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Meet the team behind the first Indian-language version of Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore

After his return from Japan, Mukherjee began started translating Japanese fiction just for lark.

Written by Premankur Biswas | New Delhi | Updated: January 4, 2015 1:00:17 am
Gupta (left) and Mukherjee at the Jadavpur University Press Gupta (left) and Mukherjee at the Jadavpur University Press

The sun-dappled office of the Jadavpur University Press is a quiet sanctuary. On the bookshelves one can spot titles published by the Press: translated selections from the notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci by Sukanta Chaudhuri, professor emeritus, Jadavpur University, Rajpurush, Doyeeta Majumder’s translation of Machiavelli’s Il Principe (The Prince), and Virgil’s Aeneid by Robert Antoine and Hrishikesh Basu. The space is not entirely unlike the private library run by Miss Saeki in Haruki Murakami’s genre-bending novel, Kafka on the Shore. One can imagine Kafka Tamura, “the toughest fifteen-year-old in the world”, seek refuge in a corner of the lavender-coloured room, reading Richard Francis Burton’s unabridged translation of One Thousand and One Nights. The runaway teenager might just feel at home here, all the while as Abhijit Mukherjee, professor at the department of electrical engineering, works on an authorised Bengali translation of Murakami’s bestseller.

A tall man, Mukherjee, 57, talks in a slow, deliberate baritone. “I took to Japanese when I was in my 30s, I was already a lecturer at the engineering department here. I had an aptitude for languages, and soon I won a scholarship to visit Japan in 1997. A year later, I was offered the chance to teach at Kanazawa University in Ishikawa Prefecture,” says Mukherjee. During his year-long tenure there, he fell in love with Japanese culture. “They pursue aesthetics as a discipline. I find that fascinating,” says Mukherjee, who has been approved by Murakami to translate the novel.

“One would have thought that a person who has been translated into 50 languages wouldn’t care about just another translation,” says Abhijit Gupta, director, JU Press. “We had been emailing Murakami’s literary agents, Curtis Brown, since January this year, they were slow to reply. We were nervous because this is the first time Murakami is being translated officially into any Indian language,” he says. Things were still up in the air till Mukherjee visited the literary agency’s office in London that very month. “The publishers, Vintage, informed us that Murakami would personally go through the resume of the translator before he gives his approval. Murakami is also particular about the cover of his books, even translations,” says Gupta.

After his return from Japan, Mukherjee began started translating Japanese fiction just for lark. One of the first pieces he translated was a Murakami short story, The Elephant Vanishes (Zo No Shometsu). It was another literary great, the late Nabarun Bhattacharya, who insisted that Mukherjee pursue his hobby seriously. “Nabarunda published a magazine where he published my translation of Murakami’s short story. That’s when I realised the cadence of Murakmi’s language lends itself well to translation. His references are universal, his writing is steeped in Western classical music. He also keeps referring to Western literary classics. So, a well-exposed Bengali reader can easily swoop into Murakami’s world,” says Mukherjee. During his travels in the archipelago, Mukherjee was surprised to find that Murakami was not really a favourite of classicists in Japan — they find his works too Westernised.

“Some of them have even suggested that Murakami writes in English ,and then translates it into Japanese. That is untrue, Murakami has incredible command over his native tongue,” he says. “A few years ago, I was invited at the Japanese consulate here in Kolkata and one of the officials asked me who my favourite Japanese writer is. When I mentioned Murakami’s name, he kept silent for a very long time, and then he suggested that Murakami is only popular in the Kobe side, where he was born,” says Mukherjee with a grin.

With around 615 pages, the translation isn’t going to be a breeze. “Translating an English version is not an option, I am translating it directly from Japanese,” says Mukherjee. The JU Press is eyeing an early 2016 release. But there are other exciting projects on the anvil to keep them busy, including a racy autobiography of a 19th century Anglo-Indian writer and arguably the first English translation of The Bhagavad Gita that dates back to the 1750s.

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