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TRANSLATING MURAKAMI: an email roundtable

From: Fisketjon, Gary
Sent: Tuesday, January 16, 2001 2:14 PM
To: Philip Gabriel; Jay Rubin
Subject: Re: An email roundtable: Translating Murakami

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...

Anyway, my interest in his work derived from an intense though amateurish fascination with Japanese literature and culture for a couple years at Williams College, where I had a professor, Peter Frost, who proved an irresistible guide to such matters. I plowed my way through the so-called Big Three (Junichiro Tanizaki, Yasunari Kawabata and Yukio Mishima) and naturally became utterly entranced by Mishima, who became the subject of a very, very long paper I must've spent six months on. So the groundwork was laid in the mid 70s, and when I first encountered Murakami I felt strongly -- as I still do -- that he properly belongs next in that hugely distinguished line of writers.

Then, skipping ahead, while by 1986 I was running the Atlantic Monthly Press and certainly would've been keen to publish Haruki, he had his relationship with Kodansha (and I don't poach writers) and so I was a friend in court, as it were, content to spread the word however I could that a great novelist was among us. I moved to Knopf in 1990 and before long so did Haruki, and given my convictions I was the most plausible editor for him. And that's about that.


A footnote to Philip's mention that the editor of ZYZZYVA had approached him about Haruki: Ray Carver had a connection to that same magazine, so I wonder if this was strictly coincidental, which chicken preceded which egg -- but in all it seems a perfect instance of synchronicity, or, for that matter, the sort of weird happening that you come across in Haruki's fiction.


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 caliber 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).


As to Jay's curiosity as to the selection of stories for THE ELEPHANT VANISHES, that's pretty simple: I studied what was available and picked -- to my own taste, of course, since I don't know anyone else's -- the best. I don't think I paid any attention to who translated whichever story or, for that matter, much else about my decision-making process. I still recall vividly, though, that I was seeing sides of Haruki's fiction that were altogether unfamiliar to me, based on what I'd read. For example, "Barn Burning" struck me at the time as very Carver-like in a strongly, surprisingly pleasant way. I also thought the collection we put together was pretty much drop-dead terrific, and in fact it enjoyed sales and reviews beyond most collections even by not-well-known American writers.


As to Philip's comments on editing while translating, I don't see how any good translator could separate the two -- starting with this word as opposed to that one, this structure or implication. Therefore the trust that a publisher places in the translator -- especially out of ignorance of the original language -- is not only of paramount importance but indeed essential. (For example, I couldn't have chosen the stories for THE ELEPHANT VANISHES if I had to guess what a particular story was any good. I had to just assume I was reading a good, fair, representative translation; moreover, I also assume that an editorial function has also been fulfilled, so in effect I'm giving up some editorial control -- which is fine when not one but two excellent translators are on the case. I also put trust in Haruki's wisdom in selecting translators, whom I think consider to have his authority to do their job, and that would certainly include rejecting subsequent editorial idiocy such as "here in Tokyo" line that Phil mentioned, or for that matter any tendency to stress Japanese-ness for its own sake. Unless the author for some reason feels obliged to lend such emphasis, adding or enhancing it seems more properly the realm of travel guides than of literature.

My thinking on NORWEGIAN WOOD is, again, simple. I had been given to understand that Haruki wasn't particularly keen on seeing either the existing translation or a new one appearing in English, so I let it sit. I did, maybe four or five years ago, pass on word to his agents that his Norwegian publishers, who I could vouch for, were understandably keen to publish it, and that permission was granted. But, similarly to my translation observations above, I also trust Haruki's agents to fairly represent his thinking, and such was this case.

As to the SPUTNIK jacket and all others, I look for -- above all -- something somehow engaging, attractive in the literal sense and surprising, and do NOT look for anything itself literal or reductive. Evocative is the key term, I suppose, beyond which I leave it to the designers' analysts to ponder the deeper meaning. So, I trust the designers too, but only once they come up with the goods. Then it's dealer's choice.


Ah, Jay, the cutting of WIND-UP BIRD. I'd meant to note above that national traditions vary with editing as with everything else. Though I had my suspicions about the thoroughness of the Japanese version, I can only assume what Philip says is true. (Certainly some countries, Italy being at the top of the list, can be counted on to do absolutely no editing or even, apparently, reading -- though the same is undoubtedly true of certain American publishers.) A related subject is national traditions in the manner of publication. In Denmark, for example, many friends there will tell me not to regard a particular novel as a novel at all, but as part of an ongoing novel-in-progress published bit by bit, as it were, so the author could qualify for government grants. In return, I say I'm not used to that tradition and have no reason to change my tune from judging a writer book by book. So the serial publication of WIND-UP BIRD would seem to fall somewhere in between. My reaction was that it couldn't be published successfully at such length, which indeed would do harm to Haruki's cause in this country; then I put my trust in Jay and determined, once I'd read his work, I was right to, and that this was the way to go. Haruki's cooperation dispelled any worries about ham-fisted, vulgar editorial (or commercial) interference on our part. And your work, Jay, did save me no end of time for which I'll always be thankful; of course I couldn't have tackled that job myself, not without the language, not without the much greater access to Haruki, and so forth. But no, we editors never get credit in the book for whatever it is we do, and that's true of the editorial end of the translator's job as well.

Regarding NORWEGIAN WOOD, I really had to wait for Haruki's interest to be made clear to me, with respect to this book or the order of publication (however out-of-sequence it might be). I can base my decisions only on what's available, when it's available, and then start factoring in my thoughts on building a career or controlling its rhythm; that is, don't publish two books every five minutes and then disappear for several years, but instead try to maximize the writer's presence in the bookstores by pacing publication and thinking about paperback editions as part of that process. Now, with NORWEGIAN WOOD, one consideration I had was that since a different translation was out there, doing the new one in hardback made relatively less sense, especially since no much dead time existed between SOUTH OF THE BORDER and SPUTNIK SWEETHEART, and I believe our decision to move straight into paperback has proved correct. Similarly, since the non-fiction book didn't seem likely to build on what we were accomplishing with the fiction, again Vintage seemed to best way to get the book in the hands of as many readers as possible -- which is a mantra all publishers ought to live by.

As to the BIRD jacket, see above, though I'll add that the entire package was as good as we can manage and really sort of an inspired -- and expensive -- lunacy, and that I'm convinced that the mechanical toy was the way to go.

I'll close with the question about how Haruki became THE breakthrough Japanese writer in the West: because he's the best, and the best since Mishima, and because he continues to grow and change and mystify, probably surprising himself as much as his readers en route.

And so, based on the sound principal that editors, like children, are best unheard if necessarily trotted out to make the occasional appearance, I'll shut up knowing fully well that I've probably missed the odd transmission or query, which I am happy to do in my haphazard fashion. And with many thanks for your patience and fascinating conversation.

Happy new year to one and all,



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