How Haruki Murakami's '1Q84' Was Translated Into English

Philip Gabriel on how he helped make the Japanese author accessible to American readers



In 1988, as a graduate student at Cornell, Philip Gabriel translated the first Haruki Murakami story to be published in the U.S., "The Kangaroo Communique." Since then he's brought three of the author's novels into English—including Kafka on the Shore , for which he won the PEN/Book-of-the-Month Club Translation Prize—as well as two works of non-fiction, a short story collection, and stories published in the New Yorker and Harper's. A professor of East Asian studies at the University of Arizona, Gabriel has also translated the fiction of Nobel Prize-winner Kenzaburō Ōe. Here he discusses his work on 1Q84, Murakami's much anticipated 1,000-page three-book novel, which he translated with Jay Rubin.

How many pages did you translate on average each day? How long was the revising process?

Usually I work five days a week and finish a rough draft of four pages per day. Twenty pages a week, 80 pages a month—that's always my goal. With writers whose prose is trickier, I might do only three pages a day, but Murakami is pretty straightforward and logical. It took about ten months to come up with a rough draft of Book 3 of 1Q84, and then I spent two months revising it. The first step in revising is to go back and check, line by line, the original with the translation. After the first pass the editor and I of course made some revisions, deciding, for example, to put most of the internal monologue in italics, and to put some passages that were in present tense into past. This is the part I don't like so much. My eyes feel ready to pop out. It's more fun to do the final run-through before I send it out to the editor. Here I simply read the whole translation again as a novel in English and try to improve the phrasing.

1Q84 original Japanese page_resize2.png
Gabriel's notes on a page of the original Japanese version of 1Q84

When translating 1Q84 and other Murakami works, do you feel any obligation to be respectful of the voice and feel of Jay Rubin's and Alfred Birnbaum's translations? Do you feel that you all are creating Murakami's English oeuvre, and that it ought to feel unified, or are you more focused on each book in isolation?

I admire Jay's and Alfred's translations, but I just do my own thing, my own take on what Murakami should sound like in English. We each have our own styles--Jay, for instance, tending to use fewer contractions than I do. I'm the only one of the three Murakami translators who's worked with the other two translators on projects. When Alfred and I did Underground, and Jay and I did Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, we didn't try to intentionally create anything unified, but with 1Q84 the editor, at least, did try to smooth out any major differences, which makes sense since it's a single novel. Because my portion of the novel came last, the editor had by then decided how to handle certain stylistic points, so I went along with them. (Thus, to get back to the earlier point, my part has fewer contractions than I usually use.)

You've mentioned that the nuances of Japanese food are sometimes obscured in translation. What else gets lost or warped?

I hope nothing important gets obscured in translation, of course, though in 1Q84 even the title itself presents a challenge since in Japanese the number 9 is pronounced "kyuu." Also some day-to-day things that Japanese take for granted were difficult--the nuances of how one addresses another person, the suffixes (-san and -kun in particular) that are affixed to names, and the level of intimacy they convey. Not to mention plays on words.

Jay Rubin, in Making Sense of Japanese, broaches the stereotype that Japanese is more imprecise and mysterious than English.

There's a generalization out there that Japanese is somehow imprecise or vague compared to English. I don't buy it. Japanese communicate as well as anyone, and a writer like Murakami—though the overall atmosphere of his work may be dreamlike or surreal at times—lays out his ideas clearly.

Is there a Western language that's at all analogous in structure and cadence? German, in that the verbs come at the end?

It's unlike any other language I've studied, and I've studied Russian, Chinese, French, and German. With Japanese verbs coming at the end I sometimes feel that translating Japanese into English is like giving away the punch line.

Did Murakami resist or revise any parts of your translation?

At one point Jay, Murakami, and I got into the question of the nickname of one of the cult's security detail. I originally called him "Skinhead," thinking of a menacing right-wing figure, but Jay preferred "Buzzcut." Murakami said he liked the latter—the military connotations it carried—so that's what we went with.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez allegedly told Gregory Rabassa that his English translation of One Hundred Years of Solitude was better than the Spanish original. Is it possible for a translation to improve on the original? Do you think you've ever done so?

Can a translation improve on the original? It would be nice to think so, but I don't usually get that feeling. When I finished translating the novel Somersault, by Kenzaburo Oe, he sent me notes for a few short passages he wanted cut out of the translation, as well as three handwritten pages of text he wanted to put in. Apparently he'd rethought parts of the story in the meantime. He told me that with these changes my translation would be closer to the way he now wanted the novel to be than the original. What I got from it is how writers, Murakami included, often tinker with and rework their stories. There is an authoritative text—but maybe only for the moment.

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