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the Complete Review
the complete review - publishing / translation

Who We're Reading
When We're Reading Murakami

David Karashima

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To purchase Who We're Reading When We're Reading Murakami

Title: Who We're Reading When We're Reading Murakami
Author: David Karashima
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: (2018) (Eng. 2020)
Length: 246 pages
Original in: (Japanese)
Availability: Who We're Reading When We're Reading Murakami - US
Who We're Reading When We're Reading Murakami - UK
Who We're Reading When We're Reading Murakami - Canada
  • Karashima calls this book: "an adaptation of a book first published in Japanese" (in 2018) -- Haruki Murakamiを読んでいるときに我々が読んでいる者たち
  • With several photographs

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Our Assessment:

B : impressively detailed account of how Murakami Haruki established himself in English

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Atlantic . 9/2020 R.H.Buchanan
Publishers Weekly . 20/5/2020 .

  From the Reviews:
  • "(A) slim but fascinating new treatise by David Karashima on the business of bringing the best-selling novelist to a global audience. (...) Karashima leads his readers on a tour of translational tinkering. (...) For those interested in Murakami trivia, Karashima also includes publishing gossip" - Rowan Hisayo Buchanan, The Atlantic

  • "Murakami fans will particularly revel in Karashima's comprehensive coverage, but anyone curious about the alchemy and sheer amount of work that goes into making a single author's success will be entranced by this fascinating work." - Publishers Weekly

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The title Who We're Reading When We're Reading Murakami doesn't need to clarify that it's Haruki that is meant. The work of popular (and Akutagawa Prize-winning) author Murakami Ryū -- who is actually a few years younger than Haruki -- has also been quite extensively translated into English (and, with Almost Transparent Blue, first appeared in English translation (in 1977) before Haruki had even published his first book in Japanese), but it is Haruki that has established himself as an international literary superstar, with global recognition and readership (while Ryū, for example, remains decidedly second- or third-tier in recognition even in just the Japanese-fiction-abroad category).
       David Karashima's book is essentially a documentary reconstruction of the path of Murakami's work into English, through 1998 -- i.e. with a cut-off date more than two decades ago, just as Murakami was making the transition from break-through to (successfully) established author internationally. Karashima relies extensively on the accounts of the main players in bringing Murakami to US/UK audiences, beginning with and most prominently those of translators Alfred Birnbaum and Jay Rubin, and editor Elmer Luke, but also with considerable input from the author himself, as well as many others involved, including editor Gary Fisketjon, publishers Sonny Mehta and Christopher MacLehose, and literary agent Amanda 'Binky' Urban.
       The endnotes illustrate just how documentary this volume is: there are 693 of them, and most are simple attributions -- the vast majority of these not to published sources but rather: "Interview with author" (email and in person). Karashima communicated extensively with the principal actors in trying to trace the path of the various translations and publications, and it makes for a fascinating glimpse of how an author becomes established in a foreign language and market, including the compromises and choices made along the way.
       Among the amusing aspects of this strong reliance on first-hand accounts -- Karashima quoting verbatim extensively -- is that Karashima has no qualms presenting differing accounts, as well as showing his sources to often be uncertain in their recollection: for example, a lunch suggested by Luke for Murakami to get to know Binky Urban in 1992 is remembered differently by practically everyone who was (possibly/supposedly ...) there (including Urban, who: "says that she does not recall attending the lunch and that she remembers first meeting Murakami at her office. [Tobias] Wolff also has no recollection of the meal").
       Karashima admirably follows up where and with whomever he can, really trying to get to the bottom of things and not claiming as definitive anything that isn't backed up in black and white and confirmed accounts; he consistently follows up when presented with differing information -- though remarkably often people have to make admissions along the lines of:

     When I bring this up when I next speak to Birnbaum, he acknowledges that his memory was fuzzy and it is possible that it had happened that way.
       (I.e. completely differently than he had first stated.)
       And, yes, Karashima really spells this all out, taking the reader along for the ride through all these not-quite-mutually-compatible versions of events; and yes, there's quite a lot where his conversation-partners admit that maybe things happened differently than they remember. Much here is kind of hazy, at least on the individual level, but Karashima heaps so much on, from so many sides, that the overall picture looks to be a fairly solid one. Karashima leaves no stone unturned -- and in fact turns many of them over and over, just to make sure -- and, yes, that can seem a bit excessive at times; still, it's a welcome kind of information dump that allows the reader to see and judge for themselves just how reliable the picture is.
       Karashima begins not with Murakami but with his first translator, Who We're Reading When We're Reading Murakami opening:
     Alfred Birnbaum lives in a narrow two-story house near Inokashira Park in west Tokyo with his wife, Thi, and their two cats, Koko and Chacha.
       There's even a picture of the house a few pages in -- there are several pictures in the book -- and Karashima's more personal presentation of these figures that were instrumental in bringing Murakami to English-speaking readers -- specifically Birnbaum, Luke, and Rubin -- is helpful in supporting his thesis, that when we're reading Murakami ... well, as Jay Rubin put it only slightly exaggeratedly:
When you read Haruki Murakami, you're reading me, at least ninety-five per cent of the time.
       Who We're Reading When We're Reading Murakami is presented in five chapters that chart the progression of Murakami's work in English, from the first Kodansha English Library volumes (which were only distributed in Japan) of Birnbaum's translations of Pinball, 1973 (tr. 1985) and Hear the Wind Sing (tr. 1987; both have now been re-issued in new translations) to the book that seems finally to have established him in the US/UK, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (tr. 1997).
       Murakami was first introduced into the English-language market by Kodansha International, with Elmer Luke as his editor there. Though Japan-based, they were trying to break into the US market, and at a time of the strong yen in the late 1980s, had the funds to do it. They had a New York office, and launched A Wild Sheep Chase with a considerable publicity-push -- they: "budgeted $46,000 for the promotion" of the book, which even now is an enormous amount for a small publisher to spend. They did sell the paperback rights for an impressive $55,000, but apparently the book only sold 8,500 hardcover copies, plus the 3,000 sold to the Literary Guild, who had made it a selection; solid sales numbers, but nothing spectacular.
       The debates as to which Murakami books to publish in the US market -- he had completed several, after all, and several were already available (at least in Japan) in Birnbaum's translations -- are interesting to follow. The case of Norwegian Wood is particularly revealing (about the peculiar ways and failures of the publishing world): a huge success in Japan (it was released in September 1987, and: "By January 1988 it had sold a combined total of 800,000 copies, and by the end of that year this number had exploded to 3.55 million."), Birnbaum's translation was published in a two-volume (Japanese domestic market only) Kodansha English Library edition -- which sold 100,000 (!) copies in Japan in the first two months. Nevertheless, the powers that be didn't believe it was a good fit for the US market (though Kodansha International had, for a while, planned to release it in the US in 1990); when Knopf signed Murakami: "Murakami says that both he and Knopf had “wanted to publish Norwegian Wood first,” but the contract with Kodansha prevented them from doing so" -- though Knopf doesn't seem to have been quite so eager to start off with that one. It took until 2000, when Harvill published a new translation by Jay Rubin, for it to become widely accessible to an English-speaking audience -- and, as publisher MacLehose is quoted: "they were all of them commercial successes. Perhaps none more so than Norwegian Wood". (Prior to that, none of the books were particularly successful, sales-wise, in the US -- with much of his success then driven by paperback backlist sales; when Norwegian Wood was finally published in the US later in 2000 it was only as a paperback original, under the Vintage International imprint.)
       The debate about how to introduce and present Murakami to English-speaking readers is properly treated as central to his success too -- and one wonders how his trajectory might have been had Norwegian Wood -- somewhat of an outlier in being in many ways a more conventional, less fantastical work than the ones that cemented the Murakami-image -- been one of the first Knopf Murakami titles. The move from Kodansha International to Knopf, the hiring of an American literary agent, his time at Princeton, and Murakami finding quite the home for his short stories in The New Yorker are among the interesting stations covered and discussed here.
       There's also the issue of translators, with Birnbaum eventually ceding his place to Jay Rubin, with Karashima delicately exploring the factors involved here -- though not so delicately as to not let Birnbaum vent a little, down to a 2012 comment in which the translator tells Karashima:
[I]n retrospect, I guess I'm glad I don't have to do his catalogue any more. The later stuff keeps getting worse and worse, at least to me. Sour grapes perhaps, but I don't even read him anymore.
       Karashima also looks into the editing that went into the work, as, controversially, Murakami has been heavily edited and, shockingly, cut in English (The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle was 'abridged', by a novella-length 25,000 words, by Rubin's estimate ... (with Luke twisting the dagger, now saying: "It should have been cut more")). Murakami repeatedly is quoted as being disappointed at his work being cut but having felt he couldn't stand in the way of his American publishers' demands, while the consensus of the American professionals, translators and editors alike, is that all the work could stand for some editing and cutting; as Karashima repeatedly notes, Japanese editors are (admirably) hands-off, so even just aside from the question of adapting-for-foreign-readers foreign editors felt there was considerable fat to trim.
       Karashima doesn't discuss the editing changes in quite as much depth as he might, but he helpfully does offer some examples which he considers more closely -- including amusingly pointing to some very dubious editorial suggestions, such as the UK one of changing "baseball" to "cricket". More detailed comparisons are also of interest, as when he shows some of what the folks at The New Yorker got up to
     For example, the version of the story published in book form by Knopf in 1993 contains the phrase “My pubic hair is still wet.” In The New Yorker the sentence is “My hair down there is still wet.” “Her vagina warm and moistened” is “She's warming up.” In the book, there is this passage: “And down below that, it's a whole lot warmer. Just like hot buttercream. Oh so very hot. Honest.” This has been deleted from the magazine version.
       Among the interesting points Karashima notes is that:
While authors generally retain copyright of the translated editions of their work, the translation copyright, at least in the U.S. and U.K., usually remains with the translator. With Murakami's work in English, however, the author retains the translation copyright. In other words, the translation is essentially a “work-for-hire,” and the translator has no say in how it may or may not be used. And while some of the earlier English translations of Murakami's works published by Kodansha International gave the English translation copyright to Alfred Birnbaum, these rights are also now retained by the author; Birnbaum sold the rights to Murakami at the author's request.
       Karashima notes that this facilitates Murakami exerting control over how his work is presented -- manifesting itself now also in new (and complete) translations of earlier work, the author now really taking control of his body of work and how it is to be presented in English (but that's mostly a later -- post-1998 -- story ...).
       It suggests just how dissatisfied Murakami was with how he was initially presented in English -- even though these translations were central in making him the globally popular writer he became -- that, even though the translations haven't been out that long, Murakami is quoted as saying:
I think that there is a need to publish new translations after a certain period of time has passed. I think you need to adjust to the times. I feel that Alfred's translations were highly effective when they came out, but at this point I think it would be better if the translations are a little more faithful to the original.”
       Murakami isn't the only one who believes re-presentation is (over)due: in the chapter on Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, Karashima notes that: "Jay Rubin and others have expressed interest in re-translating" it. Meanwhile Birnbaum weighs in that: "the only reason to re-do HBW is to bolster their careers", and suggests that: "it's not about good writing or translating at this late date, it’s about marketing a ‘director's cut.’". As Karashima points out in his Acknowledgments, Rubin is, in fact, now working on a new translation ..... (See also.)
       Who We're Reading When We're Reading Murakami does explore Murakami's work making its way into English well, and is particularly interesting in describing the significant roles of the translators and editors who were involved in the process. The 1998 cut-off date is very early -- Karashima slips in a bit about later publications, but hardly enough to trace the path beyond 1998 -- which misses aspects of Murakami's path to the immense success he's had. Karashima does note how Murakami's paperback backlist has been an astonishing part of his success, but with the early cut-off can't really expound on that sufficiently, for example.
       Disappointing, too, is that the works are treated in somewhat of a vacuum: if Karashima is detailed in how they came to be published in their English form, there's astonishingly little about Murakami as a Japanese writer -- and, for example, how the publication of his work proceeded there (beyond the observation that editors there don't edit much). Murakami-in-English is very well presented -- but Murakami-as-Japanese-writer, from process to publication to reception, is almost entirely ignored; so, too, there's remarkably little about the works themselves beyond how it was felt they would fit in and be categorized in the American market. Since the focus is also on publications-in-English through 1998, there is, for example, only brief mention of Underground, despite the fact that Murakami was obviously deeply engaged with the subject-material in this time. (The English translation -- heavily abridged, sigh -- only appeared in 2000.) While it's a fascinating window into Murakami, Who We're Reading When We're Reading Murakami is in fact only a relatively small one, limited to a specific aspect of his work and that only for a relatively short period.
       A fascinating account of the efforts to get Japanese fiction published in the English-language markets, Who We're Reading When We're Reading Murakami unfortunately also limits itself very tightly to Murakami. There's only the barest mention of the American market in general at the time, and practically nothing about other authors who might have caught on or on whom publishers placed their bets. In this respect, Murakami Ryū would have been an obvious example: Almost Transparent Blue was a stunning and wildly successful (in Japan) debut that Kodansha brought out in English (in 1977 already) and was distributed in the US back then; it was a semi-breakout work, but unlike with Haruki's fiction, there was no short-term follow-up/through. Kodansha International then published the translation of Coin Locker Babies in 1995, when Haruki was still struggling to really establish himself; clearly the hope and belief was that this would be Ryū's true breakout and solidly put him the position of the leading new Japanese voice in the US. The book did get quite some attention, but it didn't do the trick; the comparison to Haruki's in many ways parallel path (pointing also to where it differed) might have been instructive
       The other notable figure from the 1990s is Yoshimoto Banana, whose route into English was a different one but who enjoyed phenomenal success with her English-language debut, Kitchen, in 1993, and followed it up with translations in the next years to establish herself (N.P. in 1994 and Lizard in 1995); Yoshimoto was widely seen as the foremost voice of the new generation of Japanese writers for a while, only then to clearly be overtaken by Murakami Haruki in the twenty-first century. Amazingly, there is no mention whatsoever of Yoshimoto in Karashima's book -- which would suggest just how blindered it is. (Even in a book focused entirely on Murakami, some context -- such as of what is being published at the same time, and why it was more or less successful -- would surely have been helpful.)
       Karashima's focus is on who "we're" reading, and by that he means specifically Murakami's English-reading audience, but it's also a shame that he doesn't examine, at least incidentally, the path of Murakami's work into other languages. He describes Murakami as being keenly aware of the importance of being published in the United States, by a commercial American house, and how that could be a stepping-stone to global success, but Karashima doesn't look beyond that, or compare Murakami's path in other major markets. (His books were being published in both French and German at around the same time, but a different selection, in different order -- and with differing success ..... It should also be noted that many later translations of his work, into less widely-spoken languages, came via the English translations.)
       As the title suggests, Who We're Reading When We're Reading Murakami ('in English', one might add) is mainly concerned with Murakami's (early) work and the people who brought it into English. This singular focus does often lose the forest for its strongly-drawn trees, with Karashima good at presenting Birnbaum and Luke, as well as Rubin and others, and their respective roles in working with Murakami's material but losing sight of some of the other relevant factors and context -- not least Murakami himself, who is a surprisingly shadowy presence here (as suggested also by his circumspect pronouncements, as he tends to express himself cautiously regarding the different questions Karashima puts to him).
       Overall, it's a quite fascinating story -- even as it also leaves many questions unanswered and, surprisingly for such a fact- and chronology-obsessed book, leaves quite a few almost blatant lacunae; a table consolidating book sales numbers would have been welcome, as would have one simply charting Murakami's publications (all those stories in The New Yorker, for one); indeed, detailed bibliographic charting and some timelines, or something similar, would have been helpful.
       In his Acknowledgments Karashima notes how this: "is very much a work in progress", and one looks forward to him extending it beyond 1998, with subjects like the new/re-translations covered in depth; there's still a lot to track here, as Murakami has become increasingly prominent -- and much more widely read -- over the past decades.
       Who We're Reading When We're Reading Murakami should be of great interest to fans of Murakami's work as well as all those involved in any way in the publishing of translations, be they editors or translators (or authors whose works get translated into other languages). While it does lead to the book having something of documentary feel, the reliance on reports from others -- the extensive quoting, about practically every detail -- does, for the most part work quite well, with Karashima only occasionally getting too caught up in it: David Mitchell, for example, is quoted at absurdly great length for example, basically all verbatim over more than two pages (though admittedly, if you can get David Mitchell to riff on Murakami, who could resist basically cutting-and-pasting the whole damn letter ?) Perhaps somewhat of a specialist work, Who We're Reading When We're Reading Murakami is a solid and impressively researched study, throwing an interesting light on publishing, translation, and the publishing of translations.

- M.A.Orthofer, 10 September 2020

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Who We're Reading When We're Reading Murakami: Reviews: Murakami Haruki: Books by Murakami Haruki under review: Books about Murakami Haruki under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Japanese author and translator David Karashima (辛島デイヴィッド) was born in 1979.

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