Books Chapter & Verse

Meet the woman who brings Haruki Murakami works to an enthusiastic Poland

Anna Zielińska-Elliott is now translating her 12th Murakami novel from Japanese into Polish, as she has done for 30 years. She is a professor of Japanese literature at Boston University.

Anna Zielińska-Elliott translates Haruki Murakami’s latest novel, 'Killing Commendatore.'
Courtesy of Anna Zielińska-Elliott
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  • Jingnan Peng

When Haruki Murakami's 13th novel, "Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage," was released in Poland, Polish readers didn't necessarily need to go to bookstores to find a copy. Instead, in three Polish cities, Japanese-style vending machines were installed, offering hot-off-the-press copies of the novel (a coming-of-age story about a railway-station designer).

The vending machines were a short-lived phenomenon, just one piece of an extravagant PR campaign on behalf of the book, but their presence in heavily traveled public places says much about Murakami's place in mainstream Polish culture. Polish readers have enthusiastically embraced the Japanese writer and his often fantastical stories of love, loss, and guilt.

Behind Murakami’s fame in Poland is a woman leading a quiet life in Boston.

Anna Zielińska-Elliott is now translating her 12th Murakami novel – the latest, "Killing Commendatore." Having translated Murakami for 30 years, she feels as if she can hear him speaking in Polish as she reads the Japanese. A professor of Japanese literature at Boston University by day, Zielińska-Elliott is like one of those Murakami characters with a curious double occupation. With this new book, she is also trying a new method: Instead of reading through the text first, she is rendering it sentence by sentence as she reads.

“It’s a more exciting experience,” Dr. Zielińska-Elliott said. “I don’t know what’s coming on the next page.”

Anna Zielińska-Elliott’s translations and her picture guide to Murakami’s Tokyo.
Courtesy of Anna Zielińska-Elliott
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Raised in Poland, Zielińska-Elliott moved to the US in 1993 when she married an American. But her tortuous journey to bring Murakami to Poland began a few years before that.

Zielińska-Elliott had never thought she would become a translator until, in 1987, she encountered Murakami’s work as a college student studying linguistics in Tokyo. It was the year the love story "Norwegian Wood" took over Japan’s bookstores. One day, her language tutor brought her Murakami’s short story "Her Little Dog Underground."

She was struck by an aspect of the writing that is perhaps central to Murakami's global appeal. “While it was very clearly set in Japan, there were no visible markers of Japan,” Zielińska-Elliott recalls. “No Japanese names, no Japanese food. There was something really universal about it, and I thought I’d try to translate it and see how it would feel.”

Her friends liked her translation, she said. Encouraged, she went on to translate Murakami’s "A Wild Sheep Chase," a surreal quasi-detective story. She could not find a publisher, however, as Murakami was then unknown in Poland. Eventually, one publisher expressed interest, but it couldn’t afford the copyright fee.

“This was a few years after the USSR collapsed,” Zielińska-Elliott said. “The economy was in shambles. So I wrote a letter to Murakami. I wrote about the situation of a Polish intellectual, who wants to buy books but can’t afford them. Later, [Murakami's wife, Yoko,] called me. She quoted a really small amount, and I said: ‘Oh, yeah! That’s fine. I can pay it myself.’”

"A Wild Sheep Chase" came out in Poland in 1995, when Zielińska-Elliott was already living in the US. The publisher did little advertising for the book, she said, and it did not have a large impact. Still, the novel won an award for translation debuts. Years later, another Polish publisher commissioned Zielińska-Elliott to translate Murakami, and released multiple novels by him simultaneously. This time, Murakami took off.

Meeting the publisher’s demand while teaching full-time has not always been easy. “I have no life,” Zielińska-Elliott said, laughing. “When I’m translating a book, every free moment I spend on it.”

To preserve the feel of the Japanese original, Zielińska-Elliott has to race against another “deadline” – the publication date of the English translation.

Her editor, who does not speak Japanese, would judge her work’s quality based on the published English translation, Zielińska-Elliott explained. This phenomenon, called “the hegemony of English,” is a frustration for many European translators of Murakami.

“English versions are often heavily edited. And generally, they tend to domesticate, so all the foreignness is taken out,” Zielińska-Elliott said. “My editor would compare my version to the English and say: ‘This is not in the original.’ And I’d say: ‘Yeah, it was cut from your ‘original,’ but it is in the ‘original original.’”

With the dystopian novel "1Q84," Zielińska-Elliott finally got ahead of the English version. She was able to render Murakami’s creative uses of Japanese in the speech of a character diagnosed with dyslexia – which was not preserved in the English – without raised eyebrows from her editor.

Despite these constraints, translation is a game Zielińska-Elliott enjoys. “You try to understand a character, develop a way they speak, and try to stay in that character,” she said. “It’s like in a puppet theater.”

The in-depth reading her work involves can also become too intense to bear. She once put off translating a chapter in "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle," which describes in chilling details the torture of a Japanese spy by Russian-led troops during WWII. Zielińska-Elliott, whose own grandfather was captured by Russians during the war, dreaded the scene and left it for the end.

“I asked my husband to sit there," she recalls, "and translated it in one sitting.”

“But then the images stayed with me for weeks. Because when you translate it, you have to let it pass through you. You really become aware of every single word.”

In the future, Zielińska-Elliott plans to publish an English version of her own picture guide to Tokyo as seen through Murakami’s fiction.

Through her work, Zielińska-Elliott has come to know Murakami personally, but out of respect to the reclusive writer, she keeps this part of the story to herself.