Haruki Murakami is one of the most popular contemporary authors in the world, a man whose resume includes 1Q84, Norwegian Wood, and Kafka on the Shore. While his works are written in Japanese, his fans can be found all around the world celebrating his unique capturing of a dreary surrealism. He has been translated into so many languages that it’s hard not to find a copy in your official language. Dreaming Murakami spotlights one of those translators: Mette Holm. She’s been doing the Dutch translation of Murakami’s works for over a decade, and is preparing to tackle his first novel — Hear the Wind Sing.
While focused on Murakami’s very specific style of writing, much of what makes Dreaming Murakami interesting is its focus on trying to translate something without losing its meaning while still honoring the author. There’s that desire to bring a piece of work that you love to a whole new audience of readers, but as the movie opens it becomes quite obvious that there are times when the person translating may have to leave their own stamp. Holm struggles with even translating a phrase like “perfect text” when recognizing that certain words carry a different meaning in Dutch versus Japanese. It seems like a mundane thing to get hung up on — and it does ultimately become the movie’s downfall, as Dreaming Murakami spends too much time on something that solidifies its point fairly quickly — but it’s so captivating to just hear translators talk to each other about the ways in which they’d interpret something as small as a single phrase.
Spliced throughout the film is a subplot involving a frog following Mette Holm, narrating the story with passages from Super-Frog Saves Tokyo. These play out like surrealist moments meant to replicate the works of the author that has inspired it. The film itself works as a tribute to Murakami, but also accentuates the significance of translation in literature. Even then, in its short 58-minute runtime, Dreaming Murakami still feels like a companion piece that makes Murakami’s work seem interesting, but the film unnecessarily long. It doesn’t really touch on too much, and often goes stretches with just dreamlike sequences. There are arguments over the semantics of translating from another language, but those arguments also backfire because they signify that the Murakami story you’re reading may not be the Murakami story that the author intended. It’s up to the translation, and while it makes translators’ jobs feel crucial to the localization process, it also places a doubt in the readers’ mind that everything you’re digesting is the way it was initially intended.
The Hot Docs Film Festival takes place from Thursday, April 26 to May 6. Visit the official website for more info.