With translations across every genre from mysteries to literary classics to horror to feminist works, Japanese storytelling has earned a starring role on the international stage of literature. The often unsung heroes behind the overseas hits are the translators. The Japan Times will highlight one working translator a month, exploring this literary pursuit.

Jay Rubin, 78, who is a professor emeritus of Japanese literature at Harvard University, took his first steps in translating with “Sanshiro” by Natsume Soseki (1867-1916) as a young graduate student. As a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Chicago in the late ’60s, Rubin studied under the scholar and translator Edwin McClellan, who is perhaps best known for his translation of Soseki’s “Kokoro.”

“McClellan would assign something and I would translate it. I don’t tend to question things all that much,” Rubin recalls. “I enjoyed the process of turning a Japanese text into English, I loved learning kanji and it was as simple as that. I was really shocked later to realize that not all professors of Japanese literature are translators.”

Translation complements literary scholarship, and Rubin believes that with translation, “you can’t duplicate the intensity, the depth of reading when you must translate the work.”

Jay Rubin
Jay Rubin

At first Rubin mostly focused on literature from the Meiji (1868-1912) and Taisho (1912-26) eras and “had no interest at all in contemporary stuff.” In 1985, however, an American publisher asked him to decide if it was worth publishing in English a book by a young writer named Haruki Murakami who had just released his fourth novel, “Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World.”

He was reluctant to accept the job at first, but once Rubin read the novel, he was “blown away.” Rubin enthusiastically endorsed the novel and a year later, Alfred Birnbaum’s translation was released. Rubin credits Birnbaum for launching Murakami’s international success: “Definitely it was Birnbaum’s lively style that allowed Murakami to take off at all.”

Since then Rubin has translated a number of Murakami’s works, such as “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle,” “Norwegian Wood” and “1Q84,” as well as “The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories,” opening a floodgate for contemporary Japanese literature. Rubin retired from teaching in 2006, but his career has come full circle: He published a new translation of “Sanshiro” in 2009, nearly 40 years after his first, and he is currently working on a new translation of “Hard-Boiled Wonderland” to mark the opening of Waseda University’s Haruki Murakami Library in 2021.

Of his favored writers, Rubin says, “Everything I like has this strong sense of interiority. Soseki gets you inside the brains of his characters, and Murakami is also a writer who concentrates on the interior world of his people. There’s a consistency with writers who look deeply toward the interior worlds of humanity.”

Most difficult word to translate:Natsukashii (nostalgia). In Japanese there’s such a wealth of emotional intention behind that one word that is impossible to translate into English in the same way.”

Advice to new translators: “You can’t depend on the grammar of Japanese to guide you in choosing grammatical constructs in English. You have to translate images, ideas, tone and mood — the most enjoyable and intangible elements of literature — into which translation allows (or forces) you to immerse yourself. The best preparation for the job is to practice writing your own language.”

This is the first installment of a monthly series that highlights notable translators and their work.

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