The Challenge of Translating Murakami Haruki:
by Philip Gabriel

JAT Bulletin 177, December 1999

The following is an interview with J. Philip Gabriel, who is a translator of Japanese literature and an Associate Professor in East Asian Studies at the University of Arizona.

Professor Gabriel is the author of the recently published Mad Wives and Island Dreams: Shimao Toshio (島尾敏雄) and the Margins of Japanese Literature (University of Hawaii, 1999), and co-editor of Oe and Beyond: Fiction in Contemporary Japan (University of Hawaii, 1999). He has translated Murakami Haruki's (村上春樹) novel South of the Border, West of the Sun (Knopf, 1999:国境の南、太陽の西) and the non-fiction work The Place that was Promised (Yakusoku sareta basho de:約束された場所で) (forthcoming), and is presently working on Murakami's latest novel, Sputnik no Koibito(スプートニクの恋人). Professor Gabriel has also published translations of three of Murakami's short stories and is currently working on another short story by Murakami.

His other translations include a short story by Shimao Toshio, Shimada Masahiko's(島田雅彦) novel Dream Messenger (Yumetsukai:夢使い), and Kuroi Senji's (黒井千次)Life in the Cul-de-Sac(Gunsei, forthcoming: 群棲).

Q. Thank you very much for agreeing to answer some questions from JAT members about your translations of Murakami Haruki's works. To start the ball rolling, could you tell us a little about what led you to become a translator of Japanese literature?

A. First of all, I'd like to thank you for the opportunity to speak with you through this email interview format. Thinking about the questions has been a good opportunity for me to sit back and consider some important questions about translation and what some of my goals are.

My interest in translating Japanese literature goes back to my first graduate school days, when I first began seriously studying Japanese literature. When I moved back to Japan in 1981, I joined a small reading circle where I lived (in Nagasaki 長崎), a group that consisted of Japanese professors of literature--both English and Japanese literature--and we met once a week for about two years. What we basically did was read, side by side, modern Japanese works and English translations of them.

We spent almost one year, for instance, carefully going over Mishima's Kinkakuji (三島由紀夫の「金閣寺」) and Morris's translation of it. This was one of the most enjoyable experiences I've had working with texts, and gave me a great desire to try my own hand at original translation someday. While living in Nagasaki I did a few translations that skirted the area of literary translation (one was an essay by a well-known poet who was going to be lecturing in the U.S.), but it was not until I entered the first translation contest sponsored by The English Journal (イングリッシュ・ジャーナルの翻訳コンテスト)that I began to seriously consider working on literary translation. I entered both the nonfiction and fiction categories of the contest (Japanese into English section), won the nonfiction award, and was told that I'd come very close in the fiction category as well. This was certainly a confidence builder.

Q. When did you first read Murakami, and which work was it? Did you immediately think that it was 'translatable' and thought about doing it yourself?

A. I first read Murakami's work in 1986--the two short story collections
Hotaru/Naya o yaku (蛍/納屋を焼く) and Chugoku yuki no suroboto (中国行きのスロウ・ボート).  I loved these stories, and had a dream of putting together a translated collection of some of them. At the time I was back in the U.S., just beginning my doctoral program, and somehow along with doing my other work I managed to translate four or five of these stories. You asked if I immediately thought the stories were translatable, and I'd have to say that they struck me as much more so than, for instance, the work of Shimao Toshio, the writer I was doing my dissertation on. I guess my first reaction was to think that I'd run across a kind of Japanese Kurt Vonnegut--one of my favorite writers in college--a writer who writes about deep ideas in a highly entertaining, approachable manner. I had no idea if anyone else was working on translating Murakami, and just went ahead for the sheer enjoyment of it.

Q. In an on-line article called Tokyo Prose, Jean-Christophe Castelli has commented that "Murakami ... is so translatable that he is, paradoxically, the most un-translatable of Japanese writers; Everything in his fiction can be conveyed to an American reader except the shock of prose that reads so, well, American. His writing injects the rock 'n' roll of everyday language into exquisite silences of Japanese literary prose." Do you agree with this?

A. I haven't read Castelli's article. It's very tricky for a non-Japanese to comment on how a work or a writer appears to Japanese readers. My impressions on this subject are based, of course, on my own reading, on what I've read by Japanese critics and scholars, as well as the comments of quite a few Japanese grad students I've worked with in the U.S. Castelli's notion that Murakami works with the "rock and roll of everyday language" catches a certain truth about Murakami's writing. Since his style works with "everyday language", I don't think this was a "shock" to ordinary Japanese readers, except perhaps to more conservative members of the literary establishment who had their preconceptions about what constituted the "literary." Something along similar lines comes to mind regarding my translation of Shimada Masahiko's Dream Messenger. The original novel contained fairly hefty chunks of writing in English, mixed in with the rest of the Japanese prose. This certainly constituted something of a shock to Japanese readers, I'm sure (there have been books like it since Shimada's work, but I know of none before his), and along the lines of what Castelli said, it proved an unwieldy, and ultimately impossible task to convey a similar sense of surprise or shock to the readers of the English translation. In other words, Shimada's original English sentences just became part of the whole flow of English in the translation.

Q. Did the fact that Murakami is himself a well-known translator inhibit you in any way?

A. No, this doesn't inhibit me at all. In fact, it encourages me, knowing that Murakami himself is so familiar with the struggles translators go through. Also, his abilities in English are such that I can approach him with questions about my translations.

Q. Were you able to communicate directly with Murakami, either in English or Japanese? When you have questions do you ask him or send them to the agency/publisher? Could you give us some examples of questions related to Murakami novels (e.g., ambiguous sentences, or simple things like place names)?

A. I've met Murakami once (in Tokyo), and have spoken with him several times on the phone, and keep in close touch by fax and letters. Now he has an office in Tokyo with a staff that is very helpful in tracking down information. This was especially useful to me when I worked on the nonfiction book of interviews, The Place that was Promised (約束された場所で). The book, interviews with eight former Aum members, contained many religious terms, place names, and of course people's names, that had to be correctly put into English. As I translated, I kept a running list of these problem terms, and faxed them to Murakami's office. The staff there, at least once, had to go back to the editor of the original Japanese book to ascertain some of the correct readings--and even so, we're still working on some of them. (The old question of how to convert katakana words into correct English spelling.)

Some of the more interesting questions that have arisen for me as I've done translations of Murakami's works have come up when I've worked on short stories for The New Yorker. The editors there, as you can imagine, go over everything quite carefully. One question that came up in the translation of the story Barn Burning concerned the term "doji sonzai. (同時存在)" The idea itself is quite important in many of Murakami's works. The editor and I played around with the idea of "synchronicity," but the editor nixed that because it dated the story--through association with the Police album, I suppose. The idea of vocabulary dating a piece I understood, of course, but our conversations really got me thinking about this point as I worked on later translations. (We settled on "parallel existence," by the way.)

One other interesting thing that happened with the most recent story I did for them, New York Mining Disaster(ニューヨーク炭鉱の悲劇), was the editor's decision to move the final paragraph of the story to the opening. I preferred to keep it where it was, but deferred to the wisdom of the editor. I'm not really sure why the editor decided to move the paragraph from the end to the beginning. In that case I didn't have a lot of direct contact with the editor. In principle, I'm not against such changes, since I moved a whole paragraph in Shimada's novel to a place several pages later than where it was in the original. These kinds of decisions have to be made on a case-by-case basis, of course.

Q. What are the major difficulties in translating Murakami novels compared with a) novels by other contemporary writers (e.g., Shimada and Kuroi) and b) those by writers of older generation (e.g., Shimao who died sometime ago)? For example, Murakami doesn't use much onomatopoeia (perhaps because he established his style through doing
translation himself). But he uses adverbs such as きちんと [kichinto],, しっかりと [shikkarito] and ちょっと [chotto], which could be interpreted in several ways.

A. As I mentioned, I find Murakami easier to translate, overall, than someone such as Shimao Toshio, for the simple reason that his language is more accessible. Shimao, whose work I love, too, tends to write in long, long sentences that twist around a number of perspectives. You see these perspectives developing in a certain order in the Japanese--touching imagistic and psychological markers along the way to a goal--but, because of the differences in sentence structure between the two languages, it is often very difficult to maintain the same developing perspective in English translation and keep your prose readable. Though I sense certain changes and transformations in Murakami's style over the years, in general his prose doesn't present the same difficulty. What is probably the greatest challenge for me in working with Murakami's fiction is catching the overall tone of the work.
The voice you hear when you read the original, in other words. (Uh oh! Am I the only one who hears voices?) As with all good writers, this tone can change from work to work.

Linguistically, I guess one of the main challenges is to convey the freshness and quirkiness of some of Murakami's images. Some of these are fairly universal (the recurring idea in Sputnik no koibito スプートニクの恋人 of the early Sputnik capsule with a dog inside wandering the solar system as an effective image of individual alienation and isolation), but others are not. Even with a writer as "Westernized" as Murakami there are many culturally-specific images that give the translator pause. There's an image near the beginning of Sputnik no koibito, for instance, that describes a person's will as being as strong as the "Cliffs of Chitose."(I believe that's the reference; I don't have the book in front of me right now.) At any rate, something has to be done here. "Cliffs of Dover" sounds hackneyed. I haven't settled on a solution to the "Cliffs of Chitose" image. What's important is finding out whether this is a "normal" or "common" image, or, as is the case often in fiction, an image the author has come up with. It's dangerous to make guesses, so I will be asking around, and if I don't get a good reply, I'll ask the author directly. It's the imagery, more than things like adverbs or individual words, that keeps me on my toes.

Q. Were there any parts of Murakami's works that you felt should be omitted or changed to make the translation more "digestible" for English readers?

A. One of the things I did in translating South of the Border was to tighten it up very very slightly. As I read the book I kept noticing more repetitiveness than would usually be tolerated in English prose. Though Murakami may be aiming for a certain effect by doing this, I felt certain U.S. editors would approve of my choices. (They did.) When I translated Barn Burning (納屋を焼いて), too, the editor decided to tighten up the ending by omitting a sentence that was, in the editor's eyes, overly repetitive. I didn't like the idea at the time, but looking back on it, I can see the point. (Murakami and I discussed it over the phone. I recall that initially he didn't like the idea of omitting the sentence at the end of Barn Burning, ,but he told me that the editor has the final say, so we should go along with whatever she decided was best.)

One of the interesting things about Murakami, by the way, is that he reworked many of his stories when his 1989 Collected Stories volumes came out. There are, in other words, two versions of many of his early stories--the original version and his revised version. He prefers I work on the revised versions, which was an interesting challenge since all the early stories I had translated were based on the older versions.

Q. Murakami has also been translated by Alfred Birnbaum and Jay Rubin. What did you do to be No. 3 (e.g., contacted the publisher or Murakami himself)? Do you think that your approach to translating Murakami differs from theirs in any significant respect?

A. When I was in grad school, as I mentioned, I had done four or five short story translations. One day I was contacted by ZYZZYVA, a San Francisco literary journal that had heard about Murakami and was interested in publishing a short story. I believe in the midst of contacting Murakami for permission, the editor passed along copies of my translations to Murakami's agent. At any rate, my translation ofKangaroo Communique (カンガルー通信) was published in 1988 in ZYZZYVA (the first Murakami short story published in the U.S., I believe), and when I was in Tokyo, Murakami's agent contacted me and set up a meeting with the author. I still had the idea of doing a short story collection, but Murakami told me someone else was working on this. He was kind enough to set up a meeting for me with people at Kodansha International, where I went on to translate the Shimada novel. Two years later, out of the blue, I got a call from The New Yorker; they had heard about my work, and wanted to publish Barn Burning. After that, I read South of the Border, asked for permission to translate it, and did it. For the two books after that-- The Place that was Promised, and Sputnik no Koibito --I was asked to translate them.

Alfred and Jay are outstanding translators, and I've learned much from studying their work. In Alfred's translations there's an amazing sense of language, a very fluid, extremely witty and entertaining style. Murakami has been fortunate to have such a skilled translator from the beginning. I hear a slightly different Murakami in my mind--a writer who, at times, is a bit distant, a bit "cool," with a decided sense of ennui at times. (A writer who's often more "cool jazz" than "rock and roll.") As I mentioned, though, this also depends on which work we're dealing with.

Q. Do you feel that there is growing interest in Japanese literature in the US and other English-speaking countries (in spite of the diminishing influence of literature that is often talked about in many countries)? If so, is it because some Japanese novels (probably Murakami ones too) have become more cosmopolitan in nature and more acceptable to non-Japanese? Do you think that Japanese animes (e.g., Pokemon's success in the US market) would help sell your translations, or are they unrelated?

A. There seems to be a growing interest in certain authors who have established a following--Murakami, of course, Yoshimoto Banana(吉本ばなな), as well, but it's very hard for a writer new to the West to break in. This came home to me when I finished translating Kuroi's Gunsei and was told that the major New York publishers wouldn't be interested unless and until Kuroi had made a name for himself--presumably by having a short story or two published first. There are, as you know, so few nationwide venues for publishing serious short fiction that this becomes a difficult assignment. America's quota for Sonys knows no bounds, but its quota for Japanese writers, in each generation, seems limited to one or two. Despite these difficulties, a small cadre of my dedicated colleagues have been turning out some terrific translations and widening the scope of what's available in English. I think they are responding to a genuine interest, on college campuses and elsewhere, that I hope will continue to grow.

Q. How is your translation work regarded by your university? Do you get any "brownie points" for your translation publications or are they not regarded as "proper" academic work?

A. Universities here generally do not recognize literary translation as a major form of academic endeavour. To receive tenure, of course, you have to produce scholarly work--papers, books, monographs, etc. Translation is often just the "icing on the cake." One way around this dilemma is to publish translations with "scholarly" introductions or afterword, trying to have the best of both worlds. But the publishers who have the widest distribution don't usually want translations with any such scholarly attachments. I continue to work in three areas--my scholarly work, teaching, and translating. All three areas are complementary--with books I translate becoming integral parts of my scholarly research, and new translations being used to widen the scope of the literature classes I teach.

Thanks again for the opportunity to speak with your members, albeit in this disembodied way. I enjoyed the interview.