Rob Price
Gutbrain Records
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2013 October 04 • Friday

In Vladimir Nabokov's screenplay adaptation of Lolita, his most famous work—and it's worth noting that nobody has actually filmed his screenplay yet, despite his screenplay credit on Kubrick's movie—there is a scene in which, among other things, Humbert is attempting to impress Lolita with an erudite reading of and commentary on Edgar Allan Poe's Ulalume.

HUMBERT: "It was hard by the dim lake of Auber, / In the misty mid region of Weir". Notice how nicely the "dim" is read back and becomes "mid"—"misty mid region"?

Indeed. And what if you wanted to translate this scene into Japanese? How much sound would you sacrifice to sense, how much sense to sound? How much potential for nuance? That misty mid region of Weir is awfully close to Weird. Did Nabokov or Poe or both hope we might consider that?

This is why I am reluctant to read books in translation. One of the joys of reading is the sounds and rhythms of the text, another the different possibilities suggested by the selection of one word over another. These qualities may be found in translations but how close are they to what the author actually wrote?

I used Japanese as my example because the English translations of Japanese books that I've read have generally had clunky, unattractive language. In every case I've doubted that the original was as hollow and clumsy. The gulf between the languages might be too big or the sensualities of the languages too different.

My first impression of the English translation of Fuminori Nakamura's The Thief was also negative. It is a short book and a quick read, though, and gradually establishes an atmosphere similar to Camus's The Stranger—or similar to the English translation I read of that book. (I thought that Matthew Ward's translation was excellent but of course I can't read French, so my opinion isn't worth much.)

Nishimura is a pickpocket. He doesn't do much else. He has memories of a love affair and a missing friend. He shows an interest in a young boy whose mother is forcing him to shoplift.

Nishimura goes out and steals wallets almost every day. Occasionally a wallet he doesn't remember stealing ends up in his pocket. Did he do it without realizing it? Did somebody plant it on him?

Eventually he is forcibly reminded of his role in a different sort of crime from years ago. This leads to a few very specific pickpocketing assignments, each more difficult than the last. If he fails, he dies.

I'd be curious to know how it reads in Japanese. This English version started out merely adequate but grew on me, aided no doubt by my interest in the story.

The first line is "When I was a kid, I often messed this up".