New Yorker, Playboy, and Esquire. That was a great experience. I was always publishing stuff in academic journals for twenty readers, and suddenly, to have something come out in Playboy.

Rumpus: When you translated 1Q84, you translated books one and two, but not three. Was it bizarre to read that final product, especially considering what you were telling me before about having so much creative freedom in translating the work?

Rubin: Fortunately, I was the one who did the first two volumes and set the tone, making the decisions on how certain characters would be referred to in English and so forth. It was not anything you would call a collaborative effort. The biggest disagreement we had was whether to use the word bathroom or lavatory.

Rumpus: Really?

Rubin: Believe it or not. Eventually, I became convinced that he was right. Bathroom was right. Bathroom was the more normal American English.

Rumpus: Why did you want to use lavatory instead of bathroom?

Rubin: In Japan, the place where you wash your face and clean up is separate from where you go to the toilet. Murakami himself wasn’t maintaining that distinction, so the word lavatory got dropped. Another thing that was different was about the character named Buzz Cut. Phil wanted to call him Skinhead.

Rumpus: I remember Buzz Cut. I don’t think I would have remembered Skinhead, in the same way at least.

Rubin: Besides that it was a pretty straightforward process. I was disappointed, to tell you the truth. Nobody ever came to me and said, “I loved your translation of volume one and two but things just fell apart in volume three.” It might have been an ego boost, but I’m glad nevertheless.

Rumpus: Even though you’re most well known for your translations of Murakami, you’ve translated so many other Japanese books into English. Do you have recommendations for Japanese books that aren’t Murakami?

Rubin: The first thing I would recommend is a book called Rashōmon and Seventeen Other Stories by Akutagawa. (The Penguin edition is translated by Rubin and introduced by Murakami.) There’s the Kurosawa movie based on the title story. It was a whole different experience to retranslate words that had been translated several times, in that there’s a lot less freedom.

I’m doing a very crazy novel now. I’m redoing it, I should say. It’s called The Miner, about somebody who works in a mine and digs copper. It’s by Natsume Sōseki.

Rumpus: You’re redoing it? When did you first translate the book?

Rubin: I think it came out in ’88.

Rumpus: I’m curious about what it’s like to retranslate your own translation twenty-seven years later.

Rubin: Embarrassing. How the hell could I miss so much? I have a good friend in Japan who loves to critique translations of Japanese literature into English, and I didn’t know him back then. He found all kinds of things I had to think about and it was a very stimulating. I got a much better sense of the voice of the book this time, and the wholeness of it.

Rumpus: Murakami translated Carver and wrote books of his own. You translated Murakami and wrote The Sun Gods, a novel of your own. Does it feel like you’ve been passed the baton, in a sense?

Rubin: I really can’t answer that because I wrote The Sun Gods before I ever read Murakami.

sun-gods-coverFINAL_300dpiRumpus: Really?

Rubin: I wrote it in 1985.

Rumpus: My gosh.

Rubin: It took about two or three years to write. I couldn’t get any agent to represent me. I couldn’t get any publishers to get interested in it. I think partly because the subject matter was simply not of interest to anybody at the time—the whole phenomenon of the relocation camps and everything. People didn’t really know what to do with it, I think. I had no luck with it at all and put it away and it sat on my five and a quarter inch floppy disks for close to thirty years. My wife and I had worked on it together.

Every once in a while we would say, “Oh gee, here comes the sixtieth anniversary to the end of the war. We should have tried again this year.” Sixtieth anniversary rolled around. “We should have tried this year.” Finally, we got motivated enough to pull it off the floppy disks and clean it up and get it ready for self-publishing. I tried one more time with a publisher, a local Seattle publisher. They jumped at it. I was astounded because we’ve had so little interest in it to that point.

The best thing Chin Music Press did was give me an editor. The book is very heavily rewritten. It’s much, much better than it was when they accepted the book. It was great to have this detailed feedback. I’m used to getting that on translations, but I certainly had never had the experience of getting that on a piece of original fiction.

Rumpus: Do you feel your work translating Murakami influenced the rewrite?

Rubin: I think not. I can’t see it. It might be there. I did notice that there were a couple of bar scenes with ice clinking and so many of those details that happen in Murakami. But that was already there. I wrote that thirty years ago, before I ever read Murakami.

Rumpus: In the book, your character Mitsuko works at the camp newspaper, The Irrigator. Can you talk to me about all the historical research you did and how it incorporated with the plot?

Rubin: When I first learnt about the relocation camps, it was a total shock. I was just amazed that it had happened. I was also embarrassed I was ignorant of concentration camps that had been set up in this country. I started reading whatever I could come across about them, but I think it was once I moved to Seattle, it started to really seem more real to me. This is the area from which people were actually sent out. You can meet people who had been to relocation camps there.

I went to the library and found that at the University of Washington they have the complete collection of those camp newspapers, The Irrigator. There was also a one-volume book that had been produced by the inmates of Minidoka called Minidoka Interlude. That’s where I found the map of the camp and pictures of the officers at the camp and all kinds of stuff. Monica Sone’s book Nisei Daughter was also a great source of factual information.

Rumpus: I noticed in your book a very interesting idea of love being fueled and held together by anger. I feel like in books, anger usually has the bad reputation of tearing people apart. Can you comment on this idea of love and anger?

Rubin: I was worried somebody was going to ask me about this. There’s no question that I was conscious of trying to convey a sense of anger about the whole period based on that initial reaction of my hearing about it. Nothing had been written back then that really conveyed a sense of outrage and I think there should be outrage about this. But in the book, I wanted to convey a sense of love without illusion, love without religious delusion, and love that takes place amidst this outrageous kind of experience.

I have to say I’m very pleased and proud of what the United States eventually did by way of openly recognizing what was done. Ronald Reagan, one of my least favorite politicians of all time, signed a document that openly recognized that this all happened because of race hatred, war hysteria, and a failure of political will.

Rumpus: Your book depicts the hysteria that people felt at the threat of Japanese invasion very powerfully. Do you think that kind of hysteria could break out today especially considering our post-9/11 world and groups like ISIS?

Rubin: Absolutely. Look at what happened to Muslims after 9/11, and how much crap they’ve had to go through. It’s there at the surface at the drop of a hat. I think we’ve probably learned enough not to set up any concentration camps anymore, though. I really don’t think that would happen again no matter how bad Islamic-inspired terrorism might get. There’s just too much legal consciousness.

Or there would be if there weren’t so many black people getting shot by cops these days. I don’t know. I’m not terribly optimistic about any salutary effect of this racist period in our history.

Rumpus: What’s next for you?

Rubin: I’m editing a book of modern Japanese short stories. I’ve also got a book of Murakami’s that I translated a couple of years ago that hasn’t come out yet. It’s a book of interviews that he does with the conductor Seiji Ozawa, and they are going to release a digital edition with the music they refer to in the interviews. I believe it is scheduled for the autumn of 2016.


Nikkitha Bakshani writes about food and travel for The Daily Meal, and is an Editor at The Morning News. Her work has been published on Yahoo Travel, The Paris Review Daily, the Village Voice, and more. She is trying to be better at Twitter. More from this author →