Picture of Author    From the Desktop of Haruki Marukami

TRANSLATING MURAKAMI: an email roundtable

From: Jay Rubin
Sent: Wednesday, December 20, 2000 5:23 AM
To: Gary Fisketjon; Philip Gabriel
Subject: Re: An email roundtable: Translating Murakami

This week 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.

Noh has been a sideline of mine since I was in graduate school in the sixties, but this year I'm going at it full time. Most of my work has been on writers who flourished in the early twentieth century, and I had little interest in contemporary Japanese writing. Somehow, whenever I sampled any, it seemed thin and immature in comparison with the great Meiji-Taisho giant Soseki Natsume.

Then, 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. 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.

I told the publisher that they should by all means publish a translation and that, if they were not satisfied with the translation they were considering, they should let ME do it. Well, they ignored my advice on both counts, and Alfred Birnbaum's translation came out a few years later from Kodansha.

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. I found Murakami's address in the library and told him I had half a dozen stories I wanted to translate. His agent at the time got back to me saying I could go ahead. I sent her one of my favorites, "The Second Bakery Attack," and the next thing I knew Murakami himself was on the phone, asking me if I minded publishing it in Playboy. Used to publishing my academic stuff for audiences of twelve, I leaped at the chance, whatever scruples I might have had regarding the Playboy "philosophy." What a kick it was to publish something with the Swedish Bikini Team on the front cover! The illustration for that first story was a masterpiece, too, an ukiyoe-style depiction of the robbery scene in McDonald's. The New Yorker took "The Elephant Vanishes" around that time.

Murakami surprised me one day soon after by saying that he was calling from Princeton. I was probably the only professor of modern Japanese literature in the country who didn't know he was there at the time. In fact, he was going to be coming to run in the 1991 Boston Marathon that April, and we met in Cambridge the day afterward when he attended a class of Howard Hibbett's that was discussing my still-unpublished translation of "Bakery Attack." We were later neighbors in Cambridge and saw a lot of each other. I drove him crazy a few times asking him to explain some dense passages and finding inconsistencies that his Japanese editors had missed.

Since Alfred seemed to be the exclusive translator of Murakami's novels (the lively job he did on SHEEP CHASE was largely responsible for the interest in Murakami in the U.S.), I got Murakami's OK to do stories that Alfred hadn't shown any interest in. To me, they were the best stories, and Alfred was missing the boat. The ones that he liked I usually didn't like. We almost never asked for the same stories. It was downright strange. When Gary Fisketjon at Knopf took on the job of compiling a volume of stories, he chose from the backlog that Alfred and I had sent in separately, and put them together entirely according to his own taste. Then, stranger still, reviewers of the book would almost invariably cite only stories that I had translated or stories that Alfred had translated, almost never both. There was some weird intuitive thing at work in Gary's compilation that combined Alfred's taste and mine, and then spoke to readers who were drawn to one or the other.

Having translated virtually all the novels, Alfred got tired just as Murakami was beginning to serialize THE WIND-UP BIRD CHRONICLE and Murakami asked me to do it. I actually got started on it while Book 1 was still appearing in the magazine--something of a gamble for a professor used to choosing canonical works by long-dead authors in large part for their historical importance. I still think the clairvoyant Kano sisters detract from the book, but the war-related chapters, especially, are some of Murakami's best writing, and I'm glad I had the opportunity to translate what is, so far, his most serious novel.

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.")

A final question? How about it, Gary? Can you give us some insight into your compilation of THE ELEPHANT VANISHES?

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? 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."




From: Philip Gabriel Sent: Monday, December 18, 2000 5:28 PM
From: Jay Rubin Sent: Wednesday, December 20, 2000 5:23 AM  
From: Philip Gabriel Sent: Wednesday, December 20, 2000 12:17 PM  
From: Jay Rubin Sent: Wednesday, December 20, 2000 8:43 PM  
From: Jay Rubin Sent: Wednesday, December 20, 2000 10:21 PM  
From: Jay Rubin Sent: Tuesday, January 9, 2001 8:22 PM  
From: Philip Gabriel Sent: Tuesday, January 9, 2001 8:22 PM  
From: Fisketjon, Gary Sent: Tuesday, January 16, 2001 2:14 PM  
From: Philip Gabriel Sent: Jan. 18, 2001 
From: Gary Fisketjon Sent: Thursday, January 18, 2001 5:50 PM