Sex in Translation

Once again, sorry for being away. Okay, I’m not that sorry. Like a lot of people, I have a life that doesn’t always allow for sitting around and thinking up things I want to shout into the void. I started typing out a little of what I’ve been up to, but even I dozed off in the middle of the process, so I won’t bore you with the mundane details.

One of the things I’ve been doing is listening to the audio version of Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84. Haruki Murakami has never shied away from sex in his stories, and this one is no exception. There are all kinds of sex scenes between all kinds of people – willing and unwilling sex, drunken orgies, masturbatory thoughts. Sex is one of the many themes of the book, so there’s a lot of it.

I don’t speak Japanese, but I do know this about it: it’s a language spoken by human beings. And one thing I know about human beings is that they have lots of words to describe their genitals, and different words have different connotations. Prick, dick, cock, dong, shlong, manhood, sex, pussy, snatch, cunt, ladyparts, and that’s just the ones I could type without stopping to think. People like to talk about their privates without sounding like a doctor, so they come up with all manner of colloquialisms.

On the other hand, none of those fun words made it into 1Q84. In that story, no matter the circumstances of the sexual encounter, no matter how sensual or violent, no matter how happy or unhappy or confused it made the people involved, a penis is always a penis, a scrotum is always a scrotum, a vagina is always a vagina and breasts are always breasts. At one point, one of the characters says that “every couple of weeks, he visits a prostitute he knows and has sex. Like getting a haircut.” It’s a great description of every single sexual encounter in the book.

It’s one thing to know a language well enough to have a perfunctory conversation about bus schedules or restaurant orders. It’s another level to be able to listen to a news broadcast and understand it all. Yet another level is knowing the language enough to be able to tell jokes and understand wordplay. And then there’s pillow talk. It makes me wish that one of my friends who speaks Japanese and who may have read the book in its original language would tell me how the words translate in English.

My greatest fear is that Murakami didn’t use any slang at all, and that he wrote all his sex scenes using the most clinical, dry language possible, stripping them of all subtlety and sensuality, stripping the mood of the sex scenes away and leaving nothing but the physicality. In a way, it’s like inside-out Hemingway. With Hemingway, there is no interior life in his characters and the reader has to guess at what might be going on in his characters’ minds. With Murakami, his characters most intimate moments are so stripped of any nuance of language that the reader has to fill in any accompanying emotions. Actions devoid of thoughts can be hard to understand, but thoughts devoid of feeling are no clearer.

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