Even the best translators are guilty of occasional mistakes, but few have been called out quite so publicly as Dimitry Kovalenin was at the workshop “The Joy of Murakami’s Works: From the Perspective of Translation” (「翻訳の現場から見る村上ワールドの魅力」), which took place in March 2006 as a part of a symposium entitled A Wild Haruki Chase: How the World is Reading and Translating Haruki Murakami 『世界は村上春樹をどう読むか』. The symposium — part of the motivation for which may have been to boost Murakami’s Nobel chances, as discussed previously — included workshops and speeches involving the collaborative efforts of over a dozen different Murakami translators from Western and Central Europe, North and South America, and of course, all over Asia. Kovalenin was there in his capacity as Murakami’s first Russian translator.
In June 2006, Bungakukai 『文学界』published two symposium workshop transcripts. The workshop in question centered around two stories from Yoru no kumozaru 『夜のくもざる』 (“Night of the Spider Monkey”), a collection of 2-to-3-page super-short stories (超短編小説). The title story is about a writer who is interrupted by a spider monkey that repeats everything he says. The story is a challenge to translate; Murakami makes full and creative use of all the Japanese scripts: the monkey imitates the writer “in katakana” but then is foiled when the writer switches back to speaking “in hiragana.”
During the workshop, Kovalenin mentioned how pleased he was with his own creative translation of the term kumozaru, “spider monkey”:
Dimitry Kovalenin: […] When I was translating “Yoru no kumozaru,” I was staying at a friend’s house, and I thought up a pretty clever translation with the family’s twelve-year-old kid. Basically, I decided just to leave it up to him (laughs). I asked the kid, “What kind of animal do you get when you combine a spider and a monkey?” So I had him write up a list of different types of spiders and monkeys and give me what he thought was the funniest combination. The result we thought best was obezyana (обезьяна) for the monkey and tarantul (тарантул) for the spider. Put them together and you get obezyantul (обезьянтул). The kid laughed whenever I said it, so I thought that was probably okay (laughs). (154)
The Japanese moderators Shibata Motoyuki and Numano Mitsuyoshi, both University of Tokyo professors, smoothly transitioned to the topic of wordplay in translation, but Czech translator Tomas Jurkovic returned to the issue soon after, and Malaysian translator Ye Hui was equipped with photographic evidence:
Tomas Jurkovic: […] I wanted to ask Mr. Kovalenin something. You chose to create an entirely different name despite the fact that spider monkeys actually exist and have a Russian name — why is that?
Kovalenin: What? Spider monkeys really exist? I thought it was imaginary, like the Sheep Man.
Ye Hui: No, they exist. I can show you proof. (Opens a magazine with a picture of a spider monkey.)
Numano Mitsuyoshi: If you look in Kōjien, this is what it says. “Mammals of the capuchin group. There are several species. Inhabit forests from Central America to northern South America.” Mr. Jurkovic has an important point here; do you use the official name of the actual animal, or do you use an invented word to bring out the humorous tone of it?
Kovalenin: How many people are there here in the audience today who knew that spider monkeys actually existed? Hardly any at all, right? I think Murakami used the word with that in mind.
Shibata Motoyuki: The Japanese version of Yoru no kumozaru has a drawing of a spider monkey in it by Anzai Mizumaru. It looks quite similar to the picture that Ms. Ye just showed us (laughs). (155-156)
Kovelenin is undoubtedly an impressive translator. He put a translation of Wild Sheep Chase online in 1996 before getting the money to publish it in 1998. During that two-year period it developed a notable readership. You can read a short article about his experience translating Murakami here. As they say in Japan, even monkeys fall from trees: Murakami’s long history of using the fantastic in his fiction, especially when it comes to animals, may invite a creative reading of kumozaru, but unfortunately they are real animals.
Murakami, on the other hand, knows how to take advantage of mistranslation. He made use of the legendary mistranslation of the Beatles song “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown).” The album Rubber Soul was released in Japan in 1966 and translated the second track as “Noruuei no mori” (ノルウェイの森) — the translator believing that the “wood” meant “forest” opposed to “lumber.” (According to Wikipedia, “‘Norwegian Wood’ refers to the cheap pinewood that often finished the interiors of working class British flats.) Japanese Wikipedia desperately makes the case that either interpretation of “wood” is possible (“This bird has flown…from the forest.”) but ends by noting that the original translator admitted he/she misunderstood the meaning. Murakami himself knew it was mistaken, but utilized the original translation as a metaphor for a dark, encapsulated psychological cavity — one of his pet images.
In the supplementary commentary to the Norwegian Wood volume of his Complete Works 1979–1989, he admitted to knowing about the possibility of another translation but also emphasized that he preferred the mistranslation, calling it true to the original song:
Even reading the original lyrics, I think that the words NORWEGIAN WOOD themselves have tendency to sort of expand naturally. They’re quiet and melancholy and even feel a little high. Of course I know there are several interpretations, but when you change it into Japanese, I feel like『ノルウェイの森』 is closest to the flavor of the original language. I once heard from a Norwegian that in Norwegian, the words “Norwegian Forest” mean something along the lines of that mood. I wonder if Lennon and McCartney knew that? (XII)
Odds are they didn’t, but poetic license acquits this extrapolation of a classic mistranslation.
Thanks to Languagehat for help with the Russian in this piece.