Haruki Murakami's translator on what makes the pop-smash writer tick
For a lifelong academic, Jay Rubin seems to spend a surprising amount of time inside the head of Japan’s most-populist writer -- Haruki Murakami, the novelist and essayist who’s currently the talk of the town on two sides of the Pacific.
Most recently, Rubin spent a year and a half translating the first two books of “1Q84,” a novel that was released in three separate volumes in Japan in 2009 and 2010, but which will be launched in the United States as one massive tome on October 25.
The release of “1Q84” is one of the most-awaited moments of the fall publishing season in the United States.
The sprawling fictional tale of history, religion, violence and relationships has already been described as potentially "a mandatory read for anyone trying to get to grips with contemporary Japanese culture."
Murakami's popularity in Japan, where he's lauded as a surreal breath of fresh air in the often-stuffy world of Japanese literature, clearly has international appeal too.
Murakami fans flocked to “The New Yorker” website in September when it released an excerpt from the novel translated by Rubin.
“1Q84” was registering as one of the top 100 books ordered on Amazon more than a month before its release.
Few novelists stir up reader interest like Murakami.
Cut it, or else
It wasn’t always that way.
When Vintage Books came out with Muakami's “The Wind-up Bird Chronicle” in 1998, the publisher told Murakami that the novel needed to be reduced by a whopping 25,000 words.
“In those days, the publisher felt he was too unknown for them to be able to publish such a long book,” Rubin recalls. “I don’t know how they make decisions like that, but it was strictly a marketing decision”
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But success after success from Murakami has prompted marketing departments to drop their word-count rules.
“There was no directive from the publisher,” Rubin says of his work on “1Q84.” “Murakami can get away with anything now. If he scribbled on his toilet paper, they would publish it.”
Rubin became a fan of Murakami when a U.S. publisher asked him to read “Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World” more than 20 years ago.
“I told them, by all means publish it, and if you don’t like the translation, by all means let me do it. I really love this book,” Rubin says.
But Alfred Birnbaum had already translated the novel, which was eventually published by Kodansha International in 1991.
Rubin says “Hardboiled Wonderland” is still his favorite Murakami novel.
“I’ve been threatening to do my own translation of it for years. I don’t know if I ever will,” he says.
What really hooked Rubin on Murakami was the short stories.
“I think he’s a better short story writer," he says. "They’re just great. They’re more brilliant. They’re crazier.
“A lot of people think just the opposite. He thinks just the opposite. He thinks he’s a born novelist.”
Play on words
One reason Birnbaum beat Rubin to Murakami was that Rubin -- a former Harvard University professor and translator of Natsume Soseki’s writing, Noh plays and other classics of Japanese literature -- had no interest in Murakami’s writing at first.
“He was selling too many books for me to be interested in," says Rubin. "You’d see these mounds of books, and I’d think it must just be stories of teenagers hopping from one bed to another or something like that. Nothing to be bothering with."
Turns out Professor Rubin was wrong.
The title of Murakami’s new novel plays off of George Orwell’s “1984” (the “Q” in Murakami’s title is pronounced the same as the Japanese word for “9”).
Rubin finds the title underwhelming.
Despite his take on the title, Rubin has a deep admiration for Murakami’s body of work. At his home in Bellevue, Washington, Rubin shows off most of a bookcase filled with Murakami’s writings.
Tip of the iceberg
As he talks about book after book, it’s clear that those of us in the English-speaking world are getting only a thin serving of Murakami’s oeuvre.
“There is a book of Murakami recipes," Rubin carries on. "There’s his complete works up to 2000. This is his second complete works. ‘Wild Sheep Chase,’ short stories, ‘Hardboiled Wonderland,’ more short stories, ‘Dance, Dance, Dance,’ short stories, ‘South of the Border,’ ‘Sputnik Sweetheart,’ short stories, ‘Windup Bird Chronicle,’ ‘Underground.’”
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So what is it that makes Murakami so popular with Western readers these days?
“I have no idea,” Rubin says with a laugh.
Perhaps it’s that Murakami has long shunned the Japanese literary establishment and looked to the West, especially the United States, for literary inspiration.
“He definitely was very excited by the American writers he was reading," Rubin says. "Probably Vonnegut is his strongest influence, from those early days, the kind of deliberate craziness and vivid imagery.
“He talks about how much he loves Truman Capote, John Irving. They’re not monotonous style writers. They’re all kind of lively writers and he reacted to that."
Rubin, retired from a long teaching career at the University of Washington and Harvard University, has already begun translating another book by Murakami that features interviews with conductor Seiji Ozawa on classical music topics.
He also will be contributing translations to the next edition of "Monkey Business," an annual anthology of contemporary Japanese fiction in translation compiled by Motoyuki Shibata.