“Who We’re Reading When We’re Reading Murakami” by David Karashima

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Haruki Murakami is a big Raymond Carver fan. He translated Carver’s works into Japanese with great enthusiasm during the early 1980s, and in 1984 Murakami and his wife Yoko made the journey to meet Carver at his house on the Strait Juan de Fuca, just round the coast from Seattle. Though this West Coast rendezvous was their only meeting, Carver has influenced Murakami’s career on multiple occasions. When the time came to find an American agent, Murakami was drawn to Carver’s former rep, Binky Urban, precisely due to her connection with the American novelist.

Carver, like any author, was surrounded by a team of people throughout his career who edited, illustrated and reviewed his work. Most famous of these was his first editor, Gordon Lish, who claimed to have co-written a number of Carver’s most celebrated short stories. In 1998, the fallout from their professional collaboration was covered retrospectively in a long article for The New York Times Magazine headlined “The Carver Chronicles”. David Karashima’s Who We’re Reading When We’re Reading Murakami is Murakami’s own “Carver Chronicle”. It is likely to be the first of many. The lengthy title is a play on Murakami’s What I Talk about When I Talk about Running, itself a riff on Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk about Love. 

Who We’re Reading profiles the team who defined Murakami’s early career in America, principally his first translator—Alfred Birnbaum—and his editor Elmer Luke.

Any reader hoping for a 200-page account of how Norwegian Wood made it to bookshelves outside Japan will be disappointed: the majority of Karashima’s book looks at the novels that laid the foundation for Murakami’s later success: A Wild Sheep Chase, The Elephant Vanishes, Hard-boiled Wonderland and The End of the World and The Wind-up Bird Chronicle.

It is easy to look back now and see Murakami’s transformation into a literary icon as inevitable.

Who We’re Reading When We’re Reading Murakami, David Karashima ( Soft Skull Press, September 2020)
Who We’re Reading When We’re Reading Murakami, David Karashima ( Soft Skull Press, September 2020)

It is easy to look back now and see Murakami’s transformation into a literary icon as inevitable. Karashima shows how it was anything but. As he pieces together the story behind each book, he calls upon a cast of talking heads who give their own version of what took place. At many points he ends up as the middleman, moving between editors, translators and journalists trying to verify the course of events. Karashima’s own experience as an author and translator is hugely helpful here. He clearly understands how the publishing game works, and is able to make it accessible, at times even compelling. He makes the point, as the title suggests, that there are countless faceless individuals behind the scenes who transform a manuscript into a book.

This is especially true of translated novels like Murakami’s. Karashima acknowledges this—a significant portion of Who We’re Reading is dedicated to discussing Murakami’s translators and their work. You might assume that Karashima’s approach would demystify the process, but instead he injects it with a real sense of excitement. He talks about translation as a sort of alchemy, dependent on the meeting of the right people at the right time. That said, Karashima doesn’t really say anything new about the mechanics of literary translation. Yes, novels are more often than not translated with the audience in mind, and yes, things get left out and added in according to the particular requirements of the publisher. The appeal of Who We’re Reading, though, is that it projects these seemingly mundane and technical decisions onto the professional and personal relationships of a group of people surrounding Murakami. It lends them an emotional significance that might otherwise get lost.

It’s natural, then, that at the core of the book is Murakami’s partnership with his first translator, Alfred Birnbaum. For the first 100 pages or so, Karashima frames their relationship as a kind of love affair. He picks out facts from Birnbaum’s life that overlap with Murakami’s: Birnbaum attended the University of Texas in the 1970s, Murakami visited in 1994; Birnbaum attended Waseda University the year after Murakami graduated and so on. Karashima makes their eventual collaboration feel inevitable—a sentiment echoed by Ann Arensberg in her review of A Wild Sheep Chase for the The New York Times Book Review: 

 

[Murakami] has help from Alfred Birnbaum, who seems more like his spiritual twin than merely his translator

 

The two would part ways at the beginning of the 1990s after Murakami switched to a new translating team: Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel. Birnbaum insists that he was essentially ghosted. Karashima does discuss Jay Rubin, though he is given a less glamorous treatment. He is “meticulous” where Birnbaum is “bohemian”, “faithful” where the other man is “lively”. Murakami and Birnbaum’s current relationship status—which you could describe as cold at best—permeates descriptions of their earlier collaboration, as Karashima conducted all his interviews after Murakami switched to Rubin and Gabriel. Murakami refers to Birnbaum as “Albert” and leaves him off a list of “my translators”. Birnbaum refers to him as Murakami, and says his novels are getting progressively worse as the years go by. When Karashima questions Birnbaum on Murakami’s comments about him in an interview for The Paris Review, the translator  responds that Murakami had probably confused him and his wife for the “couple in the Second Bakery Attack”—one of Murakami’s short stories. He adds, “with fiction writers there’s always a blurring of fiction and reality.” It feels like a dig. Murakami and Birnbaum are no Carver and Lish, but Karashima certainly does his best to reveal the drama underlying the breakdown of their professional relationship.

 

Even though the whole of Who We’re Reading is about Murakami, we don’t get much access to Murakami the man. Most of what we do learn about him comes through hearsay, or Karashima’s interviewees attempting to describe the “Haruki way”. This is because, really, Who We’re Reading is not about Murakami as a person but Murakami as a name—as is so often the case with authors who  become celebrities.

Murakami does seem professionally impersonal when he discusses his books; no more so than when he suggests that Birnbaum’s earlier translations (which Murakami owns) should be updated with a retranslation. Once these new versions of Hard-Boiled Wonderland and A Wild Sheep Chase hit the shelves, there is a fair chance that Birnbaum and his contribution to Murakami’s career will be overlooked, his translations read only by vintage book collectors. This, as Karashima reflects, is often the fate of translators who play an essential role in the early career of literary superstars. Birnbaum and Murakami’s early editors are captured here for posterity as more than just a footnote in the long history of the Murakami brand which they all helped to create.


Aoife Cantrill is a PhD student at the University of Oxford. She is currently working on a history of translation in 20th century Taiwan.