Crying Time

I’m in the Japan Times this week with a look at some crying vocabulary: “When giving a public speech in Japanese, tears can be your trump card.”

This article was prompted by the opening anecdote, which cracked me up and I don’t think I’ll ever forget. I probably could have written another 2,000 words looking at graduation ceremonies (there’s some really awesome stuff online), but it would have been a bit rambly (although interesting rambly). Maybe I still will at some point. I think it was more effective for this piece to look more broadly at crying. It’s interesting how “simple” and performative the statements are that accompany tears in Japan. This is true across the spectrum of different emotions that result in tears.

One interesting grammatical side note is that the verb used most frequently with both the 送辞 (sōji, farewell address) and 答辞 (tōji, formal reply) speeches is 読む (yomu, read), despite the fact that they speak them aloud, likely because students read directly from a formal manuscript.

One of the most interesting things I discovered while working on this article was a transcript of Ryutaro Nonomura’s legendary 記者会見 (kishakaiken, press conference). Check it out here to see the whole thing.

What a poor, pathetic man. He clearly understands the press conference format and what can be accomplished at them, but he’s just a mess. Unprepared, unscripted, and it shows. When he’s not completely incoherent (報告ノォォー、ウェエ、折り合いをつけるっていうー、ことで、もう一生懸命ほんとに、少子化問題、高齢ェェエエ者ッハアアアァアーー!!), he’s stringing together ridiculous crap like this:


Strong, strong work by the transcriber.

Since I submitted this piece, there’s been another press conference that drew some attention—a car accident ended up hitting a few preschoolers on the sidewalk and killing two. Based on what I saw on Twitter, there’s been some questioning about why they had one of the staff members go in front of cameras when she was clearly distressed. You can see the press conference here.

It’s hard not to feel for her. One useful phrase I was able to glean was すみません。何も言えないですみません (Sumimasen, nanimo ienaide sumimasen, I’m sorry. Forgive me, I’m unable to say anything.). Something to tuck away for potential “worst case scenario” type moments, although it’s another thing entirely to be able to recall a phrase like this in a moment like that.

Japanese Definitions and Twitter Sleuthing

I’m in the Japan Times this week with a look at some cool websites that help you define the differences in Japanese words: “使用? 利用? Make use of a dictionary to use your Japanese properly.”

It’s always good to start reading Japanese explanations of things as soon as you are able. The Wool vs. Cashmere explanation is a good example of something that’s pretty interesting, and perhaps not as dull as grammatical explanations.

But we need the dull grammatical explanations, too! This is always a good reminder that the 日本語文型辞典 is an awesome resource. Here’s the full quote from the section I cite about the difference between なければならない (nakereba naranai, must) and なければいけない (nakereba ikenai, must):



However, it’s one thing to read these and another thing entirely to put them into practice. The best advice I can give there is to write out a few example sentences of your own, ideally based on some Google sleuthing, and then mindfully attempting to incorporate them into daily usage.

Lately I’ve noticed that Google sleuthing for native phrases isn’t as helpful as it used to be. The Google algorithm seems to be focusing on webpages explaining the phrases rather than random sites that use the phrases.

I’ve been relying far more on Twitter sleuthing, which has been providing excellent results. Let’s see what we can find with the examples above.

A search for なければならない, for examples, gives this example from the great Count Okuma of Waseda University fame:

A loose translation of his quote: The young must hold lofty ideals. And they must have the courage to put them into practice.

Definitely seems worthy of social obligation/necessity.

I found one result of this pattern from an account that seems to have gone private, but I left the tweet open in a tab for so long that I was able to screenshot it:

Coincidentally this is also university related—it’s the beginning of the term there, and the clubs are all out in force inviting frosh to join. One upperclassman has had enough:

Another good example of the fact that everyone has to suffer this 勧誘地獄 (kanyu jigoku, solicitation hell), which is one of my new favorite Japanese terms.

On the other hand, the user B太郎 has to have his morning fried chicken from Family Mart and expresses this individual necessity using なければいけない:

Another user desperately needs some sleep:

I think this shows that Twitter is a pretty reliable source for native phrases. Are there any other sites you use? Maybe blog sites? Anything else?

Cool Kanji – 国字

After taking a extended vacation late last year (I was a little burned out from translation), I’m back in the Japan Times with an article about some of my favorite Japanese phrases: “Japanese that’s so beautiful it belongs in a museum.”

The museum conceit was sparked by an email I received with an excellent phrase—お手すきの際で構いません—and the other examples popped into my head as I started to write.

I’ve written previously about 国字 (kokuji, kanji created in Japan) very briefly, highlighting the kanji 峠 (tōge, mountain pass). Sadly, it looks like ホテル峠 has closed; the grounds are so overgrown you can’t even see the building from the highway anymore:

It’s even on a registry of 廃墟 (haikyo, abandoned buildings). The haikyo registry makes me think, さすが日本.

You can find a complete list of 国字 here and detailed listings of 和製漢字 (waseikanji, Japanese invented kanji) here. Pretty interesting details, although at times difficult to read since many of the entries are long lists of reference material where the kanji came from.

And I’d totally forgotten about 幽霊漢字 (yūrei kanji, ghost kanji) until re-reading that blog post. There’s a really great write-up about what happened over at Dampfkraft. Short and worth a read! Language, indeed, finds a way.

And on a brief side note, it’s worth taking a look at the Japan Times Facebook post where they got a few good suggestions about beautiful Japanese. This is my favorite:

Masquerade Release and Translation Process

It’s official! “Masquerade and the Nameless Women” is out in the wild as of January 29:

The release coincided with a bout of polar vortex here in Chicago, but a group of five friends came out to Half Acre Brewing with me to celebrate. As I was walking to the bar, I kept hoping Half Acre would have a Mild on tap, and they delivered with a 2.6% Mild called White Noise. It felt a little like divine intervention of some kind.

At the coldest point of the vortex, I ventured out to my neighborhood’s Little Free Library to donate a copy to the neighborhood:

I checked on Thursday and it was kind of stuffed with a bunch of random books (I think some people use it to get rid of things they don’t want anymore rather than as a contribution to the community), but I dug around and didn’t see it, so someone out there may be reading it.

Since the translation and editing process is something I look at closely here, I thought I’d do the same for my own work. I marked a few passages as I was putting together the final draft last August and going over the final edits in October. I don’t think these will spoiler too much.

One thing I noticed while making the edits for submission was that sometimes in the translation process, I made an initial effort that needed to be refined. Having the eye/ear to be able to refine it sometimes takes skill and sometimes just time.

Here’s an example:

Japanese original:


Rough draft:

We return to the original question: let’s think about why Reina, who went as far as living in a ramshackle wooden apartment to conceal the fact that she had money, didn’t have a driver’s license yet had a luxury car.

Final draft:

We return to the original question: let’s think about why Reina, who went so far as to live in a ramshackle wooden apartment to conceal the fact that she had money, didn’t have a driver’s license yet had a luxury car.

The only change here is “went as far as” to “went so far as.” The former is fine, maybe would have been more natural as “went as far as to live” rather than “living,” but the phrase only has 7.59 million Google hits whereas “went so far as” has 7.7 million.

Add in “to” and, interestingly, “went as far as to” has 2.73 million while “went so far as to” has 7.35 million.

Not that Google is the ultimate decider here, but the phrase felt more natural to me.

Here’s another example:

Japanese original:


Rough draft:

They probably had cosmetic surgery and body reconstruction so people wouldn’t recognize them at close distances.

Final draft:

They probably had cosmetic surgery and body reconstruction so people wouldn’t recognize them in close proximity.

I think this is a stronger example – “at close distances” just feels generic and unpolished/unnatural. I don’t remember exactly what I was thinking when I was editing, but I do feel like I was using my reading brain more than my writing brain, which is perhaps why I caught it.

And I’d be remiss if I didn’t give credit to my editor Angela. I noticed a lot of subtle improvements when I was going over the final changes.

Here’s one example:

Japanese original:




Final submitted draft:

“I’ll have you know my squad car has been fully stocked with candy for the past year.” He then put another lollipop in his mouth with a grin. “You must be at least a little interested in the secret why I never run out of candy.”

Published version:

“I’ll have you know my squad car has been fully stocked with candy for the past year.” He then put another lollipop in his mouth with a grin. “You must be at least a little interested as to why I never run out.”

This is a minor change, but I think it makes a huge difference. It physically pains me to see all those excess words in my draft. Being able to hit that natural phrasing in the first place is what translation is all about, but writing is a collaborative art, and I’m thankful for everyone who helped make the translation happen.

Glad to answer any questions about the translation or translation in general.

Cool Word – 幸い

Japanese, like all languages, is all about figuring out secret codes. How to use language to communicate information, effect change, and create action.

One of the pieces of code that has been useful for me recently is 幸いです (saiwai desu).

This phrase is used when making requests, a particularly fraught moment for Japanese.

It is most commonly preceded by いただければ (itadakereba), いただけましたら (itadakemashitara), or いただけますと (itadakemasu to) – a veritable catalog of conditional potential forms of いただきます (itadakimasu, to receive, humbly). So, in effect, it means “If I can have you do X, I will be 幸い.”

The best and simplest definition of 幸い I’ve seen online is from Yahoo Chiebukuro (surprise!):


It literally means, “If you could do that for me, I would be happy.” It also has elements of “desirable,” “grateful,” and “convenient” wrapped up it in.

So it means “I would appreciate it if you could X.”

The reason I call it “secret code” is that there’s a sense wrapped up in the language itself that, yes, what I’m asking is reasonable and you will undertake it for me. It’s making a request without making a command, without even asking a question. Just by stating that one would be pleased. This is an especially potent combination with an airbag phrase.

I guess this is true with English as well, come to think of it. You can even flower up the English to something like “It would please me greatly if you could X” to match 幸いに存じます (saiwai ni zonjimasu), a keigo alternative, although the Japanese lacks any sarcasm.

It’s difficult to find any raw examples with a web search because there are so many Japanese websites explaining grammatical usage these days, so I recommend checking out a Twitter search to see how the term is being used. A bunch of them out there.

Cool Word – 仕事納め

I’m back in Chicago after the holidays, the temps have dropped again, and there’s a dusting of snow on the ground, but I’m on the inside looking out, sipping on a hot mug of honey ginger lemon, so no complaints.

I’m done with work for the year!

A Japanese friend’s Facebook post reminded me of the excellent Japanese word 仕事納め (shigoto-osame)—finishing up work for the year. It makes sense that Japan — where New Year’s is absolutely the dominant national holiday — has a word that means wrapping up for the year.

Nothing too crazy going on here – just 仕事 (work) plus a nominalized form of the verb 納める (to complete).

納める is one of those verbs that can have a ton of different meaning depending on context. In fact, the Japanese dictionary provides nine independent usages. Dictionary posts like this are complicated but really helpful if you’re trying to get a true sense of meaning. The dictionary post for 仕事納め is much simpler and good reading practice for beginners.

Update: Check out the 仕事納め hashtag on Instagram for a nice contextual definition of the word and a cool glimpse of how Japan is wrapping up the year.

Translation Pre-order – Masquerade and the Nameless Women

It’s official—the translation I did for Vertical this summer is available for pre-order. It’s been up for a little while, but I wanted to wait until the cover was on Amazon to let everyone know. Take a look. They put your boy on the cover:

The book is Eiji Mikage’s 殺人鬼探偵の捏造美学 (Satsujinki tantei no netsuzō bigaku), which works out to something like “The Serial Killer Detective’s Fabricated Aesthetic.” Here’s the Japanese cover:

There are lots of fun variations on this. Detective Serial Killer’s Invented Aesthetic. The Invented Aesthetic of the Serial Killer Detective. The Japanese cover also has the suggested translation “Masquerade’s Fabricated Aesthetic.” Of these variations I think “Masquerade’s Invented Aesthetic” might be closest to what Mikage was going for.

Clearly we went in a different direction with the English title. I’m really happy that Vertical took one of my suggestions. The title is drawn from the text and I think creates forward momentum for the reader. I had a few other options, but I think I’ll wait to share them when the book is published.

This reminds me that I recently learned the Spanish translation for Murakami’s Norwegian Wood is Tokio Blues. I was having a conversation with a Venezuelan and briefly thought there was some Murakami book I wasn’t familiar with until she described the opening: a Japanese man lands in Germany and “Norwegian Wood” is playing over the airplane speakers as the passengers disembark.

I think this title translation borders on criminal. “Norwegian Wood” is so effective as a title because (assuming the reader is familiar with the Beatles, which isn’t a huge assumption to be making) the song title itself is incredibly potent and generative. You have the sound of the song, of course, but also whatever memories and experiences you have wrapped up with the song, which is exactly how the novel begins—Toru’s near physical pain at everything he associates with the song.

The translation demolishes that and replaces it with an incredibly simple summary of the book…although I will admit that it does summarize the book somewhat effectively, lol. Are the Beatles just not as popular in Spanish-speaking countries? I find that difficult to imagine. I’d chalk this up to an overeager translator/publisher.

A quick Wikipedia perusal shows that most translations leave the song title, but French and German also commit crimes.

The French title is La Ballade de l’impossible (The Ballad of the Impossible), which is garbage, and the German is Naokos Lächeln (Naoko’s Smile), which is better—likely drawn from the text, kind of hints at how the narrator is feeling—but still #NotGreatBob.

I hope that my title translation hasn’t done this much damage. Obviously it’s done some, at least when it comes to authorial intentions. But I do think the English will benefit from this new title. We’ll see.

So go get a pre-order at your favorite bookseller! I should note the trigger warnings: gore, suggested statutory rape, suggested incest (・・;)

How to Japanese at (the Entrance to) Keio University

So Keio University used one of my Japan Times articles on their entrance exam this year. That’s a thing that happened.

I wrote a little about it (and writing as a side hustle) over on my personal site.

They used “Japanese humor: more universally funny than you think,” one of my earliest for the JT. I’ve written 50 articles for the Bilingual page now, and this was my seventh, so the style feels a bit awkward at times, the word choice clunky, and the Japanese examples kind of sparse, but there are still some good points.

Here’s what the version on the test looks like:

They did some pretty significant editing and rewriting for the test, which makes sense. The target audience here isn’t native speakers. To be honest, they could have changed more, but their edits make it somewhat more readable by giving each joke a clean introduction. Hopefully that made it less trying for the applicants (to the medical school, which is shown at the bottom of the final page).

The questions are interesting: 1) write an introductory paragraph in English, 2) replace the word in the underlined phrases that doesn’t make sense with a word that does make sense, 3) place the appropriate conjunctions in the blank spots in the text, 4) translate the underlined Japanese sentence into English, 5) translate the marked Japanese phrases into English, and 6) translate “the opposite is true” into Japanese.

That’s an awful lot of work to do for a single reading comprehension passage. I wonder how much time they had to get through it? 20 minutes? 30 minutes? Probably less.

It’s very interesting to learn that Keio did not have to ask the JT permission to use the text on the exam and that in the past they weren’t even citing the author or publication (“Entrance exams breaking copyright law? Academically unethical?”). I wonder how the writer discovered that texts were being used.

I suspect that they were being reprinted in books of past exams which get used as study guides. That’s how I learned my article was used—the publisher notified the JT and was required to pay them usage rights and me author fees. Actually, I’m not certain if it’s required, but they seemed willing to pay the rates.

I wonder how many other JT authors this has happened too. Any readers know of this happening?

“Snow Day” by Kanoko Okamoto

Apropos of plugging my Japanese Reading Group, which is entering its fifth consecutive year (!), and of getting in a November blog post before things get crazy with homebrew club festivals, cider brewing, and the holidays, here is my translation of the reading we did for October, a real gem of a story:

Snow Day

Kanoko Okamoto

One winter we were living in a big, old apartment on Kaiserdamm in Berlin. Outside the snow was falling in waves. Inside, our heater had a large chimney that went through the ceiling, and we kept filling it with firewood. There were only rumbles from the trains and the honk of car horns; not even the dogs were barking in the midday quiet elicited by the snowfall. There was a loud knock at the door. “Who could this be with all the snow?” I thought as I opened the door. A group of three workers trundled in, made up of a young man, a middle-aged man, and an old man.

“We’re here to fix the electrical lines.”

They were all quite friendly looking. I hadn’t expected them, so I was taken aback for a moment, but I quickly came to my senses and showed them inside. I came to like the workers in Berlin soon after arriving there (I got to Berlin at the start of summer). Most of them were cheerful and had a true naïveté. I don’t know how many times I saw workers packed into the back of a truck smile and wave at us foreigners as they passed by. These lovely people had willingly taken on a working life, so whenever presented with the opportunity, we treated them with kindness and never for a moment behaved with the caution typical of some foreigners. At first glance, the workers’ clothes seemed disheveled, but when I looked closer, it was clear they had fastidious German cleanliness—that is to say, their wives or daughters had done an excellent job of washing them and patching them back together.

They finished the electrical repairs. I could see from the window that the snow was still coming down outside. When I offered them a fur rug, they sat down without protest and faced the heater. Unfortunately our maid caught a cold two or three days earlier and had taken off work. My husband the whole time was in the far room, completely absorbed in cartoons he was working on to send to Japanese newspapers. I made tea on my own and offered it to them.

“I’ll get you some cigarettes, Japanese cigarettes,” I said and started to get up to get some Shikijima cigarettes from my husband.

As I did, the middle-aged man said, “We don’t need cigarettes, miss. [Westerners have a tough time telling how old Asians are.] Instead, sing a Japanese song for us.”

“Do you sing songs in Japan, miss?” the old man asked in such a gentle way.

I adjusted the way I was sitting and granted their request right away. I had everyone close their eyes and I sang “Katyusha” in Japanese style without letting my voice quiver. The young man said it was Russian style, which impressed upon me Germans’ nature as a people of music. Next, to prove I could sing a truly Japanese song, I sang, “Quickly, quickly quickly, up and over the waves!*

The middle-aged man complained again: “Miss, that sounds like a men’s college song. We wanted a Japanese woman’s song…something you yourself might usually sing.”

Ah, of course, I thought to myself, and then, with a renewed focus, I sang for them in an unadorned tone: Sakura, sakura, across the spring sky, as far as the eye can see. Is it mist or clouds? Fragrant in the air. Come now, come now, let’s go and see them*.

They stood up happily and praised the elegant, sweet melody. “We’ll tell all our buddies,” they said, complimenting me as they slung their tools over their shoulders. Then they glanced out the window at the snow that continued to fall and fall so evenly and headed for the door. Until—

The young man who had been silent to that point stopped and turned to me with a look of pleading in his eyes.

He said, “Could I have a stamp? Just one Japanese postage stamp. I collect them from around the world.”

I peeled off several stamps from the envelopes of letters dear to me that had arrived from home and placed them into the palm of his poor hand, gnarled and rough from an intense life of labor.

This is such a well constructed short. It starts and ends with vivid images—the quiet of snow-covered streets, filling the stove, the chimney piercing the ceiling (which must’ve been so striking for Japanese at the time), peeling off stamps from letters, and the final zoom into the worker’s palm.

Okamoto is a strangely intertwined figure. Her brother studied with Junichiro Tanizaki, she was close with Yosano Akiko, she married a famous cartoonist, and her son was Tarō Okamoto, a famous artist known for the Tower of the Sun. Sadly she died at 49 of a brain hemorrhage and most of her works were published posthumously.

Check out the other readings for our reading group here, and feel free to contact me about joining us (we meet online via Google Hangouts) the second Tuesday of each month at 6:30 CST.

The End of the World

Here we are, the final chapter of Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. I first read this book during the summer of 1999. I remember the first 100 pages being a slog and then just flying through the second half.

(I was visiting colleges while I read the book, and it had me convinced that I wanted to study cognitive neuroscience, even though the only thing I knew about cognitive neuroscience was the limited perspective of Murakami’s old man scientist. By “I want to study cognitive neuroscience” I basically meant “I really like this book I’m reading right now by Haruki Murakami.”)

I finished the book ravenously as I was on a flight home to New Orleans, worried that we might crash or I might otherwise expire—like our embattled data agent—and not know how the book ended.

Fortunately I’ve survived 20 years and finished the book in both languages. Pretty cool.

Here are the previous Murakami Fest posts:

Year One: BoobsThe WindBaseballLederhosenEels, Monkeys, and Doves
Year Two: Hotel Lobby OystersCondomsSpinning Around and Around街・町The Town and Its Uncertain WallA Short Piece on the Elephant that Crushes Heineken Cans
Year Three: “The Town and Its Uncertain Wall” – Words and WeirsThe LibraryOld DreamsSaying GoodbyeLastly
Year Four: More DrawersPhone CallsMetaphorsEight-year-olds, dudeUshikawaLast Line
Year Five: Jurassic SapporoGerry MulliganAll Growns UpDanceMountain Climbing
Year Six: Sex With Fat WomenCoffee With the ColonelThe LibrarianOld ManWatermelons
Year Seven: WarmthRebirthWastelandHard-onsSeventeenEmbrace
Year Eight: PigeonEditsMagazinesAwkwardnessBack Issues
Year Nine: WaterSnæfellsnesCannonballDistant Drumming
Year Ten: VermontersWandering and BelongingPeter Cat, Sushi Counter, Murakami Fucks First
Year Eleven: Embers, Escape, Window Seats

Chapter 40 “Birds” is the last chapter of Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. Boku and his shadow have arrived at the Southern Pool and stand at its edge quietly for a moment just looking at it as the snow falls around them. When the shadow suggests they jump in, Boku says he’s staying and can’t go. He’s realized he has a responsibility to everything in the Town because he’s created them all; they’re all part of him. The shadow is angry and they discuss what it means to stay—the conversation is treated quite differently in translation than the original. Then the shadow jumps in the pool. Boku turns back toward the town with thoughts of the Librarian and his accordion, and the book ends.

Here’s the conversation the two have in the original Japanese:










「ありがとう」と僕は言った。 (590-591)

My shadow stands up and stares at the calm surface of the Pool. Standing absolutely still in the heavy snow, he gives the impression that he’s gradually losing all of his depth and returning to his original flatness. We are silent for a long while. Only puffs of white breath emerge from our mouths into the air and then disappear.

“I knew it was futile to try and stop you,” my shadow says. “But life in the Woods will be much more difficult than you think. The Woods are entirely different from the Town. It’s tough work to survive, and winter is long and trying. Once you enter, you cannot leave. You’ll have to remain in the Woods forever.”

“I’ve considered this, too.”

“And you haven’t changed your mind?”

“No,” I say. “I won’t forget you. I’ll slowly start to remember things about the old world as well. There are likely many things that I’ll have to remember. Many people, places, lights, songs.”

My shadow crosses his arms in front of him and rubs them together several times. The snow that collects on his body gives him a mysterious shadow that seems to expand and contract over him. He rubs both hands together and tilts his head ever so slightly as though listening for the sound they make.

“I’m going to go,” he says. “But it’s strange to think we’ll never see each other again. I don’t know what to say in the end. I can’t think of the right words to leave things.”

I take off my hat again, brush off the snow, and put it back on.

“I hope that you’ll be happy,” my shadow says. “I loved you. And not just because I was your shadow.”

“Thank you,” I say.

And here is Birnbaum’s official translation, which makes some significant adjustments:

My shadow rises and stares at the calm surface of the Pool. He stands motionless amid the falling snow. Neither of us says a word. White puffs of breath issue from our mouths.

“I cannot stop you,” admits my shadow. “Maybe you can’t die here, but you will not be living. You will merely exist. There is no ‘why’ in a world that would be perfect in itself. Nor is surviving in the Woods anything like you imagine. You’ll be trapped for all eternity.”

“I am not so sure,” I say. “Nor can you be. A little by little, I will recall things. People and places from our former world, different qualities of light, different songs. And as I remember, I may find the key to my own creation, and to its undoing.”

“No, I doubt it. Not as long as you are sealed inside yourself. Search as you might, you will never know the clarity of distance without me. Still, you can’t say I didn’t try,” my shadow says, then pauses. “I loved you.”

“I will not forget you,” I reply. (399)

He’s clearly taken some liberties in dictating through the shadow what it will mean for Boku to stay in the Town. I had to look at the 1985 paperback version twice just to make sure that Murakami himself hadn’t made cuts to the 1990 Complete Works edition; when Birnbaum and the Complete Works editions don’t align, often it’s been because Birnbaum was clearly translating based on the 1985 edition. But that’s not the case here. The “You will merely exist” feels so appropriate for this world, but it’s not in the Japanese.

That said, Birnbaum’s translation is just supreme—“different qualities of light” is such a perfect line.


So what have we learned?

We’ve learned that Murakami made changes to the original version of Hard-boiled Wonderland that was published in 1985 for the Complete Works version that was published in 1990. He cuts some name drops, some random asides, and some jokes. Some changes are a little strange, and sometimes as small as a single sentence in a chapter. I don’t think it’s too farfetched to say that many of these changes were made after Murakami saw the English translation. Too many of the cuts coincide too perfectly with cuts that Birnbaum made in translation.

It’s conceivable that Birnbaum was working based off of the manuscript for the 1990 version, but there are places that Murakami cuts and Birnbaum keeps, which would be strange unless he was actively comparing the two different manuscripts. I think it’s more likely he completed the translation in 1988 or 1989, Murakami saw the translation during the editing process, and then he had time to make adjustments to the Complete Works text. I wonder whether he would have read the English himself or whether the editors noted specifically which sections were being removed from the Japanese.

At any rate, this was a very productive time during Murakami’s career, and we’ve learned that he was recycling themes and images across works, notably from his 1985 short story collection Dead-heat on a Merry Go Round.

We’ve learned that Birnbaum is a brilliant writer and translator. His prose is beautiful and hilarious. He has excellent control over the tone of the work and how that builds the worlds, especially in the End of the World sections.

But we also know that he has several techniques that “improve” the work in translation. He uses space breaks to create dramatic moments and trims the endings of chapters so that they’re either dramatic dialogue or in media res. He adds entirely new lines to make things more dramatic.

He does, however, alter the work at times. He trims sections where Murakami tends to run long in his usual improvisational way, mostly with good results but occasionally something nice gets axed. He tends to cut places where Watashi brings in the outside world, sections that point to a larger context for his feeling of helplessness, and suggest that it refers more broadly to the human condition.

Overall he dials down the sexiness. From the beginning he’s a little less blatant about Watashi’s vision of the Girl in Pink. He dials back on a lovely exchange with the Librarian and cuts some of the sexy encounters between Watashi and the Girl in Pink entirely, including one where he drops his pants to show her his erection (!).

We’ve also learned that even the best translators make mistakes, or are forced into mistakes through their editors.

Hard-boiled Wonderland is really a perfect text to analyze Murakami’s editing process, how Japanese writers were translated during the 80s and early 90s (especially before they had much clout in the publishing industry and before the anime/manga boom really took hold), and the goals of translation more broadly. There are a probably a few other works that present opportunities this rich, notably Dance Dance Dance and Wind-up Bird Chronicle (both of which had extensive cuts in translation, about which Jay Rubin has been very transparent) and Hear the Wind Sing, Pinball 1973, and Norwegian Wood (all of which have been translated twice by multiple different translators). At the very least, I think someone could do a really good paper about Murakami’s preparation of the Complete Works texts.

I wonder whether Hard-boiled Wonderland was the only work he edited for re-publication. I have a feeling that this is not the case.


I was disappointed with the ending the first time I read the book. I wanted Boku to escape and Watashi to live. I wanted him to somehow succeed against everything he was facing—the System, the Factory, the Gatekeeper. I’d even started to wonder whether the Girl in Pink pulled a Psycho move and had him frozen in her apartment. But the ending has grown on me.

We have an approximation of Murakami’s vision of escape from the novella “The Town and its Uncertain Wall,” which was a first draft of sorts for this novel. The narrator escapes and ends up being tortured by nostalgic yearnings of life in the Town. We know nothing about this narrator—it’s not the clearly defined Murakami male persona from Hard-boiled Wonderland—but it’s easy to imagine Watashi in the Hell of a forced continued existence in the modern world, with an itch he’s never able to scratch (presumably after he’s separated himself from that interior world); the whole novel has basically been to show how miserable he has it. Better for him to pass into the tautology of his inner experience.

I do wonder sometimes whether Murakami will write a sequel. He’s left enough threads unfollowed—we have the Girl in Pink freezing the body and the Woods are yet unexplored and filled with different people. But more and more frequently Murakami just repeats “I never remember what I wrote” when asked about past works. More recently, he only seems to write sequels immediately after completion of a book as with 1Q84 and Wind-up Bird Chronicle.

And part of me doesn’t want him to change anything. It’s such an interesting work as is.

I also wonder whether there will be another attempt at translation. I imagine this won’t happen until after Murakami dies, perhaps not even until the work goes into the public domain. We’ll all have expired into our personal Ends of the World by that point. And to be honest, I don’t know that the original Birnbaum translation can be topped—I think this is something else we’ve learned through this project.



I’m realizing now that readers who come across this post may not understand the difference between Murakami Fest and this Hard-boiled Wonderland Project. Although they overlapped at times, I started blogging about untranslated Murakami works once a year around the Nobel Prize announcements in the early years of the blog. In 2012, in an attempt to post on the site more frequently, I started blogging about the translation of Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. You can see an index of all those posts on this page.