The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan



Lost—or enhanced?—in Translation

Engaging more readers globally with Japanese works

By Roland Kelts

I traveled to both coasts of the United States last year on the same mission: introducing US readers to contemporary Japanese literature, translated.

As a cultural export, literature can offer exceptionally intimate engagement with the proverbial other. It grants access to another culture’s feelings, perceptions, and assumptions—and a glimpse, perhaps, into its densely coded DNA.

In May, my editorial colleagues Ted Goossen, Motoyuki Shibata and I hosted a weeklong series of events in New York City to launch the fourth edition of Monkey Business, an annual publication founded in 2011 that combines English-language translations of Japanese fiction, poetry, essays, interviews, manga, and photo-stories with original contributions from American writers whose work is published in Japanese.

Our events also brought together authors from both countries, including award-winning Toh EnJoe and Hideo Furukawa from Japan, and Americans Laird Hunt and Matthew Sharpe.


I was back in Manhattan in August to deliver a presentation pegged to the release of Haruki Murakami’s latest novel, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. I have known Murakami since 1999 and interviewed him on several occasions.

Goossen, a scholar and translator of Murakami’s fiction, joined me, as did pianist Eunbi Kim, co-creator of a performance project featuring live music, dance, and theater, called Murakami Music.

October saw me traveling to California with Monkey Business for a two-week, six-city tour starting in San Diego and ending in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Authors Furukawa, Tomoka Shibasaki (co-winner of this year’s Akutagawa Prize, Japan’s most prestigious literary award), and poet Hiromi Ito were joined by American writers Steve Erickson, Peter Orner, and Dean Rader, as well as literary translators Michael Emmerich and Andrew Leong.

In most cases, audiences on both sides of the continent have been large, keenly interested, and very curious. For while manga, anime, film, and music can sometimes transcend or circumvent the question of translation, literature is language.

And unlike European languages, many of which bear some similarity to contemporary English, Japanese can appear—superficially at least—a radically different tongue, one whose intricacies and embedded expectations might seem untranslatable. When you read a Japanese story that has been translated into English, how much of the original are you really getting?

The “lost in translation” question is as tantalizing as its converse: what, if anything, might be gained, or enhanced, when Japanese writing is translated into English?

Scholar Jay Rubin, one of Murakami’s long-time American translators, once half-jokingly told an audience in Seattle that when they read Murakami in English, 95 percent of the writing is by Jay Rubin. The audience, Rubin reports, was none too happy to hear it.

Murakami madnessARTS NOBEL PRIZE
Murakami, of course, is an exceptional case in nearly every respect. His work has been translated into over 40 languages.

His books are not only bestsellers at home—where his new titles often break publishing industry sales records set by his older works—but also in countries as far-flung as Germany, Italy, and Australia. One week after the Manhattan release presentation in August, Tsukuru Tazaki topped The New York Times bestseller list.

And Murakami is a translator, too, primarily of US literature into Japanese. Novels and stories by John Irving, F. Scott Fitzgerald, J.D. Salinger, and others have all been rendered readable in native Japanese by Murakami. Plus, his name on the cover virtually guarantees brisk sales.

Murakami’s finely tuned understanding, not only of the two languages but also of the US and Japanese cultures, was driven home in 2008, when he and I read his work onstage at the University of California, Berkeley, and engaged in a public discussion before a sold-out crowd of over 2,000.

We had dined and talked together in the days leading up to the event, though he politely resisted my attempts at preparation. As we stood in the wings waiting to go onstage, I was nervous, but he was not.

When he stepped out to introduce a story he would read in Japanese, followed by my reading in English, he joked about missing a World Series game on TV that evening and a meeting with Thom Yorke of Radiohead back in Tokyo—just so he could be at Berkeley. “You’re very lucky I showed up” was his message.

From that point on, the audience was Murakami’s, and my job was staying out of his way.

Humor is one of the keys to any culture, but it can also be one of the trickiest to fit into a foreign lock. Murakami’s acute understanding of the US cultural sensibility is at least partly traceable, I believe, to his lifelong reading and appreciation of the country’s literature.

He began reading novels by American writers as a boy in Kobe, and was particularly drawn to the works of Raymond Chandler, Kurt Vonnegut, and Richard Brautigan.

Combined with his love of US popular music, from the Modern Jazz Quartet and the Beach Boys to the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Murakami’s engagement with American literature took him beyond the country’s history and politics. His reading went deeper than the slapstick humor of a Bugs Bunny cartoon or Three Stooges movie, and into the realm of feeling and personality.

Laughter and playfulness
Humor, and a liberal dose of playfulness, drive the Monkey Business project, too, and is a quality we try to convey in the pages and at the live events in North America.

Its title is lifted from a 1956 Chuck Berry song about eluding the seriousness and petty hang-ups of modern life, and was chosen by Shibata when he started the original, Japanese-language publication in 2008. (The current Japanese edition is published three times per year and is now simply called Monkey.)

Murakami is a frequent contributor to both the Japanese and English editions, and is arguably one of the reasons they exist at all. I was introduced to Shibata at one of Murakami’s readings in New York City in 2002, and when his name appears in the table of contents, the publication tends to find readers a little faster.

One of the project’s aspirations is to broaden the English-language readership beyond Murakami, by introducing a wide array of Japanese writers and artists. It isn’t easy.

A mere 2-3 percent of books published in the United States and the UK are works in translation, versus 27 percent in France, 28 percent in Spain, and 40 percent in Turkey, as reported in September 2014 by the BBC.

According to the Japan Foundation, roughly 65 Japanese titles were translated into English over the past year, a slight drop from the year before.

Exporting Japanese literature is no sure bet, though I feel privileged to be a part of the mission. When I meet readers of Monkey and Murakami, they remind me that the experience of literature across languages is enriching and edifying, but also a whole lot of fun.


Roland Kelts is a half-Japanese American writer, editor, and lecturer who divides his time between Tokyo and New York. He is the author of the acclaimed bestseller Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the US and the forthcoming novel Access. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in The New Yorker, Time, Psychology Today, Playboy, and The Wall Street Journal. Kelts authors a monthly column for The Japan Times, and is also a frequent contributor to CNN and NPR.

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