Sunday, March 12, 2017

The Murakami Effect

For the past decade or so I’ve been working on what is essentially an ethnography of the publishing industry, primarily in Tokyo and New York, and the way the intersection—and often the collision—of aesthetic and economic considerations influences what gets translated, how it is translated, and how it is marketed and consumed in another literary context. That is, ultimately, how the traffic of translation is subject to the larger economic concerns of the publishing industry, and how these concerns shape a canon of literature in translation that may bear little resemblance to that in the source literature and culture, but that comes to play an important role in the way that culture or nation is perceived in the national imagination of the target culture.

So, for example, reducing the argument to its simplest terms, in the 1950s and 60s, Yukio Mishima and Yasunari Kawabata were translated, marketed, and read in the US as representatives of a newly docile, aestheticized, Zen-like Japanese culture that was explicitly meant (by translators and publishers and perhaps policy experts as well) to replace the bellicose wartime image of Japan, as Edward Fowler has argued. This was one piece of a general rehabilitation strategy for the country in concert with promoting its new role as a reliable ally in the US Cold War calculus. At the same time, however, this image bore little resemblance to the positions Kawabata and Mishima often occupied in the domestic Japanese literary canon or marketplace.

In more recent years, Haruki Murakami has been similarly—though quite distinctly—marketed as the foremost literary representative of what Douglas McGray has called Japan’s emergent “Gross National Cool.” That is, at some point after the bursting of its economic bubble at the end of the 1980s, Japan began a transition from being a producer and exporter of industrial and technological products (Honda Civics and Sony Walkmen) to being a producer and exporter of cultural capital. As its hold on industrial domination receded, it succeeded, more or less, in reinventing itself as a possessor and wielder of soft power and cultural capital that could rival US global hegemony in the popular culture imagination. In effect, Hondas and Sonys were replaced by Pokémon and anime and sushi. At that point Haruki Murakami was, I would argue, more or less consciously identified as the most likely literary equivalent of this phenomenon. His slacker narrators and magical-realist plots were key to his selection for translation and export as another form of Japanese cultural “cool,” at a moment when the world was increasingly receptive to the notion that Japanese film, fashion, and food carried with them a kind of global cultural cachet. In other words, Murakami’s fiction, apart from its literary value, became a kind of cultural product representing a certain view of Japan as futuristic pop phenomenon. To cite just one example of this, when the translation of his bestselling novel 1Q84 was published in 2011, I remember walking out of the Harvard Coop in Cambridge, where a wall of the heavy volumes had been stacked in the lobby, and into the Urban Outfitters store where there were equally impressive stacks of the book, but this time they were clearly intended as fashion accessories to match the rest of the disposable books that chain tends to sell.

Murakami is no doubt known to many, even perhaps most, readers of literature in English—or he should be (a fact in itself worth noting when it comes to writers read largely in translation). Another significant writer of contemporary Japanese fiction, who is I’m sure known to far fewer readers in English, is Minae Mizumura. This writer has staked out a fascinating position, both in her fiction and in her critical work, that stands in stark contrast to Murakami’s fiction, the reputation it has engendered, and the position he occupies in the global literary market and imagination. These two authors could be said, in fact, to embody two completely opposite positions when it comes to the question of literary traffic. Furthermore, it seems to me that some fundamental contradictions inherent in the work of translators—work that serves, ostensibly, to build cultural bridges—can be inferred even more clearly from two specific texts by these authors. The two fictions in question are Murakami’s short story “Samsa in Love,” first published in Japanese as part of a 2013 collection entitled Koishikute [Ten Selected Love Stories] and in English in the New Yorker magazine in 2013 in Ted Goossen’s excellent translation, and Minae Mizumura’s very long 2002 fiction, entitled Honkaku Shōsetsu in Japanese and A True Novel in English, published in 2013 in Juliet Winters Carpenter’s equally good translation.

But first it’s helpful to take a close look at the example of Murakami, in order to see some of the ways literary traffic is affected by and, in some cases, radically altered by the economic considerations that accompany the movement of literary products through global markets. Translation, in this context, is no longer the activity of a single individual—the one traditionally known as the “translator”—but is altered and inflected by numerous other actors. I think of all this as “translation discourse”—that is, the tacit conversations between and negotiations among translators and, in no particular order, literary agents, editors, publishers, copy editors, jacket designers, marketing managers, sales representatives, book reviewers, and others who, in one way or another, have a say in what gets chosen for translation, who is chosen to translate it, how it gets translated, how it gets edited, how it gets marketed, and who, ultimately, will be likely to read it—and even how they are likely to react to it.

Murakami’s international success has helped make the outlines of the translation discourse remarkably clear. I’ve analyzed elsewhere, and in more detail, the development of his global reputation in a variety of registers, all of which have contributed to the way he was translated and marketed abroad. Some of these factors include the origin of Murakami’s career in an act of auto back-translation (that is, he wrote the opening passages of his first novel, Kaze no uta o kike, in English and translated them himself back into Japanese); Murakami’s own experience as a highly prolific translator of American fiction and the knowledge that lent him of how books fare in translation and what needs to happen to make them intelligible and attractive to a wide readership in a target culture; his conscious management of his global career—switching translators, for instance, from a talented but “interventionist” freelancer to a Harvard professor, switching his representation from a small Japanese foreign rights agency to Amanda Urban at ICM, switching publishers from Kodansha International, the English-language arm of a large Japanese house that brought out his first three titles in English, to the prestige imprint Knopf, and the accompanying switch from little-known, Tokyo-based editors to Gary Fisketjon, one of the most influential literary editors of his generation; and perhaps most importantly, what I see as Murakami’s fairly self-conscious assault on the fortress of America’s most important literary reputation-maker, the New Yorker magazine, where he was acquired and edited by another literary titan of the 1990s, Robert Gottlieb. Murakami himself studied the work of New Yorker writer Raymond Carver—and ultimately translated every word Carver ever wrote into Japanese—in part with an eye to creating a version of the New Yorker house style in Japanese, which allowed him, when his work was translated back into English, to embody a naturalized Japanese New Yorker writer more New Yorker in many ways than any other and, not incidentally, made him among the writers who have appeared most often in that magazine in the past 25 years.

I worry that this account of Murakami’s career is too cynical and that it fails to take into consideration the role his literary talent played in his success. There is no doubt some truth to that criticism, but I have also felt that it is important to understand these largely economic and political mechanisms in order to see the effects they have on the aesthetic process. Of course, it’s also worth pointing out that my fascination with the mechanisms of Murakami’s literary celebrity was also fueled by the fact that his career has had a direct influence on my own work as a translator, much of which would have been unimaginable were it not for his success and his shaping of Western and particularly American expectations for what Japanese contemporary fiction looks like, and the role that success has played in encouraging American publishers to go on a decades-long hunt for what is invariably called “the next Murakami.” I have taken to calling this the “Are there any more like you at home?” factor, in reference to the almost constant questioning by agents and editors about the next Murakami and my own experience in translating half a dozen writers, such as Natsuo Kirino and Yōko Ogawa, who have been identified, often explicitly on jacket copy, as Murakami-like in one way or another—and often in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. I have also been able to observe and participate in an analogous (if less successful) process of commodification of these writers and of my translations that has involved, in some cases, the same players and moves I had previously noted in the Murakami narrative: Kirino, for example, after the success of her novel Out in English translation, made an identical change of representation from the same Japanese agency to Amanda Urban at ICM, and an analogous change of publishers; and just as Robert Gottlieb “discovered” Murakami when he was literary editor for the New Yorker, his successor, Deborah Treisman, I suspect, acquired Yōko Ogawa’s stories, in a sense, to develop her own global Japanese New Yorker writer.

So, again, there are many non-literary, largely extra-textual, and mainly economic factors that influence the nature and volume of literary “traffic” flowing between Japan and the English-speaking world, and these factors have an influence on the practice of translation itself.

by Stephen Snyder, LitHub |  Read more:
Image: uncredited