Who We’re Reading When We’re Reading Murakami

Soft Skull. Sept. 2020. 304p. ISBN 9781593765897. pap. $16.95. LIT
As a glimpse into the world of literary translating, this latest from Karashima (creative writing, Waseda Univ., Tokyo; coeditor, March Was Made of Yarn) provides a necessary service. After all, what reader hasn’t paused in the midst of a novel by Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky to wonder about the translator: “Who were the Maudes?” “Who was Constance Garnett?” When we read War & Peace, we may even find ourselves contemplating: how much is Tolstoy and how much Maude or Garnett? Karashima sheds light on these and many other questions readers and would-be translators might have, beginning in 1973 with the detailed story of Haruki Murakami’s first English-language translator, Alfred Birnbaum. Readers are almost 20 pages into this section before a headline announces: “Birnbaum Discovers Murakami.” Interestingly enough, Birnbaum did his first Murakami translation, the short story “New York Mining Disaster,” just for fun. Yet, thus began the process of Murakami becoming the international literary sensation he is. Rich with details about editors and markets, and the number of hands at work, the layers of readers and voices that come together to make a story happen is fascinating, mysterious, and well told.
VERDICT Readers not obsessed with Murakami or translating may find themselves periodically overwhelmed by the minutiae, but anyone who cares about the process of translating and the variables involved will be richly rewarded. Recommend for academic and public libraries with robust Japanese literature collections
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