Haruki Murakami and The Art of Literary Translation | Interview with David Karashima

How did a loner destined for a niche domestic audience become one of the most famous writers alive? In Who We’re Reading When We’re Reading Murakami, David Karashima gives readers a rare look inside the making of the “Murakami Industry” as he explores the role of translators and editors in the creation of global literary culture.

Haruki Murakami now stands tall amongst the titans in the literary world. I’ve been reading his books since my late teens. My exposure to Japanese culture, however, started in kindergarten. Born-and-bred in a family of traders, my family has had ‘roots’ in Japan for generations. I, myself, was privileged to reside in the land of the rising sun for four years. The overall trend I’ve noticed is that most people I meet are first introduced to Japanese culture through many of Japan’s cultural exports–such as literature, manga, music and the like.

Thirty years ago, when Haruki Murakami’s works were first translated; they were part of a series of pocket-sized English-learning guides released only in Japan. Today his books are in fifty languages and have won prizes and sold millions of copies globally. The author’s name may grace the front cover, but there are numerous serendipitous events that take place behind-the-scenes before a book makes the journey from an unpublished draft to a bestseller.

In Who We’re Reading When We’re Reading Murakami, Karashima synthesizes research, correspondence, and interviews with dozens of individuals—including Murakami himself—to examine how countless behind-the-scenes choices over the course of many years worked to build an internationally celebrated author’s persona and oeuvre.

Welcome to another Fireside Chat at Mith Books. I am privileged to have David Karashima with me. He shares his thoughts beyond the “Murakami Industry” toward larger questions: How active a role should translators and editors play in framing their writers’ texts? What does it mean to translate and edit “for a market”? How does Japanese culture get packaged and exported for the West? 

Dipa: You’re both an author and a translator. Could you give us an insight into your own personal journey juggling these dual hats?

David: I’m always juggling all kinds of writing: essays, profiles, reviews, the occasional work of fiction, and translation. Translation has taught me a lot about writing and vice versa. The great thing about translating someone else’s work is that it forces you to write outside your comfort zone. And I hope that my experience with my own (non-translation) writing pushes me to be a better translator: one who has deep respect for the original author’s project but is also able to keep the readers of the text in mind.

Dipa: Ann Arensberg from The New York Times Book Review described Alfred Birnbaum as Murakami’s ‘spiritual twin’. In literary circles, one often hears how important it is for people to ‘believe’ in the work they do. What are the main elements necessary for a successful author-translator partnership?

David: I know of many successful author-translator partnerships, but it seems that everyone works a little differently. Some authors and translators build close friendships, while others prefer to maintain a professional distance. Either way, I think it’s absolutely crucial that there is a sense of trust between author and translator. And I absolutely agree that it helps for a translator to believe in the book they are working on. More care will go into the translation process and the translator can play an important role in championing the work after publication.

The last thing you want is a situation where a translator is working on a book that they’ve lost faith in. I once ran into an acclaimed translator at a train station and noticed that he was holding a book that had been ripped in half. I asked what had happened to the book and he told me that he was translating it: that he had gotten so fed up with the book that every time he finished translating a page, he would rip it out, crumple it into a ball, and throw it in the bin. It’s been at least ten years and the book, unsurprisingly, still hasn’t found a publisher.

Dipa: As I read your book, I had the sense that translated works are not strictly translations, but rather a remake—much like a movie that’s been remade for a different market. Birnbaum says, “it’s not about good writing or translating… it’s about marketing a director’s cut.” How do the author and translator decide on a strategy that takes into account the varying needs of both parties? Who do you believe has more clout in the relationship?

David: There are so many ways to approach translation that it’s difficult to generalize, but it’s true that translations—not just the words on the page but also the cover design, jacket copy, window displays in bookstores, etc.— are often reimagined and repackaged with the target market in mind.

But it’s also probably true that translations into English are edited less than books originally written in English; we just don’t get to see a lot of the editing that is done behind the scenes on non-translations.

As for the power dynamics between author and translator, each case is different, and they often shift over time as well. In the case of Murakami, for example, it’s clear that he has much more say now as an international bestselling author than when he was relatively unknown outside of Japan.

Dipa: In your book, you discuss how Murakami’s work was translated to appeal to an American audience. Murakami himself has translated the works of authors such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Paul Theroux, Raymond Carver and John Irving. Books are not published for the purpose of profit alone. Literary works are often rooted in the cultural origin(s) of the author. How can an author successfully make the transition from local to global?

David: I wish I knew the answer to that question. I suppose one thing that I can say with relative confidence is that, while writing can be a solitary activity, the process of reaching readers (especially in different languages) is a highly collaborative process.

The authors from Japan that have managed to reach a wider international audience have all had teams of talented publishing people supporting them. Also, what little experience I have with this (through helping edit bilingual magazines, etc.,) suggests that it’s not always useful for a writer to be conscious of a “foreign” or “global” readership when they are writing. I know that many of the Japanese works that have recently been enthusiastically embraced around the world were originally written with a small group of local readers in mind.

Dipa: In your book, you discuss the importance of ‘trust’ between the author and the reader. Before Murakami became famous, his work was significantly abridged and altered. As writers grow in popularity, do you think the influence of editors and translators in shaping the author’s work increases or diminishes? After all, on one hand you are dealing with a debut author and on the other, you are trying to maintain an author’s popularity.

David: That’s a great question and I wish I knew more about the topic. I imagine it can go both ways. With literary fiction in Japan (and I suspect that it might be the same in many other countries), editors are more likely to be hands-on when editing the work of newer authors. For better or worse, they tend not to touch the work of more experienced authors. Some of this is because the experienced author needs less editing and some of it might also be the reluctance on the part of editors to question writers who have been in the profession for longer than they have. So, for the most part, I guess you could say authors get edited less as they gain experience and readers.

But I can also imagine a scenario—and this obviously happens a lot with manga, television, etc.— where the author becomes a global enterprise in which many people have high stakes. That can get more complicated. In some instances, editors of those authors may be tempted to edit the author (the work, of course, but interviews, speeches, etc. as well) in a way that is consistent with the author’s brand.

Dipa: Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World was initially panned by some critics. The book went on to become a long-seller. There are many books out there that receive a lukewarm initial response that later go on to become big hits. What do you believe happens in the interim that leads to a failure turning into a success?

David: I should probably begin by saying that not all critics disliked Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World when it first came out in the US and UK. Sales were quieter than for the first book in English A Wild Sheep Chase, and there was one very harsh review in the New York Times back when that could have a lot of impact on how an author was perceived in the English-speaking world, but there were other reviewers who got the book from the outset. Having said that, the book definitely did find more fans over time and, as you mentioned, became a long-seller. This happens with a lot of books, but the reason for the later success differs in each case.

Sometimes the world catches up to the book, sometimes the book finds a champion later in its life, and I suspect that a lot of times it’s a combination of these two factors. I know that the publishing world is becoming increasingly data-driven, but there was a time, at least in Japan, when you were allowed to publish a few books even if sales weren’t that great. The idea was that the author would eventually produce a book that would break through to a wider readership, and those readers would then go back to the author’s backlist. I get the sense these days that many editors and publishers feel like they can no longer afford to do this. I think that this can be detrimental to literary culture.

Dipa: The events discussed in your book take place in the era before the internet. How has technology and the advent of eBooks changed the author-translator relationship? Are there any trends that you foresee occurring in the future?

David: I still do a lot of my writing for (amazingly) print newspapers and magazines, and I often can’t think beyond the next deadline, so I’m probably not the best person to be making predictions about the future! I don’t know if the growth of e-books has changed the author-translator relationship as drastically as it has the author-publisher relationship, but simple things such as ease of communication have clearly facilitated collaboration between authors and translators. Translators in the West have long been seen as silent partners, but in Japan many translators (including, of course, Haruki Murakami) have played key roles as guides and tastemakers.

With the rise of social media, etc., the translator’s job description seems to be expanding to include scout, interpreter, critic and even publicist. This part of the job description will probably become even more important as advances in technology allow for more works to be made available in translation. As translators we have to do what we can to help get books into the hands of the right readers!

About the Author

Dipa Sanatani is the Publisher at Mith Books and the author of The Little Light and The Merchant of Stories. In The Merchant of Stories, Dipa takes the reader on a personal journey–narrated through a series of candid journal entries–on what it takes for entrepreneurs and creatives to start their very first venture.

Author: Dipa Sanatani

Publisher | Mith Books | Author of The Little Light and The Merchant of Stories

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