By Brian Fee

A few fun-facts about Haruki Murakami, Japan's most celebrated contemporary author and the man behind the year-end publishing sensation1Q84: he name-drops classical études as frequently as 20th century jazz and rock greats; he once ran a coffeehouse-jazz bar in Tokyo; and he's a triathlete. The man is a well-rounded badass.

I knew little of Murakami when I began reading The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle—some six hundred pages of potent modern-day Surrealism—back in university. Jay Rubin, one of his three longtime translators, handled the English edition, a necessary thing for me then as a just-budding student of Japanese. In addition to the silky prose, I was enraptured by the directness of dialogue and description despite Murakami's continual bending of reality.

I compared Rubin's translation with an earlier one by Alfred Birnbaum, who'd translated the first chapter of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle as The Wind-Up Bird and Tuesday's Women (it originally ran in The New Yorkerseveral years prior but reappeared in the short story collection The Elephant Vanishes), and instantly sided with Rubin. The interplay between Murakami's classic thirtyish male protagonist, Toru Okada, and the author's equally classic weirdo teenage girl, May Kasahara, just felt better in Rubin's words:

Strange, the girl's voice sounded completely different, depending on whether my eyes were open or closed.
"Can I talk? I'll keep real quiet, and you don't have to answer. You can even fall asleep. I don't mind."
"OK," I said.
"When people die, it's so neat."
Her mouth was next to my ear now, so the words worked their way inside me along with her warm, moist breath.
"Why's that?" I asked.
She put a finger on my lips as if to seal them.
"No questions," she said. "And don't open your eyes. OK?"
My nod was as small as her voice.
She took her finger from my lips and placed it on my wrist.

Compare that with Birnbaum's earlier translation. That directness, that humidity-induced curtness, is lost:

Strange, I think, the girl's voice with my eyes closed sounds completely different from her voice with my eyes open. What's come over me? This has never happened to me before.
"Can I talk some?" the girl asks. "I'll be real quiet. You don't have to answer, you can even fall right asleep at any time."
"Sure," I say.
"Death. People dying. It's all so fascinating," the girl begins.
She's whispering right by my ear, so the words enter my body in a warm, moist stream of breath.
"How's that?" I ask.
The girl places a one-finger seal over my lips.
"No questions," she says. "I don't want to be asked anything just now. And don't open your eyes, either. Got it?"
I give a nod as indistinct as her voice.
She removes her finger from my lips, and the same finger now travels to my wrist.

Years later, after moving to New York, I re-engaged my Japanese language studies hardcore. I picked up The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle in its original Japanese at Kinokuniya. This was my first attempt at reading novel-length Murakami, and I reveled in it. His prose is delightfully unembellished, and while it will prove difficult to first-time language students accustomed tomanga or Harry Potter in Japanese, I found myself speeding through it. Comparing the original Toru-May passage to the translations, I believe Rubin still captures its mood better than Birnbaum. He nails the girlish, fearless 'tude of May's back-and-forth with this older, slightly naïve guy.

I felt confident that I was reading Murakami as he intended with Rubin's translation. It's a fairly well-known fact that large chunks were excised in the English text (highlighted here in a roundtable email conversation between Murakami translators Rubin and Philip Gabriel, with Knopf editor Gary Fisketjon). Did I miss these sections when I first read it in English? No, but discovering them in Japanese—like an entire chapter's worth—was welcoming. Still, I've spent so much time living in Rubin's translations, navigating well-worn pages, that I return to the comforts of the English-language book without hesitation.

(Part two, on my introduction to 1Q84 in Japanese, to follow)

Photo: Mr. Fee