Inside the Intricate Translation Process for a Murakami Novel
David Karashima on Hard-Boiled Wonderland and
the End of the World
A Wild Sheep Chase, Alfred Birnbaum’s English translation of Murakami’s novel Hitsuji wo meguru bōken, was warmly received in the US when it was first published by Kodansha International (KI) in 1989. Herbert Mitgang wrote in the New York Times that A Wild Sheep Chase was a “bold new advance in a category of international fiction that could be called the trans-Pacific novel,” and the novelist and poet Brad Leithauser wrote in the New Yorker that the book “lingers in the mind with the special glow that attends an improbable success” and that “[i]t is difficult not to regard A Wild Sheep Chase as an event larger even than its considerable virtues merit . . . Many years have elapsed, after all, since any Japanese novelist was enthusiastically taken up by the American reading public—and this may soon be Murakami’s destiny.”
Birnbaum and his editor Elmer Luke, who had spent months polishing the translation, were encouraged by the positive reception to the book as well as the publication of stories like “TV People” in The New Yorker, and began thinking about Murakami’s second book in the US. When Murakami had remarked in his interview with Asahi Shimbun/Aera during his first promotional trip to New York that he wanted to publish English translations of his three novels “at the pace of one book a year,” he added that this was the ideal pace for publishing in the U.S. KI had apparently agreed, and had started preparing Murakami’s second and third books even before the first book was published in the US. Machiko Moriyasu, a former editor at KI, says that at the time it was highly unusual for the company to publish translations one after the other by the same writer. With the exception of the Big Three—Kawabata, Tanizaki, and Mishima—there was an implicit understanding within the company that each author would basically be limited to one book. But Moriyasu says that this one-author-one-book policy was scrapped when Pockell and Luke joined the company, and that—thanks partly to the booming economy—they were able to publish multiple volumes by the same author.
One compelling option for Murakami’s second US title was Noruwei no mori (Norwegian Wood). Not only had the book been a massive bestseller in Japan in 1987, but Birnbaum’s translation, edited by Jules Young, had already been published in November 1990 as a pair of paperbacks in the Kodansha English Library series. Like Pinball, 1973 and Hear the Wind Sing, these were released only in Japan, but still managed to sell 100,000 copies in the first two months, leading a journalist for Nihon Keizai Shimbun to speculate that sales were being driven by bairingyaru (“bilingual gals”) who were buying the books as Christmas gifts for their foreign boyfriends.
Initially, it seems there were plans to release the translation outside Japan. In March 1989, The Christian Science Monitor reported, “Kodansha International plans a fall release in the US of his book, ‘A Wild Sheep Chase,’ first published in 1982, followed next year by ‘Norwegian Wood,’” and in January 1990 Nihon Keizai Shimbun reported that a hardcover edition of Norwegian Wood was scheduled to be published by KI in the U.S. that summer. In the end, however, KI decided against this, based on the judgment, according to Luke, that the book would not go down well with readers in the US—and in particular New York literary circles. Luke says that he, for one, “clearly objected” to publishing it, especially at that stage, when Murakami was still a relative unknown in the US. He wasn’t thrilled with Birnbaum’s translation either, which he recalls as “rather bland, flat, literal, artless, without its own integrity as a translation.” Birnbaum says that he scarcely remembers Norwegian Wood aside from the fact that “I didn’t like its ‘soft focus’ sentimentality” and that as a result “my translation could only have been less than enthusiastic.”
Luke says he also felt that the relationship at the heart of Norwegian Wood was “too young.”
“That is to say, too naive, for Western readers, who were more worldly, more jaded, more ‘experienced’ at an earlier age. Also, some of the intimate scenes were painful to read, made me cringe a little. I’m trying, as an editor, to channel what readers might think, and I’m thinking, It’s a no-go. ‘Too’ Japanese, won’t transport (or translate). Too artless. I actually thought it would squander his readership.“Elmer kept insisting that Norwegian Wood wouldn’t sell in America. But Norwegian Wood has sold by far the most [of my books] around the world. So it turns out Elmer was wrong!”
“Yoko, who loved the book, said, OK, you don’t have to love it, and you don’t have to publish it if you don’t love it. But I know she wanted to have it published, and she eventually convinced Binky [Amanda Urban, Murakami’s current agent] and/or Gary [Fisketjon, Murakami’s former editor at Knopf] to publish it, and it was a success! There are discriminating younger readers (the very readers who I feared would not like it) who really like it, and the numbers show it. Yoko smelled something that I did not. When I saw Yoko years later, she mentioned Norwegian Wood to me, and we laughed about it.”
Murakami smiles when I bring this topic up. “Elmer kept insisting that Norwegian Wood wouldn’t sell in America. But Norwegian Wood has sold by far the most [of my books] around the world. So it turns out Elmer was wrong!”
Given the positive reception of A Wild Sheep Chase, another option for a second book would have been Dansu dansu dansu (Dance Dance Dance). Murakami had written the novel after he had finished writing Norwegian Wood because he had gotten the urge to revisit the characters from A Wild Sheep Chase. It was published in October 1988 in Japan and sold more than a million copies in nine months; it is even mentioned in Murakami’s bio for KI’s version of A Wild Sheep Chase.
Instead, KI chose to go with Sekai no owari to hādoboirudo wandārando, which was released in Japan in 1985 and eventually published in the US as Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. Birnbaum and Luke were happy with the choice. They felt that the novel had even greater potential than A Wild Sheep Chase to capture the imagination of American readers. In addition to the humor, another aspect of Murakami’s writing that appealed to Birnbaum was the idea of alternate realities: “the concept of coexisting parallel worlds you could drop through.” Birnbaum could relate to “doors leading to nowhere,” given that in his life he would often find himself “walking through one door and find myself in Japan, walking through another and finding myself in Mexico.” Birnbaum tells me that “Murakami’s risk-taking still had keen instincts at that time,” and that “he wasn’t just casting about for ‘something else,’ hence there was a taut resonance between form and story. For all its deceptively offhand lightness, it has the inevitability of classic tragedy.”
Luke, too, was drawn to the concept and scale of the book. “Hard-Boiled was a clear demonstration of the range that Haruki had, and as it differed so much in theme, narrative, mode from Sheep it seemed like showing it off right away, while the iron was still hot (as it were), would lay claim to larger literary territory for him and broaden his readership. Readers who liked Sheep wouldn’t be going away; we could afford to make them wait for Dance Dance Dance.”
Birnbaum and Luke immersed themselves in Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. With A Wild Sheep Chase, the two had worked together to edit the translation Birnbaum had completed. This process, according to Birnbaum, was already “far more rigorous” than with the first two books published as part of the Kodansha English Library. But for Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World they took the collaboration one step further. Birnbaum would bring Luke sections of the book as he finished them, and the two would proceed through the manuscript together while the translation was in progress. Sometimes they would translate and edit by hand onto a paper copy, but more often than not they would work straight onto the screen of the computer Birnbaum had carried to Luke’s home in Kamakura. At one point, they were working together five to six hours a day, five days a week, sitting side by side, reading passages out loud. Birnbaum suggests half-jokingly that it is possible that the two of them spent more time translating and editing A Wild Sheep Chase and Hard-Boiled Wonderland than Murakami had spent writing them.
This collaboration between translator and editor reminds me of the that between Jorge Luis Borges and his English translator Norman Thomas di Giovanni that I first learned about in Lawrence Venuti’s Scandals of Translation. Working closely with Borges, di Giovanni “aggressively revised” the original Spanish texts to “increase their accessibility to an American readership”—an effort that seems to have helped get Borges’s stories, as well as a long profile of him, published in The New Yorker (but which Venuti also suggests was a “discursive regime that sought to repress the literary peculiarities of Borges’s innovative writing”).
It also reminds me of remarks made by Michael Emmerich, the scholar and translator of Japanese literature, during an event for the British Centre for Literary Translation at the University of East Anglia. Emmerich revealed that, for him, getting the first ten percent of a book right seems to take just as long as translating the rest of the book. And in her essay “That Crafty Feeling,” Zadie Smith has made a similar observation about the novel-writing process: for her, it is “the first twenty pages” that take longest. The writing of those pages “manifests itself in a compulsive fixation on perspective and voice,” she writes. When Smith finally settles on the tone of the book after rewriting the first twenty pages many times, the rest of the book “travels at a crazy speed.”
Both Emmerich and Smith emphasize the time it takes to get the “voice” or “tone” right. The task of establishing a narrative voice for a work in translation normally falls upon the translator, which the editor then helps fine-tune. But with Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, it seems that the translator and editor established the voice and tone of the book together. Birnbaum says that there were many voices that “needed grappling with” in the novel: “There are, of course, the individual voices of the various characters: the professor, girl in pink, librarian, gatekeeper, colonel, and the duo. But the bigger challenge, and what took the most time, was getting the narrative voices for the two alternating sections—the Hard-Boiled chapters and End of World chapters—right. Elmer was a huge help in that process.”
In the Japanese original, the narrative voices in the alternating chapters are distinguished partly through the use of different first-person pronouns: the more formal watashi for the Hard-Boiled Wonderland chapters and the more informal boku for the End of the World chapters. This difference between boku and watashi is difficult to capture in English translation, where the only singular personal pronoun available is the neutral I. Birnbaum and Luke elected to differentiate between the alternating chapters using different tenses: the Hard-Boiled Wonderland chapters are told in the past tense, while the more dreamlike End of the World chapters are rendered in the present tense. This creates a subtle distance between the two voices and, in Jay Rubin’s opinion, gives the End of the World chapters “a timeless quality that may be more appropriate than the normal past-tense narration of the original.” Rubin told me back in 2013 that Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World was a book that he had “daydreamed about re-translating for myself simply as a way to get into it more deeply,” but that there was no such plan and that he would be “hard pressed not to steal Alfred’s brilliant use of past and present narratives for the two halves of the book.”I want you to know that as Alfred and I have worked more and more on the novel, I believe more and more that this novel has the possibility of achieving a good deal.
Philip Gabriel, who has been another of Murakami’s translators for many years, worked with Luke on the translation of Masahiko Shimada’s novel Dream Messenger around the same time. “Elmer,” he says, “was very hands-on as an editor. How amazed I was when my first pages of Dream Messenger came back covered in red and how amazed I was at his thoroughness. Looking back at it now, I can see that . . . I was being way too literal and close to the original, ending up with stiff English. Elmer encouraged me to break out of that and try to produce more fluid English prose. I recall him saying that each character needed to have a distinct voice—I think we may see evidence of that in Alfred’s Sheep Man in A Wild Sheep Chase and the old professor in Hard-Boiled Wonderland.”
The translating and editing of Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World took longer than initially planned. The publication date was pushed back from spring to fall 1991, but Birnbaum and Luke were struggling to meet even this new deadline. On February 20, 1991, Murakami wrote to Luke that while he knew it was “not the end of the world,” he was concerned what the delay would mean to publication in the UK, which had initially been scheduled to coincide with the Japan Fair in London.
On March 18, half a year before the publication date, Luke sent Murakami a fax with an update on his and Birnbaum’s progress:
Work on the manuscript of HARD-BOILED WONDERLAND proceeds—very satisfactorily though it requires much time. Alfred and I work five or six hours a day on it, every day, going over the [sic] each word, tone, voice. HARD-BOILED, because of all the very different characters as well as the timelessness of the End of the World and the timeliness of the Hard-Boiled sections, requires a careful touch. At the same time, I think we are both exceedingly pleased with how the translation is taking shape.
In the same letter Luke asked Murakami several questions.
Is the Archeology of Animals, by Burtland Cooper, which the main character and the hungry Librarian read from a real book, like the Borges Book of Imaginary Beings? If so, where did you get it? If it’s an invention of yours, (as I suspect it is) it’s tremendous! (I just need to be sure for purposes of permission—as with the Borges). Also, are the words “cyntetokerus” (spelling unsure) and “curanokerus” (spelling unsure too) inventions? If so, fine, great actually, but I need to check.
Murakami responded immediately to say that the Archeology of Animals was a made-up book but that the “cyntetokerus” and “curanokerus” must have existed. He writes, “[Y]ou can do anything with regard to those miserable creatures. I don’t care at all.”
Unable to find references to either animal, Birnbaum and Luke proceeded to render them “cyntetokerus” and “curaniokerus.” In fact, the proper names of the creatures are Synthetoceras and Cranioceras, but the previous renderings remain in the most recent editions of the translations:
The cyntetokerus is a smallish horse cum deer with a horn on either temple and a long Y-shaped prong at the end of its nose. The curanokerus is slightly rounder in the face, and sprouts two deer-like antlers from its crown and an additional horn that curves up and out in back. Grotesque creatures on the whole.
When I bring this up to Birnbaum, he says, simply, that “those were the pre-internet days.” For the purposes of the story, he adds, “it hardly seems important whether or not the creatures actually existed.”
On March 29, just two weeks after the letter above, Luke wrote to Murakami again to confirm his schedule for the US and UK book tours. He added:
I want you to know that as Alfred and I have worked more and more on the novel, I believe more and more that this novel has the possibility of achieving a good deal. I only wish the edit could go faster, but good things take time.
About six weeks after that, on May 10, now just four months from the scheduled publication date, Luke wrote to Murakami with another update.
Things have been pure madness around here . . . Some light at the end of the tunnel, though: we’ve gotten over a major hurdle with HARD-BOILED WONDERLAND, and now we’re working on the next, going over every word again obsessively. Want this book to be great.
Copyright © 2020 by David Karashima, from Who We’re Reading When We’re Reading Murakami. Excerpted by permission of Soft Skull Press.