“The more you look into it and into the question of revision, the more you realize there is no single authoritative version of ANY Murakami work…”

I’m going to get this out of the way now, so we can move on to other topics. Yes, there are “issues” involving the translation of The Windup Bird Chronicle. Here you can read them discussed by Murakami’s translators themselves, from Knopf’s Murakami roundtable:

From: Philip Gabriel
Sent: Wednesday, December 20, 2000 12:17 PM
To: Jay Rubin; Gary Fisketjon
Subject: Re: An email roundtable: Translating Murakami
Phil here. Some questions for Jay: One of my graduate students wrote a thesis on WIND-UP BIRD CHRONICLE, and though I don’t recall the specifics, I believe she mentioned some Japanese chapters that, in the translation, were either substantially altered or not translated at all. Does she have this right, and if so, what were the decisions behind this? Also, I remember reading somewhere that when Alfred did his translation of HARDBOILED WONDERLAND, Murakami approached him with some revisions/additions he wanted incorporated into the English version; I wondered whether similar things happened with WIND-UP BIRD.

This last point may be related to one of the problems I’ve encountered translating modern Japanese literature: a different notion of editing in Japan. What I mean is, at times I notice inconsistencies, repetitions, and illogical parts in original Japanese texts that I am pretty sure an American editor would have weeded out. When I translated an early novel (not by Murakami)I felt at times that I was both translating AND editing. (They wouldn’t let me get paid for both, unfortunately.) My editor said something that had stayed with me, namely that works by popular Japanese writers are rushed into print with minimum editing (by our standards) and that editors in Japan play a less active role in suggesting changes to texts. Thus when it comes time for people like us to translate them, we–and our editors–have to massage the original to make it fit OUR notions of a tight, logical text. (And possibly writers such as Murakami realize this and have second thoughts about certain sections of their books once they are going to be translated?) I haven’t felt this was a problem too much with Murakami’s works, except for some occasional repetitious sentences–the same idea rephrased in two contiguous sentences; I found this to be the case in SOUTH OF THE BORDER, for instance, where I tightened up the text slightly by omitting a few sentences I felt needlessly repeated ideas.
This raises, of course, the whole idea of “naturalizing” foreign texts–neutralizing differences, etc. How far should we go in eliminating or toning down differences in order to make a book palatable to a western audience? Maybe this doesn’t really apply much to the two breakthrough writers of the 90s–Murakami and Yoshimoto–and maybe this is part of the reason for their appeal. In other words, are these two writers are somehow less distinctively “Japanese” than other writers and thus more easily digested abroad? I remember the editor at The New Yorker for my first story for them, “Barn Burning,” adding a phrase “here in Tokyo” to one of the first sentences of the story (which reads, with the addition, as I recall, “I met her at a party here in Tokyo.”) The logic behind this addition was, according to the editor, the fact that readers of Murakami’s seemed to not realize the stories were Japanese, and we should give them a clue up front.

Another question to Jay: What did you think of SPUTNIK SWEETHEART as a novel?

For Gary: My students who are into Murakami ask me often about why the publication of NORWEIGIAN WOOD was delayed for so many years, and I have no idea how to respond. What accounted for the unusual timing of the American edition? Another question: how do you decide on the covers for the American editions of Murakami’s work? The cover of SPUTNIK for instance–is the mirror imaging supposed to depict the “split” nature of Miu and/or Sumire? As the translator, I know people will ask me what it “means”…
From: Jay Rubin
Sent: Wednesday, December 20, 2000 8:43 PM
To: Gary Fisketjon; Philip Gabriel
Subject: Re: An email roundtable: Translating Murakami

The cutting done on WIND-UP is a complex matter. The more you look into it and into the question of revision, the more you realize there is no single authoritative version of ANY Murakami work: he tinkers with everything long after it first finds its way into print. I once heard that Willem de Kooning would occasionally follow a painting of his to the gallery and revise it on the wall, and Murakami’s willingness to fix his stuff reminds me of that.

I did virtually all the cutting on WIND-UP, but I would have done none at all if Knopf hadn’t told Haruki that the book was too long and would have to be cut by some number of words (I think it was around 25,000 words). Afraid that they would hire some freelancer who could wreak havoc on the novel, and filled with a megalomaniac certainty that I knew every word in the book–maybe better than the author himself–after having translated all three hefty volumes, I decided to forestall the horror by submitting my manuscript in two versions: complete, and cut. Knopf took my cut version pretty much as is (which no doubt saved them a lot of work and expense; like Phil, I was not recognized as an editor in anything other than the notice in the front of the book).

Having recently completed Book 3, Haruki felt incapable of cutting that, but he had enough distance from Books 1 and 2 to mark many passages for elimination–many SHORT passages that didn’t add up to much in terms of word count. I included most–BUT NOT ALL–of his cuts as part of my cut version (in some, I thought he had taken out important passages), and of course sent the entire cut version to him. Later, when the paperback version of the Japanese text appeared, I found that Haruki had incorporated into that many–BUT NOT ALL– of the cuts he had suggested for the translation, so the hard cover and paperback versions in Japanese are different from each other.
(For example, there is no reference to the illustrator Tony Takitani, a character from an earlier Murakami story, in either the translation or the Japanese paperback. Obviously, Haruki had enjoyed throwing the name in as an in-joke, then thought better of it during the process of revising for the cut translation, which he then carried over into the paperback.) Haruki did NOT, however, adopt the large cuts made for the translation into the Japanese paperback, though I have not done a systematic comparison of the two. Another different text is the British version from Harvill, which has British spellings and expressions. An energetic graduate student could have a field day tracking down all these differences, though it would probably be a waste of time. I do think, though, that if THE WIND-UP BIRD CHRONICLE outlives its time and becomes part of the canon fifty years from now, a re-translation will be needed, and scholars can have a fine time screaming about how Jay Rubin utterly butchered the text.

As for Japanese editors, you’re right, Phil, they don’t edit-not the way Knopf and The New Yorker do.
From: Jay Rubin
Sent: Wednesday, December 20, 2000 10:21 PM
Cc: Gary Fisketjon; Philip Gabriel
Subject: Re: An email roundtable: Translating Murakami

P.S. Sorry I had to rush off the computer during the last message, realized I hadn’t quite answered everything.
About SPUTNIK. I think we’re back to the divergent tastes issue. Without going into a lot of detail, it just didn’t appeal to me past the wonderful opening passage. I found too much of it too predictable. Murakami himself recognizes that not everybody likes everything of his.

About the student’s finding whole chapters missing from the translation of WIND-UP BIRD. It’s true. I felt that Book 3, which came out a year after Books 1 and 2, rendered much of the ending of Book 2 irrelevant, thought that, as long as major cutting was being required by the American publisher, that part of the book was the best candidate for cutting. I still think the translation is tighter and cleaner than the original, but I suppose that very tightness can be viewed as a distortion of the original, an Americanization of a Japanese work of art. I had a great time doing it, though. It turned out to be a MUCH more complex process than I had imagined, and I’d probably have trouble myself now trying to reconstruct the steps I went through.

Phil’s question to Gary about covers reminds me of the case of WIND-UP BIRD. Knopf did an absolutely knock-out job on that book, with a beautifully colorful mechanical wind-up bird on the dust jacket, a transparent raised plastic spring mechanism laminated over it, the same mechanism printed on the cover itself, circular mechanical motifs throughout the book, including page numbers that rotate around the edge of the page, etc. etc. I think it won some kind of prize (though I was never told so directly). I pointed out to them early in the process that, much as I liked what they were doing, there is a passage in the book that says specifically the wind-up bird is NOT a mechanical wind-up toy, but there was no turning back. (Finding out what the wind-up bird is is a large part of the experience of reading the book, so I would prefer not to blurt out what I think it is.) I might point out, however, that, far from being a mechanical toy, it is not a physical entity of any kind, or at least it is not visible: it exists only as a cry.

But given that, what is a translation? This from the great translator Edith Grossman’s Why Translation Matters:

“Octavio Paz, the Nobel Prize-winning Mexican writer, begins his essay ‘Translation: Literature and Letters’ with the sentence, ‘When we learn to speak, we are learning to translate.’ He states that children translate the unknown into a language that slowly becomes familiar to them, and that all of us are continually engaged in the translation of thoughts into language. Then he develops an even more suggestive notion: no written or spoken text is ‘original’ at all, since language, whatever else it may be, is a translation of the nonverbal world, and each linguistic sign and phrase translates another sign and phrase. And this means, in an absolutely utopian sense, that the most human of phenomena – the acquisition and use of language – is, according to Paz, actually an ongoing, endless process of translation; and by extension, the most creative use of language – that is, literature – is also a process of translation: not the transmutation of the text into another language but the transformation and concretization of the content of the writer’s imagination into a literary artifact. As many observers, including John Felstiner and Yves Bonnefoy have suggested, the translator who struggles to re-create a writer’s words in the words of a foreign language in fact continues the original struggle of the writer to transpose nonverbal realities into language. In short, as they move from the workings of the imagination to the written word, authors engage in a process that is parallel to what translators do as we move from one language to another.

If writing literature is a transfer or transcription of internal experience and imaginative states into the external world, then even when authors and readers speak the same language, writers are obliged to translate, to engage in the immense, utopian effort to transform the images and ideas flowing through their most intimate spaces into material, legible terms to which readers have access. And if this is so, the doubts and paradoxical questions that pursue translators must also arise for authors: Is their text an inevitable betrayal of the imagination and the creative impulse? Is what they do even possible? Can the written work ever be a perfect fit with that imaginative, creative original when two different languages, two realms of experience, can only approximate each other?
To follow and expand on the terms of this analogy, a literary text can be thought of as written in what is called, clumsily enough, the translation language, or target language, even though it is presented to readers as if it were written in the original, or source language. If the work is successful, it is read as ‘seamless’ (the description that strikes terror in the hearts of all translators), but here the word means that when readers hold the work of literature in their hands, it has at last cut free and begun a life independent of the original – independent, that is, of the simultaneous internal states, the concurrent acts of imagination that initiate the writer’s creative process. Language as the external artifact created by the writer needs metaphor to express the same internal states and acts of imagination that inspire the work, yet always looming in the background of all literary endeavor, establishing a gloomy, compelling counterpoint to the utopian model, is Flaubert’s melancholy observation: ‘Language is a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, while all the time we long to move the stars to pity.’”


I’ve been trying to come up with a way to describe my feelings about translation.  Since, to a certain extent, when we read a book, even in English, we’re reading (and interpreting it) in our own terms, each of us reading a somewhat different book, we are also, then each “translating” it, each in our ways, so that we understand it.  So that while the issue of translation (and which is the best translation), is always there, in larger more…metaphysical ways?…it’s not all that important.


And a quick question for the regular posts — do you like my synopsis? Is it necessary? What would you like to see?

My next post: Tuesday, June 17, on the beginning of The Wind Up Bird Chronicle.
Enjoy. And enjoy your weekend.


2 thoughts on ““The more you look into it and into the question of revision, the more you realize there is no single authoritative version of ANY Murakami work…””

  1. “Since, to a certain extent, when we read a book, even in English, we’re reading (and interpreting it) in our own terms, each of us reading a somewhat different book, we are also, then each “translating” it, each in our ways, so that we understand it. So that while the issue of translation (and which is the best translation), is always there, in larger more…metaphysical ways?…it’s not all that important.”

    A text filtered through a translator is exactly like reading your commentary if it were presented not as commentary but rather as the text.

    If that’s the closest that we could get, that would have to be enough. And with translations, lacking engagement with the text itself, reading the translation has to be enough.

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