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Discovering Murakami

By David Karashima

In his Who We’re Reading When We’re Reading Murakami, David Karashima synthesizes research, correspondence, and interviews with dozens of individuals—including Murakami himself—to examine how countless behind-the-scenes choices over the course of many years worked to build an internationally celebrated author’s persona and oeuvre. In these two excerpts, Murakami’s translators Alfred Birnbaum and Jay Rubin recall their first contacts with the author’s work.

Alfred Birnbaum Discovers Murakami

It was around this time that a friend recommended Alfred Birnbaum read a short story collection by a young author named Haruki Murakami. Comprising seven stories that had appeared in various magazines between April 1980 and December 1982, Chūgoku yuki no surō bōto (A Slow Boat to China) had been published in the spring of 1983.

Birnbaum was immediately drawn to Murakami’s writing, especially its humor, something he found to be rare in Japanese literature.1 As soon as he finished reading the stories, he sat down at his typewriter and proceeded to translate several.

In the spring of 1984, Birnbaum visited the Kodansha International office in Tokyo to meet with the editor who was overseeing the nonfiction Birnbaum was translating. Kodansha International, established in 1963, focused on books that introduced Japanese culture to foreigners. In addition to books on fine art, martial arts, crafts, food, and business, it also published biographies and criticism by Western scholars of Japanese literature.

KI, as Kodansha International was known, was also one of the leading publishers of Japanese literature in English translation. In the 1970s it published Japanese classics of the early and mid-twentieth century, including Sōseki Natsume’s Botchan, Yasunari Kawabata’s The Lake, Yukio Mishima’s Sun and Steel, and Kenzaburō Ōe’s The Silent Cry. In the 1980s it went on to publish more contemporary works, like Ryū Murakami’s Almost Transparent Blue and Yūko Tsushima’s Child of Fortune.

Ryū Murakami and Haruki Murakami—no relation—had both made their debuts by winning the Gunzō New Writers’ Prize, in 1976 and 1979, respectively. At the time, they were often referred to as “Double Murakami,” and in 1981, Kodansha had published a book-length conversation between them under the title Wōku donto ran (Walk Don’t Run). Birnbaum was hopeful that Kodansha International would show interest in “the other Murakami.”

Near the end of his meeting with the editor, Birnbaum pulled out his translation of “Nyū Yōku tankō no higeki” (“New York Mining Disaster”), from Murakami’s story collection. He also expressed his interest in translating Hitsuji o meguru bōken (A Wild Sheep Chase), a novel that had first appeared in Gunzō, the literary journal in which Murakami had made his debut.

As Murakami has recounted in a 1991 interview, Hitsuji o meguru bōken (A Wild Sheep Chase) had gotten a “cold reception” at first. He was told by the editors at Gunzō that it was too long, and recalls that “it wasn’t easy getting them to accept the piece for publication.” But in the end, the novel appeared in full in the August 1982 issue of the journal and was published as its own hardcover book by Kodansha several months later. That December it was awarded the Noma New Writer’s Prize and, according to Murakami, sold around 150,000 copies.

For Birnbaum, the attention the book had gotten was vindication of his interest. “I think what was remarkable about Sheep, both the attraction and the challenge, was that unlike almost all Japanese writing that is either extremely realistic (and mired down in minute details that obscure a broader or deeper vision) or extremely fantastic (like slapstick manga or robot-monster inanities) with no middle ground, it cut a fine balance between everyday tedium and fantasy; it kept the surrealism well within the realm of possibility, if not the plausible. And in that regard it was amazingly unique (especially at the time) and showed both perfect restraint and daring command in equal measures. Very different from anyone else in Japan, definitely more akin to US/UK novelists—which of course is why he was attacked by critics here. The total antithesis of heavy-handed dour pain-in-your-face voices like Kenzaburō Ōe, Kōbō Abe, Jūrō Kara, and Kenji Nakagami. I don’t know if that makes sense, but Sheep was really nicely understated.”

The KI editor whom Birnbaum had been working with specialized in nonfiction, so she introduced him to one of her colleagues. The new editor took Birnbaum’s “New York Mining Disaster” and told him he would read it. When Birnbaum visited the office several weeks later, however, the same editor told him that from a business standpoint Sheep was too long. Birnbaum remembers being handed copies of Murakami’s first two novellas—Kaze no uta o kike (Hear the Wind Sing) and 1973-nen no pinbōru (Pinball, 1973)—instead. He did not totally buy the explanation that publishing Sheep was less financially viable than publishing the novellas, but he also didn’t feel that he was in any position to disagree with the editor; he was, after all, a freelancer trying to carve out a living on the fringes of the Japanese art and literary worlds.

Birnbaum started flipping through the books on the train ride home, and once he finished reading, he began translating 1973-nen no pinbōru (Pinball, 1973). He had chosen the title over Kaze no uta o kike (Hear the Wind Sing), Murakami’s debut, because he thought it was “the better book.” He tells me that he might have started with Kaze no uta o kike if he had been offered a two-book contract, but at the time it was far from clear that he would have the chance to translate a second book. “I think the surreal parts of Pinball appealed to me,” he adds. “The scene where the protagonist converses with the pinball machine was very much my kind of humor.”

In a few months, Birnbaum produced what he felt was a “reasonably faithful” translation. His interactions with the editor on the manuscript were “minimal.” Back then it never occurred to him to deviate from the original. “I was still a nobody and there wasn’t anybody I could turn to for advice. I just had to trust my instincts.”


Jay Rubin Discovers Murakami

Jay Rubin first came across Murakami’s work in 1989, the year after his translation of Sōseki’s Kōfu (The Miner) was published. At the time, Rubin had little interest in contemporary Japanese literature. But one day, several months before Birnbaum’s A Wild Sheep Chase was published by KI, he received a call from an editor at Vintage.2 The editor, whose name Rubin cannot recall (“a ‘he’ and, I think, Japanese”), said he was considering publishing an English translation of Sekai no owari to hādoboirudo wandārando (Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World) and asked him if he would read it “to see if it was worth translating.” Rubin agreed to the task, thinking “it wouldn’t hurt me to discover what kind of junk was being read out there.” The call came at a time when Rubin had established himself as an academic and had also completed a novel (which would be published in 2015 by Chin Music Press as The Sun Gods). Had Rubin been looking for something new? “That sounds reasonable. I just stumble aimlessly from one thing to the next.”

Rubin was amazed by Murakami’s imagination. In Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words, Rubin recounts strongly encouraging the Vintage editor to publish the book and added that “if, by any chance, they were not satisfied with the translation they were considering, they should let me do it. They ignored my advice on both counts.”

Rubin says he lost touch with the editor who had gotten him to read the book, and that even after Rubin’s translations began to be published by Knopf/Vintage in the nineties, the two never met. The intentions of the Vintage editor, whatever they may have been, are now moot, but thanks to this phone call from a stranger (a device one often encounters in Murakami’s work), Murakami gained an ally with whom he would work for more than a quarter of a century.


1. Birnbaum’s sentiments throughout are drawn from several interviews with Karashima. 

2. Rubin's sentiments throughout are drawn from several interviews with Karashima. 

From Who We’re Reading When We’re Reading Murakami. © 2020 by David Karashima. By arrangement with Soft Skull Press. All rights reserved.

Related Reading:

"Dreaming Murakami"—Bringing Literary Translation to the Screen

"The Last Picture Show" by Ryu Murakami

"On Memory: New Writing from Japan" by David Karashima

Published Aug 27, 2020   Copyright 2020 David Karashima

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