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An interview with Alfred Birnbaum
Translator of Haruki Murakami’s "A Wild Sheep Chase," and many others
I came of age in the Eighties, a period where the vast majority of content imported from Japan, which is to say video games, toys, anime, comics, and films, wasn’t particularly well translated. The translations of games in particular were often unbelievably, epically, legendarily bad, to the point some have achieved eternal meme status today.
Occasionally, however, I’d stumble across a gem in the rough. Something translated by someone whose prose truly matched the level of the content, elevating it out of the mere “translated” and into the realm of something that might be actually enjoyed by someone who didn’t have any particular interest in Japan at all. In manga, for instance, that name was Frederik Schodt; in games, Ted Woolsey. But when it came to modern Japanese literature, that someone was Alfred Birnbaum.
Alfred’s translations of Haruki Murakami’s novels were some of the first Japanese lit I took actual pleasure in reading. Murakami made Japan feel modern, branded, real, warts and all. And Alfred’s prose, as laconic as the protagonists themselves, made them sing in English. A Wild Sheep Chase left a particularly deep impression, leading me down the rabbit-hole of Murakami’s oeuvre in translation. And I wasn’t alone: it was through Alfred’s translations that Murakami first began to be read abroad.
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One can make the argument that Alfred “discovered” Murakami, in the sense that he was the first to bring Murakami’s work to the attention of a major publisher for books in translation: the late, lamented Kodansha International. Over the course of the Eighties and Nineties, Alfred translated Murakami’s Hear the Wind Sing; Pinball, 1973; Norwegian Wood; A Wild Sheep Chase; Dance Dance Dance; Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World; Underground; and assorted short stories.
One of the most interesting of these is “The Windup Bird and Tuesday's Women,” which appeared in The New Yorker in 1990. It is an excerpt from A Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, the book that would put Murakami on the map in American literary circles. The book itself was translated into English by Jay Rubin, making this one of the rare and fun occasions you can compare two master translators’ approach to the same writer. (The same later happened with Norwegian Wood, in its entirety: first translated by Birnbaum and then again by Rubin.)
In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve known Alfred for fifteen years now (which is why I can’t bring myself to call him by his last name here, as custom ordinarily dictates.) Over the years, we’ve spoken offhandedly about his work. But despite his fame in literary translation circles, there are surprisingly few interviews with him on the record. It was a pleasure to be allowed to conduct one of them. And if you’re interested in an even deeper dive on the translation process of Murakami’s books, I highly recommend David Karashima’s Who We’re Reading When We Read Murakami.
So how did you first become interested in Japan?
I had no choice! My father’s job brought me here in 1960, when I was five years old. I lived here until I was seven or eight, for kindergarten and first grade, and then again for high school.
What was Tokyo like back then?
Well, I came to Japan just fifteen years after the end of the war. There were no tall buildings at all in Tokyo. Trollies were still running everywhere. It wasn’t high tech at all. What I remember is in winter, the smell of coal burning in the city, everywhere. And most homes were not connected to sewers. My memory is that the whole city sort of smelled like rotten takuan, pickled radish.
Did you pick up the language naturally?
I had no formal training. From what little I remember, I used to play with local Japanese kids all the time, and we had a maid — the exchange rate was 360 yen to the dollar, everyone from abroad had a maid — and I used to watch TV in her room. I grew up before the boom for mecha and robots in Japan, so all of the kid’s entertainment was chambara, samurai things. I remember having wearing a yukata and a toy topknot wig. We would play-swordfight.
How did you encounter Haruki Murakami’s work?
My first wife was Japanese, and was reading a lot, and she basically said, why don’t you translate Murakami? The first book I read of his was Slow Boat to China. I’d done some translation of short stories when I was in university, Taisho-era stuff, Izumi Kyoka and Kajimoto Jiro. One Kajimoto story was published in the Kyoto Journal, for what it’s worth. I really didn’t like the prevailing trends in Japanese literature at the time, all dark and suffering. The whole tearful poverty aesthetic that came together in the Sixties along with the protest movement. I really hated that.
It was a trend in manga of the era, too, the underdog hero.
The only manga-ka I really liked at the time was Hisauchi Michio. He was crazy. I met him a couple of times. Who else draws a manga about a mole who’s a painter and a fan of Duchamp having a love affair with an angel who speaks in a Kansai accent? That doesn’t usually happen in manga. (Laughs)
What were you reading for pleasure?
Not much in Japanese. I’d pick things up and find more of the same “wet” family tragedies, wet being the Japanese idiom for emotive and weepy. And against that backdrop, Murakami came across as a breath of fresh air. He was a humorist and a satirist. So I took Slow Boat to China to Kodansha International. They said well, okay, but there’s no market for short stories. Then a couple of years later, A Wild Sheep Chase came out, and I went back and asked, can I do this? After some sort of editorial meeting, I was told “no, it’s too thick.” (Laughs) What is this, lit by the kilo? You can’t sell it because it weighs too much? (Laughs) They gave me Pinball, 1973 and Hear the Wind Sing instead.
But A Wild Sheep Chase eventually was translated.
Eventually. I did some short stories first. There was a festival promoting cultural relations between the UK and Japan. They wanted to showcase Japanese arts, one of them being literature. Kodansha wanted something they could promote. My impression at this time was, it could have been anybody. Kodansha told me they’d release hardcovers in the English speaking world but in the end, Pinball, 1973 and Hear the Wind Sing only came out in paperback in Japan, with English-Japanese glossaries at the back. I had this wonderful sense that Japanese high school students might be walking around speaking my English.
What was the process on translating A Wild Sheep Chase?
I worked on it for about six months. I would translate pages and send them to Elmer Luke, my editor. This was even before fax machines. One or two times we camped out for a weekend in the office and went over the translations line by line. We didn’t have much back and forth with Murakami. He gave us carte blanche to translate as we saw fit. What we did was save up half a book’s worth of queries and couriered them over to Murakami. And he’d send written answers back. Which were pretty much, “carry on.” I remember one section Elmer thought I’d taken too many liberties with, and sent to Murakami asking, Did you write this? And Murakami said, No, that’s Alfred. But he let us leave it in anyway! (Laughs) I worked for six months on the translation, on an IBM Selectric typewriter. Then editing took another six months.
Next came Norwegian Wood. That book was an absolute phenomenon when it came out in Japan. Did you notice the hype?
Not really. No. I guess I was self-absorbed. (Laughs) Honestly, I didn’t pay much attention. I didn’t like the book to begin with.
There’s a big shift in tone between the trilogy of Pinball, 1973 and Hear the Wind Sing and Wild Sheep Chase, and Norwegian Wood.
Murakami wrote those, which are lighter, by design, and then decided to become a “serious realist” with Norwegian Wood. The earlier work is heavily influenced by, he says, Raymond Carver, but it’s really more Vonnegut, as far as I can see. Even the repeats, like his use of yare-yare, it resembles Vonnegut’s hi-ho and so it goes. In fact, when I translated Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, I wanted to change the title. I wanted to reference Vonnegut, so I proposed The End of the World/The Way it Goes.
What did Murakami say to that?
It never got to that point because Elmer shot it down. He liked Hard Boiled Wonderland.
The translations of Pinball and Hear the Wind were initially released only in Japan. But A Wild Sheep Chase got a proper international release. What were the reactions to it abroad, when it came out in 1989?
I remember reviews that came out, saying things like, “Wow, they’re eating hamburgers! They’re wearing jeans!” As if the Martians had finally discovered American culture. The UK press is famous for painting the Japanese as people from outer space. In America at the time, the prevailing image of Japan was one of a successful manufacturing competitor, while America’s industry was in decline. So there was a measure of antipathy towards Japan. Most people were not aware that there was a hip side to Japan, or a youth culture at all. We were maybe no longer World War II enemies, but Americans felt they couldn’t trust them.
It’s ironic, today it’s the opposite. Most people interact with Japan through some form of youth culture, whether anime and manga or Murakami, who I still consider youth culture even though he isn’t exactly a spring chicken.
I think Japan is becoming more and more like a theme park, the whole of it. Have you ever read Julian Barnes’ England, England? England in that book has nothing to sell but its own past, and turns the Isle of Wight into a miniature English theme park. Japan is almost a parody of itself.
Don’t you think Murakami’s work, and your translations of it, has played a big role in flipping Japan’s image?
Many times I’ve wondered if I didn’t help create a monster. (Laughs)
I assume you met Murakami on occasion while working on his translations. What was your most memorable time together with him?
An assignment for Magazine House. They sent him to cover Mexico. He was teaching at Princeton at the time. The photographer Eizo and I drove from Princeton to Texas, and crossed at Brownsville. Murakami took a bus and arrived separately. I was basically interpreting. We drove all over, down to Oaxaca, Campeche and wound up in Yucatan, we went all around. We even rented a helicopter at one point so Eizo could get aerial photos of the Mayan ruins at Bonampak, the three of us crammed into that rickety thing. It was reportage, Murakami’s impressions of Mexico. We were there a couple weeks together, probably more acquaintances than friends, but it was mostly fun.
Let’s talk about your approach to translation.
I don’t consider Murakami a stylist. By which I mean, I don’t think he ever thought of himself as writing so-called high literature or high art, so he wasn’t fussing over each individual word. Which I felt gave me the liberty to express things more naturally for a foreign reader. Typically, because my background is in fine arts, and he is from the television-film generation, I approached his writing “cinematically.”He tends to drive the narrative scene by scene, rather than through, say, internal monologue, what this character is feeling, or via omniscient commentary. It’s a bit manga-like, or perhaps more like a television script. My approach was simply to picture the scene in my mind’s eye and describe how an English-speaker might see the scene. Occasionally I would go back for specific words, but often I would ignore the syntax and grammar of the Japanese original, and just go for the feel of it, how I imagined an English writer would describe that situation.
Murakami was not yet a “big name,” back then, so you didn’t come to his work out of fandom. Do you think that detachment proved an asset in translating him?
Over the course of my quote-unquote career, I’ve drifted further away from staying close to originals as I translate. Those first translations I did of Izumi Kyoka and so on were pretty damn literal. And pretty damn boring, I think. The way I see it, part of my job is to make any writer seem intelligible and intelligent. Japanese writing relies quite a lot more on flow than English does. It doesn’t depend on “logical progression” or voice as much as English writing. It’s not as strict. So you have to invent those voices, to separate the characters. Japanese has very standardized ways of expressing whether you’re a woman or a man, child or sixty-eight-year-old, so even without the subject you can tell who’s saying what. English doesn’t really have that, hence you need to extrapolate and invent. Japanese also has aizuchi, throwaway comments that keep conversations flowing, but don’t always make sense in English. “So, ne.” Nobody interjects, “Sure . . . Yeah right . . .” five times in an English conversation. It doesn’t work in English. I also try to work in more character development, to heighten the theatrics of the scene or the story.
And this is all in service of helping authors get their original intent across?
Well, let’s put it this way. A translation that reads like a translation is no good. Whether you’re acting as someone behind the scenes or in partnership with the author makes little difference. What matters is, if a reader gets caught up on an unnatural phrase, then you’re in trouble. Especially when you’re working for a commercial publisher, you don’t want people to be conscious they’re reading a translation. It’s not some heavyweight scholarly tome, it’s entertainment. People have to be entertained. Which doesn’t necessarily mean putting it into American idiom; it means coming up with a distinctive flavor. It’s a lot like cooking.
Has anyone ever told you you resemble a Murakami protagonist? Every time I read A Wild Sheep Chase I imagine you. (Laughs)
I’ve had it said to me, but I don’t see it. They say artists gravitate towards self-portraits, but I’m not sure that applies to translators. And anyway, I’m not much for confessional fiction. Whatever, it wasn’t intentional on my part. Maybe it’s true to the extent that his protagonists are generally freelancers! (Laughs)
The last book of Murakami’s you translated was Dance Dance Dance, which came out in 1994. Do you want to talk about why that is?
Well, a big part of that is I was gone. I got married and was living in Burma, and I wasn’t here in Japan. Communication to and from Burma was difficult back then. And Kodansha International, who put out my translations, was struggling. I gather that Murakami’s side wasn't happy at how they were distributing the books, which is to say not very well, and not being publicized very well. Which was all true. Publishing his books in English in Japan didn’t make any sense anymore. Anyway, by the time I made it back to Japan, decisions had been made.
What are you working on now?
The last thing I translated was Toshihiko Yahagi’s The Wrong Goodbye, put out by a UK publisher. Yahagi started out as a writer for manga, and he’s a bit of a jack of all trades. He’s a satirist and a political writer. He attacks the status quo Japan head-on and is quite the stylist; he appropriates all sorts of writing styles. As the title implies, it plays off of Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye.
Most recently, though, I’ve been concentrating on writing my own fiction. There have been very few commissions coming in and Covid killed off a lot of smaller publishers, added to the fact that reading books has generally declined in competition with the net and other media. Also, I find I’m not very interested in current trends in Japanese writing — or at least I haven’t tried to keep up. I’d written various short stories over years, but this lull allowed me to finish one full-length novel and start work on another. I doubt they will ever get published or find an audience, but the writing itself is the main thing for me.