Orchestrating Translations: The Case of Murakami Haruki


On January 12, 2014, Japan’s “global author,” as he has been termed, celebrates his sixty-fifth birthday. Two days earlier was chosen for the publication of Murakami Haruki’s most recent novel in German: Die Pilgerjahre des farblosen Herrn Tazaki, which has been eagerly awaited by readers and the press since October 2013, when the publication date was announced. The rest of the story is predictable: Bookstores will position their piles of copies most prominently and visibly near the entrances on the second weekend of the year, and prompt newspaper reviews and radio programs will add to the excitement of seeing another of Murakami’s works ready to be devoured within a brief time span, in spite of its length in German of 318 pages. Needless to say, an e-book version will be available simultaneously.

Murakami’s latest novel reaches German readers this month.

More and more, bringing out Murakami in translation is growing into an event. These releases may not be as high-profile as, say, those for J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter stories, with people queuing for hours in front of large bookstores. But the fact that Murakami’s recent novels have been accompanied by well-orchestrated campaigns speaks for the particular name value of this author. Or should we describe things the other way around? Was it the smartness of launching a German fan website for 1Q84, his novel in three parts, well before the first two parts appeared in German translation in the fall of 2010, which boosted Murakami fever among his readership in a younger, more outgoing generation?

What is remarkable in any case is the fact that the German versions of 1Q84, whose third part was released in 2011, and Murakami’s latest novel, published in the Japanese original in April 2013, came out before the English translations. For Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, the novel’s English title, the announced date of release is August 12, 2014. But there are other languages with even faster results. The Korean version has circulated since summer 2013, while editions in Spanish, Romanian, Hungarian, Polish, Serbian, and Chinese were out in the fall, and a Dutch version has been announced for January 2014. It seems that the time span between the original and the translations is shrinking with every new Murakami book—again, a sure sign of his international prominence and market value.

Looking at the breathtaking density and geographical spread of these releases, and expecting many more to follow, one is amazed at the global machinery of Murakami marketing. What is it that lubricates this interplay of countless fan sites in so many languages; of resourceful publishers who come up with all kinds of marketing tricks, including the sales of his latest novel in specially designed vending machines at Polish railway stations; and of professional critics expressing their enthusiasm or contempt—it doesn’t matter which—in first-rate media?  It is, of course, Murakami’s literature itself, with its matchless Japanese-and-global appeal. Yet without his translators Murakami would, needless to say, have remained an exclusively Japanese author. It seems that he has learned this lesson in several stages.

Growing into a World Author—with a Little Help from His Friends

In the 1980s, when Murakami was a newcomer on the literary scene, it was curious native speakers of other languages who discovered him and wanted to translate him into their own idioms. In the case of German, Murakami was blessed with one of the best translators ever, who alerted a German readership to this author by selecting short stories like “Rōma teikoku no hōkai, 1881 nen no Indian hōki, Hittorā no Pōrando shinnyū, soshite kyōfū sekai” of 1986 or “Pan’ya saishūgeki” of 1985 and publishing his translations in a literary-cultural journal in 1987 and 1988, long before the English versions which were published as “The Fall of the Roman Empire, the 1881 Indian Uprising, Hitler's Invasion of Poland, and the Realm of Raging Winds” and “The Second Bakery Attack” in 1993. The same translator also initiated the first publication of a Murakami novel in German, Hitsuji o meguru bōken (trans. A Wild Sheep Chase) by one of Germany’s most prestigious publishing houses, Insel, in 1991, sharing the task with another young translator. German critics welcomed the book as a fresh voice from Japan with a surprisingly “American” sound. Now the ground was paved for more Murakami in German.

After this first success in German, and with more English and other translations in preparation, the author seems to have pursued a stricter streamlining policy through his American agent since the early 1990s. He refused to grant translation rights for a selection of his short stories into German on the grounds that translation rights for an English edition of the stories were still under negotiation, and that he preferred to make the selection by himself. It would have been interesting to see whether a selection of his works according to local literary tastes had any impact on the respective Murakami reception, but alas, this question remains a hypothetical one. In the end, the German publisher decided to bring out his 1985 novel Sekai no owari to hādoboirudo wandārando next. This had been introduced in several brief translated sections in German journals as early as 1989 and 1990, but an English edition, Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, had come out in 1991.

The fact that translation rights could not be obtained unless there existed a contract for an English version may have added to the widespread impression—among people connected with Japanese literature, publishing, and cultural outreach, as well as the general audience—that for Japanese literature to succeed on the international scene, English translations were indispensable. What is more, many readers and even agents assumed that Japanese literature in other languages was more or less based on the English translations. This opinion was not limited to Murakami’s international presence; it rubbed off on all other literary productions of Japanese origin, so that a Japanese agent in the 1990s, during the high tide for Japanese literature in central Europe, was reluctant to even negotiate translation rights for a German version as long as no English language publisher showed interest in the book in question. This is what happened in the context of a prestigious German series, “The Japanese Library,” featuring 32 books of modern and classical Japanese literature between 1990 and 2000.

The English Version as Master Text

In Murakami Haruki’s case, his preference for English may seem somewhat self-evident, given the fact that he is a prolific translator of English-language literature himself and taking into account the irrefutably American inspiration in his texts. The reason as to why he agreed in having his 1992 Kokkyō no minami, taiyō no nishi (trans. South of the Border, West of the Sun) and 1994–95 Nejimakidori kuronikuru (trans. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle) translated from English into German is, however, not so obvious. The first novel, published as Gefährliche Geliebte (Dangerous Lover) in 2000, caused a big splash in the German scene, and one could say that it changed the history of how literature was presented in the media.

Murakami had become famous enough to be taken up in a very popular TV program featuring new books. The program, Literarisches Quartett (Literature Quartet), was headed by Germany’s then most prominent literary critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki, who, in tandem with three other professional readers, took up important new arrivals in lively and often controversial discussions about the qualities of the texts. The program was popular for its often heated debates, but it was also appreciated as an effective way of informing an interested audience about how to deal with and read literature. Murakami’s novel was, in fact, the first book translated from a non-European language which was taken up in the program, as Reich-Ranicki had so far refused to deal with texts whose original was inaccessible to at least one of the discussants.

As was to be expected, opinions differed about Murakami’s book. The debate, however, grew more and more heated, and the argument, which was ignited by different views about erotic passages in the book, took a new turn when one of the discussants remarked that one could hardly get a feel for the original sound of the disputed section as the translation had been done from the English version. The dispute came to an end here, but not without a number of graver consequences. As was always the case for titles taken up in the program, whether praised or condemned, sales jumped for the book in question. But the show also led to harsh criticism of the publisher and sparked a public discussion about translating Murakami not from the Japanese, but from an English version. Everyone of course agreed that translating literary works from a second language was to be condemned as unprofessional and as an insult to a serious literary creation.

But what lay behind the publisher’s decision, a most reputable agent with whom Murakami is affiliated down to the present day? From all the public statements, interviews, and behind-the-scene reports it became clear that the translation from the English version was not only approved by the author—he even seems to have encouraged it on the grounds of a faster availability of his text for a German readership. This somewhat self-contradictory reasoning seems to have evaded the general discussion at that time. What also became clear, though, is that the English versions of South of the Border, West of the Sun and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle were thoroughly edited and adapted for an American readership with the consent of the author. In itself this is not worth mentioning, as some sort of “cultural translation” is an aspect of most successful translations. Naturally, there are different degrees of adaptation, and the decisions that experienced translators make in accordance with the author and the publisher in this respect must be based on a thorough understanding not only of the original work but also of the target culture and its readers’ expectations. The interesting thing in this case was that Murakami seemed to have decided that the American version of his novels was to be regarded as the basis for translations into other languages. Or so the message was received on the German side.

Since then, more than a decade has passed. The gravest consequence of the Murakami dispute on the 2000 TV program was that one of its permanent critics who had heavily attacked the book decided to leave the program, which then went off the air in 2001 after successfully running from 1988. Most observers agree that it was this dispute which marked the end of the show. (The four critics’ dispute about the Murakami novel can be viewed on YouTube.)

Direct and Indirect Translation

As for the translations of Murakami’s books, a new era seems to have arisen with the further outreach of his literature into even more languages and readerships. The argument that translating from an English version would speed up the availability of his texts for an international audience never really made sense, but it is thoroughly undermined when we look at the publication history of his most recent works in other languages. South of the Border, West of the Sun, the object of the dispute in Germany was published in a number of hardcover, paperback, and special editions over the years, until in 2013 another version came out: a direct translation from the Japanese under the new title Südlich der Grenze, westlich der Sonne. It reminded many readers of the earlier Murakami dispute, and critics revisited the passages which had caused the commotion more than ten years ago, stating that now Murakami’s narratorial intentions were much more transparent, and the sexual descriptions sounded less drastic. Whatever the reactions may have been, though, it is a fact that to the publisher, this author seems worthy of a retranslation in order to do justice to his text, and German readers were curious enough to buy and read the book once more.

The 2000 German edition of Kokkyō no minami, taiyō no nishi, translated from the English South of the Border, West of the Sun (left), and the 2013 translation, produced directly from the Japanese.

Murakami has obviously turned into a brand, and readers can hardly evade his works any more. Besides the republication of his earlier novel, illustrated editions of short stories are also catching the eyes of German book shoppers. 2012 saw the publication of the two “Bakery Attack” stories with illustrations by the German artist Kat Menschik, an edition that was also marketed in Japan. This illustrator also created a new version of Fushigi na toshokan under the title of Die unheimliche Bibliothek (The Mysterious Library) in 2013. It appears that through these visualizations, Murakami’s literature will find another channel on a global scale, including re-imports to its country of origin.

But back to the question of translation. How will adaptations for local readerships in all the different translations of his books be approached when the English versions no longer serve as the master copies? Or has Murakami perhaps adapted his style of writing for a global market in a way that makes these adaptations no longer necessary? This is one of the many fascinating questions which will inspire research of scholars of Japanese literature and of translation studies. It is worth noting that the overall rate of direct versus indirect translation via English and a few other languages into German has in fact remained fairly stable since 1868 through the present, amounting to 88% versus 12%. Indirect translations today mostly apply to manga and to popular literature, including crime and mystery novels. We must consider how to appraise these figures, to compare them with translations into other languages, and to relate them to our case in point.

(Originally written in English on January 4, 2014.)

translation German culture English book Murakami Haruki