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“Dreaming Murakami”—Bringing Literary Translation to the Screen

By Canan Marasligil

Director Nitesh Anjaan’s film Dreaming Murakami (Final Cut for Real, 2017) follows Haruki Murakami’s Danish translator, Mette Holm, as she travels to Japan while working on the translation of the world-famous author’s debut novel, Hear the Wind Sing. Translator Canan Marasligil attended the film’s premiere in November and spoke with Anjaan and Holm about exploring the art of translation in film.

At the world premiere of Dreaming Murakami at the International Documentary Film Festival of Amsterdam, writer and filmmaker Nitesh Anjaan shares his special thanks with the main protagonist of his film, “someone who taught me a lot about language, about imagination, but also very much about dedication,” as he invites Mette Holm to the stage under a round of cheerful applause. Anjaan followed Holm, Danish translator of Haruki Murakami, over the course of a year in Denmark and Japan to capture the process of literary translation, transforming—and in his own manner translating—a literary experience into a cinematic one.

With this remarkable work of his own imagination, Anjaan has managed to convey what happens in the mind of a literary translator who has devoted her life to the art of translation and most of her practice to Haruki Murakami’s works. While the film does depict Murakami’s world, it is first and foremost a reminder of the importance of translation not only in literature, but in our reality. “Without translation, we cannot understand each other’s cultures,” Holm tells me, “we lose the ability to know each other.”

Murakami is never seen in the film. Anjaan knew about the writer’s strong aversion to television and his shy personality. From the filmmaker’s perspective, this movie has never been about the storyteller but about the story: “I would never want to pressure someone who does not want to be filmed,” Anjaan says. The title is clear in that sense—you will not follow the day-to-day life of a world-famous writer. Rather this film is about “dreaming” an oeuvre and the still too invisible art of literary translation. It is an attempt at understanding and expressing a literary universe in the most creative and personal way, just like literary translation.

Anjaan was about eighteen when he first read Murakami, in Danish. Then when he lived in Singapore during his studies, he bought his books in English. “I traveled with them,” Anjaan says as if he is talking about treasured belongings one can never part from, especially when away from home. When he came back to Copenhagen, Anjaan started working on his first novel, Kind of Blue, which was published (in Danish) in 2016. He first met Holm eight years ago, during one of the many lectures she gives on translation: “The realization about translation that many people are having watching the film now, I had it when I first met Mette. I had read Murakami in translation in two languages, and I had never thought about it. I had no idea then that I would make this film. But I remember that awe, and I have been thinking about translation ever since.”

“That is what I tried to translate into the film, that way of being in the world, being in between the world and the text that is translated and the world that you are physically in.” — Nitesh Anjaan

Anjaan and Holm have a warm and friendly relationship, and you can feel the admiration they both have for each other’s work. “She’s a very good communicator,” Anjaan says of Holm’s capacity to convey complex ideas on literary translation to general audiences. His own perception on translation has shifted: when he picks books in translation, he checks the language it was translated from, and he admits that he can no longer read Murakami in English. He has learned a great deal from his friendship with Holm and from reading the work of Murakami: “When I read his nonfiction, like the interviews he conducted in Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche [translated to English by Alfred Birnbaum and Philip Gabriel], I feel the deep humanity depicted and a very profound critique of that late-stage capitalist society I met when I was studying in Singapore.”

Anjaan reminisces about that day he dropped by Holm’s lecture, by chance: “Mette was talking about boku—the Japanese word for the inner, private self—and the concept of watashi, this form of the outer self. These words are used as pronouns in the novel Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World [translated to English by Alfred Birnbaum], one of my favorite novels by Murakami.” Anjaan explains that the novel is narrated by two different selves: boku and watashi: “That struck me as incredible, to see such nuances I knew nothing about in a language, and it also changed my whole idea of what literary translation is, and how important it is that we have dedicated artists who help us see other images and understand other worlds, and that we can feel strangely connected to people we thought were very distant. I guess I hope that this film goes into that realm of thought.”

In a sense, Anjaan is also translating a literary universe, and how he perceives it, into the cinematic form. “I see cinema as a language,” he says, “but instead of having letters and written words, you have images, sound, music. And in the image you have so many elements and motives. A film, just like a literary text, has rhythm, and in both you never say too much or too little. Understanding the work was key, so I asked Mette to describe to me Murakami’s world. I closed my eyes and could feel that she wasn’t describing a story but a place she has been to which exists. That is what I tried to translate into the film, that way of being in the world, being in between the world and the text that is translated and the world that you are physically in.”

Dreaming Murakami is partly inspired by the short story “Super-Frog Saves Tokyo” from after the quake (translated to English by Jay Rubin). It is a key story, according to Anjaan, to understand Murakami’s work: “In the very early process of the development of the film, I woke up one night at five a.m. from a dream with this image of a two-meter-tall frog sitting on a skyscraper looking over Tokyo, and then I began writing.” Anjaan tried to capture the dream he had of the frog so that it is completely real. “When I read ‘Super-Frog Saves Tokyo,’” he says, “the frog felt completely real. The film had to convey that feeling.” This is the reason why Anjaan inserted the frog into his film. “That makes the frog perfect,” Holm adds. “It is not strange; it is natural. In this way, you are translating Murakami’s universe. Or the frog is doing it.”

The film is a dream come true for literary translators: the feelings Anjaan describes about the frog and his experience of Murakami’s texts are also how a literary translator may feel. Dreaming Murakami almost deciphers something undecipherable, while still leaving much to the viewer to interpret in the same way that many works of literature—including Murakami’s—do. Being a literary translator myself, I sometimes had the feeling that the frog was Murakami watching over Holm’s work, but that is just my impostor syndrome peeking out. The work leaves space for different interpretations, and so, despite conveying a very precise vision, the film still breathes. As Anjaan describes, “When you read ‘Super-Frog saves Tokyo,’ you feel something huge has happened, but you never see it. When you read, you can imagine, create your own images. But cinema is different—you see something you’re shown. So I had to find the right balance between showing the physical and not showing it. If you don’t explain, we will experience. I believe more in the personal experience and what we experience through imagination.”

In the film, among the fragments narrated in Japanese, we clearly hear the word “imagination” in English. Murakami uses a lot of English words in his texts, which is not usual in Japanese, Holm tells me: “Murakami makes his language strange in this way. When I translate to Danish I have to keep the English words too, to keep it strange.” Holm has a love for the Japanese language, which she discovered on a trip to Japan. But it is one thing to fall in love with a language and another endeavor to try and make a whole world understood in a completely different one: “It is a coincidence, because I wanted to be a weaver. I immediately knew that if I wanted to do weaving in Japan I couldn’t do it without the language. So I started with the language, and I did the same in France, where I first started to learn weaving. You can’t understand a country without the language; it’s impossible. And the problem with Japanese is that you can’t really understand it by learning the language—you have to learn to read the language. It creates a stronger barrier than with other languages because French is easy to learn, you just read it, but Japanese you can’t, and it took me such a long time! Just to grasp the language was four years, then it took thirty years to really feel confident in reading the language. Now I’ve lost the ability to speak it because I haven’t lived in Japan for twenty years. That’s why I want to live there again in order to acquire the spoken language back, and it will be fast because I have been reading it so much.”

In the documentary, we do see Holm comfortable speaking Japanese, “but that’s just normal conversation; I wouldn’t be able to give a lecture in Japanese. But I’m comfortable with Japanese people, it’s easy for me to speak with them, but that’s because I understand them, I have lived there. I will go back to Japan in 2019, open a bar, live there for a year, translate in the daytime and have the bar open maybe three evenings a week. Because if I go to Japan just to translate, I will be in my own small bubble. So I will do what the protagonist in Murakami’s story ‘Kino,’ which I have translated, does—I will open a bar.”

When weaving, Holm explains, “you need to choose the right colors, the right thread, the right parameter, the right rhythm. With Murakami I think that it is a lot about rhythm too.”

We know from the film that Holm’s mother has asked her: What would you be without Murakami? “Indeed, I am translating a writer who has a cult status,” Holm admits. “A bookstore asked me to talk about Murakami years ago, and I have now become the Murakami person in Denmark. Normally, after you translate a book, it gets published, promoted, and you disappear. You know that feeling: you become invisible. But because Murakami is special—and also because I have this love for his books, oh, I love his books, all of them, I’m completely absorbed—it has kind of become my life.” Holm laughs, adding that this may be childish. It is beautiful, I tell her, as I recognize myself in her passion. Translation comes from an urge. And from watching the film and now talking with Holm, it seems that she has this urge to make Danish readers feel the love and passion she has for Murakami’s universe.

This is something Anjaan also manages to do marvelously in his film, placing us in the heart of Murakami’s world, in translation, through his own perspective as a filmmaker. “Yes, because Nitesh loves him too,” Holm says. “And when I met him for the first time, he was absorbed by his experience of the books. When I talk to people about Murakami, they share the most fantastic stories with me, about how his books changed their lives at a certain point.” She stops for a second and wonders, “And why didn’t I write it down! It’s been so many years, I lose these stories. I could have made a whole book about people’s dreams and hopes reading Murakami.” And it is thanks to Holm that these readers (at least those who read in Danish) have accessed the writing of Murakami. Of course, another translator may have done it too, but it wouldn’t have been Holm’s perspective and work, and that is what makes literary translation so particular, and what this film also shows. Translation is a subjective process. As Holms reflects, “It is a privilege to have all the books translated by myself, except for two, and people do ask me, ‘Why are those two books wrong?’ I say, ‘They are not wrong, but they were translated through English. The English culture gets mixed in there, and that is what makes it wrong. It’s not that they are bad translations but they miss something.’” The English tradition is different than the Danish one, Holm says, “because we want to be true to the writer, but English translators edit more, they want to be true to their readers. It is really different.”

Holm cares about connecting: “I couldn’t just be a translator, I wouldn’t necessarily be bored, but I would be less inspired. I like discussing with people. I make people aware of other translations too, and lately we’ve had more and more discussions about literary translation in Denmark. When I talk about language and translation, people become fascinated, and it makes them read in a different way. It is like opening the world. In Denmark we are cutting back on foreign language in education, which is a catastrophe.” Holm learned foreign languages in school and says, “I couldn’t translate Murakami without French, German, or English because we don’t have Japanese-to-Danish dictionaries. So when you translate from Japanese, you do it through other languages. And we work from Japanese, using the Japanese dictionary, but all words are translated to English or German—the German is much more precise, for example, for complex subjects like philosophy.”

Image: Mette Holm in a still from Dreaming Murakami (Final Cut for Real, 2017).

Before our conversation gets even nerdier, we get back to the idea of weaving, which is similar to translation. When weaving, Holm explains, “you need to choose the right colors, the right thread, the right parameter, the right rhythm. With Murakami I think that it is a lot about rhythm too.” She recalls an anecdote about an encounter Murakami had with a Danish writer while he was visiting Denmark. The renowned Danish writer told Murakami that he preferred to read his work in Danish rather than in English. Holm didn’t want Murakami to think she had anything to do with this conversation, and just when she was shying away, Murakami asked the writer “Why?” “Because of the rhythm,” he replied. Murakami then turned to Holm and asked, “What instrument do you play?” “I don’t play any instrument,” she says now. “I work a lot with the language, with the structure of the sentences and the flow of the text. It is very important for me, because I feel that this is what Murakami is doing.”

As we finish our discussion on rhythm and connecting outside the page, a viewer from the screening congratulates Holm on the movie, “Tak,” she adds as she goes away with a large smile. Thanks. Here we are, two literary translators joyfully embracing people’s enthusiasm about the film. “I’m so happy,” says Holm. “It is so nice for Nitesh: two years of his life, just one of mine.” I ask if she was curious about how the film would end up. “It was difficult for me to grasp what was going to happen in the film,” Holm admits. “I’ve been waiting for almost a year to see it.” Anjaan joins back in: “Storytelling is magical,” he says, fully aware and understanding of these doubts. “I had to stay focused on the magical and follow what my imagination was telling me.” There are many symbols in the film that emerge from Murakami’s books that only people who have read them will see. But even without any knowledge of the books, you can feel the magic and be transported into the universe of these three artists: Haruki Murakami, Mette Holm, and Nitesh Anjaan.

Dreaming Murakami also alludes to the role of storytelling and translation in political discourse: “We need translators who give us the opportunity to have a global conversation,” Anjaan says, “to hear the stories, to see each other, to meet each other in these mirrors, these prisms into other worlds, worlds that we thought were distant, and the people we thought were so different, to actually find out that we can connect because we have the same consciousness, we have the same emotions, and we have the same feelings.” Then he turns to Holm, who is nodding in agreement. “Just like when you [in the film] connect with the woman in the sushi restaurant,” Anjaan explains, “or the man at the jazz bar, because you have language. Language becomes key to understanding we are together in this world in a time when various kinds of energies are trying to do the opposite, and that’s where you become important.” Holm and I agree. We need storytellers like Anjaan to tell these magical, complex, beautiful narratives in as many forms as possible. Like our conversation this evening, the work of art starts with a story and sometimes with a dream, which can then become our own imagined reality through the art of translation. 

Published Mar 2, 2018   Copyright 2018 Canan Marasligil

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