Natsume Sōseki’s “Koeber-sensei’s Farewell”

Apropos of plugging my Japanese reading group, here is a translation of ケーベル先生の告別, which we read this month:

Koeber-sensei’s Farewell
Natsume Sōseki

Koeber-sensei is supposed to be leaving Japan today (August 12). But he probably hasn’t been in Tokyo for two or three days now. Sensei is a strong willed person who hates empty ceremony and formalities. I heard that when he left Germany at the invitation of a university here twenty years ago, not a single person who knew him went to the station to see him off. He arrived in Japan quietly, like a shadow, and it seems he plans to leave Japan secretly, again like a shadow.

This quiet man moved three times in Tokyo. He was probably only familiar with those three houses and the ways to get to school from them. A while back, I asked him if he went walking, and he answered no, I have no place to go walking, so I don’t. He was of the opinion that the city was not a place for walking.

Sensei didn’t need to learn anything about Japan. Nor did he ever have the curiosity to try to learn anything. He was such that when I told him I was living in Waseda, he said he didn’t know his way to Waseda. Even after Fukada-kun reminded him that he had been invited to Count Ōkuma’s house in the past, Sensei had already forgotten. That might have even been the first time he heard Count Ōkuma’s name. [Count Ōkuma was the founder of Waseda]

When I took an invitation to dinner last month on the fifteenth, I asked him if he would have friends when he returned to his country, and he responded that, other than the North and South Poles, he had friends wherever else he went. This was a joke, of course, but Sensei could make this response precisely because somewhere deep inside his head there lurks an international mindset that transcends the trivial notion of place. And precisely because he could make such a response, he never needed to scowl despite living for twenty long years in Japan, a place about which he had little interest.

And it wasn’t just place; Sensei had a completely different attitude toward time than normal people. When I asked him why he had chosen to go on a steamer from a shipping company even though it was slow because half of the ship was filled with cargo, he said that he wouldn’t be bothered floating at sea for a long time nor could he understand someone so wrapped up in thoughts of convenience, trying to hasten their trip by a single day and get from Japan to Berlin in fifteen days or fourteen days.

He was also so indifferent to money that he didn’t seem like a Westerner at all. People who had visited Sensei’s home said that, from an economical point of view, he seemed to have been given a freedom that you couldn’t find in normal houses. When I last met him, the subject of a certain wealthy man came up, and he smirked and asked what exactly he planned to do by saving up all that money. Sensei will live off of a pension from the Japanese government and what is left of his pay to this point, but the amount left from his pay is truly a natural remainder and not the result of any foresight on his part.

The thing that mattered most to this man who lived in this way was just the love and affection that connected people. Sensei seemed to be fondest of the Japanese students he taught. On the night of the fifteenth when I was getting ready to leave his house and go home, he asked me to write the simple message “Farewell, be well” for him on his leaving Japan to his friends, especially his students that he had taught, in the Asahi Shimbun newspaper. Sensei didn’t want to write anything other than that. He didn’t need to say anything else. And he didn’t want the message to be placed into the classified section. Owing to circumstances, I received Sensei’s permission and carefully added my own words (superfluous though they may be) to his “Farewell, be well” so that the many people who received his teaching would see his farewell message, as he wished. And on behalf of those many people, I pray he has a safe voyage and a pleasant rest of his life.

It’s a nice little piece of writing. The sympathy toward Cable-sensei certainly seems to change over the course of the profile. There’s one other, longer, piece up on Aozora about Koeber-sensei. I’ll have to give it a read at some point.

But not in February! February we read Dasai Osamu’s . If you’re in Chicago, please join us:


明けましておめでとうございます! Happy New Year! It’s the Year of the Rooster, which apparently is not as lucky for me (a Rooster) as I initially believed…it’s just my responsibility to throw the beans on Setsubun as a 年男. よろしくお願いします!

After an extended break, I’m back on the Murakami with Chapter 33 “Rainy-Day Laundry, Car Rental, Bob Dylan” of Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. It’s a really nice chapter. Watashi waits at the coin laundry for a dryer to open, throws in the Girl in Pink’s laundry when one opens, kills time walking and shopping around the neighborhood, drops off the laundry, picks up some new clothes, has a couple beers at a beer hall, grabs the unicorn skull from storage at Shinjuku Station, rents a car, and drives off to his date.

He spends a lot of time thinking as he performs these activities, and as you might expect, a lot of these thoughts get cut. There are so many that it’s difficult to pick out just one. For the most part I don’t think the cuts detract, and in some cases they actually improve the translation.

One example I’ve already looked at, actually, when I wrote for Neojaponisme about Murakami’s “advertorial” short stories in Men’s Club. There’s an extra bit cut immediately after the passage I looked at. Here is Birnbaum’s version:

I took the subway to Ginza and bought a new set of clothes at Paul Stuart, paying the bill with American Express. I looked at myself in the mirror. Not bad. The combination of the navy blazer with burnt orange shirt did smack of yuppie ad exec, but better that than troglodyte.

It was still raining, but I was tired of looking at clothes, so I passed on the coat and instead went to a beer hall. (342)

And here is the extended original and my translation:







雨はまだ降りつづいていたが、服を買うのにも飽きたのでレインコートを探すのはやめ、ビヤホールに入って生ビールを飲み、生ガキを食べた。 (500-501)

First, I took the train to Ginza and bought a shirt, a tie, and a blazer at Paul Stuart, paying for it with my American Express. I put it all on and looked at myself in the mirror. Not bad. I was a little worried that the center creases in my olive chinos had started to fade, but I guess not everything had to be perfect. And the combination of the navy blue flannel blazer and burnt orange shirt did make me look a little like a young employee at an advertising firm. But at least I didn’t look like someone who’d just been crawling around in the sewer and only had 21 hours left before he disappeared from the world.

When I stood up straight, I realized that the left sleeve of the blazer was about half an inch shorter than the one on the right. To be more accurate, the sleeve wasn’t shorter, it was my left arm that was longer. How’d I’d gotten that way, I had no idea. I’m right handed, and I had no memory of ever overusing my left arm somehow. The store salesman advised me that they could have the sleeve adjusted in two days and how would that be, but I of course didn’t take him up on the offer.

“Did you ever play baseball or anything?” the salesman asked as he was giving me my credit card receipt.

I told him I’d never played baseball.

“Most sports will deform your body,” the salesman told me. “For Western-style clothes, it’s best to avoid overexercising or overeating.”

I said thanks and left the store. The world is full of different rules. You discover something new literally every step you take.

It was still raining, but I was tired of buying clothes, so I didn’t look for a raincoat and went to a beer hall to drink beer and eat oysters.

I don’t think the translation loses all that much with the cut, but it’s a good example of the heightened awareness Watashi has on his last day. Birnbaum has cut other “discoveries” in the chapter, which start as an extended meditation on potted plants and a snail at the coin laundry. Murakami also uses the word いびつ (ibitsu, warped/deformed), one of his pet vocab words, twice in quick succession. Here in the cut passage and again in the beer hall when he looks in the mirror after using the bathroom.

The most effective cut in translation comes at the end of the chapter, where we know Birnbaum (or his editor) has been especially adept at making changes for more dramatic endings. Here is the Japanese and my translation:




It took quite a long time to get past the site of the accident, but I had time before I was meeting the librarian, so I just leisurely smoked cigarettes and listened to Bob Dylan. Then I tried to imagine what it would be like to be married to a revolutionary activist. Can a revolutionary activism be considered an occupation? Accurately speaking, of course, revolutionary activism is not an occupation. However, if politics can be an occupation, then revolution should be a modified version of it. But I could never tell very well with things like that.

Would her husband discuss the progress of the revolution over a beer at the dinner table when he got home from work?

Bob Dylan started singing “Like a Rolling Stone,” so I stopped thinking about the revolution and hummed along with the song. We’re all getting older. And it’s as clear cut as the falling rain.

The details about revolutionary activism, which refer back to a high school friend who married an activist and disappeared, feels like a very Watashi Seinfeld-esque aside (“Whats the deal with revolutionary activism?”), and it stands in stark contrast to Birnbaum’s translation:

It took forever to get by the accident site, but there was still plenty of time before the appointed hour, so I smoked and kept listening to Dylan. Like A Rolling Stone. I began to hum along.

We were all getting old. That much as as plain as the falling rain. (346)

Pretty interesting decisions. Seven chapters left…