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Dreaming Murakami: Translation as the art of empathy

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“Mutual understanding is of critical importance. There are those who say that ‘understanding’ is merely the sum total of our misunderstandings, and while I do find this view interesting in its own way, I am afraid that we have no time to spare on pleasant digressions”

(Superfrog saves Tokyo, Haruki Murakami).

Documentary differentiates itself as a cinematic genre in that, by contrast to other film, it portrays reality rather than fiction. The relationship between fiction and reality is, however, far more complex than a definite binary and—despite what such categories might suggest—a reality made up of human subjectivity (tarnished by memory and warped by emotion) is inevitably an amalgam of both.

The hybrid documentary Dreaming Murakami presents an honest, intimate and fantastical portrait of Danish translator Mette Holm, who has been translating the work of Japanese author Haruki Murakami for almost 20 years. This film is embellished with a host of fantastical nods to the titular author’s fictional work, including the two moons from IQ84 and the giant amphibian from Superfrog saves Tokyo, the latter of which starts following Mette from an underground station in Tokyo one day. Parallel worlds, ghostly doubles and fantastical creatures abound in this dream-documentary as we follow Mette through the process of translating Murakami’s debut novel Hear the Wind Sing, the first book in his famous trilogy of the Rat. She muses on Murakami’s work and on her metier, moving from living rooms in Copenhagen to sushi bars in Tokyo and all the while exchanging ideas with colleagues, sharing reflections with friends and connecting with strangers over the spellbinding and enigmatic writer. As we progress, the film delves deeper into an investigation of the layered and multifaceted nature of translation as not only a technical craft, but also as an art, and even a way of being.

We begin with a simple sentence. Back at her apartment in Copenhagen Mette translates out loud from her Japanese copy of Hear the Wind Sing:

“There is no perfect literature, just like there is no perfect despair”.

She contemplates each word with painstaking care, explaining the many possible alternatives and thoughtfully weighing the accuracy of each one. Is there no perfect “sentence”, “text”, or “literature”? “Perfect”, “complete” or “absolute” despair? The ambiguity and obscurity of the Japanese language, Mette explains in a radio interview, is difficult to capture in our western language. The notion of parallel universes, she explains, is common in Japanese mentality. Their world-view allows for a different kind of fluidity that renders the borders between other worlds and our own invisible and permeable, blurred lines that we drift across unknowingly. Thus, her challenge lies in carrying over this embedded time-and-space relationship to a language that is coded with a totally different conception of reality. It raises the age-old philosophical question on the inextricability of thought and language; if thought and language determine each other, how can our world-view—our understanding of love, nature, time and death—be translated across ontologically conflicting languages? If translation were merely a technical task, there might be such a thing as the “perfect” translation; but in order to navigate across culture, across ideology, and translate such intangible concepts as “ambiguity”, the task quickly becomes more complex. As Mette continues to alter and build upon this initial phrase, the evolution of the sentence becomes a narrative thread in the film, acting as a core-motif that repeats the fundamental question: how, in the face of a multiple, conflicting and subjective reality, do we communicate with each other across these chasms of misunderstanding?

“No one can write perfectly, just as you can’t be in perfect despair”.

I think of a passage in Milan Kundera’s Unbearable Lightness of Being. In a heart-breaking chapter about “words misunderstood”, Kundera explores the idea that we as individuals each build an encyclopaedic library in which the same words mean different things to each other; the same word might mean one thing to me whilst meaning something else entirely to you, depending on your identity, world-view and your life experience. So, not only can “summer” mean July to me and December to you because of geographical and cultural difference, but “summer” might mean “heartbreak” to me, and yet mean “childhood”, “freedom” and “innocence” to you. Our subjectivity buries the unique, personal connotations of each word into our subconscious and transforms them into something more: the stuff of memories, fantasies, dreams and emotions. In a world of such subjective meaning, where words belong to everyone and to no one all at once, how are we to understand each other? From this perspective, you could argue that every act of communication is an act of translation: our language is an imperfect system, that ultimately relies on our willingness to understand one another in order to function.

“The so-called perfect sentence does not exist. Just as perfect despair does not exist”.

Mette explains to her students that in order to translate a text you have to “stalk” the writer; research their life, their background, and their “way of using words”. The process of translation goes beyond the technical language itself, past the text and to the person behind it. Murakami, who is known to be camera shy, makes no personal appearance in the documentary, yet the whole film is imbued with his presence; as we progress through the film we sink deeper into the Murakami-daydream that Mette inhabits, a world of striped cats, double moons, music records and ramen bowls. At one point Mette recalls when her mother asked her, “what would you be without Murakami”? “That’s a tough thing to consider because,” Mette continues in a tone that’s both joking and genuine, “would I be no one without him?” In order to translate Murakami’s work, Mette must create the illusion for Danish readers that she is Murakami; but what does that mean for Mette’s identity? What about her world and her sense of self? In a night scene (that, for several reasons, reminds me of Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation) pastel city lights dance across the transparent window pane as a quiet, comfortable loneliness embalms Mette’s Tokyo hotel room.

“There is no perfect text, just as there is no perfect despair”

During a later conversation between Mette and Norwegian translator Yngve Larsen, the two translators grapple with their particular relationships to Murakami. Yngve expresses that he too is, in some ways, always living in a never-ending Murakami universe. I think about my own connection to that art which moves me, the other worlds and minds that I’ve occupied and the one’s in which I’ve found a home. I cannot separate these worlds from my waking reality. Though they might be invisible, these worlds continue to always exist within me, parallel universes of my very own. I am made up of the stories I experience, possessed by the characters who I have embodied and inescapably altered by them; but they do not erase me – they are the stuff I’m made of. The exercise of extreme empathy is a multiplication, not an eradication, of the self. Literature, as Mette simply puts it, gives us the possibility for more than one life.

“There is no perfect sentence, just as there is no absolute despair”

“We can’t live without translation”, Mette meditates. “We want to read things other than what is written in our own language […] We want to know other worlds, and books let us do that”. Dreaming Murakami is a heartening reminder of the necessity for empathy in a world where our subjectivity has the potential to either isolate us from each other, or be the source of infinite enrichment in our lives. Maybe there is no such thing as the “perfect” translation, or “pure” communication uncorrupted by compromise. Yet, if we embrace a world of multiple realities – of invisible borders and parallel universes – perhaps we can still find ways to really understand each other.

“There is no perfect literature, just as there is no perfect despair, right?”


Nitesh Anjaan’s Dreaming Murakami premiered at IDFA in 2017, and will have its North American premier at Hot Docs April 27th 2018. Follow the link to find out more about Dreaming Murakami and how to watch it.

Works Cited

Superfrog Saves Tokyo, Haruki Murakami
Hear the Wind Sing, Haruki Murakami
IQ84, Haruki Murakami
The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera
Lost in Translation, Sofia Coppola

Ebba loves literature, but has a BA in the slightly lower ranked art form of cinema. Her heroes are Pauline Kael, David Lynch, Donna Haraway, RuPaul, Albert Camus, Kathryn Bigelow and Eileen Myles, to name a few. She wrote her Bachelor dissertation on cyborgs and has a soft spot for science-fiction and horror. She likes her culture mixed, high and low, pop and pretentiousness together. She spends most of her time listening to pop-culture podcasts, writing, reading, and making crappy art. She’ll be starting a master in film studies at KU in 2018.

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