Spinning Around and Around

With the goal of stirring up even more interest in Murakami between now and mid-October, when the Nobel Prizes are announced, I will post a small piece of unpublished Murakami translation once a week from now until the announcement. You can see the other entries in this series here: 1, 2.

It’s no secret that my favorite of Murakami’s novels is Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. I’ve also made it pretty clear that Dead Heat on a Merry-go-round is my favorite short-story collection and, in my opinion, the turning point of his early career. I found Hard-boiled in a small New Orleans bookstore called Beaucoup Books in the summer of 1999. Sadly it closed after Katrina. Dead Heat I bought at a used bookstore near Waseda University at some point in 2003. I took it with me on a month-long trip to Southeast Asia in February 2004, determined to spend my free time reading Japanese if I was going to be traveling outside of Japan. It was the first Japanese book I ever slogged through. I enjoyed it so much that I decided to spend the next year writing my senior thesis about it.

As I started to research the collection, it came as a surprise to discover that both Hard-boiled and Dead Heat were published in 1985; Hard-boiled in June and Dead Heat in October. Murakami actually serialized the Dead Heat stories under the title “A View of the Town” from ’83 to ’84, but a year later he added the story “Lederhosen” along with a substantial introduction for the hardback collected edition. The central image of the introduction is the dead heat on a merry-go-round: life never gets us anywhere – life in modern society is strange, and man is helpless for the most part. At least that’s the way Murakami claimed to feel after recounting the allegedly true (and later admittedly fictional) stories in the collection. The best we can hope for is to share our own strange stories with each other and develop a sense of empathy.

I dug it. Still do. So you can imagine how excited I was when on March 6th 2005, at the height of thesis madness, I discovered this passage from Alfred Birnbaum’s translation of Hard-boiled that links the two works:

She rolled down her panty hose as a bluesy Ray Charles came on with Georgia on My Mind. I closed my eyes, put both feet up on the table and swizzled the minutes around in my head like the ice in a drink. Everything, everything seemed once-upon-a-time. The clothes on the floor, the music, the conversation. Round and round it goes, and where it stops everyone knows. Like a dead heat on the merry-go-round. No one pulls ahead, no one gets left behind. You always get to the same spot.

“It seems so long ago,” I said, my eyes still shut.

“Of course, silly,” she said mysteriously, taking the glass from my hand and undoing the buttons of my shirt. Slowly, deliberately, as if stringing green beans.

“How’d you know?”

“I just know,” she said. She put her lips to my bare chest. Her long hair swept over my stomach. Eyes closed, I gave my body over to sensation. I thought about the suzuki, I though about the nail clippers, I thought about the snail on the cleaners’ front stoop. I opened my eyes and drew her to me, reaching around behind to undo the hook of her brassiere. There was no hook.

“Up front,” she prompted.

Things do evolve after all. (364)

Whoa, I thought. There’s the “dead heat” image, right there on page 364. I quickly busted out my Japanese copy to see what exactly was going on:










I rubbed my eyes in disbelief. There are sentences missing! And not just any sentences. The single most important sentence in the entire book had been left out. I opened a new document and started to translate, sending it to another Murakami otaku shortly thereafter. I give you that translation unedited with the caveat that I produced this four years ago, so you must be gentle. It’s not bad, but there are definitely things I would change now. It does represent the Japanese sentence structure relatively effectively. I have bolded the sentences that are not included in the published translation:

Ray Charles’ “Georgia on My Mind” was playing as she took off her stockings, rolling them up into balls. I closed my eyes, put both legs on the table and tumbled time inside my head the same way I was swirling my whiskey on the rocks. It was like anything and everything had happened once before long ago. The discarded clothes, the background music, our whole conversation…it all kept changing little by little. But there wasn’t really any meaning to the changes. Everything spins around and around but always arrives at the same point. Like a dead heat on a merry-go-round. No one wins, no one loses, and you always end up in the same place.

“It feels like anything and everything happened a long time ago,” I said with my eyes closed.

“Of course,” she said. Then she took the glass from my hand and slowly undid the buttons of my shirt, one by one, as if she was podding string beans.

“How do you know?”

“‘Cause I know,” she said. Then she put her lips to my bare chest. Her long hair draped over my stomach. “We all happened one time long ago. We’re just spinning around and around. Right?”

I kept my eyes closed and let the sensations of her hair and lips run through my body. I thought about the sea bass, I thought about the nail clippers, I thought about the snail on the bench in front of the Laundromat. The world is full of little tricks.

I opened my eyes, gently pressed her against my body and circled my hand around her back to undo the hook on her bra. There was no hook.

“In front,” she said.

The world is definitely evolving.

The first and last of the bolded sentences are neither here nor there, but those three in the middle are critical. At this point in the novel, Murakami has spent several hundred pages setting up his two narrators – watashi and boku in the Japanese – and slowly, subtly developing the connection between the two. We know that the narrator of the End of the World is basically the internal presence of the narrator of the Hard-boiled Wonderland of near-future Tokyo. Certain things – paperclips, songs – are able to cross the barrier between the two worlds and make it into the narrator’s subconsciousness. Both of them are involved with librarians, but it’s never clear if the Wall of the End of the World precludes any true interaction between Self and Other.

This passage provides the answer. The narrator, facing his own death in a matter of days, takes a moment to enjoy the array of sensual input that surrounds him – booze, music, the touch of his girlfriend. He thinks of a “dead heat on a merry-go-round,” a representation of how reality feels to him, and then, without any prompting at all, the girlfriend says exactly what he was thinking to himself: we’re just spinning around and around. It would be easy to write this off as coincidence, but I prefer to read it as Murakami making the statement that there can be real connection between people; the librarian picks the line straight out of his head because they are so closely, so genuinely connected.

I have no idea whether Birnbaum or his editor made the choice to cut these lines, so I can’t really fault him, especially not after the incredible poetry of his translation – notably the line “Round and round it goes, and where it stops everyone knows.” Brilliant. To be fair, next week I’ll highlight a missing sentence from a Rubin translation.

18 thoughts on “Spinning Around and Around

  1. Growl, first comment killed by stupid webserver experiencing an internal server error.

    I just wanted to point out a few things that struck me. They may not be important, but they stuck out at me as I read through the Japanese. I’d be interested to hear what you think about them:

    1) 「どうしてわかる?」「知ってるからよ」The straightforward answer would have been 「わかるからよ」, in my mind. This seems to indicate a subtle shift in emphasis– not just “‘Cause I know” but perhaps “‘Cause I know YOU” or something similar.

    2) みんな doesn’t have to mean ‘everyone,’ though perhaps your translation is best in this case. It could, however, mean simply 何もかも, which is what my mind associated it with when I read it (though there was a bit of question in my mind as well, I admit). Seems like a judgment call? At least among the people I hang out with, the word is often simply used to mean ‘everything’ in reference to things or events, not exclusively people.

    3) 示唆: Not part of my active-set vocabulary, but some casual investigation seems to indicate meanings more along the line of “suggestion” or “intimation,” with “hint” being the one that strikes me as what I’d probably use. Hatena has それとなく気づかせること.

    So, that’s struck me. For what it’s worth!

  2. Sorry, I should make #2 a bit more clear: your translation, “We all happened,” is a striking use of English and sounds like a pretty profound statement. If she means ‘私達みんな・・・起こった’, that’s sort of an eye-opener, representing an intensification of his way of putting it. But it doesn’t seem like it has to be read that way– it could be more of a straightforward agreement with what he’d said about 何もかも.

  3. 1. I read it more as just a childish tone rather than any of the implication you suggest. (It reminds me of my elementary school students 知ってるよ〜、ダニエル先生.) It’s also stronger than わかる. She doesn’t just understand, she knows.

    2. I like my version. ;o) Murakami made the choice to use みんな instead of 何もかも, so I don’t think ‘everything’ is the right choice here. Further support of the connection between the two characters in my opinion.

    3. Yeah, I’m not quite sure why I translated 示唆 like I did. It could’ve been pure misunderstanding. Maybe I thought I knew something deeper about the work. I really like the like “The world is full of little tricks.” – nice little line. But if I were translating it now I’d make it, “The world is full of implication.”

  4. “We all happened,” is a striking use of English and sounds like a pretty profound statement.

    Well, yeah…I think みんな昔に一度起こったことなのよ is a pretty striking, profound use of Japanese, too.

  5. Daniel,

    I defer to your judgment. I just wanted to get your opinion, and now I have it. Thanks!

    On #1, I agree that it’s stronger, but that’s why it stands out at me as being a subtle redirection of emphasis. Regarding #2: Thing is, I’ve heard people in my acquaintance use みんな in ways that makes this rather less striking than the English was for me.

    I don’t know– I guess if I took #1 to be more significant than you did, we switch roles here on #2. Ain’t literature grand?

  6. Haruki Murakami is SOooo 1990’s. I recommend another Murakami – RYU MURAKAMI, author from the same generation as Haruki… start with his anthology of short-stories on MOVIES, and GOURMET FOOD, which will prime you for the core MURAKAMI he’s well-known for — ALMOST TRANSPARENT BLUE, COIN LOCKER BABIES, EBIZA, or 69. For the lack of a better way to describe the wildly creative work MURAKAMI has brought to Japan’s literary scene, this man not only writes, but his work on film, as well as collaborations with multi-media artists such as RYUICHI SAKAMOTO, completely redefined the experience of story telling in Japan.

  7. A while ago I started to read Sekai no owari to Sekai no owari to hādoboirudo wandārando and bought the english translation to use as a reference, make sure I wasn’t misunderstanding anything. It’s translated by Alfred Birnbaum, as well.
    I read just some 30 pages, but was very surprised to see there are whole sentences missing everywhere in the translation. Actually, it’s quite obvious when you look at the size of the original and the size of the translation, but I hadn’t noticed that… So i checked to see if it was officially an abridged version, and it took me a while to find something – with little letters in the middle of the copyright information, they say it was “translated and adapted by Alfred Birnbaum”.
    That’s pretty messed up. I don’t know why they had to change it so much (it’s not like Murakami is a difficult reading that has to be made easier for the regular reader…), but if it’s about half the size of the original they definitely should make it clear… Makes you unsure of all the translated stuff we can’t compare with the original.

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