Phone Calls

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 Murakami translation once a week from now until the announcement. You can see the other entries in this year’s series here: More Drawers.

Okay, let me set the scene: I’m listening to Zoot Sims, I’ve had a beer (and hell I’ll have another – it’s Murakami Fest and I don’t have class tomorrow), the cats have been fed, and now it’s time to translate a nugget of 1Q84.

Today’s nugget comes courtesy of Book 2 page 125, above which I wrote the note “random phone calls → WUBC & Yoru no kumozaru.” Let’s see what the page has to say – we’re in Chapter 6, so we’re following Tengo, whom you should be familiar with from “Town of Cats”:

The telephone rang just after nine on Tuesday night. Tengo was reading a book while listening to music – his favorite time of the day. He read as much as he wanted before he went to sleep, and when he got tired, he fell asleep right where he was.

It was the first telephone ring he had heard in a while, and it seemed to have a sort of ominous echo. It wasn’t a call from Komatsu. Phone calls from Komatsu had a different sort of ring. For a moment, Tengo wasn’t sure whether he should pick up the phone or not. He let it ring five times. Then he lifted the needle on the record player and picked up the phone. It might have been his girlfriend calling.

“Is this the residence of Tengo Kawana?” a man said. The voice was that of a middle-aged man, deep and soft. It was an unfamiliar voice.

“This is he,” Tengo said cautiously.

“I’m sorry for calling so late at night. My name is Yasuda,” the man said. His voice was very neutral. Neither friendly nor hostile. Neither businesslike nor intimate.

Yasuda? Tengo couldn’t remember anyone by the name of Yasuda.

“I’ve called because there’s something I need to tell you,” the person said. And then he paused for a brief moment, like he was inserting a bookmark into the pages of a book.

And that’s all you get. Otherwise I would spoiler, and spoiler is no fun.

This passage illustrates Murakami’s near obsession with phone calls as well as 1Q84’s unfortunate reliance on phone calls to drive the plot. As noted in my note above, Murakami began his magnum opus Wind-up Bird Chronicle (WUBC) with a random phone call (which also happened on a Tuesday!), and he used it in a number of stories in Yoru no kumozaru, a collection of short-shorts, notably “Eel,” which features May Kasahara, another character from Wind-up Bird Chronicle.

Something about that ability of the telephone to connect people in two completely different places seems to fascinate Murakami, and he uses it often to show how individuals often occupy two entirely different “worlds,” whether they realize it or not. Magically, the telephone can connect these worlds and bring people together, enabling them to communicate in ways they could not before.

Now that I think about it, Norwegian Wood ends with a telephone call between Toru and Midori. I’ve always thought that Rubin’s translation of that final line was interesting. He creatively invokes death:

Again and again, I called out for Midori from the dead center of this place that was no place.

Whereas Birnbaum does not:

I held onto the line to Midori from there in the middle of nowhere.

The Japanese is:


Birnbaum’s translation feels a little awkward. I still haven’t read his translation all the way through, but there were a number of places that made me wonder if the final text had been edited by a non-native speaker.

Okay, I’m rambling now, but you get the idea – phones are powerful symbols in Murakami’s fiction, and 1Q84 continues this trend.

11 thoughts on “Phone Calls

  1. What a gem of a post. I love the prose of your translation, the observation about the telephones, and the Rubin/Birnbaum comparison.

  2. Nice translation! The phone call observation is very true. I think that on the flip side this exemplifies some of the criticisms people have of Murakami — too much surface, not enough underneath. You can look at a sudden mysterious phone call to the protagonist as a suddenly-opened door to another world etc., or you can look at it as a writer being too lazy/unimaginative to advance the story via character action. (That said, it’s harder to defend the latter view in cases like WUBC, where the phone call does kick the whole story off rather than just suddenly adding new motivation halfway through.)

    The Birnbaum/Rubin difference is great! One thing that stands out to me is that Rubin’s translation makes it sound like W. is trying to make contact with Midori because he wants something from her, while Birnbaum’s sounds more like W. is trying to maintain contact with Midori in order to save her from becoming lost or meeting some other terrible fate.

  3. Thanks guys!

    Yeah, it took me a while to realize exactly how much Murakami forces his reader to sit around and wait for stuff to happen, but 1Q84 is the book that did it to me. It’s hard to defend it. Murakami is still relying on phone calls and random trips to izakayas and whatnot toward the very end of Book 2.

    Now that you mention it, Birnbaum’s translation does have a nice ring to it – like Toru is literally holding on to Midori so that he doesn’t snap (or she doesn’t).

    One thing I forgot to mention in the post is that “bookmark” is しおり, which you’ve written about before. For some reason Murakami writes it in hiragana and marks it with 傍点 (Japanese dots equivalent of italics, for noobs). I didn’t see any reason for it to stand out in English, so I didn’t do any formatting with the translation. Any thoughts?

  4. Thanks for the well-prepared post.

    I read the 1Q84 books soon after they came out, so my memory is a bit foggy now, however I recall the emphasized しおり quite vividly, actually. Murakami really tends to make use of characters effectivelyin the sense of a very obviously deliberate selection of kanji/hira/katakana. Shiori is a totally ordinary word, but I find it’s typically not seen/written all that much, and mostly just a word one hears (or a name), and thus perhaps in leaving it as hiragana he was looking to maximize the recognition of the object in his readers’ minds.

    Minor spoiler ahead:

    Another fun one along the same lines was in the scene where Aomame and the “leader” (what was that name again, Fukudaっけ?) where he’s looking at her and she’s describing the gaze as 「視る」. While there are situations this character would be appropriate, it wasn’t like he was fixating ridiculously hard on her, but more like the intensity his eyes expressed was as if she was being 凝視’d. So the kanji did not match the action (as it should in ordinary contexts) but conveyed the emotion.

    There are a heap of other examples, always fun.

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