norwegian wood

Haruki Murakami’s NORWEGIAN WOOD was published by the Tokyo publishing house Kōdansha in 1987. Set in the late Sixties, this novel of love, loss, nostalgia and sexual awakening was a phenomenal success, especially among young Japanese – so much so that the author moved abroad to escape his sudden fame.

Two years later, in 1989, Kōdansha also published the first English translation – by Alfred Birnbaum – for inclusion in its English Language Library. Aimed at Japanese students of English, the two pocket-sized volumes retained the red-green colour scheme of the original, and included an appendix listing English phrases alongside the corresponding text in Japanese.

Birnbaum’s translation was not made available outside Japan, and is now no longer in print. It was eleven years before a second translation, by the American academic Jay Rubin, was authorised for publication and distribution abroad. The tone and style of the two English translations of NORWEGIAN WOOD are quite different, as you can see in this link comparing them with the original Japanese; or this one, which provides a more thorough analysis of context and detail.

Rubin’s version, published by both Vintage and Harvill in 2000, is the one most anglophone readers will know. In a 2011 interview, he was asked how closely Murakami was involved in the translation of his own work:

“I ask him questions by e-mail now and then, and he responds in a timely fashion; 75% of the time he answers, ‘Do whatever works in English.’ He wants the book to succeed as literature in the target language rather than slavishly adhering to his grammar or sentence structure. He’s a very experienced translator, after all.”

Murakami is an admirer of classic American novels, and has translated several into Japanese. These include F. Scott Fitzgerald’s THE GREAT GATSBY, J.D. Salinger’s THE CATCHER IN THE RYE, and books by Raymond Carver, Raymond Chandler, Truman Capote and John Irving.


I SERVED THE KING OF ENGLAND by Bohumil Hrabal was published in English in 1989, just before Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution. It was translated from the Czech by Paul Wilson. Wilson taught English in Prague for ten years, where he was also the vocalist of the famous ‘underground’ rock band The Plastic People of the Universe. He was expelled from Czechoslovakia in 1977 and, on returning to Canada, became a translator and champion of dissident Czech writers, notably Bohumil Hrabal and the future Czech president Václav Havel.

Written in 1971 and set in Prague during the Nazi occupation and the early days of communist rule, I SERVED THE KING OF ENGLAND follows the picaresque adventures of a Czech waiter and hotelier named Dítě. It was made into a successful film by the director Jiři Menzel in 2008. The novel circulated in unofficial form for years, until in 1983 the Jazz Section of the Czech Musicians Union published a private edition of 5,000 copies – for members only. The Jazz Section was legally constituted as an organisation for jazz fans, so was permitted to produce an uncensored newsletter for its members. However, this ‘newsletter’ reported not only on jazz, but on art and literature from all over world: it became the most widely read uncensored source of cultural information in communist Czechoslovakia.

Finally, 1989 also saw the publication of the first English translation from the Portuguese, by Elizabeth Lowe & Earl Fitz, of THE STREAM OF LIFE by the great Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector. This lyrical monologue, a stream of consciousness that many consider her masterpiece, was retranslated in 2012 by Stefan Tobler under the original title, ÀGUA VIVA. It is part of the collection of Lispector’s works in English translation published by New Directions and Penguin Classics.

Norwegian Wood

I Served the King of England

The Stream of Life
Lowe/Fitz translation: https://www.upress.umn.edu/book-division/books/the-stream-of-life
Tobler translation: https://www.penguin.co.uk/books/181/181805/agua-viva/9780141197364.html




Edward Seidensticker’s translation of the Japanese literary classic THE TALE OF GENJI was published in 1976. Written in the 11th century by Murasaki Shikibu, a noblewoman and lady-in-waiting at the Japanese imperial court, this monumental work provides an insight into the lives of high courtiers at the peak of the Heian period. It’s often described as the first modern novel because of its narrative complexity, psychological insight and large cast of characters.

Two translations of THE TALE OF GENJI had already been published prior to 1976. However, as Suematsu Kenchu’s 1882 version was a partial one, and Arthur Waley’s celebrated six-volume translation, published between 1921 and 1933, omitted a chapter, I’m arguing for Seidensticker’s as the first complete translation so I can sneak it into the #TA60. 🙂

Waley’s version was extremely successful. It popularised the work with a Western audience and is still widely read today. However, Seidensticker’s 1976 translation is more faithful to the original while paring back some of its more florid elements. In an entertaining essay entitled ‘On Trying to Translate Japanese’, published in 1958, Seidensticker had commented:

‘One cannot be enthusiastic about the results thus far of literal translation from the Japanese. It has been responsible for the “by your honourable shadow” school […] [T]he pitch cannot be maintained for long. Most translators will decide, after the Oh’s and the Ah’s, after the blubbering that never seems to strike the Japanese as sentimental and therefore presumably isn’t, after pages on end in which ellipsis alternates with pleonasm, that something must be done.’

THE TALE OF GENJI recounts the life of Genji – son of the Japanese emperor and a low-ranking concubine, who becomes an imperial officer – amid the romantic and political intrigue of the Heian imperial court. The original novel is written in stylistically complex, archaic 11th century court language, and is inaccessible to ordinary Japanese readers. The first translation into modern Japanese was completed by the poet Akiko Yosano in the early 20th century. It’s quite common for people in Japan to read an annotated version.


Asked to name any novel in translation, how many readers would immediately think of ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE? First published in Spanish in 1967 at the height of the Latin American boom, this seminal work by the Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez was instantly, and phenomenally, successful. A classic of the genre that became known as ‘magical realism’, it’s sold more than 45 million copies worldwide and been translated into 44 languages, making it the best-selling and most-translated Spanish-language book in modern history, after DON QUIXOTE. In a survey of international writers in 2009, ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE topped the poll of novels that had shaped world literature over the preceding 25 years. García Márquez was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for his oeuvre in 1982.

ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE was translated from the Spanish by the great Gregory Rabassa and published in English in 1970. The author famously praised Rabassa’s translation as ‘better than the original’, calling him ‘the best Latin American writer in the English language’. On the advice of Julio Cortázar, García Márquez waited three years for Rabassa to be free to translate his novel. He later said that both of his eminent translators, Rabassa and Edith Grossman, exemplified what he liked best about translation in that they placed intuitiveness above intellectualism. Rabassa himself commented: ‘When I talk about it, I say the English is hiding behind his Spanish. That’s what a good translation is: you have to think if García Márquez had been born speaking English, that’s how a translation should sound.’

Another bestselling translated book that year was PAPILLON, Henri Charrière’s ostensibly autobiographical account of his incarceration in and subsequent escape from the penal colony of French Guiana. It has been described as ‘the greatest adventure story of all time’ and was later made into a major film starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman. Two English translations from the original French were published in 1970: Patrick O’Brian’s appeared in the UK, while the US edition was translated by June P. Wilson and Walter B. Michaels.

Finally, two other notable works that first became available to us in English in 1970: THE SOUND OF THE MOUNTAIN by the Japanese Nobel Prize-winner Yasunari Kawabata was translated by Edward Seidensticker; and BABI YAR: A DOCUMENT IN THE FORM OF A NOVEL. Anatoli Kuznetsov’s shocking account bears witness to the massacre of more than 33,700 Jewish civilians over two days in the Babi Yar ravine in Ukraine in 1941. Kuznetsov, who was a teenager during the Nazi occupation of Kyiv, wove together his own and other eye-witness accounts to write this important testimony to one of the largest single mass killings of the Holocaust. It was initially published in a Russian journal in 1966, heavily censored and edited. Three years later Kuznetsov defected from the USSR to the UK, bringing with him the unexpurgated version he described as ‘the authentic text’. This was published in 1970 under the pseudonym ‘A. Anatoli’, in a translation from the Russian by David Lloyd.


FORBIDDEN COLOURS by Yukio Mishima was translated from the Japanese by Alfred H. Marks and published in English 1968, two years before Mishima committed seppuku (ritual suicide) after an attempted coup d’état. The Japanese title, ‘Kinjiki’, refers to colours that people of certain ranks were not allowed to wear at the Japanese court. ‘Kinjiki’ combines the kanji 禁 ‘forbidden’, and 色 ‘colour’ – but 色 can also mean ‘erotic love’. Thus the title is a euphemism for homosexuality. In FORBIDDEN COLOURS an ageing, misogynistic man takes revenge on the female sex by manipulating a handsome young man, who marries for money but lacks the ability to love.

The translator, Alfred H. Marks, developed an interest in Japan as a result of his service there with U.S. military intelligence during World War II. A professor of English literature, he returned as a Fulbright scholar in 1965 and subsequently translated modern Japanese literature, in particular the work of Mishima.

Other first-time publications in English translation in 1968 include the Danish cult classic HAVOC by Tom Kristensen, translated by Carl Malmberg. The tale of a disaffected man of letters spiralling into alcoholism and self-destruction, author Karl Ove Knausgård describes it as ‘one of the best novels ever to come out of Scandinavia’.

And there’s another great work by our #TA60 1966 author, the Norwegian master Tarjei Vessas: THE BIRDS, translated from Nynorsk by Torbjørn Støverud and Michael Barnes. Here’s the opening paragraph, because it’s beautiful:

‘It was evening. Mattis looked to see if the sky was clear and free of cloud. It was. Then he said to his sister Hege, to cheer her up: “You’re like lightning.”’



I AM DAVID by Anne Holm was a landmark in 20th century children’s literature. Until it was published and achieved great international success, political evil was not considered a suitable subject for young readers. The book tells the story of the fictional David, who escapes from a mysterious concentration camp and has to cross Europe to try and find safety in Denmark. I AM DAVID was translated from the Danish by L.W. Kingsland and published in English in 1965.

Junichiro Tanizaki’s DIARY OF A MAD OLD MAN also appeared in English in 1965, translated from the Japanese by Howard Hibbett. Tanizaki, one of the great modern Japanese writers, uses the diary form to explore the power love and sex continue to exert over the sick and ageing protagonist.

60 years of literary translation

Founded in 1958, the Translators Association of The Society of Authors (TA) is celebrating its 60th anniversary. For the next 60 weeks we will post and tweet a classic translation for each TA year, and name the translator who rewrote it so we could enjoy it in English. Follow on Twitter with the hashtag #TA60.

Ready? Here we go!

DOCTOR ZHIVAGO, Boris Pasternak’s epic masterpiece, was smuggled out of Russia and first published in Italian, translated by Pietro Zveteremich. In 1958 readers were able to enjoy the first English translation – from the Russian – by Max Hayward and Manya Harari.

Other classic translations first published in English in 1958 include Nobel laureate Yasunari Kawabata’s THOUSAND CRANES, translated from Japanese by Edward Seidensticker, and Alain Robbe-Grillet’s postmodern mystery THE VOYEUR, translated from French by Richard Howard.