Who We’re Reading When We’re Reading Murakami

October 4, 2020 By mk

This is a nonfiction story of a venture of the team of translators, editors, agents, and designers who successfully brought Murakami’s novels to the western countries in 1980/90s.

Birnbaum was immediately drawn to Murakami’s writing, especially its humor, something he found to be rare in Japanese literature.19 As soon as he finished reading the stories, he sat down at his typewriter and proceeded to translate several. (P18)

In 1983, Alfred Birnbaum, an American translator living in Tokyo found “A Slow Boat to China” and was immediately intrigued. He brought his translation to the publisher in Tokyo and the cog started to spin. The project was not begun in a meeting room but driven by the passion of a man who had no intention of becoming a translator.

“It was a great story, thrilling actually, the unfolding, the digressions, the woman’s ear, the Sheepman, the Mafioso, the Rat, the resolution. It really was like nothing I’d read in any literature.” (P51)

Elmer Luke, Honolulu born American editor lived in an old house in Kamakura and worked for the publisher in Tokyo. In 1988, when he was blown away when he read Birnbaum’s translation of A Wild Sheep Chase and was convinced that it will appeal to a wider audience than any before.

“It’s very sweet of Christopher to remember. Christopher was not only an old friend indeed but also, in my view, the best UK publisher for Haruki—this based in part on the general excellence I’d witnessed for many years by then, and perhaps most intensely on the happy collaborations he and I had shared with other authors.

The book covers the success story until The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle in 1997; it is an excellent story of the team of the professional who shared a passion and sense of connoisseurship.

Readers can reflect themselves how they would have reacted if they had read Murakami in the 1980s before the author had fame, like a case study at business school; as well as how they are reacting to the new book of an unknown author in 2020. 

Karashima argued “the abridging translation” issue of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by referring opinions of the translators and concluded with the words of the author;

His view is that “it’s okay to take out certain parts” as long as the “narrative flow” isn’t disrupted. He compares it to a conductor choosing “to skip repetitions in a Beethoven symphony” and says, “I think it can’t be helped that publishers in the country of publication maintain a certain level of discretion.” (P118)

This part reminded me of his agony uncle column in 2015; Murakami wrote in response to the question from a reader; “Is there any area that only the original text can bring and its translation cannot cover?”

If you compare at the linguistic level, there is a difference between the original text and the translated one. It is, in principle, inevitable. But at the narrative level, which exists under the linguistic surface, most of the content can be translated as it is. This is what I believe in, both as a writer and as a translator.

That is to say, the stronger the narrative is, the more resistant the novel is against diffusion through translation. In other words, stories can function as a common language of the world. I want to believe in such an organic power of stories. Of course, the translator’s last-ditch effort is necessary at the linguistic level, though.

(Murakami-san no tokoro (Mr Murakami’s Place), 2015)

His comment encourages those who read the translated novels which are originally written in foreign languages. I believe this idea can be applied to not only translated novels but to the classics written in the old linguistic form from which we can extract and empathise the essence of the narratives.

David Karashima is an Associate Professor of International Liberal Studies at Waseda University. He is known as an author of a novel written in Japanese and a translator of contemporary Japanese fiction into English.

In 2018, he wrote the Japanese Edition and now published this English Edition as he promised at the symposium on “Haruki Murakami and International Literature” last year. I assume the process that he wrote two editions may be an intellectual struggle in the front line of intercultural communication that adds value for those who are in a similar situation.