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Murakami and Translation in the New Market

Grumpy as 1Q84 may seem at times, it conforms to this new market. In order to maximize sales in Japan, it was published as three hardcover books—some 1,657 pages—beginning in May 2009 and ending in April 2010. That gave it on-going publicity. In the United States, Knopf (Random House) edited it down to one enormous hardback of 925 pages, translated by Jay Rubin (books 1 and 2) and Philip Gabriel (book 3). In a remarkable series of on-line posts, they discussed the “inconsistencies, repetitions, and illogical parts in the original Japanese that ... an American editor would have weeded out.”105 Both translators were candid about editing Murakami drastically while they translated him. In Great Britain, 1Q84 appeared as two books, still shorter at 896 pages.106 English-language reviewers did not note the reduction by almost half from the Japanese edition, either because they did not know or because the edits did not matter. The lack of comment is just one sign that Murakami had become a literary production system; a hundred pages more or less did not matter.

The system has been hinted at by some journalists. Sam Anderson wrote in a New York Times profile “You could even say that translation is the organizing principle of Murakami’s work, that his stories are not only translated but about translation.”107 The Paris Review noted that “although he writes there on occasion, [his] office’s main function is as the nerve center for the business end of Murakami’s career. The air hums with polite industry. No fewer than two assistants glide capably about in dainty stockinged feet.”108

The system caused a kerfuffle in June 2000, when a Japanese professor at Hamburg University, Herbert Worm, pointed out that two recent Murakami novels in German had apparently been re-translated from Jay Rubin’s English versions. “German readers and critics had absolutely no idea that the German translation, which was based not on the Japanese original but on the modified American version, was different from the Japanese original,” wrote Professor Irmela Hijiya-Kirschnereit: “Which version, then, should the reader now take to be the original? For there now exist two versions, Japanese and English, both of which have been authorized by the author.”109

“Is there an original Murakami?” asked critics. That was a polite way of wondering if he was more than a system of literary production. Jay Rubin caught the scent when he responded: “In the interest of speed Murakami was willing to accept translation into other languages from English. The emphasis here is on English as the starting point for the journey of his works around the world.”110 Rubin wrote that he had taken the initiative to cut Murakami’s work, leaving out characters and incident: “I did a lot of rearranging ... because I found several chronological inconsistencies which were not deliberately placed there by the author.” That’s a statement worth reading twice. It casts the author as a narrative developer, who sometimes makes mistakes that translators have to fix. Rubin also invoked Murakami’s US editor, Gary Fisketjon, who had written “My reaction was that it couldn’t be published successfully at such length, indeed would do harm to Murakami’s cause in this country.”

Rubin’s larger defense drew on the post-modernist argument about vanishing “originals” and resultant “new works.” “The more you look into [English as the template] and into the question of revision,” he wrote, “the more you realize there is no single authoritative version of any Murakami work: he reserves the right to tinker with everything long after it has found its way into print.”111 Rubin followed up with references to de Kooning (but not to Warhol), leading one to realize that all of Murakami’s work for some time had elements of the logic of mass production. Translation as domestication and “secondary Otherness” had gotten out of control.112 Murakami had written the meta-narrative of his method in 1Q84. The older ways of gatekeeping had been suborned, and all that mattered was getting product out of the printing plant.

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