When it comes to publishing Haruki Murakami in English, nothing is lost in translation

May 15, 2013


Best-selling author Haruki Murakami's latest novel is already a blockbuster in Japan. Once it is translated in English, it is bound to take the world by storm.

In that sense, Murakami, who is 64 and considered among the world's greatest contemporary novelists, owes much of his international popularity to his loyal team of translators.

Murakami has used English-language translators Philip Gabriel and Jay Rubin for a number of his full-length novels.

The two scholars shared their thoughts with The Asahi Shimbun about the difficulties of bringing Murakami's "world" to a global audience.

Gabriel, a professor of Japanese literature at the University of Arizona, is now translating Murakami's latest best-seller, "Shikisai o Motanai Tazaki Tsukuru to, Kare no Junrei no Toshi" (Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage).

The novel, which has sold more than 1 million copies since its release in April, is Murakami's first in three years. Gabriel and Rubin shared translation work on his previous "1Q84" trilogy.

Gabriel said Murakami approached him late last year about translating the work.

He plans to complete the translation by the year-end, with publication expected in 2014.

"It is a very realistic book, like 'Norwegian Wood'," Gabriel said in an e-mail interview. "To me, it seems more serious, even somber, compared to some of his other novels, but one ultimately that is hopeful."

The protagonist, Tsukuru Tazaki, has four close friends, whose family names represent different colors, including "Akamatsu" (red pine).

Asked what problems he encounters in translating names in Japanese kanji characters, Gabriel acknowledged that it is "a difficult aspect of the translation."

"Sometimes we have to include a bit more explanation than is in the original," Gabriel said. "I have not made a final decision yet on how I will handle these names."

When he has questions for Murakami, Gabriel said: "Usually, I save up my questions to the end. Since he himself is a translator, though, he understands the difficulties and challenges of translation very well, and is always quite helpful in answering my questions."

As to what attracted him to Murakami's writings, Gabriel said he read a selection of Mukarami's short stories at the recommendation of a Japanese friend while he was staying in Nagasaki in 1986.

Asked why Murakami's works have won such huge acclaim in the United States, Gabriel said: "Murakami's work does appear kind of 'American' at first glance. The influence of his reading of American literature, and his love for American pop culture, is clear."

"But there are 'Japanese' aspects as well--especially aspects of Japan's history and recent social changes, such as echoes in World War II, Aum Shinrikyo, the Kobe earthquake, (and) the economic decline of the past two decades.

"In this sense, Murakami is very much a Japanese writer, and English-speaking readers should study Japanese history and society in order to understand Murakami's work better."

Rubin, a former Harvard University professor of Japanese literature, is currently translating Murakami's "Ozawa Seiji-san to, Ongaku ni Tsuite Hanashi o Suru" (Talking with Seiji Ozawa about music), which was published in 2011.

Ozawa is an internationally acclaimed conductor.

"I have started reading 'Tazaki Tsukuru' and am still reading it," Rubin said, speaking in Japanese during a recent interview in Tokyo. "I'm very much interested in this book, which reminds me of 'Norwegian Wood'. But first, I will have to finish translating the book I am working on."

Rubin said translating Murakami's work may look relatively easy to some people, but it can be quite difficult.

Given that his sentences are short and his stories are filled with ordinary things such as beer and hamburgers, "we have to strive not to put the story into boring English," he said.

Rubin originally specialized in modern Japanese literature, studying giants like Natsume Soseki.

In 1989, a U.S. publisher asked him to evaluate "Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World" for possible translation.

Rubin was not particularly interested in contemporary Japanese literature, and reluctantly took up the book, his first by Murakami.

He was floored by what he read. Rubin said he decided then and there that he ought to read everything Murakaimi had written.

He recommended that the publisher put out a translation of that novel immediately, and even volunteered to translate it.

The book was published several years later. Alfred Birnbaum was the translator.

"I want to publish the book with my own translation in the future," Rubin said.

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Haruki Murakami’s books are on display with his poster at a book festival in Los Angeles in April. (Mariko Nakamura)

Haruki Murakami’s books are on display with his poster at a book festival in Los Angeles in April. (Mariko Nakamura)

  • Haruki Murakami’s books are on display with his poster at a book festival in Los Angeles in April. (Mariko Nakamura)
  • Philip Gabriel (Provided by the University of Arizona)
  • Jay Rubin (Photo by Yu Yamada)

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