Murakami in Bengali and Kenji in Malayalam

'The Yoshiwara in Edo', by Katsushika Hokusai—both Japan and India have unique cultures, which makes Japanese literature popular in India. (Art Institute of Chicago/Gift of Helen C. Gunsaulus)
'The Yoshiwara in Edo', by Katsushika Hokusai—both Japan and India have unique cultures, which makes Japanese literature popular in India. (Art Institute of Chicago/Gift of Helen C. Gunsaulus)


Dedicated translators have been bringing the best of Japanese fiction to Indian readers in Bengali, Hindi and Malayalam

Professor Abhijit Mukherjee’s tryst with Japanese was a matter of coincidence. During a stroll in Kolkata’s Pretoria Street in the summer of 1991, the electrical engineer chanced upon a sign on a gate advertising beginners’ courses in Japanese. On a whim, he joined the evening classes at the consulate-general of Japan. Little did he know that he would eventually become the first to translate best-selling Japanese author Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore into Bengali.

Mukherjee is among the few Japanese to Bengali translators in India. After spending five years studying the language and literature in Kolkata, he did post-doctoral research in the subject at Kanazawa University in Japan in 1997. He returned to India in 1998 and within a year, started teaching a three-year Japanese course at Jadavpur University (JU) and attempting literary translation alongside.

“In 2015, I asked Abhijit Gupta, director of Jadavpur University Press, if he’d be interested in a translation of Murakami’s writings," says Prof. Mukherjee. The project received a grant from the Japan Foundation. “Kafka on the Shore therefore became the first Japanese novel to be translated into Bengali. Samudratate Kafka was published in two volumes in 2016 and 2017," recalls Mukherjee.

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In the last nine years, JU Press in collaboration with Mukherjee has published works of four Japanese authors in Bengali. These include two short story anthologies by Haruki Murakami (The Elephant Vanishes/Hatita Udhao and Men Without Men/Nari Biborjito Purushera in 2021), Yukio Mishima’s The Temple of the Golden Pavilion/Swarnamandir in 2020, and Yōko Ogawa’s The Housekeeper and the Professor/Onker Jogot o Odhyapoker Prem.

As the demand for Japanese fiction translated into English grows, readers are looking beyond popular authors such as Haruki Murakami and Kazuo Ishiguro, and discovering the writing of Meiko Kawakami, Sayaka Murata, Toshikazu Kawaguchi and others. Japanese crime thrillers have always had a following with books such as Keigo Higashino’s The Devotion of Suspect X even forming the foundation for films such as Sujoy Jeethu Joseph’s Drishyam. But long before English-speaking readers discovered Japanese writing, dedicated translators have been translating the best of Japanese fiction directly into Indian languages, such as Bengali, Malayalam and Hindi.

The fact that these literary works of cross-continent translation exist for readers is by itself admirable, but it gets better. Many translators find that Japanese and the Indian languages they work in have striking similarities. “Both Japanese and Malayalam are similar in sentence structure, gender classification, verb conjugation, pattern and above all, the way of life. Therefore, translating from Japanese to Malayalam is easier than translating into English," says Prof. P.A. George, who teaches Japanese language and literature at the Centre for Japanese Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University and has translated some of the most notable Japanese works of fiction directly into Malayalam.

Mukherjee concurs. “While translating from Japanese into Bengali, I found that the preferred syntactical orders to suit emotional circumstances are alike… A translator should have no trouble in determining the spirit of the sentences. Once that is clear, the task is to write suitable Bengali sentences that maintain the spirit," says Mukherjee.

George, who has translated Natsume Sōseki, Ishikawa Takuboku, Yasunari Kawabata and others, and been published by Kerala-based VC Thomas Editions and DC Books, says the themes resonate with Indian readers. “I only translate the works of authors I like and Miyazawa Kenji, who is best known for his short fiction, children’s stories and poetry, is an all-time favourite," says George.

Both countries have unique cultures, social hierarchies and ways of living, which makes Japanese literature popular in India. “I occasionally get e-mails from readers saying they liked the work and want to read more Japanese works in Malayalam so I think there is a considerable demand for Malayalam translation of Japanese literary works," says George, whose first translation was of Kenji’s popular novella, Night on the Galactic Railroad in 2001. Though this work has been published in over 20 world languages, Malayalam is the only Indian language in which it has been published.

In his 2016 research paper, Japanese Literature in Marathi Translation, Prof. Nissim Bedekar, who teaches Japanese at the English and Foreign Language University in Hyderabad, writes that Japanese language education began in Maharashtra in 1965 when seven students signed up for the class introduced in Pune Vidyarthi Griha. In 1977, the department of foreign languages at Pune University established a certificate course , and the next 30 years witnessed a significant growth in the number of students enrolling for Japanese language courses in the city.

Bedekar is one of the few Japanese to Marathi translators in India. He has translated Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, Jirō Akagawa, Kenji Miyazawa, Shin’ichi Hoshi and Yasunari Kawabata, all published by Marathi publisher Manovikas Prakashan or in Pune-based Marathi magazines Kelyane Bhashantar and Uttam Anuvad.

While Bengali and Malayalam translators draw similarities with Japanese, Marathi translators face challenges. “Japanese is very rich in words. For instance, there are different words for rain falling at different times of the year or falling in a different way. Marathi lacks such an abundant vocabulary and poses a serious challenge to the translator to accurately render the nuance of words. We often require a lengthy explanation in the form of footnotes," he explains.

Cultural fluency and familiarity, therefore, play a huge role in translating literature. George, who has been studying Japanese culture, language and literature for almost 45 years, says, “It is the first and foremost prerequisite for accurate rendering of a literary work from one language into another. In my case, I am more familiar with Japanese culture than my own culture as a Malayali Indian."

Though Pune boasts the largest number of Japanese language learners and teachers in India, Bedekar says publishers have rarely heard of Japanese writers other than Haruki Murakami. “Most Marathi publishers have not heard of any other Japanese writer, even Nobel laureates such as Yasunari Kawabata and Kenzubaro Oe. Naturally, they are reluctant to accept manuscripts of unknown foreign authors and worry about paying a huge royalty to the author or the copyright holder for publishing the translation," he explains.

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Kannan Sundaram, founder of the Tamil publishing house Kalachuvadu Publications, best known for publishing writers such as Perumal Murugan, Chellappa and Ambai, echoes a similar sentiment. “We have not published translations from Japanese though we would love to. At the Frankfurt Book Fair, I came across foundations promoting Japanese literature to major languages of the world. Since Indian languages did not figure in the list, I could not find support to advise and facilitate us in translating from Japanese to Tamil," he says.

There are, however, some translations from Japanese to Tamil: Japanese linguist Susumu Ohno’s book Sound Correspondences between Tamil and Japanese, published by the International Institute of Tamil Studies in Chennai, is popular with students. The Institute of Asian Studies, also in Chennai, has published a substantial number of Japanese haiku and man’yōshū (classical poetry) in Tamil.

Koji Sato, director general, The Japan Foundation, who has spent more than seven years in India in total, enabling inter-cultural exchanges, says, “Our efforts towards promoting Japanese culture in India have been consistent. With the popularity of Anime here, we’ve been hosting film festivals throughout the country to disseminate various aspects of Japanese society and people. We are eager to expand to more powerful mediums like literature. Language is the foundation of every culture." Sato speaks fluent Hindi after spending more than three years learning the language.

One of the purposes of translation is to make people aware of life and ideas in other lands. “Translation of literary works of a culture is an effective tool in understanding the mindset of the people belonging to that culture. As society changes, so does its literature, providing us with insights about social vicissitudes... translation of Japanese literature becomes important in understanding a civilisation considered one of the most unique in the world," says Bedekar.

Arunima Mazumdar is the founder of Dokusha Book Club for fans of Japanese literature.

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