Haruki Murakami and the Problems of Popularity
I’m home sick—damn winter colds that are even resistant to Advil Cold & Sinus, the Wonder Drug—so it’s a perfect day for a guest post from intern Will Eells. You might remember Will from his review of The Housekeeper and the Professor, and he will be writing more reviews for us in the future, including one of “The Changeling,” the new Kenzaburo Oe novel coming out from Grove this spring. Anyway, Will’s a huge Murakami fan—even did a translation of a previously untranslated Murakami story for his translation class project—and was very intrigued by this situation regarding the new Murakami novel . . .
It was reported a few days ago that Haruki Murakami’s newest novel 1Q84 (my favorite way of saying this is “Q-teen Eighty-four”) has all but demolished sales records this year and is the top-selling book in Japan for 2009, selling at least a million copies for both volume one and volume two. From The Literary Saloon:
Tohan said 1Q84 was the first literary work to top the year’s best-seller list since it began compiling the data in 1990.
Who is the competition? Mainichi Daily news offers some (worrying) insight in their own report, Murakami’s 1Q84 tops 2009 bestseller ranking:
“In second place was 読めそうで読めない間違いやすい漢字 (Easily confused kanji which look readable but aren’t), published by Futami Shobo Publishing Co. Third place was secured by ドラゴンクエスト9 星空の守り人 大冒険プレイヤーズガイ (Great adventure player’s guide to Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies), published by Shueisha.”
It’s pretty cool to see that Murakami is finally seen as someone “literary” by the Japanese after years of being considered light pop-lit (he’s got an awesomely bitter short story called “The Rise and Fall of Sharpie Cakes” in Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman about his disgust with Japanese literary critics), and it’s even cooler to see that people are genuinely excited about his work. On the other hand, although Japan is typically thought of to be a nation of readers, their top selling books are overall pretty lame, even after accounting the fact that almost every person and their dog is playing Dragon Quest IX in Japan right now. Looking through the rest of the top 10, I only discovered one(!!) other piece of fiction, and the rest of the list being rather light-weight non-fiction books like new weight-loss and “health” guides and more language trivia.
All of this means of course that American publishers are also very excited and want to get the book out as fast as possible. And of course Knopf and Vintage, who have published all of Murakami’s other work in America, will be publishing 1Q84 as well.
Normally this would pose no problem at all, but Murakami himself is throwing a huge curveball towards the American publishers. And how is he doing that? He’s currently writing Volume 3, and it’s not even being released in Japan until next summer.
So what does Knopf do now? They want to get it published as soon as they can (but without rushing, so we can have a good translation . . . right, Knopf?), but I can’t think of any single work that was published in more than one installment in the U.S. Apparently, this is the solution:
UK and Commonwealth rights, excluding Canada, have been acquired and Harvill Secker will publish the first two volumes in a single edition simultaneously with Knopf in the States in September 2011. The paperback editions will be published by Vintage. The first two books are being translated by Jay Rubin and the third by Philip Gabriel.
This, my friends, is madness. Knopf is fusing volume one and volume two into a single work, as they assumedly planned to all along, but not only can they not wait for volume three to come out, they won’t give Jay Rubin the extra time to translate it and are handing the next part for Philip Gabriel to work on separately.
It’s fascinating, and a little scary, to have two translators working on what’s officially supposed to be one work. By now, Jay Rubin has translated the majority of Murakami’s works, and besides the early stuff Alfred Birnbaum tackled, Philip Gabriel has been responsible for a good chunk of Murakami’s work as well, including Kafka on the Shore. They’re both great translators that I trust with Murakami’s work. But that doesn’t mean that they’re going to translate 1Q84 the same way, so it poses some interesting questions as to what’s going to happen. Will they be communicating with each other? Will they be reading each other’s manuscripts and collaborating? Since typically Japanese editors don’t exercise the kind of creative control that Western editors are typically thought to have, Jay Rubin is known to act as an editor for Murakami as he translates (which he even does with Murakami’s involvement, which in one case resulted in revisions in the Japanese from the hardcover edition to the paperback), but does Philip Gabriel have the same editorial vision? There’s no telling how a sudden third volume will effect 1Q84 as a whole anyway, so how will that affect how the readers see the novel both in the original and in the translation? Will Vintage’s paperback version be one or two books?
It’s a lot of stuff to think about, and we won’t find out what happens until both volumes are finally published sometime in late 2011.