Something happened to me whilst I was reading Haruki Murakami’s first novel Hear the Wind Sing recently. I was over halfway through the story when I suddenly realised that I was picturing the main female character as a traditional Hollywood beauty. You know the sort, blonde, thin aloof: in other words every single Sienna Miller character. I was on a train at the time and was so freaked out by my personal discovery that I stopped reading for the rest of the journey. Then, thanks to my endless neuroses, I then spent the rest of the day partly ashamed and partly annoyed with myself. It seemed disrespectful and narrow-minded that my brain was subconsciously changing the Japanese setting to a more familiar Western backdrop. What did it say about me as a reader and a person that I couldn’t even imagine the novel as its writer had intended?
Of course, this could just be an inevitable side-effect of translating works in other languages. Whether we like it or not, Murakami’s original text had to have been somewhat Anglicised when it was rewritten in English. It has always been an argument that you lose something important from the original novel when you read a translation. It all comes down to the languages you are switching between, the social differences of the countries involved, and the individual context of the person translating. Every translation will bring something different and every translated novel will be read in a different way.
So perhaps the process of writing Murakami’s first two novels in English for the first time meant that they lost most of their Japanese heritage? Of course, Murakami isn’t exactly what you call overtly Japanese when it comes to his writing. He is heavily influenced by Western writers and is still critisised in Japanese literary circles for his writing not reflecting the Japanese style enough. Maybe translation just tips the balance even further to the West’s favour? Is translating an already vaguely Western novel about Japan into English just a recipe for disaster? Could I have read the novel any differently than I did?
However, I refused to believe that this was the only reason behind my inability to process the events as the writer had intended. I love Murakami’s work and have read enough of his books by this point to understand what’s going on. Looking back, I don’t think I had this problem when reading the likes of 1Q84 or Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. Although, how can I be sure? I admit that I’m not the most well-traveled of people and I grew up in a town that doesn’t exactly scream diversity. Is the reason that I imagine the characters the way I did simply a consequence of my inability to understand anything outside of my own culture?
I guess, in some ways, it’s natural when you don’t have prior understanding of a situation or idea to transplant it into a setting that you’re comfortable with. It’s not like I know a great deal about Japanese culture, geography or social practices. My brain simply took the narrative and presented it in a visual that I would understand. Yes, it’s not ideal but did it really hurt my overall impression of the novel? It’s not as if Murakami was writing a deep social critique of Japan. As a story mainly about individual characters and relationships surely it could easily have been transposed into any setting?
Analysing my little problem in this way did very little to comfort me though; it simply added to a fear that I’ve been facing for some time. I’m always worried that I’m not diverse enough with my choice of reading material. Yes, I’ve the done the literary student thing and read the big names in foreign literature: Nabokov, Dostoyevsky, Voltaire, Hugo, Zweig. Hell, I was a student of Romanticism so I’ve read enough writing from Revolutionary era France to last a lifetime. But it’s never felt like enough.
I’m horrible at accidentally falling into the same routine of masses of white, male authors. It’s not something I do purposefully but it’s a worrying trend within my bookshelves. Saying that, I’ve always felt comfortable with the amount of female writers that I pick up. Considering how much I bleat on to my clueless colleagues about women’s rights, I’d be a pretty poor excuse for a raging feminist if I didn’t. Undoubtedly though, there is as little ethnic diversity on those shelves as there is in the sleepy Yorkshire communities nearby.
I guess part of that comes down to fear. Will I be able to fully appreciate the work with my personal history? Will the novel be the same in it’s translated form? I wouldn’t want to do the author a disservice when I wasn’t able to fully appreciate their work because of a little difference in background. Of course, it’s easier to pick up a novel by a white, male author because you know what to expect. It’s nothing to do with an inferred superiority but just a familiarity,
That’s the problem. Reading lists in English classes are filled with male writers from all centuries with a few lucky women dotted around the place. As a nation, we are incredibly proud of our literary heritage and, in most cases, quite rightly. I’m not suggesting you strike Shakespeare, Dickens, Orwell and Golding from the syllabus. I just think we need to start championing more diverse writers. You know, like the Man Booker prize is mostly failing to do.
Or maybe, once again, this all comes down to me as a person? Am I so clueless about my inability to embrace other cultures that I’m willing to make all this shit up to justify my actions? Is this actually a problem for anyone else? This isn’t the right thing for an overly neurotic individual like myself should be thinking about before bed. I’m never going to be able to sleep tonight as this rate.