The Great Gatsby: Translating an American Classic

19/09/2019 | Rebecca Twose

The Great Gatsby is one of the classics of American literature. Written by F Scott Fitzgerald and published in 1925, it is held in the same high esteem as Of Mice and Men, To Kill a Mockingbird and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. So, how does it feel to tackle the translation of such well-loved work?

This is exactly the challenge Haruki Murakami – a celebrated novelist in his own right – faced when he set himself the task of translating The Great Gatsby. In his book In Translation: Translators on their Work and What It Means, edited by Esther Allen and Susan Bernofsky, he shares his experience.

The great challenge

Murakami was in his 30s when he pledged to translate the classic when he turned 60. However, he soon found he was restless to get started on it sooner. In the end, he began working on it at the age of 57 and quickly found that what was supposed to be a part-time hobby turned into an all-consuming passion that he completed with “unanticipated speed”.

Of course, as with most classic novels, The Great Gatsby had been translated before and Murakami acknowledges he had no intention of picking fault with previous versions. Instead, he regards himself as taking the book and giving it a “rewash” in order to refresh it. Another way he looks at it is that while the original book can be seen as ageless, a translation never fits into this category and should be regarded as having a best before date.

Localisation is another consideration. The author points out that language evolves so fast that translations can quickly seem outdated. Just like a dictionary needs to be refreshed, so do translations. However, his main motivation for translating it was to realise the Gatsby he had long held in his imagination.

He called the challenge of translating the book as a “heavy undertaking”. One problem was that, like a fine wine, great works of literature don’t travel well. Some of the essence and the layers are often lost in translation, which may explain why Murakami believed the reaction to The Great Gatsby in Japan had been pessimistic.

Although Murakami is himself a writer, when translating books in the past he has always tried to forget this, he explains. By doing this, the translation focuses on staying faithful to the original. Yet it was different when he started to tackle the Gatsby translation. In order to capture the true essence of the novel, he asked himself how he would have written it if he was the author and let that guide him.

One of the first decisions Murakami made was to “make Gatsby a modern tale” by removing any of the dated phrases that appear in the original unless he deemed them necessary. He wanted it to feel as though the main characters were people the reader could meet today. This is not to say that the historical context was abandoned; the post-war economic boom enjoyed by the US in the early 1920s was something the translator wanted to bring to life.

Very good, Old Sport!

Residing on Long Island with his beautiful flapper wife Zelda, Fitzgerald lived many of the scenarios detailed in The Great Gatsby, but this first-hand experience is not something a translator can offer. Indeed, Fitzgerald’s life mirrored the characters in Gatsby in many ways. For instance, his engagement with Zelda broke off once due to his lack of stable finances – just as Daisy marries the wealthy Tom Buchanan while Jay Gatsby is serving in the army – and he also later discovered that Zelda was having an affair while he was writing The Great Gatsby, which led to a showdown similar to that at the end of the novel.

Translating Fitzgerald’s “literary genius” – his style of prose – was also a challenge, so Murakami decided to focus on the musical rhythm at the centre of the book and try to capture it in Japanese. He even read passages aloud to create the right sound.

However, the thing Americans most wanted to ask Murakami when he told them about his project was how he planned to go about translating Gatsby’s oft-repeated line “Old Sport”. This was actually something he had wrestled with for 20 years. Part of the difficulty is that the phrase itself is not American-English but has UK-English origins; most likely a sign of Gatsby’s time at Oxford. In the end, the translator decided there was no good Japanese equivalent so he left the line in its original English.

The other great challenges were the opening and closing paragraphs of the book, which Murakami describes as taking “my breath away”, such is their perfection. He gave these his “best shot”. “If I have been able to communicate even a portion of those feelings [in the original], and you are able to share my love of Fitzgerald’s novel, then I am happy,” he concludes.

Baz Luhrmann is one of a handful of directors to translate the novel for the big screen and his version was released in the UK on May 16th 2013. Starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby and Carey Mulligan as Daisy, the movie is a 3D extravaganza featuring modern music from the likes of Jay-Z and Beyoncé. Whether Luhrmann found translating the great classic challenging, as Murakami admits it was, is ultimately a matter for the audience to decide.

If you enjoyed this blog then why not take a look at other foreign language classics from around the world? 

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