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Vonnegut, translated

   A friend recently posted an interview of Kurt Vonnegut on Facebook.

   Vonnegut is one of my . . . no on second thought, he is my favorite author. Gabriel García Máquez is a close second but for very different reasons.[1] I am also a fan of Phillip Roth, David Sedaris, Joseph Heller, Frank McCourt, and others. Haruki Murakami used to be up in the top five, but since his agency told me, in not so uncertain terms, to take my translations of his essays off of my website immediately, the Japanese author has dropped in my esteem to about tenth place.

   Watching the video of Vonnegut got me to wonder how many of his books I had lying around the house. So, I climbed out of my futon, cleared the dining room floor and started laying the books out. The above photo is the result. Twenty-five books. There are still some that are missing from my collection—a conversation about writing between Vonnegut and Lee Stringer, called Like Shaking Hands with God (Read it!) must be in the closet somewhere.

   Vonnegut often said that he was one of the few living authors lucky enough to have his entire body of work still in print. He also argued that the success of his or any author’s works translated into another language depended to such a large extent upon the talent of the translator that the translators themselves should receive a greater share of the royalties. As examples of good translators, he offered two women—his Italian and Russian translators—noting that his books had been well received in those two countries. In Germany, too. In France, however, his books never managed to do very well.

   I would say that Vonnegut could also add his Japanese translator to that list of good-for-nothings.

   While it is not hard to find one of Vonnegut’s translations in major bookstores here—there’s a whole shelf dedicated to him at the local Village Vanguard—you won’t come across many people who have heard of, let alone read anything by, the author. Those who have read him seem to have only done so because they had to, simply because Murakami is such a fan (and dare I even say plagiarizer) of Vonnegut and, of course, whatever Murakami-sama[2] says, his loyal Japanese fans dutifully obey.[3]

   Oh, but what dreadful translations they are!

   Many years ago when I was first dating my wife, I bought her several of Vonnegut’s novels translated into Japanese. I had been reading Timequake[4] at the time and, every time I came across a particularly funny scene, I would translate it into Japanese which would invariably cause her to laugh, sometimes so hard she cried. When she actually got round to reading the Japanese translations, however, she was disappointed.

   Incredulous, I took a look for myself and, reading the Japanese version of some of the choicer sections of Timequake, I could see what the problem was: the translator had succeeded so thoroughly in taking all the fun out of the book that it had become a dry shell of the original. It was as if he were adding warm tap water to champagne and, were I Vonnegut, I would have sued the translator for criminal malpractice.


[1] Follow my Gabo tweets! Over 60,000 followers and counting!

[2] Sama (様) is a title of respect added to the end of names. San often denotes some familiarity with the person.

[3] Were Murakami to publish his used toilet paper, it would surely sell 300,000 copies overnight.

[4] Still one of my very favorites. Highly recommended if you have also read Breakfast of Champions.

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