1Q84 is Big in Literary Translation

by Translation Guy on November 11, 2011

Haruki Murakami’s latest novel, IQ84, is a big read. One thousand pages of the most hotly anticipated translation into English of any novel this year, maybe of the century so far, maybe ever.

Winner of the Frank Kafka Prize, Murakami’s surreal stories of the bizarre everyday have garnered him millions of global fans in 46 languages, so anticipation for this  latest story, set in a Tokyo dystopia  of ghost writers and contract killers, has been building in the US for two years, while the Japanese edition has gone on to sell over 4 million copies.

English language publishers are anticipating Harry Potter-like lines at American bookstores. “There is a cult element who are ardent about everything he writes, and that club is rapidly spreading,” says his British publisher.  An earlier Murakami title, “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle” was abridged when translated, since publishers were uncertain that there was a market for long Japanese literary novels. This time around, publishers believe that leaving out any of  Murakami’s prose in an English translation would be intolerable to his devoted fans.

So to get the novel into the hands of fans unabridged while buzz is high, the translation job was split between Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel to work simultaneously on the trilogy.

Splitting a job between translators is the kind of thing we like to avoid at 1-800-Translate even for Instructions for Use, which no one reads anyway. This because two many  translator spoil the soup, at least according to the editor. Murakami’s dream-like prose can’t make the translation process any easier. Ditto on the decision of the US agent to publish all three novels in one big book. So the heat is on. Time flies when the money’s on the table.

During translation, “Lexy Bloom, who edited the novel, played referee when discrepancies arose over word choices. For example, the same car was described as silver in one passage and gray in another, and an outdoor space was called both a balcony and a patio. Occasionally, the translators consulted Mr. Murakami, who lives outside Tokyo and has translated several American writers into Japanese, including J.D. Salinger, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Raymond Chandler.”

Can any Murakami fans who’ve read the 1Q84 report on any differences between books 1 and 2, which were translated by Rubin, and Gabriel’s volume 3? Word choice is one thing, but I’ll bet there are plenty of other differences too.

It must be nerve wracking to have to translate a translator, especially with another translator is lurking in the literary wings. It might be interesting to interview Jay and Philip to get their take on it, but I’ll only pursue it if readers are interested, which means that readers will have to comment to let me know.

I am going to do a second post on the whole translation dance between Japane and English. Kind of a cultural funhouse mirror tour reflecting East, reflecting West. Did I mention it’s a two-way mirror?  Well, it is.

So here’s two tickets for our next post a cultural amusement ride to test the strongest stomachs. Just like the Cyclone at Coney Island.  Sorry, no one under 54 inches in height, please.


  1. ElizabethG says:

    Would love to see an interview with Jay and Philip!

  2. You write that Murakami is the “Winner of the Frank Kafka Prize”. Is Frank any relation to the famous writer Franz Kafka?

    • Ken says:

      It’s not me, Victor, it’s my spell-check.

  3. Wilber says:

    Boy, I can hardly wait.

    In the meantime: that title 1Q84 is intriguing. Does it have some kind of spooky perverse relation to Orwell’s title 1984? Leading to other questions:

    Is the title given the same in Japanese and in English? If not, how does the title look in Japanese? I can decipher a rendering in katakana if necessary.

    But if the title is in fact presented the same in both languages, is the pronunciation the same in both or is it different? Or is it perhaps an unpronounced symbol of arcane significance (cf the one that pop singer Prince used for some years)? The questions just keep proliferating!

    Arigato for any enlightenment. Your blogs are great!

  4. Wilber says:

    Oops! I just now googled the title and found answers to my questions and a few others. So — I apologize for intruding. Never mind.

    I will repeat, though, that your blogs are all great.

    • Ken says:

      That means a lot coming from my most astute and articulate critic. Thanks, Wilber

  5. Kiki says:

    Maybe books are best in the language they are written, but if you can’t read the original lanuage, then who is to say which is better? You can only read and understand the book you are reading. I only hope it’s translated well.

  6. mirrodie says:

    I can’t even imagine reading one thousand pages. It would have to be a pretty good read to keep my attention for that long. I hope the translators do a good job.

  7. Paddy says:

    He has some pretty good stuff to read. I think Norwegien Wood (1987?) was his original clame to fame. Check him out.

  8. Guy Winstead says:

    I think that if there were any major differenences between Gabriel and Ruben the book never would have made it to print without fixing it. I can’t say that I would have done it this way, but then again, I don’t publish books.

  9. Bruce Snow says:

    There are certain to be differences between the two translators, but it could also be chalked up to a writer maturing within the story. If Ruben translated 1 and 2 and Gabriel 3, then Gabriels translation may just be taken as “growth” of the writer.

    • Ken says:


  10. Karen Noble says:

    Interesting to note that three books are being put into one. You would think that there would be more money to make with three books to sell instead of just one.

  11. Sugar Cookie says:

    Thanks for the link. I just ordered it off Amazon. Pretty good price, too.

  12. Margaret says:

    Yes, I am interested whether or not his devoted fans notice a difference between the two translators. If there is a noticeable difference, I wonder if the publisher would do such a thing again.

  13. Georgie says:

    One of the great things about translation is that it allows us to see into how people in other cultures think. Without it I don’t know if I would have ever read some of the books I have by foreign authors. Life perspectives are so diverse and culturally influenced I think I may have lead a more one dimensional life without reading the thoughts and views of people from around the world.

  14. Andrew May says:

    This sounds like a job for team translating. If several people are working on it then they could come to a consensus as how best to put his words into the new language and get the original meaning across. Not sure I would have entrusted it to just one person – unless they were extrememly fluent in both languages.

  15. If the translated copy is anything like some of the translations I saw while living in Japan (although not as bad as Chinese translations) then they mya end up turning it into a dream-like comedy. Hope not, though.

    • Ken says:

      Isn’t Murakami writing dream-like comedy in Japanese?

  16. Will says:

    The translator(s) have their work cut out for them. I know about this writer from a friend who has read the bird cronicle book. Hopefully, they can achieve in english what he did in japanese.

  17. My wife likes to read a book in english and then the same book translated in french…or vice versa. She always says that the books are best in the language they were written.

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