I recently watched (via YouTube) a panel discussion in a San Francisco bookstore about Haurki Murakami, a conversation that raised some very interesting points about literature and identity, both national and personal. What do works of 'art' (the word in air-quotes because I actually hate using that word, it always reeks of pretension) say about ourselves and where we come from? How does the language and form of the text shape the person and place from which it arose? And can we look to this work to see some form of ourselves?
One of the panelists, an old, close friend of Murakami himself, pointed out that there's a curious contrast to be found when comparing what's currently popular now in Japanese literature, as opposted to what's trendy with its U.S. counterpart. In Japan, that most group-conscious of cultures, stories centreing in on the pyschological experiences of individual characters are selling quite well -- one reason why the translated works of Paul Auster are so popular, because his stories often intensely delve into human consciousness as its lived. Conversely, in America, that most self-centred of countries, tales of family struggle and connection have been in vogue for awhile. (Think Jonathan Franzen's THE CORRECTIONS, for example.)
It's almost as if people turn to literature to somehow converse with what's most absent in their lives. The United States, individualistic to the core, is obsessed in its art with the strained ties that we form and unravel with our family and friends; Japan, a seemingly bland monolith of collective cohesion, finds solace in tales that let a single person take hold. (I have no clever conclusion to reach from these observations, but they sure make some sense to me.)
Other issues raised in this talk kind of sparked me a bit. It's interesting to me that Japan, such a supposedly isolated and very-much-itself kind of country, reads an absolutely astonishing amount of literature-in-translation. (Compare this reality to the reading habits of Canadians and Americans, who rarely, if ever, read a current book that comes from elsewhere.) Not only fiction, either; scan the shelves at any Japanese bookstore, and you'll see non-fiction books from abroad on basically any topic. There's a craving here to know how others think and might live.
Yet another observation from Murakami's Japanese friend I found quite interesting, and I'm paraphrasing a bit here, but he mentioned that up until the Seventies, while the Japanese public still consumed a lot of literary work in translation, very few 'voices' from those books really connected that much. Meaning, the authentic vibe one would groove on in the original English didn't cross the boundaries of language all that much, or even that well. The languages are so different; there's a rigidness, a kind of static directness due to the Japanese characters and kanji that makes English's dexterity almost impossible to convey. (That's my theory, anyways.)
However, in the Seventies, the Japanese translation of Richard Brautigan's book TROUT FISHING IN AMERICA became a huge sensation in Japan, because the specific tone of the story was somehow rendered clear and complete. The voice survived. People ate that shit up. And Murakami's friend mentioned that this book had an extremely big impact on Murakami's own style of fiction; people soon began to say that the authors' stories read, in Japanese, like translated works from English -- thus giving his stories a funky new feel. Indeed, many felt that Murakami's work resembled that of Kurt Vonnegut's, who had also been extremely popular (in translation) in the Japan of the Seventies.
My point? That one benefit of examining in translation works from other cultures is the mental interplay that occurs, a blending and inversion of language and tone, style and story that at its most effective can become close to transgressive. Reading stories from other cultures, in our own language, somehow gives us a better sense of where we too might stand, or how others stay grounded in this shaky world. There is, admittedly, at least for me, sometimes an off-putting element to many translations, or even when watching movies from abroad, all those strange sounds and odd sights. The language feels slightly ajar, the situations more than unreal. An overall stiltedness, I guess you could say. This uneasiness is an urge that I've had to learn to accept, because within those cultural gaps, that artistic awkwardness that arises from language and tone being blended and served, you can occasionally glimpse the odd sight of yourself.