Haruki Murakami

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Haruki Murakami books are on special offer in the shops - 3 for the price of 2! But which 3? And which 2? I need your help.

PJ Miller (PJ Miller), Wednesday, 9 April 2003 20:19 (twenty-one years ago) link

Hard-Boiled Wonderland
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

hstencil, Wednesday, 9 April 2003 20:21 (twenty-one years ago) link

We just had a thread on this. I very very strongly recommend you ignore everyone else and read:

A Wild Sheep Chase
Dance Dance Dance

and whichever third seems interesting. (The Elephant Vanishes and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle are possibly "best" but also most similar to those two above. For variety you can throw in some Norwegian Wood depression.)

nabisco (nabisco), Wednesday, 9 April 2003 20:27 (twenty-one years ago) link

I'll second:

Hard-Boiled Wonderland
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

If only because those are the only two I've read. They're grebt though.

cprek (cprek), Wednesday, 9 April 2003 20:53 (twenty-one years ago) link

As best I can tell, all the novels have the same plot, i.e. Girlfriend/Wife disappears and protagonist has bizarre experiences whilst searching for her. That said, Wind-up Bird Chronicle is excellent and I've heard good things about Underground (which is not a novel).

mookieproof (mookieproof), Wednesday, 9 April 2003 20:55 (twenty-one years ago) link

As best I can tell, all the novels have the same plot, i.e. Girlfriend/Wife disappears and protagonist has bizarre experiences whilst searching for her.

This is precisly why I love Murakami and dislike him at the same time. He's a beautiful writer and he's got a really really twisted perspective sometimes, but the books I've read all seem like variations on a theme. In a way, though, it's kind of charming...it's like watching him rewrite the same book until he gets it right. And every time I come out of reading one of his books I feel like someone who's actually gone through a wrenching emotional ordeal where I've lost someone incredibly close to me, which probably speaks volumes about his skill as a writer and emotional manipulator...he's very good, but if I'm already feeling bad I don't want to go there.

Now, that said, I find his fixation on sex a bit creepy sometimes, especially when it comes to the May-December romance aspect of it...his protagonists, middle-aged men, almost always seem to have the hots for women that are on the verge of illegality. Also the smoking, drinking and rock and roll can be a bit much but only if you read all of the books in a row probably. Heh.

Sean Carruthers (SeanC), Wednesday, 9 April 2003 21:03 (twenty-one years ago) link

My vote is for "Dance Dance Dance", "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle" and "Norwegian Wood", in that order. You get variety and they're also the strongest books. Enjoy!

Mark C (Mark C), Wednesday, 9 April 2003 21:42 (twenty-one years ago) link

'A Wild Sheep Chase' is like a minor 'The Wind Up Bird Chronicle'. 'Norwegian Wood' is an atypical romantic memoir. They are the only three I have read. I think 'Dance Dance Dance' sounds great and I shall be reading that next. 'The Wind Up Bird Chronicle' is one of the best books I have ever read.

N. (nickdastoor), Wednesday, 9 April 2003 21:47 (twenty-one years ago) link

Mark C's answer is correct except I might switch up the order if I thought about it enough. I am sad because there is no more Murakami left for me to read that is readily available. Would it be worth it to pick up an English edition of one of the earlier novels like Pinball 1973? Has any one read any of this stuff? Sometimes I see these on eBay and I am tempted, but then I think that if it was really worth it, it would have been published by someone outside of Japan.

fffv (Miranda), Wednesday, 9 April 2003 21:52 (twenty-one years ago) link

Mark C's answer is fine except that it has you reading the sequel to A Wild Sheep Chase without having read A Wild Sheep Chase -- something that, in this particular case, I think is maybe better avoided, especially since Dance Dance Dance is better than A Wild Sheep Chase and reading them consecutively is like this wonderful build in quality that leaves you in love.

nabisco (nabisco), Wednesday, 9 April 2003 21:57 (twenty-one years ago) link

How about A Wild Sheep Chase -> Dance Dance Dance -> The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle?

N. (nickdastoor), Wednesday, 9 April 2003 22:01 (twenty-one years ago) link

I read Dance Dance Dance before A Wild Sheep Chase and was fine. I don't know how the experience would have been improved if I did it the other way around. Really, all of it is worth reading, although I was disappointed by Underground at first because Murakami's voice wasn't there. I eventually came around, but it is a completely different experience.

RE: Pinball 1973 - I guess I can find out for my self since the English translation is available here. Now I just have to figure out how to get away with printing off 74 pages at work so I don't have to stare at my computer screen in order to read it.

fffv (Miranda), Wednesday, 9 April 2003 22:04 (twenty-one years ago) link

Are there any novels left to be translated to English. Why did it it take so man years for them to be translated anyway, and why are they done in a weird order?

N. (nickdastoor), Wednesday, 9 April 2003 22:06 (twenty-one years ago) link

(I just printed it. I really hope no one needs the printer anytime soon.)

nabisco (nabisco), Wednesday, 9 April 2003 22:22 (twenty-one years ago) link

Three Murakami novels... I'd go for Wild Sheep Chase, Dance Dance Dance and The Elephant Vanishes.

Reading Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball 1973 are good if you love Wild Sheep Chase and Dance Dance Dance since the first two books introduce the main character of the latter two, also the Rat. They're quite short as well. Hear the Wind Sing is usually available on eBay for not too much, but Pinball 1973 usually hits $200 when it turns up. Luckily it's floating around online now.

Murakami himself isn't very proud of Hear the Wind Sing or Pinball 1973, so they probably won't ever be re-translated (the existing English translations are aimed at Japanese learning English) and published in the West. It was only recently Norwegian Wood was published.

fortunate hazel (f. hazel), Thursday, 10 April 2003 00:04 (twenty-one years ago) link

I agree with fhazel's response. WSC and DDD are part of a sequel
and The Elephant Vanishes is a collection of short stories. Next on the list would be the Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, not because it is in any way inferiour to the other three works, but because you will probably enjoy it even more once you are familiar with Murakami's style.

For an early work, I think Norwegian Wood is much more enjoyable than Pinball or Hear the Wind Sing. Also it was Murakami's first big breakthrough in Japan. It is more sentimental and not as literary as later works, but still enjoyable and gives more biographical insight than the later works - for example his attitude to the student protests in Japan of the late 60's.

logjaman, Thursday, 10 April 2003 04:19 (twenty-one years ago) link

don't get underworld but do get norwegian wood and the wind-up bird chronicle and/or what fortunate hazel says.

people on ile are mad for him.

Clare (not entirely unhappy), Thursday, 10 April 2003 07:06 (twenty-one years ago) link

i meant underground - wrong pomo author!

Clare (not entirely unhappy), Thursday, 10 April 2003 08:09 (twenty-one years ago) link

Agreed, nabisco, but if Mr Miller is only going from three books, I thought "Dance Dance Dance" is great as a stand-alone work, and it gives him the chance to experience a rather different Murakami were he to pick up "Norwegian Wood" too. But I suppose I am talking as if he wasn't ever allowed to purchase any further books, which isn't the case at all.

Mark C (Mark C), Thursday, 10 April 2003 09:44 (twenty-one years ago) link

See, I would never recommend Wind-Up Bird Chronicle as the first novel to read by him. It has all kinds of things about it that are potentially off-putting if you don't have some familiar Murakami plot points (divorce, cooking fetish, cat, teenage girl) to reassure you that it's going somewhere worthwhile.

I mean, its pacing is slow. OK, I might just be impatient, but Murakami is quite bleak really and the tighter pacing of, say, Wild Sheep Chase helps counteract the bleakness. Also there is little context for Westerners to understand the stuff about the war in China, and many threads are picked up only to be dropped and not dealt with again for hundreds of pages.

You wouldn't go wrong with Hard Boiled Wonderland for these reasons either, I just think WSC/DDD are nicer.

fortunate hazel (f. hazel), Thursday, 10 April 2003 13:10 (twenty-one years ago) link

Oddly, I read Wind-Up Bird Chronicle first, and it's what put me off of Dance Dance Dance (I think) because reading the blurb on the back of the book, it seems like the plot is nearly identical, if you can trust such things. After that I went to Hardboiled Wonderland which is definitely difficult going but worth almost all of the effort (though it still left me feeling drained).

One reason I keep going back to Murakami is the same reason I keep going back to Chandler: even though it's all the same, I like the world they have created, and the sense of something menacing lurking just over the horizon.

Sean Carruthers (SeanC), Thursday, 10 April 2003 13:25 (twenty-one years ago) link

Yes, but Wild Sheep Chase/Dance Dance Dance feature THE SHEEPMAN who is so much cooler than sitting at the bottom of a well!

fortunate hazel (f. hazel), Thursday, 10 April 2003 13:48 (twenty-one years ago) link

What, the Sheepman is in DDD as well? Man, I'll have to read that one last, that way it can be, like, the Murakami Greatest Hits compilation! With bonus traxx!

Sean Carruthers (SeanC), Thursday, 10 April 2003 14:03 (twenty-one years ago) link

I've read 'wind up' and liked it lots and have just bought 'hard boiled'.

Julio Desouza (jdesouza), Thursday, 10 April 2003 14:07 (twenty-one years ago) link

why didn't anyone tell me that Dance Dance Dance was a sequel? No wonder I couldn't get into a Wild Sheep Chase!

Anyone read "Haruki Murakami and the Music or Words" by Jay Rubin?

jel -- (jel), Thursday, 10 April 2003 20:16 (twenty-one years ago) link

Thank you all. I think I will follow Mark C's advice. But I might put it off for a bit because I don't much fancy going through any missing persons trauma right now. I thought they were going to be funny and light and breezy.

PJ Miller (PJ Miller), Thursday, 10 April 2003 20:43 (twenty-one years ago) link

Don't include The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle in your 3 as you can borrow it from me. I have only read that & Norwegian Wood but enjoyed them both immensely. All the clichés about not being able to put a book down came true - I stayed up all night to finish Norwegian Wood!

Mooro (Mooro), Thursday, 10 April 2003 20:45 (twenty-one years ago) link

It's the 'sheep professor' and yes he shows up in Dance Dance Dance.

logjaman, Friday, 11 April 2003 01:33 (twenty-one years ago) link

BTW has anyone here ever seen the two brilliant short films that were made from two stories from The Elephant Vanishes?

I saw these at a film festival in Vancouver in the late 80s, and it was my first introduction to Murakami Haruki.

logjaman, Friday, 11 April 2003 01:40 (twenty-one years ago) link

Come on, Murakami calls him "the Sheepman" all through Dance Dance Dance.

fortunate hazel (f. hazel), Friday, 11 April 2003 01:52 (twenty-one years ago) link

you may be right. it has been some years since i read it. for some reason the image of a sheep professor sticks more strongly in my memory. perhaps that's how he is described at the end of WSC?

logjaman, Friday, 11 April 2003 02:10 (twenty-one years ago) link

The Sheep Professor was the man in the hotel who studied sheep; the Sheepman was the guy in the sheep outfit.

Sean Carruthers (SeanC), Friday, 11 April 2003 02:24 (twenty-one years ago) link

Doyourememberhetalkedlikethis? TheSheepmanImean.

fortunate hazel (f. hazel), Friday, 11 April 2003 03:53 (twenty-one years ago) link

Thanks, especially Big Dave. That is such a charming image of Big Dave up all night with his Norwegian Wood.

PJ Miller (PJ Miller), Tuesday, 15 April 2003 19:55 (twenty-one years ago) link

Iamthesheepman. Iamthesheepman. Yousmelllikeawalrus.

nabisco (nabisco), Tuesday, 15 April 2003 20:30 (twenty-one years ago) link

I always wondered how they wrote the Sheepman's dialog in the original Japanese, since their writing doesn't have any spaces between the symbols normally. Did he get spaces? Bold?

fortunate hazel (f. hazel), Tuesday, 15 April 2003 23:02 (twenty-one years ago) link

Good question ... I think I will try to find out.

logjaman, Wednesday, 16 April 2003 01:01 (twenty-one years ago) link

five months pass...
i got dance dance dance a while ago cause it was really cheap...
in what way is it a sequel to a wild sheep chase?
do they have the same characters or is it the one plot spread over two books?
i'm trying to decide if i should try and get a wild sheep chase first or just read dance dance dance
i'm the kind of person that usually wouldn't want to read books/see films/etc out of order,but if its a stand alone novel that happens to have the same characters but doesn't presume any knowledge of them then i don't mind...

robin (robin), Sunday, 12 October 2003 21:06 (twenty years ago) link

Yep, the protagonist is the same character as in Wild Sheep Chase (he and The Rat, the other character in WSC, also show up in Hear The Wind Sing and Pinball 1973, neither of which is in print outside of Japan afaik).

I read Dance Dance Dance first; it isn't a direct sequel so much as another story about the same character, but events from WSC are referenced in it. But for that matter, events from Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball 1973 are referenced in Wild Sheep Chase, and the fact that very few English-speaking readers have read them doesn't seem to bother anyone. I don't think the story in DDD really relies on knowledge of WSC at all; just expect a few mentions of backstory that'll be summarized instead of fully relived.

Tep (ktepi), Sunday, 12 October 2003 21:20 (twenty years ago) link

cool,thanks tep...
given my lack of money at the moment that's what i was hoping to hear,i think i'll just go ahead and read dance dance dance

robin (robin), Monday, 13 October 2003 00:06 (twenty years ago) link

What did PJ Miller think of his choices?

N. (nickdastoor), Wednesday, 22 October 2003 17:31 (twenty years ago) link

Thank for asking, N.

In the end it boiled down to choice rather than choices becasue the 3 for 2 offer finished before I could make my mind up. It was 'A Wild Sheep Chase'. I tried to read it while moving house, etc., so I couldn't really get into it and I didn't finish it. What I liked best about it was the drawing of a sheep. Looking upthread I see it is a man in a sheep costume. That encourages me to finish it one day. Also looking upthread I see you are all very well informed, perhaps to the point of lunacy.

Sorry this is such a damp squib of an answer.

PJ Miller (PJ Miller), Thursday, 23 October 2003 10:06 (twenty years ago) link

I think Murakami struggles to write about Sex. Some of it appears to be lifted straight from Razzle. It makes me cringe. Murakami, I mean. Razzle gets me excited.

Mikey G (Mikey G), Thursday, 23 October 2003 10:24 (twenty years ago) link

Read Hear the Wind Sing during lunch today (it's very short), which was a little odd since I'd just finished Abe's The Ruined Map.

At least two posters upthread have read it ... anyone else? What'd you think compared to later things?

Tep (ktepi), Friday, 24 October 2003 02:31 (twenty years ago) link

seven months pass...
Hello everyone!

I have just finished 'A Wild Sheep Chase'. I thought it was very good. The last bit made me sad and I don't know why. I suppose this is quite clever. It is a game of three halves. I wish I understood Japanese.

I look forward to reading more.

PJ Miller (PJ Miller), Wednesday, 23 June 2004 15:35 (twenty years ago) link

so, what about Kafka on the Shore?

i like murakami, and don't think he is as lightweight as is oft suggested, but referencing kafka in the title is seriously stepping up to the plate, isn't it?

charltonlido (gareth), Friday, 25 June 2004 09:31 (twenty years ago) link

I don't think I am going to read any more Murakami until I have learned Japanese (ie. maybe never). I've become too frustrated with his (translated) style, for some reason.

Archel (Archel), Friday, 25 June 2004 09:35 (twenty years ago) link

KotS hasn't been translated yet, has it?

Mary (Mary), Friday, 25 June 2004 09:55 (twenty years ago) link

into german i think, but not english yet

charltonlido (gareth), Friday, 25 June 2004 09:58 (twenty years ago) link

I'll get back to you after I read the German version.

Mary (Mary), Friday, 25 June 2004 09:59 (twenty years ago) link

Fun fact, 1Q84 was translated by two people to meet the publisher's deadline - Jay Rubin‎ pts 1 and 2, and ‎Philip Gabriel pt 3. Agreed that Birnbaum is the best Murakami "voice" but he works pretty closely with his English translators I'm told.
The best Murakami is deadpan Murakami, the flat neutrality of style when describing things people typically get excited about is the hook for me.

an incoherent crustacean (MatthewK), Wednesday, 29 August 2018 23:30 (five years ago) link

I also got about a third into WIBC and couldnt finish it, and couldnt put my finger on why. Something about it felt so male and listless. Maybe coming right off the back of a pile of Le Guin had me in a more demanding frame of mind. I dont know what turned me off.

Stoop Crone (Trayce), Wednesday, 29 August 2018 23:37 (five years ago) link

(wether this is his or the translators fault, who can say)

Stoop Crone (Trayce), Wednesday, 29 August 2018 23:37 (five years ago) link

"the flat neutrality of style when describing things people typically get excited about" yes agree

it was the 'strange casualness' of Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki that first got me interested in his writing

Dan S, Wednesday, 29 August 2018 23:40 (five years ago) link

I listened to the audiobook of A Wild Sheep Chase while on a long journey. I had the player set to shuffle, though, and I didn't notice for hours.

Leaghaidh am brón an t-anam bochd (dowd), Thursday, 30 August 2018 03:16 (five years ago) link


an incoherent crustacean (MatthewK), Thursday, 30 August 2018 03:28 (five years ago) link

once when i was 8 or 9 i actually got my dad to read me a bedtime story, and he read for ~10mins before announcing he'd been reading all the sentences out of order "and you didn't notice because the prose doesn't go anywhere", then turned out the light

difficult listening hour, Thursday, 30 August 2018 03:49 (five years ago) link

the plain bedtime be damned

Noodle Vague, Thursday, 30 August 2018 03:50 (five years ago) link

just dad things

macropuente (map), Thursday, 30 August 2018 04:37 (five years ago) link

Name names!

― Daniel_Rf, Wednesday, August 29, 2018 2:29 AM (seventeen hours ago) Bookmark Flag Post Permalink

obviously this depends on the type of books you like, but to name a few random contemporary ones:

shinichi hoshi
toh enjoe
yoriko shono
kenji nakagami
ryu murakami
yoko ogawa
yoshikichi furui (probably good to put him on the list, he was at the forefront of a turning point in japanaese lit)
genpei akasegawa
yoko tawada
hiroko oyamada
kenta nishimura
hiromo kawakami

okay so not all are highly praised, but most of them are

i stuck to 1970s and onward because that's when haruki murakami first started publishing

modern writers would be its own list (pre-1960s ish), and though they are what i prefer, it wouldn't be fair to compare him nor any contemporary writer to them. but suffice it to say, in my opinion, most contemporary literature in japan leaves a lot to be desired. i've included some very recent names on that list, but not because i particularly like them

i will break from this for one instance to say as much as murakami gets compared to kafka every so often, kobo abe is the real japanese kafka, a pretty amazing writer, though, again, a modern one

some of those authors i read in japanese and others in translation, so i don't know if everything is available in english

F# A# (∞), Thursday, 30 August 2018 04:40 (five years ago) link

I really fucked up with this guy by reading The Wind Up Bird Chronicle first and then reading all the others trying to recapture that high without much success. Although Wild Sheep Chase/Dance Dance Dance are very enjoyable and Kafka On The Shore has a lot to recommend it, most of them are all basically the same after a while. I'm pretty sure I'd find Norwegian Wood ideologically reprehensible if I were to reread it.

Matt DC, Thursday, 30 August 2018 13:49 (five years ago) link


Spirits Having Pwned (James Redd and the Blecchs), Thursday, 30 August 2018 13:54 (five years ago) link

Dance Dance Dance was my first and still my favourite - loved the combination of deadpan absurdity with actual suspense. I like most if his stuff, a bit in the way I love all of Modiano, because he's always writing the same book. 1Q84 was horrendous though.

licorice oratorio (baaderonixx), Friday, 31 August 2018 08:13 (five years ago) link


Long intro (in non-translated English!) to Penguin's new Japanese short story collection, which is funny because he admits that he not only detests but actively avoids most Japanese literature haha.

If you go to a Japanese bookstore, you'll notice that he's translated quite a few Western Literature authors into Japanese (Salinger, Fitzgerald, Theroux, Capote, Paley, Carver, Chandler... off the top of my head).

Jersey Al (Albert R. Broccoli), Tuesday, 11 September 2018 16:03 (five years ago) link

two weeks pass...

I saw Lee Chang-Dong's film Burning, which is an adaptation of a Murakami story called Barn Burning. It's very good but my slight reservations are also reservations I generally have with Murakami although in a much less frustrating way in the film than in his books.

― Britain's Sexiest Cow (jed_)

I saw Burning last week, read the short story a few days ago. The film deepens the story, I think, but I'm not sure it added up to anything more than marvelous flashes (the ending felt out of character).

The Silky Veils of Alfred (Alfred, Lord Sotosyn), Sunday, 30 September 2018 20:19 (five years ago) link

I agree with that. Still the 4th best thing I caught at TIFF

wayne trotsky (Simon H.), Monday, 1 October 2018 05:23 (five years ago) link

(of 14 or so)

wayne trotsky (Simon H.), Monday, 1 October 2018 05:23 (five years ago) link

two weeks pass...

He's been pretty visible this year, here's a "DJ set" he put together (appears that this is a running series so perhaps more of these to come?):


Jersey Al (Albert R. Broccoli), Tuesday, 16 October 2018 18:51 (five years ago) link

yoshikichi furui sunds great. I'll try and hunt down Yoko

xyzzzz__, Tuesday, 16 October 2018 22:39 (five years ago) link

one year passes...


Mildly interesting piece on how Murakami is edited for The New Yorker, and how that colours the perception his stories get.

xyzzzz__, Sunday, 30 August 2020 16:21 (three years ago) link

There is a long post in the archives about Birnbaum's superiority of his translations of HM, and that HM's popularity in the west is directly correlated to his translations.

I always thought it was pretty funny that HM's rise in popularity happened when HM was living and teaching abroad (Boston, LA, Honolulu) and meanwhile Birnbaum was translating said books while living in Myanmar then Paris & Barcelona.

Also funny to think that Murakami is fluent in English and enjoys reading translations of his books in English because it feels to him like a completely different story/voice, he has also done numerous translations of English classics into Japanese.

Jersey Al (Albert R. Broccoli), Sunday, 30 August 2020 16:33 (three years ago) link

two years pass...

After Philip Roth’s death in 2018, we were robbed of one of the funniest recurring images in American letters: Roth (reportedly) going to his agent’s office on the day of the announcement to await a call that never comes. I have no idea if Murakami wants the Nobel Prize or if he expects it — and he shouldn’t, because he is not going to win — but I have decided to now picture Murakami doing exactly this. He laces up his running shoes. He puts on a Stan Getz record on the most expensive, minimalist stereo system you have ever seen. Pasta boils on the stove in a gleaming, spotless pot. Murakami sits by the phone in an Eames chair, and he loads YouTube and watches the announcement muted, with subtitles: some Swedish words — Jon Fosse — some more Swedish words. He steps outside and runs 22 miles without stopping.

Who Will Win the 2022 Nobel Prize in Literature?

mookieproof, Tuesday, 4 October 2022 00:42 (one year ago) link


Misirlou Sunset (James Redd and the Blecchs), Tuesday, 4 October 2022 00:44 (one year ago) link

why were we robbed of that image?

treeship., Tuesday, 4 October 2022 00:59 (one year ago) link

Robbed? We still have a few months to go.

Misirlou Sunset (James Redd and the Blecchs), Tuesday, 4 October 2022 01:21 (one year ago) link

the one of roth. presumably he did that other years

treeship., Tuesday, 4 October 2022 01:34 (one year ago) link

i honestly think karl ove is going to get it. they're due for another crowd pleaser.

treeship., Tuesday, 4 October 2022 01:35 (one year ago) link

My eyes added an extra letter there and did a double take.

Misirlou Sunset (James Redd and the Blecchs), Tuesday, 4 October 2022 01:41 (one year ago) link

Oh you meant in what sense were we robbed, is that it? It’s not like we ever actually witnessed that images ourselves in previous years.

Misirlou Sunset (James Redd and the Blecchs), Tuesday, 4 October 2022 01:43 (one year ago) link

Yes exactly. Just an odd phrasing.

treeship., Tuesday, 4 October 2022 01:44 (one year ago) link

It’s not like it was some kind of New Year’s Eve drinking game that got cancelled.

Misirlou Sunset (James Redd and the Blecchs), Tuesday, 4 October 2022 01:47 (one year ago) link

one year passes...

An interesting little interview with Birnbaum from Mat Alt's 'Pure Invention' newsletter this week -

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 Birnbaum’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.

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.

MaresNest, Tuesday, 10 October 2023 11:12 (nine months ago) link

Thanks for that, I'm a huge Birnbaum-head and have brought up much of the opening to this interview on this very board (probably not this thread though, I think the "Translators" thread?) probably 17-20 years ago.

One thing I always wondered (and it's glossed at here as he was a professor in the west(US/UK) for over a decade) is that Murakami is highly proficiently bilingual and extremely capable of translating his own work which he never did, despite translating dozens of English language works to Japanese (Carver, Vonnegut, Fitzgerald, et al)... but he always mentions that he loves reading translations of his work because he considers them original fiction!

citation needed (Steve Shasta), Tuesday, 10 October 2023 16:54 (nine months ago) link

Having talked with Japanese fans of Murakami, it's pretty interesting just how much license Birnbaum can take with his books... I remember a baffling conversation about the Sheep Man where we eventually realized the character was just totally different in the English translation.

the absence of bikes (f. hazel), Tuesday, 10 October 2023 17:05 (nine months ago) link

Was hoping this might be bumped with an update on the English language version of The City and Its Uncertain Walls, but thanks for that!

Maxmillion D. Boosted (jon /via/ chi 2.0), Tuesday, 10 October 2023 17:06 (nine months ago) link

For some bilingual authors it seems like translation is like mastering a record, they could do it themselves but prefer to get a fresh perspective, or maybe they're just sick of working on it by that point.

Jordan s/t (Jordan), Tuesday, 10 October 2023 17:18 (nine months ago) link

I love the collection of Japanese fiction that Birnbaum edited, Monkey Brain Sushi (1990)

There is a magic to his translations of Murakami, but he was also lucky in the Murakami’s output during that era was just superior, too. Birnbaum says that he would decline to translate Murakami’s new works

beamish13, Tuesday, 10 October 2023 18:38 (nine months ago) link

one month passes...

Reading “ Norwegian Wood” and of my god, the woman the protagonist gets involved with at university is so profoundly unlikeable that I’m repulsed. But I’m gonna finish this thing

The Triumphant Return of Bernard & Stubbs (Raymond Cummings), Friday, 10 November 2023 03:04 (eight months ago) link

I think what bothers me is that I can be a lot like the protagonist- overly agreeable, easily persuaded, eager to make the tiger person happy

The Triumphant Return of Bernard & Stubbs (Raymond Cummings), Friday, 10 November 2023 03:07 (eight months ago) link

The movie adaptation is free on Tubi, currently.

the body of a spider... (scampering alpaca), Friday, 10 November 2023 03:13 (eight months ago) link

Not sure it's a great film but god some of the cinematography is so goddam romantic.

Alba, Friday, 10 November 2023 09:55 (eight months ago) link

I like Greenwood's score (and the CAN tracks) but the film is a dud for me.

assert (matttkkkk), Friday, 10 November 2023 10:17 (eight months ago) link

Seeing this in the Seattle Library catalog - 街とその不確かな壁 (Machi to sono futashika na kabe). Google translates to “The City and its Uncertain Walls”. Would figure translating/refining now for 2024 release?

the body of a spider... (scampering alpaca), Friday, 10 November 2023 19:25 (eight months ago) link

four months pass...

Browsing at the bookstore and overheard this young woman berating Murakami for his sexism to this guy. Did giggle but I do think this stuff will sink without trace quite quickly.

xyzzzz__, Saturday, 30 March 2024 21:05 (three months ago) link

three months pass...

New "Kaho" short story in The New Yorker: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2024/07/08/kaho-fiction-haruki-murakami

the body of a spider... (scampering alpaca), Monday, 8 July 2024 21:28 (one week ago) link

heard there are beatles references

glad he's still got it

mookieproof, Monday, 8 July 2024 22:22 (one week ago) link

Still wishing Alfred Birnbaum was translating into English, but he doesn’t even care for Murakami’s material from the last 20+ years. I often read Dutch translations instead

beamish13, Tuesday, 9 July 2024 03:03 (one week ago) link


this is a great podcast about murakami.

treeship., Tuesday, 9 July 2024 03:18 (one week ago) link

I loved reading the Rat books in Birnbaum’s translations, and the new edition of the first two just feels so lifeless. I sometimes wonder if Birnbaum might just be a better writer than Murakami

beamish13, Tuesday, 9 July 2024 03:40 (one week ago) link

heard there are beatles references

glad he's still got it


Thrapple from the Apple (James Redd and the Blecchs), Tuesday, 9 July 2024 04:13 (one week ago) link

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