INTERVIEW/ Michael Emmerich: Fans around the world reading Haruki Murakami in parallel worlds

January 01, 2014


Editor's note: This interview is part of The Asahi Shimbun AJW's series on internationally acclaimed writer Haruki Murakami.


No one knows Haruki Murakami better than the reclusive author himself.

In his own pronouncements, he labels himself an Asian author and a Japanese. That’s nothing to disagree with. But is Murakami, as he’s appreciated in Japan, East Asia and the rest of the world, actually one and the same?

That’s the thought that came to professor Michael Emmerich from students at his seminar “Modern Japan: The Works of Haruki Murakami,” which concluded last month at UCLA in Los Angeles. Taught by an American academic using works by the Japanese translated into English, the seminar drew 20 students--nine of whom had come from East Asia.

“I started off by asking them, 'What image do you have of Murakami?’ no matter if they had read his works previously or not. One Chinese student mentioned a couple of the Murakami keywords, 'loneliness' and 'healing' that we (scholars) are most familiar with,” said Emmerich, 38. What caught him off-guard was the responses from the other half of the class, students who were born or raised in the United States.

“I was expecting them to say that ‘he’s really cool,’ or ‘he’s really surrealistic,’ and what I got instead startled me. They said that his works are ‘realistic,’ and that he’s a ‘difficult writer,’ ” said Emmerich. The students, he concluded, were each experiencing their own “Murakami world,” not too different from the parallel universes that appear and disappear in the author’s works.

“Certainly ‘difficult’ is not what people would say about Murakami in Japan, where people describe him as light, although not so much anymore. When he first came out with 'Hear the Wind Sing' in 1979 he was branded as a writer who’s not really serious--shallow--and that initial branding has cast a very long shadow on his career that he’s only recently managed to escape,” he said.

Murakami has long isolated himself from Japan’s literary establishment, and the writer has not received its most prestigious literary prizes, which include the Akutagawa Prize and Naoki Prize, despite the fact that he is a perennial candidate for the Nobel Prize in literature. His first foray into a foreign language came courtesy of his adolescent literature label: “Hear the Wind Sing” was put out by Tokyo-based Kodansha as a study book filled with grammar annotations for Japanese students of English.

It wasn’t until the early 1990s when “The Wind-up Bird Chronicle” came out, that critics began to see a shift from a fantasy-world detachment to engagement with social issues, violence and alienation.

As someone who’s read both, Emmerich finds the Murakami who appears in English to be a totally different writer from Murakami in Japanese. The New York native began studying Japanese in his first year of college, and had his first contact with Murakami’s works at the start of graduate studies--when “The Elephant Vanishes” (1993) appeared under the Christmas tree. Among his own translations, he finished “Tale of Genji” before taking up residence at UCLA.

Book cover designs and publication dates have gone a long way in creating Murakami’s aura and paving his way to international success, he says.

“In my case, visual presentation makes a huge difference. I can still remember very clearly opening up this present and taking out the book ('The Elephant Vanishes') and staring at the cover” for a long moment, he said. “I’d been reading Murakami in the New Yorker magazine, but I didn’t even recognize that I knew who he was. I just thought, ‘Wow, this is amazing.’ ”

“If I’d been reading the Kodansha books first, my sense of Murakami and the kind of aura he has would have been different. There’s a wonderful coherence and visual continuity to his covers”--created by the acclaimed graphic artist Chip Kidd, who has designed all of Murakami’s works for Knopf, where he is now associate art director--"that when you line them up you see where he’s going step by step.”

A look at which books have and haven’t been published in English, and the order in which they appeared, also give a different image of the author than in his home country.

Notably, the 1987 “Noruwei no Mori” only appeared in American bookstores as “Norwegian Wood” in 2000 (although an early English-study translation by Birnbaum was previously released in Japan) after the publication of “The Wind-up Bird Chronicle.” In comparison, notes Emmerich, “ ‘Noruwei no mori’ was the book that really made people pay attention to Murakami in Japan and paved the way for ‘The Wind-up Bird Chronicle.' ”

Then there’s the “voice” of Murakami to take into account, as it has been relayed by three main English translators: Alfred Birnbaum, Jay Rubin and most recently, Philip Gabriel.

“1Q84” for example, appeared in Japan between 2009-2010 in three separate volumes. The Knopf version appeared as a single volume, the first two sections of which were translated by Rubin (who hesitantly cut nearly 25,000 words, according to Emmerich) with the final chapter done by Gabriel.

Emmerich points out that the back page of Murakami works in English have a notice stating that the translation was made possible with the cooperation of the author--meaning that Murakami gave the go-ahead to substantial changes.

Birnbaum, to Emmerich’s ears, “is not a translator who suffers from the illusion that there can ever be a one-to-one correspondence between the Japanese and the English, so he uses all of his powers to create English sentences that will live on their own in a way similar to the way that Japanese sentences live.”

He pretty much created the no-space-between-words speech of the Sheepman in Murakami’s first trilogy of “Hear the Wind Sing,” “Pinball 1973” and “A Wild Sheep Chase.” Rubin, meanwhile, offers a voice drier than Birnbaum’s, while that of Gabriel, the translator of the upcoming “Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage” is “wetter” and possibly falls in between his two predecessors.

There are differences found in Murakami translations in China as well. For more than 20 years the sole authorized translator was Lin Shaohua, who critics say added a Chinese classics-inflected tone to Murakami’s works. With “1Q84” the translating shifted to Shi Xiaowei, who lived in Tokyo for nearly 20 years and graduated from Murakami’s alma mater, Waseda University. The same critics says his tone is closer to Murakami's own.

Emmerich met Shi, a professor of Japanese at Sanda University in Shanghai, this past December on the Waseda campus, where excited Chinese exchange students surrounded Shi for photos and autographs.

“When I was an undergrad I never had seen a translator, or if I did I never knew I did. Over the past decade there’s been a surge in interest in them so they’ve become more visible, and that is having a very big impact on the business of translation,” says Emmerich. The birth of 'the world’s biggest book-reading club,' as he puts it, “has created a desire to read literature from all over the world that is easier to fill now, because there’s far more information available now than ever before.”

So how would Murakami do if he arrived on the scene today? “I think he’d do really well, since he’s an incredible storyteller, but I would frame him in terms of who’s translating him.

“If his first novel appeared right now, but if he didn’t end up at Knopf, with Chip Kidd’s covers, that would be a huge difference in the way he’d be perceived,” says Emmerich.

“If he were to start with '1Q84,' firstly he probably wouldn’t be published at all, because it’s too long. And if he were to start there instead of 'The Wind-up Bird Chronicle,' then the trajectory of his career would be totally different,” Emmerich adds.

Instead of being one of the world's most elusive literary phenomena, Murakami might simply never have been.

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American scholar Michael Emmerich in Tokyo on Dec. 13, 2013 (Louis Templado)

American scholar Michael Emmerich in Tokyo on Dec. 13, 2013 (Louis Templado)

  • American scholar Michael Emmerich in Tokyo on Dec. 13, 2013 (Louis Templado)
  • A translated version of Haruki Murakami's "1Q84" in English is seen for sale on the bestseller shelf at a Barnes and Noble store in Layton, Utah, on Nov. 19, 2013.  (Barry Kawa)

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