NEW YORK – For the second year in a row Haruki Murakami has upset the bookies and been passed over for the Nobel Prize in Literature. For his translator, Jay Rubin, it’s an indication that the Japanese author is still a literary force to be reckoned with.
The Harvard professor emeritus referred to the idea that authors who receive the prize do not write great work afterwards, whether because of the pressures of being a laureate or because the Swedish Academy often hands the prize to writers late in their career.
“It can be a curse to a writer,” Rubin said of the prize. “I am kind of hoping for him to hold them off for a few more years,” he said in a phone interview from his home in Seattle.
Murakami has transcended cult status to become Japan’s best-known contemporary author. Media attention on the author reached such a peak in 2012 after the English translation of “1Q84” that Rubin was convinced he would win.
The 900-plus page sci-fi odyssey has its fans and critics. For Rubin, who translated the first two parts of the book, the work reminds him of the exhausting task of translation.
“To me, it’s almost too rich. It goes in so many directions at once,” said Rubin. But while the work could have been shorter, “it has got these wild things in it that you just can’t encounter in any other writer.”
The translator cited a minor scene in the first part of “1Q84” as emblematic of the book’s uniqueness.
It is a flashback of the heroine Aomame avenging a friend who was raped by breaking into the attacker’s apartment and systematically ruining everything: slashing curtains, breaking every pencil, even pouring ketchup in the sock drawer.
“That just absolutely amazed me as something only Murakami could write,” said Rubin. “It’s funny and it’s shocking and it’s horrible. It’s all these things at once.”
Rubin’s first encounter with Murakami was in the 1980’s when an American publisher asked him to read “Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World” in Japanese and give his opinion.
“I hadn’t seen such imaginative fiction and I was totally carried away by it. I just was just not prepared for unicorns and colors leaping out of skulls,” Rubin said.
Rubin recommended that they publish the work in English, volunteering to translate it if need be. The publisher did not heed his advice. Kodansha published Alfred Birnbaum’s translation in 1991.
Rubin’s chance to translate Murakami came in the late 1990s with “The Windup Bird Chronicle.” He went on to translate more of the author’s work including the well-loved “Norwegian Wood,” “After Dark,” and the short story collection “Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman.”
In between Murakami’s books, Rubin translated a collection of stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa. “After I had been working on Murakami I had almost forgotten what pure Japanese is like,” said Rubin.
The influence of the English language on Murakami’s writing is part of what makes Murakami stand out among Japanese authors, Rubin said.
Murakami’s clear, direct style makes his work appealing to beginning students of Japanese. It also usually makes it easier to translate though at points requires a certain finesse, Rubin said.
For example, in the story “Tony Takitani” about a boy growing up with a western first name in the postwar years, Murakami uses the expression “it was no bed of roses,” which is not a Japanese idiom.
As a translator Rubin had to choose between preserving the original — which is a cliche in English — or trying to capture Murakami’s intent with a more literal statement. He chose the latter.
Murakami’s use of such expressions is “the kind of thing you might get in the translation of an American novel” and “part of why his style seems kind of foreign to a Japanese reader” said Rubin.
Though readers in English know him as a novelist, Murakami has translated dozens of books into Japanese, including mainstays of the American literary canon “The Great Gatsby” and “Catcher in the Rye.”
When Rubin translated “The Windup Bird Chronicle,” he says he saved all his questions about the work until he saw Murakami in Tokyo and spent an exhausting day picking over details with the author.
Since then, he sends his questions right away. The two correspond by e-mail with Rubin writing in English and Murakami in Japanese.
Rubin is currently putting the finishing touches on his translation of a book of interviews on music Murakami did with conductor Seiji Ozawa.
Rubin enjoyed translating the work because it meant listening to the music Ozawa and Murakami were talking about in the interviews.
At the same time, Philip Gabriel, Murakami’s other main translator, is working on his most recent novel, “Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage,” a much shorter book than 1Q84.
Whether the book will put Murakami over the top for next year’s Nobel remains to be seen. In the meantime, to borrow a line from 1Q84, the beat goes on.