IQ84 Translated to Taste?

by Translation Guy on November 14, 2011

Haruki Murakami’s latest novel, IQ84, is a big read in Japan, (1000 pgs and 4 million sold) and soon to be big in the USA, or so they say, the most hotly anticipated translation from Japanese into English maybe ever.

The author ran a Jazz club before he began writing, and his work is as even more cosmopolitan than hippest Tokyo Jazz Cat grooving to Armed Forces Radio. Jazz was banned in Japan during the war, so that “forbidden West” insider stuff is always a great way to impress girls, and impress jazz club patrons and millions of Japanese fans. And now non-Japanese fans in English.

So Murakami goes like this: A Japanese guy does a take on the West, which the Western Guy is dreawn to, because he needs less cultural context to get the Asian Guy’s cosmopolitan-ism. So thanks to our translation team, Western Guy is picking up a signal he understands. He just doesn’t understand that it’s not a Japanese signal originally. So then, by the time it goes through the Western Guy’s spin, it’s like pinball, there’s no telling what bumpers will be pushed. A shared language, or more like a pidgin spoken in a cross-cultural whisper game.

Rebecca Sutter, author of “the Japanization of Modernity” writes on the internationalization of Murakami, domestically and internationally, and blames it on the translators: “His American translators, Alfred Birnbaum, Jay Rubin, and Philip Gabriel, tend to “domesticate” foreign elements in Murakami’s fiction: culturally specific elements are often substituted with either generic or American equivalents, so that he does not sound “too Japanese” in translation. This results in his being read by a wider public, which in turn leads to further domestication, in view of the fact that, the wider the public, the less likely it would be that readers will understand or be interested in elements that are too culturally specific.” This quote from “Recentering Murakami Haruki” about 1000 words on, highly recommended to any of you who have actually read this far.

So, if you like that, you’lI love it when NYT Magazine’s Sam Anderson makes the pilgrimage to Murakami’s Tokyo stomping grounds.

“I prepared for my first-ever trip to Japan, this summer, almost entirely by immersing myself in the work of Haruki Murakami. This turned out to be a horrible idea… Under the influence of Murakami, I arrived in Tokyo expecting Barcelona or Paris or Berlin — a cosmopolitan world capital… Japan — real, actual, visitable Japan — turned out to be intensely, inflexibly, unapologetically Japanese.”

Translator error or wishful thinking?

I should translate this post and see what kind of Japanese comments we get on this. Sure. One of these days…


  1. Joy Norris says:

    Japan is great! I have been there 3 times. But, you have to spend time out of the city. I am from small town and I get clausterphobic in Tokyo. It’s fine for few days, but get out and spend quiet time in Japan. Really nice.

  2. I read the link. Literary value and cult status aren’t connected. Look at Harry Potter. Complete rubbish from a literary standpoint. I couldn’t hardly get throught the first book, yet look at it’s following. Often times the good stuff doesn’t get enough praise because so many are into the rubbish.

    • Ken says:

      Maybe they get better as they go on? Must be close to a million words by now.

  3. Miracle Boy says:

    Japan is anything but cosmopolitan. It’s nothing but tall buildings and lots of lights with millions of people packed in the streets. Or maybe that was just the tourist area I was at?

    • Ken says:

      Japan is full of Japanese.

  4. A shame that when translated book of such beautiful prose is westerized to the point that the readers can’t envision what the author did while writing it. I think that when something is translated it must be done so that the books intergrity is still intact. If nobody likes it, oh well.

  5. ABSTRAKTUS says:

    Your link by Rebecca Sutter was interesting. Reading her bio makes me think she must a rather fascinating life – at least to me. I would find it oddly peaceful to translate foreign works.

    • Ken says:

      Too much like a really, really long homework assignment for me. Plus I’m incompetent, too.

  6. Ben Gay says:

    As I live in this country (the US) I can’t help but think we are missing out on so much. I love reading foreign books and watching foreign films. My mind goes on a mini vacation.

  7. Chocoboy says:

    When you say jazz was banned during the war, are you talking about WWII? Was he even alive then?

    • Ken says:

      No, but the cool of Jazz in post-war Japan was enhanced by its previous wartime ban.

  8. Keekee says:

    I agree, when translating a story into another language, especially one with a different culture, certain things need to be arranged into a familiar setting for readers in the new language.

  9. It’s all about money. If you can’t westernize the story a little, less books will be sold. Americans like to think they are worldly, but deep down they really just want what they are accustomed to.

  10. Snuggles says:

    I have not read anything by Murakami Haruki, but I think I just might have to after reading the links. Spent time in Asia and I have read many books from Chinese authors, but the stories I usually buy are those that are based loosely on non fictional characters. I do not know if any were actually translated from chinese, or if they were origianlly written in English.

  11. I would think that he would have some say in how westernized his translated novel is. As a write you would assume that there needs to be some westernization (kind of like our chinese food so we like it) but not to the point were all of your hard work is misinterpreted.

    • Ken says:

      The translators were talking with him, and Murakami is a skilled translator himself. I should interview them.

  12. A very interesting dilhemma. I translate from French and French culture is likely to be pretty familiar to an English-speaking audience, in Europe at least. This is not the case with Japanese culture. I think if I were reading a book set in Japan I’d like as much Japanese flavour left in as possible but there must be a fine line between retaining the flavour and making the book understandable to the target audience.

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