A Diverse Reader and Her Pilgrimage to Literary Wabi-Sabi

My friend April at The Steadfast Reader always knows how to get me riled up. (It’s okay, I love how she gets my mind spinning). But this time, she went straight for the heart by sharing a recent article in The AtlanticThe Mystery of Murakami. I’ve been mulling over it ever since. I feel that reading translations ties in closely with reading diversely, and this article missed the mark.

My college roommate was an international student from Hiroshima. She once told me that one aspect that makes reading Murakami (in Japanese) such a wonderful experience is his beautiful and unique choice of kanji, the adopted Chinese characters of the Japanese writing system.

Much of the review I read in The Atlantic seems to focus on Murakami’s “bad sentences.” With examples given…in English. Murakami, obviously, writes in Japanese. For the record, I think Alfred Birnbaum, Jay Rubin, Philip Gabriel all do a phenomenal job translating Murakami’s works. I’m far, far more often swept away by the words than I am distracted by the slightly odd or possibly cliché sentences that sneak in here and there.

Can we go ahead and accept that some languages have unique nuances (whether grammatical or cultural) which may result in a teeny bit of awkward every once and a while? I don’t see the logic in using translated sentences as the basis for judging Murakami’s writing style.

Kim Allen has a great website called Japanese for the Western Brain, which addresses some challenges of Japanese for those who didn’t grow up learning it. And there’s a fantastic piece about the difficulties of translation, from the perspective of Japanese translation, on the NSA’s website. The author of this paper points out how understanding Japanese culture is especially important when translating, particularly: “The structure of the Japanese language, along with the belief of the Japanese in suggesting things indirectly rather than stating them explicitly, lends itself to expressions which are difficult to translate.”

Wabi-sabi Tea Bowl by ottmarliebert.com,
Santa Fe, Turtle Island. CC BY-SA 2.0

Thinking about that Japanese tendency to suggest things indirectly, leaving things unsaid, reminded me of wabi-sabi: A Japanese view of life which accepts and finds beauty in the imperfect, the incomplete, and the temporary.

Murakami’s writing does tend to leave some loose ends. When I set aside my own desires (maybe my American lens?) to have everything addressed and wrapped up in a tidy manner, and think about this cultural aesthetic… well, I think a number of Murakami’s works are stunning examples of “literary wabi-sabi,” if there is such a thing. Japanese readers and those who connect with that culture may see Murakami’s loose ends as an important part of a greater, beautiful work.

Thoughts? Does “reading diversely” include temporarily setting aside our own lens in order to experience/understand another culture, race, gender, etc.?