Given the prominence of “Gatsby” brand men’s hair products over there, I can’t claim that F. Scott Fitzgerald’s doomed literary icon of the American Dream goes totally unrecognized in Japan. But according to Haruki Murakami, the country’s best-known living novelist, “Japanese readers have never truly appreciated The Great Gatsby.” This he ascribes, in an essay (read it online here) from the new collection In Translation: Translators on Their Work and What It Means, to the datedness, despite the excellence, of most Japanese-language editions of the book. “Although numerous literary works might properly be called ‘ageless,’” he explains, “no translation belongs in that category. Translation, after all, is a matter of linguistic technique, which naturally ages as the particulars of a language change. Thus, while there are undying works, on principle there can be no undying translations.”
Hence his own translation of Gatsby, a project he originally set for his sixtieth birthday, by which time he hoped his “skill would have improved to the point where [he] could do the job properly.” Despite starting the translation years ahead of schedule, he found himself just wise enough to understand the task’s complexity. “At strategic moments,” he remembers, “I brought my imaginative powers as a novelist into play. One by one, I dug up the slippery parts of Fitzgerald’s novel, those scattered places that had proved elusive, and asked myself, If I were the author, how would I have written this? Painstakingly, I examined Gatsby’s solid trunk and branches and dissected its beautiful leaves.” Asked why he chose to translate Gatsby, he gave this reply:
When someone asks, “Which three books have meant the most to you?” I can answer without having to think: The Great Gatsby, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, and Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye. All three have been indispensable to me (both as a reader and as a writer); yet if I were forced to select only one, I would unhesitatingly choose Gatsby.
(Thanks to GalleyCat.)
Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on literature, film, cities, Asia, and aesthetics. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall.