‘Who We’re Reading When We’re Reading Murakami’ by David Karashima (Review)

Regular readers will know that I’m more than partial to the works of Haruki Murakami (with a whole shelf of his books tucked away in my sizeable J-Lit library), so when I was approached to take a look at a new non-fiction book on his career, I agreed very quickly.  Having finished it, I’m very glad I did, yet at the same time, I can’t help feeling disappointed; not with the book, I hasten to add, but with something else entirely.  You see, there have always been whispers about how the writer’s work has been handled in English – here we get the full story, and it doesn’t always make for pleasant reading.

Before we look at David Karashima’s Who We’re Reading When We’re Reading Murakami (courtesy of Soft Skull Press), perhaps it’s best to say what it’s *not*.  If you’re expecting to learn more about the content of Murakami’s books, you’ll be disappointed, as there’s very little of that here.  My original thoughts, given the title, were that the focus would be on his literary influences, but that, again, is not what we’re here for.

Instead, Who We’re Reading… is a forensic examination of how a popular Japanese writer became a literary phenomenon in the Anglophone world, with a focus on the people who brought his work into English and the changes they made to the books along the way.  There are five sections, each one looking at a different book (or two), and as we move from Murakami’s debut novellas up to the epic The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Karashima interviews those involved in the process to examine their roles.

As part of our look at the early work, we meet Alfred Birnbaum, a translator with a Bohemian reputation (a globetrotter splitting his time between Japan and Burma/Myanmar), as well as Elmer Luke, Birnbaum’s editor at Kodansha International, where the early translations were published.  In truth, describing Luke as just an editor is a misnomer as he was heavily involved in Birnbaum’s early translations, even being credited for his work in the books.  After the relative success of Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973, both released in a pocket-sized format aimed at English-language learners, the pair moved on to A Wild Sheep Chase, which was to become Murakami’s first work available outside Japan, doing all they could to make it a success.

However, while 村上 春樹 took his first literary steps in Tokyo, the making of Haruki Murakami definitely took place in New York.  One major step in building brand Murakami was getting him picked up as a semi-regular contributor to The New Yorker magazine, and as the writer’s reputation grew, there was a shift to another level.  His work eventually moved from the relatively tiny Kodansha International to being handled by Knopf, and a new team gradually emerged: translator Jay Rubin (with occasional guest apperances by Philip Gabriel); publisher Sonny Mehta; agent Amanda Urban; editor Gary Fisketjon; and even cover art designer Chipp Kid.  The story of the second half of the book is how the combined efforts of this group of professionals gradually paid off, leading to global success and critical acclaim.

That’s definitely one aspect of the story, but the other side of Who We’re Reading… is slightly less palatable, for there was a high price to pay for Murakami’s success in the US.  Most Murakami fans will have heard whispers of how his work has been treated, and here we get the details, such as the approach taken towards his first major release in English:

When Hitsuji o meguru bōken (A Wild Sheep Chase) was initially published in Japan in 1982, the action set in the seventies was less than a decade old.  When the book was being prepared for publication in English in 1989, it had been seven years since the book was first published in Japanese, and close to twenty years since the period in which the book was set.  The efforts to make the book more contemporary may have been a way to compensate for this time lag as well as to expand the potential readership beyond traditional fans of Japanese literature.
p.5 (Soft Skull Press, 2020)

Early on, Birnbaum and Luke admit that they were far less concerned with fidelity than with readability.  The pair emphasised the existing American flavour and enhanced the influences, with Birnbaum even adding American references where there were none in the original text.

Much worse was to come, though, once more of Murakami’s work became available in the US market.  We’re told of how The New Yorker heavily edited his stories, mainly to tone down sexual elements, even if most were restored for the book versions.  Another example of this ‘interference’ is the way several sex scenes in Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, involving the notorious ‘Girl in Pink’, have been brutally cut from the English-language version.  While some readers may be relieved by this (perhaps rightly), others, including critics and translators into other languages, believe the omission of these details affects the flow of the work as a whole – and don’t forget that for many languages, the source text of Murakami’s work is not the Japanese version, but the English reproduction.

Of course, the most famous example of this kind of ‘editing’ is the work done on what is perhaps Murakami’s most successful novel, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.  The translation work on this massive book actually began while the original version was being serialised, and we learn here that Rubin created two versions, one with 25,000 words cut (mainly removing information from the start of the third part that the translator found repetitive).  The book that’s available in English is (of course…) the shorter version, but Karashima assures us that the longer version is out there in an archive somewhere.

Having learned of all the changes made to Murakami’s work, I’m sure most of you would be curious as to what the man himself thinks about all this.  Most of his comments show him to be understanding and relatively accepting of the alterations:

Murakami has said in an interview that Asher had asked him to “tone down” certain parts of the story.  In conversation with me, he recalls, “Back then, there were a number of taboos at The New Yorker, and I was told that there wasn’t anything to do but accept them, so I relented and a significant amount was cut.”  He adds, “I liked Linda personally, so I figured I could just trust everything to her; that she would do right by me.  I was happy with the set-up of Linda Asher as my editor and Robert Gottlieb above her.” (p.86)

Beneath the surface, though, there’s a sense that this isn’t necessarily the case, that the liberties taken with his work are less accepted than endured.  Surprisingly, these English-language translations actually belong to Murakami, not the translators, as his policy is to buy them back – a sign of control at odds with the laissez-faire reputation evident elsewhere.

Another fascinating aspect of the whole story is the gradual shift from the carefree approach of the early days to the hard-boiled (sorry…) work of the US-based team.  There appears to be a narrative (one I’ve heard several times before) of Birnbaum becoming bored of Murakami’s work, of the writer himself wanting new blood and of Luke deciding not to move on.  Yet as Karashima probes away, it becomes less certain that this was the case.  There are many mixed messages, and conversations remembered differently by those involved, and it’s hard to avoid thinking that at some point a conscious decision was made to cut ties and start afresh – business is business, after all…

Murakami aficionados may not enjoy everything Karashima has to say, but Who We’re Reading… is an enjoyable read all the same.  The book originally appeared in Japanese, and Karashima has rewritten his own work for the Anglophone market (with all the revelations regarding changes, it’s unsurprising that he decided not to use a translator!).  I raced through it, and I suspect many readers will do the same as it’s well written, with Karashima very much in the background, the invisible narrator pulling the threads together to create a fascinating story.  The enjoyment is enhanced by a smooth tone, which can even be Murakami-like at times:

I get off the elevator, walk to the end of the narrow hallway, and press the intercom for Room 806. (p.131)

Admittedly, it’s just Jay Rubin behind the door, but for a moment, I did wonder whether it might be the Sheep Man, instead 😉

Overall, Who We’re Reading… is an intriguing look at the creation of a monster, in the sense that what we’re reading in English, at least in the early days, is less Murakami’s work than his stories filtered through a number of distorting lenses, far more so than is the case with most fiction in translation.  The writer has, of course, profited enormously from this Faustian pact, and much of his success elsewhere in the world stems from the reputation his American publishers have built for him, but you wonder if the behind-the-scenes action might actually harm his legacy in the long run.

Of course, there is a different way to see this.  Given the changes made to his books, and a global audience ready to splash out on anything featuring the Murakami brand, I can’t help but feel that retranslations (hinted at by Karashima in the book) can’t be too far away (it’s already happened with the early novellas).  Chalk this up as another victory for late-stage capitalism and Team Murakami – there’s a lot of money to be made from the writer’s work yet…

18 thoughts on “‘Who We’re Reading When We’re Reading Murakami’ by David Karashima (Review)

  1. Hi Tony, I’m not a fan of the books of Murakani I’ve read, but I find your review very interesting and insightful. During the last two years I’ve spent a lot more time watching movies on dvd than reading. I’ve seen many movies from 3 Japanese directors: Yasujiro Ozu, Kenji Mizoguchi and Akira Kurosawa. I regard all three of those directors among the most interesting directors I know, especially Kenji Mizoguchi. If you ever want a change from reading to watching movies, I can advise you on the best Japanese movies to see. Greetings, Erik


    1. Erik – I’m more of a drama series watcher than movie fan (although I’ve been going through the Marvel films with my daughter during lockdown!). Also, I tend to go for Korean rather than Japanese shows as they (sort of) help my language studies 😉


  2. I’m a huge fan of Murakami but I appreciate and enjoy some books far more than others. I’ve known for some time about his translators and that they’re pretty free to do their own thing with his originals. That’s true of other authors these days, too, like Thomas Pynchon. But Orhan Pamuk stays involved with the translation all the way through. Milan Kundera, otoh, had to have complete control – might as well have just translated his own works – like Nabokov who darned near rewrote them as he went. .

    So I found your words a fascinating glimpse into the process Murakami found himself in. I can’t imagine myself actually reading the Karashima book – I might have done that a few years ago, fresh off Kafka… or IQ84 or Men Without Women, but now? I still haven’t read Killing Commendatore – heh. Thank you –


    1. Becky – It’s true that there are a wide variety of approaches, but here it’s more about a concerted attempt by an industry, almost, to create a literary star. It’s a little disturbing, to say the least!

      I’m not quite as much of a fan as I used to be, but I can still enjoy his work without finding it to be world-beating. I reread ‘Killing Commendatore’ last year (?), and I actually enjoyed it more the second time around, probably because I had lower expectations 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  3. This sounds fascinating! I’m definitely going to have to read this, as someone who sees how the sausage gets made (and who sometimes gets to make some sausage, to a limited extent, himself). So far, I confess to having being tempted to make fairly major changes to a few of our books but it’s not something I’ve done (yet). Although as it happens I’m working on a book right now that I think might benefit from some fairly major edits in English (and that already had major edits between the submitted manuscript and the final published version in French). And I would dearly love to cut two sentences from one of our upcoming books (because I feel that English readers might be more easily shocked than the original readers in French Quebec).

    One part of your review really stands out to me:

    “Given the changes made to his books, and a global audience ready to splash out on anything featuring the Murakami brand, I can’t help but feel that retranslations (hinted at by Karashima in the book) can’t be too far away…”

    Because the changes made to his books might well be responsible for the global audience. Maybe by being faithful to the original style, there would be no massive audience now to wonder about how faithful the words they’re reading in English actually are.

    On a related note, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about sales versus success. I’ve seen a few novels really make it in terms of being translated into various languages but then the reviews really haven’t been favourable. What are we all aiming for ultimately? Do we want our books to reach as many readers as possible? Or do we want the best books to be translated and enjoyed by as many people as possible? (In other words, what’s the point in being an international bestseller translated into 23 languages if everyone gives the book 1 or 2 stars on Goodreads?)

    I think both issues are interconnected. I can see why people would be tempted to make changes along the way to help ensure that (what they consider) the best possible version in English reaches English readers and that this version stands the best chance of success.


    1. Peter – Well, I think this is the whole point of the book. Murakami is a global literary superstar. Murakami’s books in English are not what he originally wrote. Is this a simple case of cause and effect? 😉

      You’d have a better overview with your dual role as translator and editor, but my feeling is that as a translator you wouldn’t be too keen on making huge cuts (unlike Birnbaum, for example…), whereas the editor might be more tempted into making sweeping changes. Perhaps that’s why I’m just a very amateur translator as when I’m working on a text (including the one I’m in the middle of now), the changes I make tend to be very small indeed!


  4. It’s all so interesting. I touched on this a little in I NEVER TALK ABOUT IT, but all we ever hear is how translations should be faithful – these same translations that seldom sell and that most general readers have no interest in. Maybe an unfaithful approach that works is doing the book and the author more of a service. Not unfaitfhful for the sake of it, but because a certain approach will take the book in a better direction. OK – I’ll be back once I’ve read the whole thing! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. J.C. – By the time ‘1Q84’ came out in English, the situation had changed massively. At this point he could have written down a shopping list and sold a million copies worldwide, so the pressure not to cut parts was much greater. We’ll never see another Murakami book treated the way WBC was, even if some readers would rather they continued to do some heavy pruning on his work in translation 😉

      Liked by 1 person

      1. 1Q84 was so frustrating. I kept reading thinking how it could have been so much better. Themes and interesting characters that didn’t go anywhere, the ‘love story’ felt forced. A find and delete for any mention of breasts… It’s a shame that it seems like he has been overedited at the start and underedited later. Just shows the power of having the right people to work with!

        Liked by 1 person

            1. J.C. – I don’t think you were alone in that! I actually reread it a couple of years afterwards, and while the flaws were still there, I probably enjoyed it more. With Murakami, it’s often the sense of high expectations that leads to disappointment, and I’ve probably had more luck with some of the lower profile books that have come out, initially at least.


              1. Definitely would agree with you there, 1Q84 was the first one I was really waiting for. Everything else I read years after it was published and stumbled across in second-hand bookshops or was lent by a friend. 1Q84 felt like such a letdown because I thought there were interesting parts that vanished into a haze of breasts and moons but ultimately went nowhere. Am well impressed you read it again! Can’t do that as I sold my copy in one of the BookOffs 🙂
                Am holding out hope for the forthcoming short stories though…


                1. J.C. – I think I got into Murakami slightly earlier, probably around 2004(?), so the first one I would have read when it came out was possibly ‘Kafka on the Shore’, or maybe ‘After Dark’. Re: the new book, I’d forgotten about that, but I think (as was the case with ‘Men Without Women’) I’ll have already read several of the stories as they’ve appeared in The New Yorker magazine!


  5. It’s enough to make me want to read, and speak, Japanese for myself. How frustrating to access Murakami’s writing through someone else’s lens, toned down, and adapted.


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