“Put Murakami in your title and attention is guaranteed.” That is something we don’t need to be told twice. We had a talk with the Flemish translator of Japan's most promoted novelist and asked him about the peculiarities of Japanese, the art of literary translation and Murakami's inimitable style.

As a seasoned Japanologist, the link between Luk Van Haute and Yamagata Europe is obvious. Luk did a lot of technical translation work from Japanese in the nineties and Luk and Yamagata’s paths crossed each other regularly. Still, Luk has a lot more up his sleeve. Luk obtained a doctorate on the work of the Nobel Prize winner of literature Kenzaburo Oe and has been active in recent years as a literary translator for various authors, including public favorite Haruki Murakami.

We also know Luk as a specialist in Japanese film and he is responsible for the introductions to the Japan Square Film Festival, of which Yamagata Europe is a proud sponsor.

Luk Van Haute op Japan Square

Luk, what prompted you to study Japanese?

That was more of a reckless choice. I was interested in language, and I wanted to study a language that was as 'foreign' as possible. In the eighties Japanese was still something exotic. At the time, however, Japanology as a field of study was mainly focused on Buddhism, with which I had no affinity. But when I was allowed to study at the University of Tokyo via a scholarship from the Japanese government (Department of Comparative Culture and Literature), good times were coming. I stayed in Japan after my studies and worked for a film production company. Before I knew it, I had spent six years in the country.

What are the typical difficulties of Japanese that you encounter as a Westerner?

When you start studying Japanese, you have to start from scratch. You have no reference point whatsoever. Of course, writing is also a serious obstacle. It is very complex and takes up quite a lot of your study time, too much actually.

Furthermore, Japanese is very ambiguous. In terms of grammar, there are few points of reference. There is no singular or plural, there are no articles, and the verb conjugation is rather limited. So, there is a lot of room for interpretation. ‘A bird in a tree’ could just as well be 'several birds in several trees'. Perhaps this ambiguity has to do with the typical Japanese reservation. As a translator, this is quite a challenge. Take the title of Murakami’s latest novel ‘Killing Commendatore, part 1: The Idea Made Visible.’ That ‘idea’ is actually the translator's interpretation. The same applies to part 2 of that book, entitled ‘The Shifting Metaphor. That could just as well have been ‘metaphors’.

But is this ambiguity not also the thing that attracts literary translators?

Indeed, it’s completely different from technical translation. I did a lot of those when, after six years in Japan, I returned to Belgium. But in the end I returned to my old love, literary translation. In the case of technical translations, everything must be unambiguous. With literary translations on the other hand, your own input is very important. That's why you have to be a good writer yourself. A literary translator must always find a balance between retaining the original text and his own style of writing. But it is important that you remain modest and respect the original author's individuality.

A literary translator is an actor.

I like to compare a literary translator with an actor who plays a character. James Bond was played by different actors and it was different every time. Or compare it to a score played by different pianists. The notes on the paper are always the same, but a good or a bad pianist makes a world of difference.

Actors usually receive a lot of attention when a new film is released. Translators, on the other hand...

The appreciation for literary translators is moderate, to say the least. People underestimate it enormously. A translator of a novel can never win. If it's a bad text, it's usually the translator's fault. If the text is good, the original author will be praised.

Literary translation seems to be a slow craft, in contrast to technical translations, where machine translation pushes the limits of productivity every time.

I made the switch from technical to literary translation about 10 years ago, and indeed a lot has changed technologically since then. Perhaps literature is the last area that translation technology has no control over, just because you have to interpret so much. Although there have been experiments with literary machine translation, I believe.

Murakami is someone with a lot of star quality. Is it motivating to translate for such an author?

Of course, Murakami is hot, you know. Put the word Murakami in your title and your article is guaranteed to be read. I have not even mentioned the financial side of the matter. Translators are usually paid per word, but can also receive royalties. Usually you only get royalties if you achieve a certain number of books sold. Unlike many other Japanese authors, Murakami can achieve this.

But I also get a lot of creative satisfaction from translating such a work. Murakami has its own ironic style. Sometimes, I need to work long and meticulously on a text, but it's a lot of fun. And yes, sometimes you have contact with the author if you get stuck with your translation, but that doesn't happen too often with Murakami. He is open to contact, but he has a lot of translators, of course. Authors are quite concerned about the quality of their translations. As a literary translator, contributing to that quality is very satisfying.

You recently finalized the translation of Murakami's voluminous new novel. What does the future hold?

No literary translations for a while. At the moment I want to focus on writing a non-fiction book for Lannoo Publishing, based on experiences and encounters in Japan. This will be published in the course of next year. In that book I would like to nuance some of the clichés about Japan.

By the way, I have noticed that the increasing popularity of Japanese culture is attracting more and more people to Japanese studies. That is something we can only be happy about.