Introducing Modern Japanese Classics to the (English Speaking) World
- onOctober 17, 2016
- Vol.33 Autumn 2016
- byJay Rubin
One of the worst ideas I ever had was to compile a book of Haruki Murakami short stories in English translation interspersed with my commentaries on each piece. This was supposedly going to “help introduce” Murakami to an Englishreading audience. Not only did it become instantly clear that neither Murakami nor his publishers had any interest in letting me fill a book of mine with his stories, but just as obvious was the fact that Murakami’s works didn’t need any “help” being introduced to a wider audience beyond being translated into English; they could stand very well on their own. My book, Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words (Harvill Press, 2002; updated in 2012) never did outgrow its false start; it hovers somewhere between a literary biography and a book of commentaries on the works, but at least it offers a chronological account of the publication of the novels and stories, which appeared haphazardly at first with little indication of their thematic relatedness.
Aside from the book, most of my work on Murakami has consisted of translation. After 2005, however, one area with particularly rich intercultural implications has been working with Murakami to introduce modern Japanese classics to a wider English readership.
This was not supposed to happen. Like other Murakami commentators, I pretty much took him at his word when he said that all his literary influences were Western, mostly American, and that he had little or no interest in other Japanese writers. So when a Penguin editor approached me in 1999 about producing a new book of stories by the writer Ryūnosuke Akutagawa (1892-1927) with an introduction by Murakami, I assumed it would never happen. I would ask Murakami if he was interested, and when he said no, I would convey his rejection to the editor, who would then rescind his offer because what he really wanted was that Murakami name on the book. At the time, I was writing Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words and translating Murakami’s after the quake, so I had plenty to keep me busy without taking on this extra project.
Murakami shocked me, however, by agreeing immediately to write an introduction. There was a good deal of irony involved in this. The most prestigious literary prize that Murakami has not received in Japan was the Akutagawa Prize, which is the usual pathway for a young writer to a successful career. Needless to say, it was established to memorialize Ryūnosuke Akutagawa. And precisely because it is deemed so important to upcoming writers, Murakami’s success has always seemed to make his “failure” to receive the Akutagawa Prize a contrarian badge of honor.