James Philip Gabriel: I first learned about Murakami's fiction in 1986, as I prepared to go back to graduate school. I was living in Nagasaki and was actively involved in a translation study group made up mostly of Japanese literature professors (of both English and Jpaanese literature.) Just before I left to return to the U.S., one of the professors and I went to a book store together; I'd asked him to recommend four or five writers he thought worth studying. This proved to be a memorable day for me, since three of the four he recommended were writers I ended up either studying or translating: Shimao, Kuroi, and Murakami. I read all of Murakami's short stories (they were in two collections) as soon as I could, and was really bowled over by them. I loved his light touch, his humor, his often quirky take on life, as well as the touch of nostalgia for the past that often appeared in these early works. In graduate school (at Cornell) I wrote a paper on one of these stories, and translated it as an appendix. I'd done some translation before, and enjoyed the challenge, and went on to translate three or four more of Murakami's stories for my own enjoyment. The editor of Zyzzyva, a literary journal published in Berkeley, California, somehow heard I'd done some of Murakami's stories, and asked me to submit one. This was "Kangaroo Communique," which was in the fall 1988 issue, making it, I believe, the first Murakami story published in the U.S. I believe Murakami's agent in Tokyo was contacted at this time, and all the translations I had done eventually found their way into her hands,and into the author's. In 1989 I went to Tokyo on a Fulbright to work on my dissertation. There I was able to meet Murakami; I had hoped to do a collection of his short stories, but he told me this was already in the works by someone else. I got involved in translating a novel by Shimada Masahiko, and in trying to find a permanent teaching position back in the U.S., and did not do much more in the way of translating Murakami until The New Yorker contacted me in 1992 asking to include my translation of "Barn Burning."
After that two more of my translations appeared in The New Yorker (the latest one the Dec. 4, 2000 issue), and I was fortunate enough to be allowed to translate the novels South of the Border, West of the Sun and Sputnik Sweetheart as well as the non-fiction work The Place that was Promised, which became Part Two of the English book Underground.
One moment that stood out to me most recently was when I was working on Sputnik Sweetheart. In chapter five there was a short quote from Pushkin's poem "Eugene Onegin." In cases like this--quotes in Japanese from other languages--of course you need to find the original language, and with languages other than English, I try to locate a reputable, existing translation. So I went off to check out the poetry section of our local Borders. I hadn't realized "Eugene Onegin" was a book-length poem, and visualized myself sitting there for hours trying to locate these lines in the English version. Fortunately, the lines came early in the poem. What was interesting was that I located four different versions of the poem, from which I copied out these translations of the lines:
(1) He had no itch to dig for glories/ Deep in the dust that time has laid.
(2) He lacked the slightest predilection/for raking up historic dust.
(3) He lacked the yen to go out poking/Into the dusty lives of yore--
(4) He had no urge to rummage/in the chronological dust.
I copied all these down in my notebook, and ended up choosing (final answer?) number one to include in the translation of Sputnik Sweetheart. Seeing all four versions side by side was a mini-revelation to me. When I got home I pinned these all to my bulletin board--where they still remain--as a reminder of a simple truth, namely that there are so many possible translations of even one line. So very much depends on the voice you hear in your head as you read a piece of fiction.
People ask me what's the most challenging part about translating Murakami, and I guess that's the answer: finding, and staying true to, the voice you hear as you read the original.
Jay Rubin: I'm writing from Kyoto, Japan, where I have been since June, running a joint research project on Noh, a dramatic form that has survived in Japan since the middle ages. Usually I'm in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where I teach Japanese literature at Harvard.
In 1989, I read Haruki Murakami. I had only been vaguely aware of his existence--as some kind of pop writer, mounds of whose stuff were to be seen filling up the front counters in the bookstores, but I hadn't deigned to read what was sure to be silly fluff about teenagers getting drunk and hopping into bed. Some months before A Wild Sheepchase came out in English, an American publisher asked me to read a Murakami novel to see if it was worth translating; they had been evaluating a translation but wanted an opinion on the original. I almost refused, but I figured this was as good a chance as any to see what kind of junk Japanese commuters were reading on the subway. The book turned out to be what was later translated as Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World, and it absolutely blew me away--so much so that I have hardly worked on anything besides Murakami for the past decade.
After years of concentrating on muted gray Japanese realism, I could hardly believe a Japanese writer could be so bold and wildly imaginative as I found Murakami to be. I can still see the colors of the dreams escaping into the atmosphere from the unicorn skulls near the end of the book when I think back to that first reading of Hardboiled Wonderland, and I remember how much I regretted closing the last page and realizing that I couldn't live in Murakami's world anymore. I hadn't reacted to a writer so strongly since I had been obsessed with Dostoevsky as an undergraduate. I got everything of his I could put my hands on and started reading him to the exclusion of anyone else. I especially loved the stories and wanted to translate some of those.
This maybe leads into an answer to Phil. Sure, there's a jazzy, jumpy quality to the early writing that is just about gone by Hardboiled Wonderland. I think I would not have liked Murakami's writing much if I had first read anything else, including Norwegian Wood (which I would have understood only on the most superficial level). I've been able to enjoy almost everything of Murakami's, knowing that he was the creator of that incredible mind trip, Hardboiled Wonderland, echoes of which are to be found in everything. I've just finished translating his collection of short stories related to the Kobe earthquake, All God's Children Can Dance, which are probably the most nearly conventional pieces he has ever written, with a third-person narration in a muted style. They are wonderfully subtle pieces, touching on the earthquake as a distant rumble in the lives of people of the mid-nineties, as fragile as deja vu (one of his most consistent themes). (Not all the stories can be called "conventional"--especially my favorite, "Super-Frog Saves Tokyo.")
Phil, I have absolutely no idea why Murakami became such a "breakthrough" writer in the West. From the beginning, I felt he was writing for me, and I always assume I have quirky tastes not shared by many others (Dave Barry surprised me that way, too, by winning the Pulitzer Prize). I did not choose to work on him after a judicious review of all the current Japanese writers that convinced me he was the best: I just knew that I was not likely to find another writer anywhere in the world who spoke to me so directly and personally, so I jumped into his world without the least hesitation. How can so many other readers be feeling that way? Look at the reader reviews on Amazon if you want to see how his work turns people on. Murakami gets inside your brain and does weird things to it. I remember one Murakami moment I had after translating the passage in The Wind-up Bird Chronicle where little Nutmeg climbs into her veterinarian father's lap and smells all the animal smells he brings home on his body from the zoo. All of a sudden, I was singing "Oh, My Papa, To Me He Was So Wonderful."
James Philip Gabriel: This raises, of course, the whole idea of "naturalizing" foreign texts--neutralizing differences, etc. How far should we go in eliminating or toning down differences in order to make a book palatable to a western audience? Maybe this doesn't really apply much to the two breakthrough writers of the 90s--Murakami and Yoshimoto--and maybe this is part of the reason for their appeal In other words, these two writers are somehow less distinctively "Japanese" than other writers and thus more easily digested abroad? I remember the editor at The New Yorker for my first story for them, "Barn Burning," adding a phrase "here in Tokyo" to one of the first sentences of the story (which reads, with the addition, as I recall, "I met her at a party here in Tokyo.") The logic behind this addition was, according to the editor, the fact that readers of Murakami's seemed to not realize the stories were Japanese, and we should give them a clue up front.
Jay Rubin: In general, the Japanese have a far more sensitive and sophisticated awareness regarding food than most Americans. The number of food-preparation shows on TV--Prime Time--is amazing. So when a Murakami character makes himself an egg salad sandwich, Japanese readers are going to feel something a little different from what American readers are going to feel about it. There is no way to convey the cultural context regarding that sandwich in a translation, except perhaps through scholarly footnotes, which would only succeed in destroying anyone's enjoyment of the text. So you just have to have the character make his sandwich in English and figure it's not going to be THAT different. The fact that the word "sandwich" is written in a phonetic script reserved for recording foreign terms, that the Japanese reader's eye travels vertically down the page to take in that word and the other words of the sentence, that the Japanese word for "cut" has a tiny picture of a sword in it: all these facts about the Japanese writing system are fascinating but are of interest only to foreign students of the language and are no more exciting to a Japanese reader than the snake-like shape of the "s" in the word "sentence." As I pointed out in my book Making Sense of Japanese (Kodansha International), the Japanese language is not processed in either hemisphere of the brain but in the left elbow, which makes for a certain calcification of style in literary works, but no translator has yet figured out how to convey this in a foreign language. The Japanese language is SO different from English--even when used by a writer as Americanized as Murakami is--that true literal translation is impossible, and the translator's subjective processing is inevitably going to play a large part. That processing is a Good Thing; it involves a continual critical questioning of the meaning of the text. The last thing you want is a translator who believes he is a totally passive medium for transferring one set of grammatical structures into another: then you're going to get mindless garbage, not literature.
James Philip Gabriel: Phil here. I thought Jay's comments on food were interesting. I remember seeing a translation (Jay's?) in The New Yorker a few years back that opened with the characters preparing Japanese food. As I recall, none of the dishes were translated, just romanized (e.g. misoshiru, etc.). When dealing with culturally bound vocabulary there are three choices for the translator: leave them as they are, add some simple explanation, or find a rough English equivalent. (As an example of the last case, in translating one of Dazai Osamu's novels Donald Keene translated shochu--a Japanese type of liquor--as "gin." Which wouldn't have been my choice, by the way!) To give you an example from Sputnik Sweetheart, one of the characters, Sumire, is at one point eating a "Mont Blanc" in a cafe in Tokyo. I originally just left this as "Mont Blanc," but Murakami was worried that people in the west would think she was eating an expensive fountain pen, instead of a type of cake, so we decided to make it a generic "cake" instead. This isn't an ideal solution, since it eliminates some specificity that existed in the original, but it does avoid the possibile misunderstanding. (Sumire is a writer,a bit neurotic, so who knows, maybe she DOES chew on her fountain pen. Just kidding...) Another recent example is from "Man-Eating Cats," the story in The New Yorker I did recently. There, two characters are eating breakfast at a "Royal Host" in Tokyo. Again, I left it as is, but Murakami thought Americans aren't familiar with this restaurant chain, and asked that it be changed to "Denny's." And that's what we went with. Royal Host, though, is a pretty nice chain of restaurants, often found in the major airports as well as elsewhere, and a step above Denny's, I think. So this is an example of "rough equivalent."
As for your discussion with Jay about the use of a mixed writing system in Japanese and its effects on the reader, I agree with Jay that it's basically a non-issue. The one thing I would bring up, though, is the basic word order difference between Japanese and English. One writer I've worked on is Shimao Toshio, who tends to write long sentences that twist around a number of perspectives before arriving at a settled conclusion. In translating these, I find the English tends to reverse things, giving away the punchline that, in Japanese, is delayed. I am struggling with the same thing in my present translation of Oe Kenzaburo's novel.
Gary Fisketjon: I'm Gary Fisketjon, Haruki's editor at Knopf (starting with The Elephant Vanishes, published in the spring of 1993) and, for years before that, his avid reader in so far as he was available in English (including tiny little books translated for Japanese students studying English). I can't recall whether I'd discovered him on my own or because of his relationship with Ray Carver, a dear friend of mine whom Haruki was translating into Japanese, but we're more or less in the mid-late 80s. Before long, I think just prior to the publication of A Wild Sheep Chase, we had occasion to meet; we talked a lot about Ray's work, and I confessed my deep admiration of his own novels and my anticipation of the one forthcoming, and Haruki responded that he didn't think it was very good, nor the one to come after, but maybe the next one...
As to Jay's discovery of Haruki, that shock of recognition is always, exactly and pretty much only what I'm looking for as a publisher who wades through countless submissions and manuscript: the realization that here, amazingly, is something to reckon with, and with a writer of Haruki's calibre of course this effect is magnified considerably. In a black-and-white world, here by god is something in color (or vice-versa, at any rate entirely new and different and naturally, therefore, unexpected).
Read the full roundtable at www.aaknopf.com