Sunday, January 13, 2008

Lost in Translation: Sputnik Sweetheart by Murakami

I swear that I read a different "Sputnik Sweetheart" than my coworker.

My coworker read the Chinese translation and I read the English translation.

The book follows an unrequited-love triangle between the narrator, his friend, Sumire, and her boss, Miu. The narrator loves Sumire, but can't muster up the courage to tell her (he doesn't know if she's interested in him, or even men in general), Sumire is in love with Miu, but Miu is married and is Sumire's boss (and Sumire doesn't know if Miu reciprocates, either) and Miu...Miu feels nothing because of an otherwordly experience which left her a shell of her former self (and has left her hair totally white).

The story goes along in the usual "I'm in love with a girl who loves another girl so I'm screwing someone else that I don't like to make up for it" way until Sumire goes missing. She vanishes one night while she and Miu are vacationing on a tiny, isolated Greek island. Then our intrepid narrator joins Miu to "look" for Sumire. Except they don't look so much as tell each other their problems and Miu relates how she lost half of herself to another realm of existence, the realm which, presumably, Sumire has disappeared into.

The rest of the book is about the narrator's own feelings of isolation, loneliness, emptiness, etc. The narrator wonders about the other realm, which, I thought, was a metaphor for a state where you can allow yourself to let go and live uninhibited. A state where you can declare your love for people, free of hurt and stigma, where you can feel sexual pleasure without guilt. The question becomes, can the narrator let go? The answer is, well, no. He can't. He just waits for everyone to join him in his insular world (the "real world").

At least that's what I thought. My coworker had a completely different interpretation. He thought the narrator had let go. He thought the narrator finally joined Sumire. But he also didn't think that the other realm was the place where you let go, so much as an escape from real life.

I would have thought that these were just different interpretations, but when we discussed particular parts of the book, it was as if we had read two completely different books. The descriptions of the events and thoughts of the characters were completely different.

At one point I found a French version of "Sputnik Sweetheart" in a book store and skimmed over it. The French version also had a different feel to it. It was much more matter-of-fact and less magical than the English version.

Obviously, the translation changes the book, but I didn't think it would change the essence of the book. The translator appears to infuses their own understanding, esthetic and interpretation into the book, creating something wholly different.

This makes me wonder: is it fair to say that two translations of the same book are really the same book?

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