The Murakami Effect / On the Homogenizing Dangers of Easily Translated Literature


Haruki Murakami

The Murakami Effect

On the Homogenizing Dangers of Easily Translated Literature

The following essay originally appeared in Vol. 37, No. 4 of NER.

Stephen Snyder
January 4, 2017

Translation is a kind of traffic, in nearly every sense of the word. There’s the most obvious sense, in that translations cross borders of time, place, and culture, moving from one language into another.

But traffic’s other meaning—that is, the buying and selling of goods—also applies. Translators themselves can be said to traffic in words, sounds, images, and more; whether what is trafficked is tangible or intangible, it’s implied that what is bought, sold, and bartered is in any case commodified. When we think about traffic we also inevitably think about congestion, about impediments to smooth circulation—of vehicles, of course, but also, by extension, of ideas and things. While translations do cross borders, broadening our cultural knowledge as they present one language in the terms of another, they can also become an impediment to free communication. As a translator of contemporary Japanese fiction, I’ve seen both the flow and the congestion, and have witnessed at close range the unintended consequences—and our lack of control as translators—when it comes to the way our texts move or fail to move across borders.

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.


Murakami’s work succeeds in translation and finds a global audience exactly because it is intended for translation from the original place of its creation.


Still, the flow of traffic is influenced not just by dollars and yen, but also by factors inherent in the way literary works are conceived and executed, their themes and their techniques, their structure and language. Which brings me at last to Murakami’s “Samsa in Love” and Mizumura’s A True Novel, which inscribe within themselves an attitude toward the question of translatability. Murakami’s story was born in and insists on translation. In effect, it thematizes and demonstrates its own translatability. While Mizumura’s novel, like much of the rest of her work, just as insistently resists translation or its possibility.

Murakami’s story is a rewriting or inversion, in fact, of Franz Kafka’s “Metamorphosis,” in which, in Murakami’s version, the protagonist, a bug, wakes up to find he has been transformed into a human being named Gregor Samsa. The story, much briefer than Kafka’s, follows a similar arc of discovery of the new body and its limitations, though reversed of course from “The Metamorphosis,” but, in Murakami’s telling, instead of tracing the devolution and death of the misunderstood bug, we have the newly human Gregor escaping from his room and falling in love with a young woman who comes to repair the locks in the house. Murakami’s story ends not with the protagonist’s death and the resulting relief of his family, but with a smitten Gregor wondering when he’ll see the young woman again. The final line of “Samsa in Love” reads “The world was waiting for him to learn.”

From this brief description alone, it’s probably clear that the story insists, in a variety of ways, on the themes of transformation and translation. Kafka’s original, which was itself already a transformation narrative indebted to, or transposed from, Ovid’s “Metamorphoses,” has been further translated by Murakami in the plot inversion. At the same time, the creation of the story implies that Murakami himself was reading a translation of Kafka—probably either in English or Japanese. So his translation and inversion of Kafka is already based on several pre-existing translations from multiple “originals.” Then, in the next stage of translation traffic, when the story moves from the (already translated) Japanese “original” into English for publication in the New Yorker, we can detect several additional layers of translation and translatability. Ted Goossen performs the obvious act of transforming Japanese into English, but he has also transformed Murakami’s plain, contemporary Japanese into something resembling the mid-20th-century English translations of Kafka—those by the Muirs perhaps. In effect, Goossen reinvents Murakami’s story in a parallax view of Japanese and previous English translations of Kafka—a process, I would argue, that is consistent with Murakami’s intention in the story to insist on translation as theme and practice. Murakami’s own career as a translator from English, his creation of a literary voice in an act of auto-reverse-translation, and his pursuit of a global literary reputation in translation are all of a piece with the intent of “Samsa in Love” and its English translation—that is, the story is, and means to be, immediately and readily translatable, a text that by its nature enters into the flow of translation traffic. And in that sense it can be seen as emblematic of Murakami’s career as a whole. His work succeeds in translation and finds a global audience exactly because it is intended for translation from the original place of its creation.

There is, perhaps obviously, a central irony here (and one that is most likely intentional) in that Murakami’s simple love story and plain prose style are in direct contrast to Kafka’s method and intent in “The Metamorphosis.” As Theodor Adorno has pointed out, each sentence of Kafka invites us to interpret, to understand, and yet at the same time effectively forestalls any such effort, leaving us puzzled as to the meaning and intent of the text—and no text more so than “The Metamorphosis,” which poses incomprehensibility as a basic condition of the reading experience. Who is this? we ask. What has happened here? How do we make sense of Samsa’s experience? What is the point? But there are no answers to these questions. As Susan Sontag would have it, Kafka’s text merely “exists” and nothing more—it resists all attempts at interpretation and thus translation. Murakami, however, in inverting the story has also inverted this dynamic. His story is about a return to consciousness and life. Gregor—once again human, with comprehensible feelings and desires—falls “in love” and sets out to make sense of his world. Murakami inverts more than just Kafka’s plot: he substitutes meaning for meaninglessness, comprehensibility for incomprehensibility, insisting on the importance of storytelling and sense-making that has always characterized his work and which, he himself has argued, makes that work readily translatable.

What is apparent, then, from this translatable and multiply translated short story is that, as I’ve suggested, Murakami’s work begins and ends in translation. He creates fictions that are both translatable and embody translation in their themes and methods. His work moves between languages and cultures (and, perhaps particularly, into and out of English) with relative ease and fluidity, with few textual and stylistic impediments or difficult cultural contexts, but, rather, various mechanisms and textual markers that seem to invite and insist on translation as both theme and practice.

On the other hand, Minae Mizumura’s literary career and texts have offered an almost Kafka-like resistance to translation, in both their form and content. But before turning to her novel, it’s worth noting that these opposing stances stem from biographical ironies relative to the two writers.

That is, Murakami was born and raised in Western Japan, his parents were teachers of traditional Japanese literature, and he never traveled abroad until he was an adult. Yet he became interested in—some would say obsessed by—Western, and in particular American, literature and culture from an early age. His touchstones are well known: jazz, spaghetti, classical Western music, the works of Fitzgerald and Carver, all of which underpin his work so seamlessly that many readers have wondered aloud what makes his fiction Japanese. Mizumura, by contrast, left Japan when she was a teenager and moved with her family to Long Island where she spent two decades, going to high school, doing undergraduate and graduate work at Yale University, and ultimately teaching Japanese literature at Princeton. But she has written poignantly of her constant retreat throughout this period into the written Japanese word and specifically into the great works of Japanese fiction that she read obsessively from the time she left Japan. In 1990, she returned to her native country with the express intention of becoming a literary figure—an ambition she has more than realized. Mizumura is bilingual and in many ways bicultural, and yet she is as devoted to Japanese literary tradition as Murakami is to American fiction.

For Mizumura, what this has meant is the creation of a body of work that in various and creative ways resists attempts at translation and cooptation by the globalized positionality she had thrust upon her at an early age. Each of her works, for different reasons, is, in effect, untranslatable on one or more levels—not overtly or explicitly but philosophically and contextually.

Her 1990 debut novel, Zoku meian [Light and Darkness continued], is a tour de force in which she creates a very plausible, stylistically pitch-perfect ending to Meian [Light and Darkness], the last, unfinished masterpiece by Natsume Sōseki, Japan’s most important modern novelist. It was an audacious debut for Mizumura on one level, yet on another it was a logical project for someone who had made a long study of Sōseki’s work and who, as an outsider to the Japanese literary establishment, was not abashed in the face of the great master the way a writer educated in Japan might have been. What is clear about the project, however, is that while it can be translated on the level of sentence and plot, it is a work that is, by definition, fundamentally untranslatable in the sense that it is so deeply embedded in its context and dependent for meaning on a literary and cultural knowledge of Sōseki’s original. To understand Zoku Meian, the reader must know the plot, style, textual history, reception, and role in Japanese literary history of its source text, Meian. As a fragmentary, dependent work, standing in relation to a classic text that is largely unknown outside Japan except to a handful of experts, it is, in effect, impossible to render into comprehensible English or, for that matter, any other language—which made it, to say the least, a pointed debut for a bilingual, international returnee seeking to reincorporate herself into Japanese literary life.

Mizumura’s next novel was, if anything, even more resistant to translation. In 1995, she published Watakushi shōsetsu from Left to Right, a hybrid work that combines in its title as well as on each page the traditional Japanese confessional form, known as the “I” novel—watakushi shōsetsu—with passages in English that remain untranslated in the Japanese text. Moreover, the novel was printed horizontally, that is, “left to right,” rather than the traditional vertical and right to left print in most Japanese books. In other words, the novel exists between languages, forcing the reader, depending on her linguistic abilities, either back and forth between linguistic and cultural codes (that is, Mizumura’s privileged bilingual authority) or between comprehension and relative incomprehension (the experience of readers who have only one language or one of the two imperfectly). What is clear, of course, is that the work can only be fully experienced by those who read both Japanese and English with equal facility, but that for the rest—and far and away the majority—of readers, translating the “foreign” passages to make them comprehensible would irrevocably flatten the text, rob it of its interlingual intention and power, and in no way constitute a real literary translation. In effect, by creating a novel “in translation” Mizumura has eliminated the possibility of it ever being adequately translated. Tellingly, neither Zoku meian nor Watakushi shōsetsu from Left to Right has, in fact, been translated into English.

Which brings us to Mizumura’s acclaimed 2002 novel entitled Honkaku shōsetsu, which is a reworking of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, set in postwar Japan, but encased in a complex set of narrative frames, including an outermost one in which a writer named Minae, whose biography maps Mizumura’s own, introduces the reader to the main narrative. At first glance, this work, which is more plot-driven and compulsively readable than Mizumura’s earlier fiction, is also more readily translatable; and, in fact, as I’ve mentioned, in 2013 it did appear in English to considerable acclaim. Still, a closer look reveals a number of ways that the text presents challenges or puzzles to the translator and insists on its immersion in a Japanese cultural context that cannot be readily brought over into a target language or culture. The title, for example, was rendered as True Novel in the English translation, no doubt for the ambiguous and possibly oxymoronic contention that a fiction or novel could also be “true.” But honkaku has a wide range of meanings in Japanese, and the book could plausibly be called A Genuine Novel or An Orthodox Novel (as the phrase has generally been rendered, meaning, to Japanese readers and critics, a fully realized novel with an ambitious, complex plot). Other possible titles with different nuances would include A Real NovelA Serious Novel, or even A Standard Novel or A Full-Fledged Novel. The original title itself, then, for a writer such as Mizumura, who is fully conscious of the differences between Japanese and English, is a kind of intentional difficulty for, or challenge to, the translator. (A fact that is especially interesting, perhaps, since Mizumura initially wanted to translate the novel herself.)

The text, too, repeats this challenge. On the level of plot, Mizumura provides a richly and finely wrought story—a genuine novel—that comes across successfully in English, but on the sentence level—particularly in the dialogue—the text is a study in nuances that remain largely lost in translation. The story, like Brontë’s, investigates class relations between a poor young man who falls in love with a wealthy girl and seeks to woo her after he has made his fortune. But the social milieu Mizumura creates—replete with a cast of peers and magnates, maids and parvenus worthy of Jane Austen—engenders a text proliferating with finely graded linguistic markers of privilege and subservience—in which Japanese as a language is particularly rich. And by necessity these nuances go largely untranslated or receive only vague approximations in English, a language much poorer in explicit markers of class.

On Mizumura’s website, she labels herself, tellingly I think, as “A Novelist Writing Modern Japanese Literature in the Japanese Language,” implying, no doubt, that other writers—and perhaps explicitly the most notable of all contemporary Japanese writers—are writing in something other than Japanese—at least not in the nuanced, literary Japanese in which Mizumura casts her own work.

The growing dominance of English has come to mean that European, African, Asian, and Latin American writers are considered to have “failed” if they are unable to reach an international audience.

The works of Murakami and Mizumura operate suggestively in the larger debate about the state of global fiction as well. The terms of this debate have, I think, been particularly well framed by Tim Parks in a brief but often quoted New York Review of Books essay entitled “The Dull New Global Novel.” In the essay, Parks laments what he sees as the beginning of a sea change away from the national literatures that arose from the 14th to the 16th centuries in Europe as writers abandoned Latin and wrote in vernacular languages. He notes that now, in contrast to that moment of pluralizing democratization, in our rapidly globalizing and homogenizing world and in an environment of instant electronic textual dissemination, a writer must be recognized as an international, rather than simply a national, phenomenon in order to be considered “great.” Similarly, Parks notes, the growing dominance of English has come to mean that European, African, Asian, and Latin American writers are considered to have “failed” if they are unable to reach an international audience.

Symptomatic of this problem is the rise of global writers of enormous influence and marketability who have presumably intentionally stripped their work of cultural markers that would impede translation and comprehension by—that is, sales to—readers in literary markets around the world. And in this context Parks explicitly mentions Murakami, whose attraction, he feels, is enhanced by the readers’ knowledge that the same work is being read all over the world and that he or she is part of an international community of Murakami readers.

By contrast, Parks says, “What seems doomed to disappear, or at least to risk neglect, is the kind of work that revels in the subtle nuances of its own language and literary culture, the sort of writing that can savage or celebrate the way this or that linguistic group really lives. In the global literary market there will be no place for any Barbara Pyms and Natalia Ginzburgs. Shakespeare would have eased off the puns. A new Jane Austen can forget the Nobel.”

And so, we might add, can Minae Mizumura, whose work swims in the sea of Japanese cultural and linguistic nuance in ways that almost intentionally prevent it from fully entering the global literary market. I would add that Mizumura has herself weighed into this argument in iconoclastic fashion. In her 2008 book, entitled Nihongo ga horobiru toki: eigo no seiki no nakade or, in the English translation, The Fall of Language in the Age of English, she argues, much as Parks does, that the genius of the Japanese language, and in particular of Japanese literature, is being lost in a time when writers no longer seek to activate that genius but, following Murakami, strip their prose and their plots of recognizable, culturally bound markers of Japan in favor of what Parks calls the “overstated fantasy devices of a Rushdie or a Pamuk”—or a Murakami, we could add. In a world and global literary market where Mizumura’s brand of “culture-specific clutter and linguistic virtuosity” (Parks) are impediments to global publication, Murakami and his literary ilk stand to inherit a greater portion of the readership pie.

I find myself agreeing with Parks and Mizumura and lamenting on one level the flattening and homogenizing effect on the global literary markets I’ve been studying for some years now—and which are the underpinning of Murakami’s remarkable success. But on the other hand I believe we would all benefit from a nuanced view of this debate. Like most other truths, the reality of this one is more gray than black and white, and we would do well to understand the merits of both schools of fictional thought and hope that both continue to exist and to nourish one another going forward. As I’ve said, in my own career as a translator I’ve seen the influence that Murakami’s success has had on the fortunes of Japanese literature as a whole. Certainly, without his ascent to the pantheon of global writers, the careers in translation of every other Japanese writer—including even the Nobel laureate Kenzaburō Ōe but also Yōko Ogawa and Natsuo Kirino—would be unimaginable, and the fact that Mizumura’s A True Novel and her polemic against Murakami’s brand of fiction gained attention outside of Japan is itself a function of publishers and readers and critics caring about the state of Japanese fiction—a concern that would be unlikely without Murakami.

When Svetlana Alexievich won the Nobel Prize for Literature last year, John Treat, one of the most astute and accomplished critics of modern Japanese literature, posted a congratulatory message on Facebook that pronounced the award “good news for Alexievich, good news for the anti-nuclear movement, and good news for those of us who loath Murakami.” The sentiment is understandable in a field where the Murakami narrative has dominated the discourse for most of our careers, but I’d like to suggest that as translators we should be celebrating and seeking to promote both writers, like Haruki Murakami, who accelerate the flow of our traffic and those, like Minae Mizumura, who create provocative and stimulating congestions and blockages to the flow—which are often made visible exactly because they exist in relation to the dull new global fiction.

Stephen Snyder is Dean of Language Schools and Kawashima Professor of Japanese Studies at Middlebury College. He is the author of Fictions of Desire: Narrative Form in the Novels of Nagai Kafū (University of Hawai’i Press, 2000) and has translated works by Yōko Ogawa and Kenzaburō Ōe, among others. His translation of Ogawa’s Hotel Iris (Picador, 2010) was shortlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2011, and his translation of Ogawa’s Revenge (Picador, 2013) was shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction prize in 2014.