Into the benkyō-ness: Let us now praise difficult kanji

kanji practice

I have an article in the Japan Times today: “Complicated characters: Let us now praise difficult kanji.”

This column was inspired by two of my biggest Japanese-related realizations of all time:

1. Katakana are not inherently more difficult than hiragana.

2. Kanji are not more difficult than English words.

I think everyone comes to understand these at some point, if they study long enough, but it’s always useful to review them.

I wrote more in depth about the first a few years ago (jeez, five years ago). Students of Japanese usually start with hiragana, then go on to katakana and kanji. They learn the pronunciation of all the individual katakana, but because there are comparatively fewer katakana words, they don’t get enough reps with any to really let them sink in. Whenever they do encounter them, they end up sounding out the syllables one at a time, wondering why the script is so difficult.

By contrast, they see 勉強 so much in the first few months, that it turns into what it should be: A gestalt larger than the individual parts. The kanji are still there, if you look closely enough (and within the kanji, the strokes), but dial back your focus, and they disappear into the benkyō-ness.

My recommendation to new students of the language: Don’t learn the hiragana or katakana individually. Just start memorizing whole words. I mean, I guess you need to do them individually at some point in order to learn how to write them, but I would recommend adding large katakana words to your flashcards or SRS software immediately. カレー, ラーメン, パソコン, all of these will be far more useful than the individual katakana.

The second realization may still be up for debate. I think Japanese and foreigners who study the language both enjoy contributing to the myth that Japanese is “the most difficult language in the world.” A good portion of this myth is supported by the sheer numbers: Japanese has THREE written “languages” and there are TWO THOUSAND kanji. Saying something like English has TWENTY-SIX letters just doesn’t feel as hefty in comparison. The fact that kanji are pictographs also contributes: My god, man, they look so damn complicated! How do you even deal with a language that isn’t phonetic?

But this assumes two things:

1. Two thousand characters allow for more combinations (and more difficult combinations) than twenty-six letters.

2. Being able to pronounce a word is equivalent to knowing what it means.

1 may seem true at first, but when you consider the fact that most kanji compounds only have two characters (and the longer ones can be broken down into sets of two), whereas the average English word is 5.1 letters, the playing field levels a bit. (Based on this website which gives Japanese an average word length of over 34…clearly mistaken since it acknowledges at the top that its calculation is based on languages with spaces.)

Japanese words look like this: __ __, with roughly two thousand possibilities for each space.

English words look like this: __ __ __ __ __, with twenty-six possibilities for each space.

2000 x 2000 = 2,000,000

26 to the power of 5 = 11,881,376

Obviously, there aren’t that many words in either language, but this is just a quick calculation that can hopefully put things in perspective: English words are equally complex as kanji.

And they are also equally simple. Take, for example, antidisestablishmentarianism. When I was in 3rd Grade, this was the word to know, for whatever reason. I guess when you’re ten years old, it’s really cool to know long words that seem complicated.

At the time, it seemed like one massive thing, but when I look at it now, it looks like kanji to me. Rather than being a gestalt or a string of individual letters, I see little packets of information: anti-, dis-, establishment, -arian, -ism.

Theoretically, you don’t even need to know how to pronounce these to know their meaning. They provide a visual way to break down the word, to a certain extent (if you are familiar with them). Which is another advantage to kanji: Because the pieces contain more information in and of themselves—is it safe to say that 義 holds more information on its own than -ism?—you have an additional method to gain information from the pieces, independent of their pronunciation.

Just because we English speakers don’t spend time in school learning these packets in the same way that Japanese students tackle kanji (lots of repetition required to master the ability to write the individual units) doesn’t mean that English is easier. They just require different strategies.

That’s all well and good, you might say, but give us something prescriptive, Morales! Well, the best I can do is these two pieces of advice:

1. Start reading in context as soon as you can. This will force you to look at kanji as compounds rather than individual characters.

2. When you are practicing your kanji composition, practice writing compounds or short phrases rather than individual kanji. This will hopefully serve to embed the idea that the whole is more important than the parts. For an example of this, see the image at the top of the post: These are my notebooks from study for the JLPT Level 1 test.

And if you haven’t yet, you must read “Kanji as Argo,” over at No-Sword, an amazing take on studying kanji that emphasizes number 1. The money quote:

…if you were learning French, you wouldn’t refuse to look at a French book at all until you’d memorized all possible verb conjugation patterns. (If that was the standard approach, no-one would ever read any French books at all—not even the French.)

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki Review Round-up

My review of Philip Gabriel’s translation of Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage is online over at the: “Haruki Murakami’s new book peels back the layers of friendship.”

But others have written smarter things than I have. Notably, Patti Smith in the New York Times:

The feel is uneven, the dialogue somewhat stilted, either by design or flawed in translation. Yet there are moments of epiphany gracefully expressed, especially in regard to how people affect one another. “One heart is not connected to another through harmony alone,” Tsukuru comes to understand. “They are, instead, linked deeply through their wounds. Pain linked to pain, fragility to fragility. There is no silence without a cry of grief, no forgiveness without bloodshed, no acceptance without a passage through acute loss.” The book reveals another side of Murakami, one not so easy to pin down. Incurably restive, ambiguous and valiantly struggling toward a new level of maturation. A shedding of Murakami skin. It is not “Blonde on Blonde,” it is “Blood on the Tracks.”

Her note about the dialogue is true, and that feels very strange since I’m finding the dialogue in “Yesterday” from the New Yorker pretty cleverly translated. (I’m still in the middle of that story and may write something about it soon.)

And I think she’s also right on about Murakami’s main message with the book, which is something I hit on last year in my review of the Japanese version at Neojaponisme: Are we only ever “talking on the phone”?

I think Sean O’Hagan at The Guardian sees Tsukuru Tazaki within Murakami’s overall oeuvre more clearly than Smith:

Essentially, Murakami writes two kinds of novels: the deftly delineated personal odyssey of self-discovery narrative – Norwegian Wood, South of the Border, West of the Sun (both 2000) – and the more ambitiously plotted, often supernaturally shaded, epic shaggy dog story – A Wild Sheep Chase (1989), Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World (1991), The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1997). The latter approach, which incorporates elements of magic realism, science fiction and Japanese mythology, reached an apogee of sorts with his most recent novel, the three-volume 1Q84, which by turns mesmerised and baffled with its bewildering and, in places, disturbing plot. It involved a female character who wandered off a freeway into a parallel universe and a darkly mystical cult led by a self-styled prophet who indulged in creepy sex with the young female assassin hired by a mysterious dowager to kill him.

Colorless Tsukuru, perhaps as a reaction to the excesses of IQ84, falls into the first category, its relatively straightforward narrative centring on an archetypal Murakami character: a lonely young Japanese man whose life has been dislocated by a traumatic event he cannot make sense of.

I agree that this book is a reaction to 1Q84. This is true not only in scope but in technique. Rather than boring the reader with endless repetition of activities (reading Proust, exercising, etc.), Murakami bores in Tsukuru Tazaki with narrative summary. I don’t think I noticed this so much when reading in Japanese, but it felt interesting and new for him at first in translation.

For example, between Chapter 9 and 10, when Tsukuru decides to go on his pilgrimage to meet his old friends, he is very decisive, which is not usual of Murakami protagonists. Throughout his past novels and as recently as Tengo in 1Q84, the characters drink and sink themselves into routine in order to escape pain and confusion, but Tsukuru needs only an hour watching trains to obtain a temporary sense of release and then he’s on to the next spot. Murakami needed thousands of pages to cover six months in 1Q84. In Tsukuru Tazaki he only needed a few hundred to cover sixteen years.

But Murakami gets so wrapped up in this technique that he forgets to include certain details, which he is forced to add in (again as narrative summary) later in the book. The two I’m thinking of in particular are Shiro’s piano lessons, which would have been much more helpful to the reader as a scene earlier in the novel, and the time when Tsukuru sits and watches trains in Finland, which again would have made more sense given in chronological order (although it would have ruined his concision a bit).

Perhaps Murakami is attempting to mirror Tsukuru’s thought process, so these things come and go as they do in his mind. But it could just be a lack of revision, which Sgt. Tanuki covers in his blog post (which I’m glad I didn’t see until just recently…so that it didn’t color (get it?) my own review):

I enjoyed parts of it a great deal, and overall I think it’s more successful than 1Q84 (although if 1Q84 had ended at Part II it would have been better than this). But I think it suffers from some of the flaws of that book, and I think they both could have been remedied if Murakami was the type of author to rewrite and revise, but it seems he’s not; he sits down to write and writes until he’s done, and then he’s done, is the way I hear it, and so in this book we get character arcs that are unnaturally truncated, character development coming as he thinks of it, not as it’s needed, subplots and subtexts coming and going seemingly at random; and we get passages of flabby prose, where he’s clearly riffing, trying to find the melody that will carry him to the next plot point or epiphany. The last fifty pages of the book were positively maddening in this respect: anticlimactic, repetitive, aimless, but including passages of great insight and beauty that, if they’d been placed elsewhere in the book, would have made a great deal of sense.

The most damning criticism I’ve seen so far comes from O’Hagan:

What I learned is that, like other Murakami characters before him, Tsukuru seems to have grown older without really growing up. His discontents are essentially adolescent and one cannot help harbouring the suspicion that the majority of Murakami’s vast global fanbase either recognise and share those discontents or are themselves adolescents.

Ouch. That hits close to home.

Phillip Gabriel’s translation seems very well done for the most part, but he does seem to miss a minor callback to a 1980 Murakami short story (one of his earliest), “A ‘Poor Aunt’ Story.” (Which you can find at Osakabe Yoshio’s site if you don’t have a New Yorker subscription.)

In the story, the narrator finds a “poor aunt” stuck on his back: “I first realized she was there in the middle of August. Not that anything in particular happened to alert me to her presence. I simply felt it one day: I had a poor aunt there on my back.”

In Tsukuru Tazaki, Sara offers to find his friends for Tsukuru:

“So tell me those four names. After that, you decide. Once I find out more about them, if you feel you don’t want to see them, then you don’t have to go ahead with it. That’s entirely up to you. But apart from that, personally, I’m curious about them. I want to find out more about these people who are still weighing you down.”

Here is the Japanese and my own translation:


Tell me their names. You can decide what happens after that. If, after certain things become clear, you still don’t want to see them, then you don’t have to. Because it’s your problem. But despite that, I just happen to be interested in them. I want to know more about them. About the people that are still, even now, imprinted on your back.

I don’t think Gabriel’s translation is an egregious change, but it does alter the character of the line a little.

I think Tsukuru Tazaki shares a lot with the story. In both, the protagonist suffers from a deep, unshakeable psychological condition, and in both, the condition has physical manifestations; the story has more fun with the magical realism, but in the novel, Tsukuru loses weight and looks like a totally different person afterward.

Overall, I thought the translation was okay. It didn’t keep me reading, although that might be because I already knew what was going to happen.

I did, however, enjoy the tension between Tsukuru and Sara, and at the end of the book, I found myself really sucked in, wanting to know how she felt, what she thought, what she was going to say. It was just a blip, the briefest moment, but there was a little magic there. Because you never know exactly how someone is taking in the world around you, even though it seems so definite and objective.

I’ll be curious to see what Murakami does next. His latest book of stories is only okay. I’d say he bats .250, which is pretty good for a baseball player, but not so hot for a short story writer. I know he’ll keep on swinging, though. Maybe he’s got a few more hits in him, but sadly I don’t think there are any home runs left.

Japanese Adverb POWER RANKINGS


I have a new column up on the Japan Times: “Particles create the chemistry of adjectives and adverbs.”

I actually drafted a blog post along these lines (with the whole chemistry analogy) way, way, waaay back in the day (when I was posting thrice weekly) but lost it to a hard drive crash. I remembered it recently because I was thinking about おいしく.

I loved the way that my roommate used the word—I don’t think I’d ever heard it used that way before. A quick Google search shows 4 million plus hits for おいしそうに and only 618,000 for おいしく, so it is somewhat odd/infrequently used. Each of those could technically be translated as “deliciously,” depending on the context.

This all inspired me to put together a quick power rankings of Japanese adverbs. Here you have it:

5. 悔しく
4. 適当に
3. 早く
2. おいしく
1. ちょっと

I assume that 悔しく gets used? It’s one of my favorite adjectives, so I put it on the list. 適当に is another fave, and I’ve written about it in the past. 早く takes third mostly because I was imagining a whiny kid saying 母ーさん、早く〜(HAyaKUUUU). おいしく is wonderful, as I previously mentioned.

I think the reason why おいしく and perhaps 悔しく are so interesting as adverbs is that as adjectives they are more “performative” rather than “descriptive.” 悔しい is what someone says when something sucked. おいしい is what someone says when something is delicious. They are connected equally (if not more so) with the state of the partaker as with that of which is partaken; in other words, how the partaker feels having partaken (in something delicious or a shitty experience).

Other adjectives such as 暑い, 遅い, 静か, etc. are more objective and relate to the object only. Adjectives don’t always work this way in English: Saying “that was delicious,” while equally subjective, feels closer to my bowl of ramen than うまい or おいしい does. …if that makes any sense.

Of course, only ちょっと can be the number one. I love it because of its frequency and variety of use and because it is one exception to the beautiful uniformity of く and に adverbs.

Are there any others that I’m missing?

Cool Compound – 前世


Hey folks, sorry I haven’t rapped at ya lately. I’m still working my way through 女のいない男たち, but it’s been slow going and has derailed my work on Hard-boiled Wonderland: I’ve only read two stories and the forward so far, and I skipped over “Drive My Car” (which I read in 文藝春秋 last fall), so I have 2.5 stories left. My attention span feels shot these days, thanks in part to work but also to the NBA playoffs (and now the Finals!). There were games every day for a while and then every other day, and now my Spurs are in the Finals again and the emotional toll is brutal: Controlling my emotional landscape is the game within the game.

Another thing is that the stories have been less than spectacular so far. “Drive My Car” was okay, from what I remember, but I don’t feel any desire to reread it in Japanese just yet, maybe once the translation comes out. “Yesterday” will be in the June 9 fiction issue of the New Yorker and is already online for subscribers. It was okay. “Independent Organs” (it should definitely be “organ” and not “body” as I suggested in my post about the collection) was disappointing and a bit lame. So far “Scheherazade” has the most compelling start, and it partly has to do with the cool kanji compound 前世 (ぜんせい).

Even beginner students should be able to draw out the meaning of this compound based on the basic rules for kanji compounds. This is, I believe, one of the Adjective + Noun varieties. 前 (before) + 世 (world) = the previous world = past life.

The word gets used in this passage:


“I was a lamprey in a past life,” Scheherazade said in bed one time. “I have distinct memories of it. Of sticking onto rocks at the bottom of the water, of slipping in between seaweed and waving in the current, of looking up at a fat trout as he passed overhead.”

So that’s a nice little passage, very typically Murakami, I’d say.

But I think these stories have bored me a little because there is just so little action. One commonality that ties them all together so far is that, much like the stories in Dead Heat on a Merry-go-round, storytelling itself is a theme. But Murakami was more adept at shifting between narrating the person telling the story and narrating action directly in that 1985 collection. And I believe they were shorter than these stories (eight stories as opposed to six spread out over fewer pages?). I’m curious to know why he’s chosen to work with the current length. My gut instinct is that these are the first short stories he’s written in a long time and he feels the need to have his form take a “step,” which maybe he felt he took with novels by writing 1Q84 (his attempt at a “comprehensive novel”).

At any rate, I have higher hopes for “Scheherazade,” and I’m curious to see what he does with the stories of shorter length toward the end of the collection. I’ll try to check back in before too long.

Cool Word – やけ酒


I have another column in the Japan Times today: “Drinking in Japan: Sober words to help you socialize.” It’s a fun column with some of the words you might encounter at a drinking party with coworkers…and an equally useful set that might help you avoid such a drinking party – not exactly an easy thing to do in Japan.

Sadly I don’t have the artwork I wanted to include with this post. When I was studying abroad, I had a crush on this girl in the international exchange club. I never had much of a chance to get to know her or even interact with her all that much, but there was one time when we talked and she drew me a very simple cartoon vocab lesson. She drew two people drinking together and labeled it サシ飲み and a sad person drinking alone and labeled it やけ酒.

やけ酒 is one of those words that has such a specific usage that it generally draws laughs when used as hyperbole. I haven’t ever really had much of an occasion to drink away my sorrows, to be honest, but it’s fun to pretend sometimes. Two Saturdays ago, my San Antonio Spurs lost Game 3 of their series against the Dallas Mavericks in devastating fashion: 37-year-old Vince Carter hit a last-second corner three to end the game. My Japanese coworker texted me: “I’m sorry. Vince made a miracle shot!”

I texted back: “今夜はやけ酒です(ㄒ.ㄒ)”

His response was, “「やけ酒」is good word (笑)”

So, yes, use it for laughs, use it for real. Hopefully the former and not the latter.

As I was getting ready to write this post, I looked for that cartoon that the girl had drawn for me ten years ago, but I wasn’t able to track it down. I have two file folders of loose photos and letters, and I was hoping it was tucked away in there. Alas. It still might be in a book somewhere, but it’s likely I threw it away.

Which turns out to be appropriate…somewhat. Apparently there are kanji for やけ酒, and they look like this:


I’m not exactly a kanji master, but those look like ateji to me. Literally you have self (自) + throw away () + liquor (酒). The first two are a compound where 自 is the direct object and 棄 is the verb: “throw away/abandon yourself.”

The real pronunciation looks more evident from this compound: 自暴自棄 (じぼうじき). Very cool stuff – check out the Japanese definition here to see if you can understand it, and then take a look at the English here if it’s difficult.

The Spurs lost again tonight (Friday, 5/2), and I can’t sleep so I wrote this post. I’ll save the self-destructive drinking for tomorrow night.

New Murakami Collection – “Men Without Women”

2014-04-22 16.02.45

I got the new Murakami short story collection Men Without Women in the mail today! Here are my initial impressions:

- It has a great cover. The art style is simple and almost like calligraphy in effect. I especially like the inclusion of a cat, which seems typically Murakami. The bar is also a nice touch, too, but the messy lawn under the tree gives the image its true power: it feels real and messy, very natural.

- It has a suitably cheesy sales pitch on the cover: “A world of Murakami short stories for the first time in 9 years. The stories are deeper, more poignant, and beyond expectation.”

- Here is the index:

Forward – 8 pages
“Drive My Car” – 52 pages
“Yesterday” – 52 pages
“Independent Bodies” – 52 pages
“Scheherazade” – 42 pages
“Kino” – 52 pages
“Men Without Women”- 22 pages

Murakami was impressively consistent with the length of stories, and I realize now (looking at the publishing history at the back of the book) that this is likely because all the stories were published in Bungeishunju. I’m kind of glad I didn’t know this earlier (and therefore didn’t blow cash on individual issues other than the very first one). Only the final story is a brand new 書き下ろし (kakioroshi).

- Notes on story titles: A couple of Beatles songs in there. One 1001 Arabian Nights reference. One nod to Hemingway. A Japanese pun (独立器官 = independent organs instead of 独立機関 = independent bodies?). And a Japanese surname (木野 = Kino).

- He includes a forward, which he immediately notes that he does not enjoy doing but had to for this collection due to the way it came about (ooh, very interesting…I’ll save the rest of the read for my commute tomorrow).

- Looks like a fun read! I’m sad to say that we’re well beyond Murakami’s early collections which were looser, more abstract, and contained shorter stories. I’ll probably start reading this week and may or may not liveblog at some point this weekend. I make no promises: It is the NBA postseason.


Chapter 17 “End of the World, Charlie Parker, Time Bomb” is a very short chapter, which is fortunate because it’s largely exposition: The scientist’s granddaughter has arrived at Watashi’s apartment, and they chat about what the grandfather must be up to, messing around in Watashi’s head with shuffling. She sneaks into his bed, making this a very softcore sexposition of sorts, which dials up the tension a bit, but otherwise it’s pretty plain, and short.

There is only one minor cut by Birnbaum (or his editor) in a section that is a brief break from the exposition to do some character detail. Check it out:

















“School is just sixteen years of wearing down your brain—that’s what grandpa always said. And he hardly went to school either.”

“That’s impressive,” I said. “But weren’t you lonely without any friends your own age?”

“Hmm, I dunno. I was just so busy I never had time to think about it. And, come to think of it, I just never had anything to say to kids my own age.”

“Hmm,” I said. I guess she could be right.

“But I’m really curious about you.”


“You just always seem so exhausted, but that exhaustion seems to turn into a form of energy or something. I just don’t get it. I don’t know a single other person like that. Grandpa never gets tired, and neither do I. So, are you actually tired for real?”

“I definitely am,” I said. You could say that again twenty times.

“What’s it like to be tired?” she asked.

“Different parts of your emotions become unclear: Compassion toward your self, anger toward others, compassion toward others, anger toward yourself—those kinds of things.”

“I still don’t get it.”

“Eventually nothing makes sense. It’s like spinning a top painted in different colors. The faster it goes, the more difficult it is to differentiate between them, and it ends in total confusion.”

“Sounds interesting!” the chubby girl said. “You seem to really know a lot about it.”

“Yeah,” I said. I could tell you anything you want to know about exhaustion that devours your life, exhaustion that bubbles out from the center of your being. That’s something else they don’t teach you in school.

“Can you play alto sax?” she asked me.

“I can’t,” I said.

It’s a nice little section. I’ve ended it awkwardly, right as the granddaughter gets a little ADD and then tries to make a move on Watashi, but he sets her straight and they get back to talking about the scientist and his experiments.

BOHE, on the other hand, makes this brief section even shorter and cuts all the sections highlighted in red above:

“Grandfather always said school’s a place where they take sixteen years to wear down your brain. Grandfather hardly went to school either.”

“Incredible,” I said. “But didn’t you feel deprived not having friends your own age?”

“Well, I can’t really say. I was so busy, I never had time to think about it. And besides, I don’t know what I could have said to people my own age.”


“On the other hand,” she perked up, “you fascinate me.”


“I mean, here you are so exhausted, and yet your exhaustion seems to give you a kind of vitality. It’s tremendous,” she chirped. “I bet you’d be good at sax!”

“Excuse me?” (178)

Birnbaum cuts the section that gives Watashi the opportunity to become introspective and think about how he feels, and then to express that to the granddaughter. Not a tremendous loss, but it does start to create an image that will be important later in the book: Spinning around. It took me a second to remember that コマ means top in Japanese, but the spinning and colors makes me think of “Dead Heat on a Merry-go-round,” which Murakami uses as an image in a later chapter.

At any rate, just minor stuff here, but nice minor stuff. Murakami concisely and compellingly describes what it’s like to be tired and how control over your emotions (compassion and anger) fractures. It’s important to be compassionate to yourself and to others. It’s difficult to do that when you’re exhausted.

When looking up the phrase 百とおりくらい (which I’m still not sure I totally understand), I located a personal blog post (JP) that mentions this passage in particular and suggests that the feelings expressed reflect the protagonist and the author’s feelings about life at the time of writing – Murakami would have been about the same age as his protagonist at the time, so I think that’s probably a good guess.



Chapter 16, “The Coming of Winter,” is another nice chapter in Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World where Murakami is beginning to set up the major connections between the two parts of the novel that will play out in the second half: “Mind” and how it affects the people in the Town.

In this chapter, Boku wakes up sick, and the Colonel cares for him. He recovers slowly, has the Colonel deliver the map concealed in a shoe to his shadow, and finally visits the Librarian again.

There are no major revisions by Murakami between versions in this chapter, but Birnbaum (or his editor) [I should really just start calling this “BOHE” to be fair to Birnbaum; translators always take the blame, but editors could be equally if not more guilty] gets up to his old tricks of cutting the final few lines at the end of a section or the chapter in order to end with strong language.

Take this section:




「考えてみます」と僕は言った。 (231-232)

“It’s strange,” I say. “I still have my mind, but occasionally I seem to lose sight of it. Actually, the times when I don’t lose sight of it are far more infrequent. But I feel confident that it will return at some point, and that confidence supports my entire existence. So it’s difficult to imagine what it would be like to lose one’s mind.”

The old man nods quietly. “Think about it long and hard. There’s plenty of time left for you to think.”

“I will,” I say.

I’m not happy with my translation of 見失う, but it’ll do for the purposes of comparison. I’ve also eliminated one of the line breaks to try and make it more clear that the Colonel is speaking. I was tempted to split his line with a dialogue tag. Here is what Birnbaum does:

“It is so strange,” I say. “I still have my mind, but there are times I lose sight of it. Or no, the times I lose sight of it are few. Yet I have confidence that it will return, and that conviction sustains me.” (170-171)

Hmm…interesting. Birnbaum [or his editor] seems to make a small error: He fails to notice the negative ending of the verb 見失う in the second usage. Which muddles the translation. Boku is trying to emphasize exactly how infrequently he is aware of the presence of his own mind.

More importantly for the purposes of this blog post, Birnbaum also cuts the final four lines (marked in red above). This is a nice strategic choice. He picks the strongest line and says BOOM, we’re done here, time to move on. His translation is wonderful: “That conviction sustains me” is a great forceful way to end. Strong, adaptive, creative translation. What do you think? Does he go to far here?

I forget whether I’ve mentioned this in previous posts, but this might be a good point to remind readers that Birnbaum uses “mind” for 心 (kokoro), which I think makes a huge difference in the translation. I feel like the repetition of “heart” would start to get saccharine at some point and become less compelling over the course of the novel. Mind, on the other hand, is worth pursuing.

Birnbaum makes other cuts at the end of the whole chapter that have greater implications for the theme and language that Murakami uses in this chapter.

Boku gets to the library and waits for the Librarian. She takes a while to arrive, and when she does, he mentions that he thought she wouldn’t come:




僕は肯いた。確かに僕は彼女を求めているのだ。彼女に会うことによって、僕の喪失感がどれほど深まろうと、それでもやはり僕は彼女を求めているのだ。 (235)

“Why did you think I wouldn’t come?” she asks.

“I don’t know,” I say. “I just had a feeling.”

“As long as you want me, I’ll come. You do want me here, right?

I nod. I definitely want her. My sense of loss deepens when I see her, but despite that I want her.

The key word we’re looking at here is 求める (もとめる), which can be “want” or “request” (unless I’m misreading it?). I rendered it once as “want me here” because I wasn’t quite bold enough to have Boku say “I want you” directly to the Librarian. As you can see in the translation, Birnbaum also avoids this through cuts and by translating 求める as “need”:

“Did you not think I would come?” she asks.

“I do not know,” I say. “It was just a feeling.”

“I will come as long as you need me.”

Surely I do need her. Even as my sense of loss deepens each time we meet, I will need her.” (173)

Birnbaum also cuts the few lines (highlighted in red) where Boku explicitly acknowledges his need/desire for her when she asks. The result is a much more implicit (dare I say “Japanese”?) conversation.

But this section is also interesting when read alongside cuts at the end of the chapter:







「求めている」と僕は答えた。 (236)

“Did you meet your shadow when she came back?”

She shakes her head. “No, I didn’t. I felt like there wasn’t any reason to meet her. I just felt like she was something totally separate from me.”

“But maybe she was part of yourself.”

“Maybe so,” she says. “But it’s all the same either way now. The circle has already closed.”

The pot on the stove starts to rattle, but it sounds like the wind miles in the distance.

“Do you still want me?”

“I do,” I say.

And here is how Birnbaum renders this scene:

“Did you meet with your shadow before she died?”

She shakes her head. “No, I did not see her. There was no reason for us to meet. She had become something apart from me.”

The pot on the stove begins to murmur, sounding to my ears like the wind in the distance. (173)

Again I’ve marked the redacted lines in red, and again you can see that Birnbaum cuts 求める. The communication between the two characters becomes far more implicit in translation than in the Japanese, which ratchets up the tension.

I don’t normally like stories/chapters/writing that begin or end with dialogue, but the original Japanese isn’t bad as far as dialogue goes. It feels decisive, especially when rendered into English where it isn’t necessary to repeat the actual verb itself. But Birnbaum’s translation also has its appeal, and it reminds me why I loved/love the novel so much and why it hit me so forcefully when I read it at 17 (15 years ago, damn): That unresolved, unspoken tension made me wonder whether Boku would be able to connect with the Librarian, and I kept turning the pages to find out.

More Investigations

Back to the real point of this blog – yeah, it’s a Murakami blog these days despite my two recent posts on the Japanese language. If you’re a new reader, here’s the idea: Haruki Murakami’s 1985 novel Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World presents an interesting case study in translation and author revision. Alfred Birnbaum translated creatively (perhaps too creatively at times), and Murakami himself made changes in the text for the version that appears in the 1990 Complete Works box set. Birnbaum’s translation was published in 1991 by Kodansha International.

Chapter 15 “Whiskey, Torture, Turgenev” does not have many changes. Birnbaum makes a few creative leaps here and there, but nothing outside of a translator’s regular poetic license. In this chapter, the goons cut Watashi’s belly, his coworkers from the System come check him out, he gets sewn up at the hospital, he reads some Russian literature, has a nap, and then gets a call from the granddaughter.

There is one paragraph that gets cut between the two Japanese versions. Take a look at the 1985 version:




And now the 1990 version, which is clearly missing a paragraph:



Strangely, Birnbaum’s translation includes aspects from each of these versions. I’ve marked the matching segments in red and blue above and below:

I shut the book and bid the last thimbleful of Jack Daniel’s farewell, turning over in my mind the image of a world within walls. I could picture it, with no effort at all. A very high wall, a very large gate. Dead quiet. Me inside. Beyond that, the scene was hazy. Details of the world seemed to be distinct enough, yet at the same time everything around me was dark and blurred. And from some great obscure distance, a voice was calling.

It was like a scene from a movie, a historical blockbuster. But which? Not El Cid, not Ben Hur, not Spartacus. No, the image had to be something my subconscious dreamed up.

I shook my head to drive the image from my mind. I was so tired.

Certainly, the walls represented the limitations hemming in my life. The silence, residue of my encounter with sound-removal. The blurred vision of my surroundings, an indication that my imagination faced imminent crisis. The beckoning voice, the everything-pink girl, probably. (164)

Birnbaum’s translation includes the paragraph about movies from the 1985 version (although Birnbaum cuts The Ten Commandments (十戒) and The Robe (聖衣) to fit the English “rule of three”), but it also includes the line that Murakami uses to replace that daydream: 私は頭を振ってそんなイメージを追い払った。私はつかれているのだ。Birnbaum gives them their own paragraph.

This seems to suggest one of two things: Either Birnbaum was translating based on both the original and revised versions, or Murakami made his revisions based on Birnbaum’s “adapted” translation.

Based on publication date alone, it seems like the former must be true, but I’m not so sure. The translation easily could have been completed in 1988 and then taken three years to finalize. We know from Jay Rubin’s book Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words that Rubin was asked to vet Hard-boiled Wonderland in Japanese for a publisher and that Birnbaum had already been selected to translate the book (and perhaps he already had). That would have given Murakami time to look over his own manuscript, especially if Birnbaum had cleared changes with him and pointed out locations he adapted.

More investigations are required.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention how nice a chapter this is. It’s long, but Murakami plays the Murakami game and lets his narrator get drunk and ramble with charm about Turgenev, Stendahl, and Dostoevsky before the thought process comes full circle and links both halves of the book. Magic.

Cool Word – 触れ合う


I’ve got another article in the Japan Times today: “Being laughed at can help your Japanese evolve.”

Two months in a row! I’m on a role. But long-time readers will notice that I’ve really just mined content from two of my favorite posts: The Apper-ative Tense (blatant misuse of the word “tense” there) and 笑われていいとも!

Yer getting lazy, Morales! I did add a pretty sweet metaphor with that caveman thing, though.

At any rate, I’ve been laughed at more recently. On my first day of work here in Chicago, the guy in the neighboring office came over to say hello and introduce himself. We talked, and I mentioned how I hadn’t had many opportunities to use Japanese in New Orleans: 日本人と触れ合う機会が非常に少なかった。

He paused for a moment and then, with an inquisitive look on his face, mimed hugging someone.

I had that momentary fear, that shiver of embarrassment, and I questioned whether or not I knew the actual meaning of 触れ合う (ふれあう). “Did I just say, ‘I didn’t have any opportunity to rub up on Japanese people?’” I wondered.

So I made a kind of disappointed face and then said, 変な日本語を使っちゃってすみません。To which he laughed.

But now I think he was just taking the piss. A quick check of the definition shows that ふれあう can mean “brush against,” but it can also mean exactly what I thought it meant: “interact with.” It’s one of those words that gets tossed around in organizations that do cultural work, and I remember it getting used a lot in my town when the Lithuanian artists-in-residence were there: They wanted to take advantage of the chance for kids to get involved with art and with foreigners.

So now I have to go back and reconsider what exactly it was that I said that day that was strange. Maybe it was my pronunciation. Or maybe he was just taking the piss.

I think this is the appropriate response to laughter: Pause, reevaluate, continue on. I didn’t let it get to me. I still talk with the guy, and I still talk with others. Whatever you do, don’t let a few silly mistakes force you back into the cave. The cave is dark and lonely and there is no Japanese.