English translations of Haruki Murakami’s fiction have been published by a wide array of magazines in the US and UK (including in Granta). But Murakami has enjoyed an especially close relationship with the New Yorker, which first published his short story ‘TV People’ in its September 10, 1990 issue. In the foreword to the Japanese edition of his story collection The Elephant Vanishes, Murakami describes this as an experience ‘as incredible as walking on the moon’ that made him ‘happier than any literary prize could’. The magazine has since gone on to publish over thirty stories/novel excerpts by the Japanese author and has played a significant role in building his readership and reputation in the English-speaking world. But there was, of course, a time when Murakami was still new to the magazine. The following extract, which looks at the editorial process behind the publication of the short story ‘The Wind-up Bird and Tuesday’s Women’ in the New Yorker in 1991, provides one example of the variety of voices that have gone into creating the English variation of the author Haruki Murakami.
Haruki Murakami’s primary editor at the New Yorker for the first seven or so years of his relationship with the magazine was Linda Asher, who worked in its fiction department for eighteen years, under three different editors: William Shawn until January 1987, Robert Gottlieb until August 1992, and Tina Brown until 1997.
Though she ‘will make no public claims re writers I brought to the magazine for the first time’, according to Elmer Luke, who was then editing the English translations of Murakami’s stories and novels at Kodansha International, Asher had already been in the process of soliciting a Murakami story for the magazine when ‘TV People’ was published in September 1990. This story, ‘The Windup Bird and Tuesday’s Women’, was published two months later in the magazine’s November 26 issue.
Asher also developed a friendship with Murakami. She had lunch with him whenever he was in New York, and in various essays and interviews Murakami refers to Asher as ‘my editor at the New Yorker’. Asher does not remember the substance of their conversations, but she does recall once going ‘with M and Mme Murakami to a soba restaurant in SoHo, a new fashion in NYC’. On another occasion, she went with Murakami to hear Grace Paley speak at the City Center on Fifty-fifth Street and ‘was struck by the degree of Yiddish lilt in her spoken address and wondered how much of that tone/rhythm Haruki had felt and sought to transmit in his translation of her work.’
When I ask Murakami about the Grace Paley reading, his eyes light up. ‘Yes, yes, we went,’ he confirms. ‘I can’t even really understand Linda very well, but I couldn’t understand a word of what Grace Paley was saying!’
In addition to being an editor, Asher has for many years been one of the main translators of Milan Kundera’s work. She tells me over breakfast at a café near her Manhattan apartment that she was personally interested in publishing authors in translation – something that the magazine had not been particularly focused on at the time. Her own translation work informed the way she edited translations (from Hungarian, Serbo-Croatian, Italian, French, Japanese, etc.) toward a polished text ‘with the final English reader in mind.’
Under Asher, ‘The Windup Bird and Tuesday’s Women’ went through rigorous editing. This, of course, was not unusual for any piece being published by the New Yorker. Even now that Murakami is a regular contributor to the magazine (with more than thirty stories published over a period of thirty years), his work continues to be edited significantly – certainly by Japanese standards, where editors (of literary fiction) have been known to be hands-off.
The first two editors of the magazine, Harold Ross and William Shawn, were known for shying away from anything sexual. Robert Gottlieb writes in his memoir, Avid Reader: A Life, that before he arrived at the magazine in 1987, the ‘fiction department was inhibited in its choices by a number of Mr. Shawn’s strictures about language and subject matter. (Sex was a problem. In fact, mentions of all bodily functions except crying were likely to be vetoed.)’ Gottlieb also writes that ‘since I was an editor and publisher of novels, I came with no ground rules about fiction, and so, automatically, the range of subject matter and style was able to expand.’
Despite this, when I compare the version of ‘Windup Bird and Tuesday’s Women’ published in the New Yorker with the one later published in the story collection The Elephant Vanishes, I notice that sexual descriptions have been significantly abridged in the magazine’s iteration.
For example, the version of the story published in book form by Knopf in 1993 contains the phrase ‘My pubic hair is still wet.’ In The New Yorker the sentence is ‘My hair down there is still wet.’ ‘Her vagina warm and moistened’ is ‘She’s warming up.’ In the book, there is this passage: ‘And down below that, it’s a whole lot warmer. Just like hot buttercream. Oh so very hot. Honest.’ This has been deleted from the magazine version. The Japanese original and the version of the story translated for the English book also include this:
Caress the lips, gently, slowly. Then open them. Slowly, like that. Now caress them gently with the sides of your fingers. Oh, yes, slowly . . . slowly. Now let one hand fondle my left breast, from underneath, lifting gently, tweaking the nipple just so. Again and Again. Until I’m about to come.
In the New Yorker, this has been shortened to: ‘C’mon, now think about stroking me. Slowly. Your hands are so nice . . . oh, yes.’
I ask Luke and Asher if they might still have records from editing the story, and they both promise to look through their files. First Asher emails me a page of late-stage edits, and when I see Luke a month later at a Murakami conference in the UK, he hands me a folder containing two sets of proofs, one from earlier and another from soon before the story went to print.
The proofs seem to have been exchanged primarily between Asher and Luke, but include references to suggestions made by Birnbaum and Murakami. They don’t include earlier changes made to the translation, but do reveal how the translation gradually evolved in the final stages of editing. There is the change to a phone-sex scene, from ‘I didn’t towel it dry. So it’s still wet. Warm and oh so wet’ to, ‘I didn’t towel it dry. So it’s still wet. And warm . . .’ in a version of the galleys dated September 19. In the version of the galleys exchanged in early November, immediately before publication, the phrase ‘C’mon, now think about touching me’ has become ‘C’mon, now think about stroking me.’
Murakami has said in a 1998 interview with the author Masashi Matsuie that Asher had asked him to ‘tone down’ certain parts of the story. In conversation with me, he recalls, ‘Back then, there were a number of taboos at the New Yorker, and I was told that there wasn’t anything to do but accept them, so I relented and a significant amount was cut.’ He adds, ‘I liked Linda personally, so I figured I could just trust everything to her; that she would do right by me. I was happy with the set-up of Linda Asher as my editor and Robert Gottlieb above her.’
Asher, on the other hand, says that she does not ‘recall asking for modification of the sexy parts. That discussion may have occurred between Elmer, for instance, and Jay [here Asher clearly means Alfred Birnbaum, who was the translator of the piece, not Jay Rubin], upon or after offering the texts to the magazine.’ Birnbaum, for his part, was still spending most of his time in Europe, and says that he does not recall doing any of the abridging, ‘so Elmer and Linda must have handled it.’ When I ask Luke about this again, he responds: ‘Alfred is right, I think. Alfred was traveling – and in those days communication was not as it is today, so it wasn’t easy to keep in touch with him – and once faxes of the ms [manuscript] had their back-and-forth with the New Yorker – the New Yorker always finalized issues with writers on the phone – I think Alfred agreed that I would act in his behalf as the writer/translator. I remember Linda Asher calling me on the phone in Kamakura and our going through the manuscript. Where there were publishing concerns, as opposed to editorial concerns, like the phone sex scene or names of characters that the New Yorker wanted to be sure were not real people, I think I discussed with Haruki and then worked out how to resolve and then finalized with Linda.’ When I share with Luke on the phone what the others recall about the editing process, he says that he doesn’t recall the details of ‘who did what when,’ but that he ‘wanted them [the New Yorker] to want it,’ and since Birnbaum was on the move he ‘took over as the writer’ and ‘may have said this is what I’m going to do – to keep as much of it as you could without turning it into white bread.’
Gitte Marianne Hansen, a scholar who has written about female characters in Murakami’s works, suggests to me that ‘it is a shame’ when some of his more explicit passages are not preserved in translation. She says that even though Murakami has been criticized both in Japan and the West for his depiction of sex—’as journalists are never slow to point out to me when they want a quick comment on the topic, he has in fact been short-listed for the bad sex awards’—in her view, that is precisely the point. ‘Characteristic of Murakami’s sex descriptions are that they often include unsexy language such as ‘pubic hair,’ ‘vagina’ and ‘penis’ . . . I often get the impression that sex descriptions in the Murakami world have a lot to do with self-discovery and communication between characters who don’t understand each other, rather than sex in the pornographic sense. And that feeling might be lost when these explicit words and images are removed.’
There are other interesting exchanges. Take this passage: ‘They’re not expecting you to write like Allen Ginsberg. Just whatever you can come up with.’ The September 19 galleys show that an editor at the New Yorker (presumably Asher) has suggested replacing Ginsberg with Shakespeare, to which Luke has responded, ‘How about T.S. Eliot?’ Luke has also included a note stating ‘Author doesn’t mind change.’ The final published version uses T.S. Eliot. In another passage, the name Suzuki has been changed to Kinoshita. The magazine had suggested changing the name, indicating that ‘a David Suzuki has science show (TV) in Toronto. Maybe find name not identified with any TV/ radio figure?’ and Luke had responded by writing ‘Kinoshita?’ Murakami’s then editor at Kodansha was Yōko Kinoshita. When I ask Luke if this may have been in the back of his mind when he chose the name, he says, ‘That I don’t know. It may have been a nice gesture to toss her name in if it’s true. But I don’t remember clearly.’
The second line of the story in the New Yorker version reads: ‘Another moment and the spaghetti will be done, and there I am whistling the Overture to Rossini’s ‘La Gazza Ladra’ along with Tokyo’s best FM station.’ ‘Tokyo’ is not in the original Japanese, and was most likely added as part of the magazine’s practice – started by its founder, Harold Ross, according to Ben Yagoda – of ‘pegging’ the circumstantial elements of a story within the first couple paragraphs.
In the galleys dated September 19, Asher suggests changing Birnbaum’s translation ‘along with the FM radio’ to ‘along with FM Tokyo Radio’, to which Luke responds, ‘FM Tokyo would be correct except that it doesn’t play classical music . . .’ In the galleys dated November 8, the line has been changed to ‘along with a Tokyo classical music station,’ and Asher has suggested further revising to ‘along with Tokyo’s best FM station’ in a November 8 fax, reinserting the ‘FM station’ from the original Japanese, which Luke okays.
Luke believes that the early stories might not have been published if the author and translator were uncompromising. ‘Of course, that would have hindered further opportunities to publish with the magazine, but the changes asked for here were window dressing.’
When I ask Murakami about having to accept these edits to his early stories he laughs: ‘What can I say – the New Yorker has a large number of readers and they also pay really well. [If the editor of a Japanese magazine had made similar suggestions] Of course I would change things that I agree with, but in principle I would say no. Not just with the New Yorker, but in foreign markets in general, I think you have no choice but to go along with their rules. There are people who criticize me for this, saying, ‘I bet you let them do what they want because it’s the New Yorker.’ Yes, that’s exactly right! But like I said, I reverse the changes when the story is published in book form.’
This is an adapted excerpt from Who We’re Reading When We’re Reading Murakami by David Karashima, published by Soft Skull Press.
Photograph © gama__