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…