1Q84: The Problem with the Moon

I’m just about done the first book, but a sticky translation issue has caught my eye and I can’t stop wondering how Jay Rubin will resolve it. I think I’ll end up reading the English translation of this monster just to see how he handles this one issue. Because to me, it is so sneakily difficult and no matter how much I noodle around with it, I can’t come up with anything that allows the same ambiguity as the original Japanese.

This issue includes some minor-ish spoilers (characters, ambiguous plot), so if you’re like me and prefer to know as little as possible about a book you want to read before you read it, you should skip out on this trip with my brain now. There are many other idle entertainments on these intertubes that will keep you just as busy.

But for those of us who want to know now: Unable to sleep, Aomame steps out onto her balcony, looks up into the night sky and finds two moons hanging there. Which is fine, story-wise. Making some connections, things getting weird Murakami-style. But what I can’t stop thinking about is the plural/singular issue. In Japanese, “moon” is 月(tsuki) and “moons” would still be 月. So Aomame sees two moons and Murakami explicitly writes, 空に月が二つ浮かんでいた。(Sora ni tsuki ga futatsu ukandeita. “Two moons hung in the sky.”)

And Aomame’s already been having some issues with reality being different from what it should be, so she assumes that this is another one of those things. She wants to ask about the moons, but realizes she can’t. If she asks why there are two moons and she is in a reality that has always had two moons, people will think she’s nuts. And if the moons are all in her head, people will think she’s nuts. She’s pretty sure she’s not nuts, but she needs to make sense of all the shit that is happening. So, two moons, lots of questions.

So far, no translation issue. Using the plural when we see Aomame’s experience with the moons is necessary and allowed. The problems start when she speaks with Tamaru on the phone about something else, and then casually tacks on at the end of the conversation, 最近月を見たことはある?(Saikin tsuki o mita koto wa aru? “Have you looked at tsuki lately?”) Do you see where the problem suddenly comes in? If you replace tsuki with moon, then she’s asking about one moon. Put moons in there and she’s asking about the two moons she sees. Either way, she is taking a stand with Tamaru about the number of moons in the sky, the very thing that she has resolved not to do.

And he replies, 月?空に浮かんでいる月のことかな (Tsuki? Sora ni ukandeiru tsuki no koto kanaTsuki? You mean the tsuki up in the sky?” ) Again, one or two? Moon or moons? I can’t think of how to deal with this at all. I feel like the lines would have to be changed completely. Like refer to the sky rather than the moon or something. But obviously a lot of the impact and tiptoeing feeling you get from this exchange would be lost with a dilution like “sky”.

Also, I feel like that trick won’t really work when the issue comes up again in a conversation between the older lady and Aomame. The older lady brings up the fact that the piece of music they’re listening to is four hundred years old and yet people still listen to it and are moved by it in the same way. Aomame agrees and notes, 四百年前の人たちも、私たちと同じ月を見ていました。 (Yonhyakunen mae no hitotachi mo, watashitachi to onaji tsuki wo miteimashita. “People four hundred years ago also saw the same tsuki as we do.”) Moon or moons, you have to choose. Especially since the conversation just goes on this way with the discussion of how people reacted differently to the moon and to the music then compared with now. But it seems like the only way to deal with this is to water it down and turn it into stars or the night sky or something like that, even though what Aomame is doing is trying to probe people about the moon being two moons.

And it seems to be a key point in the story, so far at least. I’m just finishing Book One so I have no idea how key or for how long it’s key, but in another chapter, Tengo and Uematsu (his editor) discuss the rewrite of a section of Fukaeri’s novel introducing the two moons of that novel’s world. And there are more than a few things in Aomame’s storyline that echo Fukaeri and her novel from Tengo’s storyline. The moons are no accident and they draw the reader a little closer to whatever is binding these two stories. I wonder what impact this will have on how the English version reads. It’s just a word, but it ripples throughout the whole novel.

(Awesome image from here)

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