When it comes to translators of bestselling Japanese author and pop philosopher Haruki Murakami, readers of English editions will immediately think of Alfred Birnbaum, Philip Gabriel, and Jay Rubin, the latter of whom also wrote the accessible scholarly guide Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words (2002). However, as Murakami has now been published in over 50 languages, there are many more translators out there who have been tasked with conveying his unique mood to a devoted, even obsessive, international readership. In Nitesh Anjaan’s exquisitely realized documentary Dreaming Murakami, the author’s Norwegian translator, Ynge Johan Larsen, muses that such professionals are part of a “never-ending universe”, linked as much by an appreciation for Murakami’s world as a rigorous approach to the complexities of language. He’s not the documentary’s entry point to that universe, though, as Anjaan focuses on the enigmatic Mette Holm, who has served as Murakami’s Danish translator for nearly 20 years.
Dreaming Murakami observes Holm as she diligently works on the Danish edition of Hear the Wind Sing (1979), Murakami’s debut novel that was belatedly published outside Japan in 2015, somewhat to the author’s chagrin since he has dismissed it as an immature effort. Regardless of one’s opinion of the overall quality of the novel, it posed a challenge to Holm who notes that it deals with a duality of the self, which was uncommon in Japanese literature at the time. When not working in solitary fashion, she visits Japan and recalls the roots of her affinity with its culture, catches-up with friends and fellow Murakami translators, gives talks about the author, and meets with his Danish publishing house. Holm evidently feels an immense sense of responsibility to the reclusive Murakami. She has taken on the further roles of creative consultant or spokesperson, channeling the author when dismissing the ‘falling man’ artwork that is being considered for the cover of the Danish edition of Hear the Wind Sing.
Discussing the process of translation with The New Yorker in 2013, Rubin commented, “When you read Haruki Murakami, you’re reading me, at least ninety-five per cent of the time. Murakami wrote the names and locations, but the English words are mine.” This is an aspect of the translation that is frequently raised in Dreaming Murakami as Holm comments on how much of what Danish readers take to be Murakami’s voice is actually her interpretation of his work, as informed by an intimate knowledge of the author’s traits that was instigated when she first picked up a copy of Norwegian Wood (1987) in the summer of 1995. Still, she avoids taking liberties with the text, and strives to get each sentence just right so that Murakami’s spell isn’t broken. But even then, does translating every sentence perfectly ensure that the whole will achieve perfection?
Holm admits to a certain social awkwardness and lives in the world of Murakami’s writing. She talks of “Murakami moments” where something extraordinary happens within mundane reality which Anjaan complements by striking a dreamlike tone. Taking his cue from Murakami’s short story Super-Frog Saves Tokyo (2000), in which a giant amphibian enlists the help of a collections officer to battle a humongous worm lurking beneath the city, Anjaan has Holm being observed by a hulking yet considerate creature. It’s a fantastical conceit that illustrates not just a piece of Murakami’s prose but also the assertion that parallel realities are created by languages. “It’s like they are thinking in a totally different way,” explains Holm when discussing how the Japanese language elicits especially vivid imagery.
It’s when using Japanese that the charmingly reserved Holm is at her most comfortable. Much like a character in a Murakami story, she engages easily with strangers, such as the taxi driver with whom she talks about the Kobe earthquake. Later, at a small bar, the subject of Murakami provides the spark for conversation that extends to a wider discussion concerning the increasingly right wing nature of global politics. Thoughtful and well informed, Holm visibly relaxes when not only speaking Japanese language but in an environment that is straight out of a Murakami novel. Although not mentioned in the documentary, the bar, Half Time, featured in Kazuki Ohmori’s adaptation of Hear the Wind Sing (1981) in which it was used for J’s Bar, the dive where the narrator whiles away his days with the Rat. It’s barely changed since then, right down to the posters behind the bar and the positioning of the tables and chairs, creating a further slippage in reality.
Like many of Murakami’s stories, Anjaan’s documentary is a deceptively slight experience, peppered with deadpan surrealism and perplexing questions. Holm may just be one step removed creatively, yet he remains an elusive figure even as she prepares to share the stage with him for a literary event. The author’s legion of fans won’t need much encouragement to see Dreaming Murakami, but it comes highly recommended nonetheless.
 Roland Kelts (2013) ‘Lost in Translation’, The New Yorker, May 9, https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/lost-in-translation. Accessed May 6, 2018.