“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.

Window Seats

Murakami Fest 2018, Week 3! The PENULTIMATE chapter of Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World.

Here are the previous 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

Chapter 39 is titled “Popcorn, Lord Jim, Extinction.” Watashi and the Librarian buy beer and drive to Hibiya Park where they sit and drink and talk about life. She heads off to shop after a bit, and Watashi watches a mother and child feed the pigeons. He drinks more beer, burns his credit cards. He buys popcorn for himself and the pigeons, does more thinking about the fairness of life, and whether fairness matters. He calls his apartment and is surprised to find the chubby Girl in Pink who is going to live in his apartment and promises to freeze him, possibly so her grandfather can bring him back to life later. Watashi drives to the pier where he parks, thinks about happiness while listening to Bob Dylan, and then gives himself over to sleep (and presumably dies).

This chapter has the usual in terms of cuts/adjustments from Birnbaum (or his editor): trimming here and there, a few larger cuts where Murakami gets wordy, and the timely addition of a space break.

But it also has the rare Murakami self-edit! Hooray! I’m so glad we got at least one more of these in the final chapters.

Take a look at this section from the original 1985 version with my translation:






「簡単だよ。五年か六年前の夏に出ていったんだ。出ていったきり二度と戻らなかった」 (324)

“Why did you get divorced?” she asked.

“She never let me sit in the window seat on the train when we traveled,” I said.

“You’re kidding, right?”

“It’s a line from Salinger novel. I read it when I was in high school.”

“What was the real reason?”

“Simple, really. She up and left the summer five or six years ago. She left and never came back.”

And here is Birnbaum’s official translation, which cuts the reference to Franny and Zooey:

“Why’d you get divorced?” she asked.

“Because she never let me sit by the window on trips.”

She laughed. “Really, why?”

“Quite simple, actually. Five or six summers ago, she up and left. Never came back.” (388)

Pretty minor changes, but still adjusted.

Now take a look at what Murakami did to the manuscript for the Complete Works edition in 1990:


「簡単だよ。五年か六年前の夏に出ていったんだ。出ていったきり二度と戻らなかった」 (573)

“Why did you get divorced?” she asked.

“Simple, really. She up and left the summer five or six years ago. She left and never came back.”

He cuts the whole joke! I wonder if he thought it wasn’t funny anymore or that the Salinger name drop wasn’t necessary. Kind of a weird little cut, which is similar to some of the other things he’s cut.

There are two weightier sections that Murakami keeps but get trimmed in translation and are worth looking at.

Here’s the Birnbaum translation of a section with Watashi and the Librarian talking. He’s talking about a line from The Brothers Karamazov when Alyosha is telling Kolya Krasotkin about his future:

“When I first read that, I didn’t know what Alyosha meant,” I said. “How was it possible for a life of misery to be happy overall? But then I understood, that misery could be limited to the future.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Neither do I,” I said. “Not yet.”


She laughed and stood up, brushing the grass from her slacks. “I’ll be going. It’s almost time anyway.” (389)

As you can see, he does some pretty serious tidying up, using the space break to do a massive cut:







彼女は笑って立ちあがり、コットン・パンツについた芝を手で払った。「そろそろ行くわ。もう時間でしょ」 (574-575)

“Alyosha knew all sorts of stuff,” I said. “But when I read that, I had my doubts—whether or not a miserable life could be fortunate on the whole.”

“That’s why you limited your life?”

“Maybe so,” I said. “I should’ve been brained with an iron vase in that bus instead of your husband. I feel like that was really the way for me to go. Direct, fragmentary, a self-contained image. Without a second to think about anything.”

I looked up from my position lying on the grass and looked over at the cloud we’d seen. It was gone. It had been hidden by the shade of the camphor tree’s leaves.

“So, is there room for me in your limited vision?” she asked.

“Everyone is welcome in, and everyone can leave,” I said. “That’s one of the best parts of a limited vision. Just wipe your feet when you come in, and close the door when you leave. That’s what everyone does.”

She laughed and stood up, brushing off a few pieces of grass from her cotton pants. “I’m gonna get out of here. It’s time.”

That feels like a pretty significant cut. This is Murakami exploring his main metaphor for the human condition/human interaction: We only ever encounter others within our self, fundamentally making human interaction limited.

I don’t think my rendering does the passage justice. Birnbaum’s is hilarious and reads really well. But it does leave that little bit out—the Librarian wants into his life, and he lets her in.

It also brings back the kind of throwaway plot detail of the Librarian’s husband and how he bit the dust, which was funny as a non-sequitur.

Birnbaum also makes another significant cut once the Librarian goes and Watashi is left on his own to think about everything:

I closed my eyes, I felt a ripple run through my mind. The wave went beyond sadness or solitude; it was a great, deep moan that resonated in my bones. It would not subside. I braced myself, elbows against the backrest of the park bench. No one could help me, no more than I could help anyone else.

I wanted a smoke, but I couldn’t find my cigarettes. … (391)

Damn. This is such an amazing translation that I’m kind of embarrassed to share my rendering of the scene. But it must be done. Here’s what the original looks like:




煙草を吸おうと思ったが、煙草の箱はなかった。… (579-580)

I didn’t want to disappear from this world. I closed my eyes and could clearly make out the palpitations of my heart. It was a tremendous, deep surge, something completely beyond sadness and loneliness, that seemed to be beating from the foundation of my own existence. The surge continued forever. I put my elbows on the back of the bench and endured it. No one would help me. No one could save me. Just as I couldn’t save anyone, either.

I wanted to cry out, but I couldn’t cry. I was too old for tears and had experienced too much. The world contained sadness that you couldn’t shed tears over. The type of thing that you couldn’t explain to anyone and that even if you did, no one could understand it. That sadness never changed shaped and instead just built up quietly in your heart like snow on a windless night.

When I was younger, I tried to put that kind of sadness into words. But no matter how many words I tried, I couldn’t communicate it to anyone, and I don’t think even to my self, so I gave up trying. That’s how I closed off my words and closed off my heart. Deep sadness can’t even take the form of tears.

I wanted to smoke, but I didn’t have a box of cigarettes. …

Ok, maybe not as bad as I thought, but not as good as “a great, deep moan that resonated in my bones.”

This section, too, feels very Murakami. It doesn’t necessarily fit in this book—since when is our data agent an aspiring writer?!—but it does sound a lot like the narrators in Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973, kind of struggling through loss and life, unable to really articulate what they’re going through. It seems pretty funny and telling/true that he reaches for his cigarettes after this.

But it also feels a bit too over the top perhaps from our otherwise relatively stoic data agent. So I can see why it gets the axe.

Hope you enjoyed this post as much as I did. One final chapter! Hard to believe…


Murakami Fest 2018, Week 2.

Previous posts are here:

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

Chapter 38 is titled “Escape.” Boku reads dreams, searching for bits of the Librarian’s mind, until the light of morning erases the glimmers from the skulls (just like in the Hard-boiled Wonderland section!). The Librarian makes him coffee and then watches over him while he takes a nap. He then goes to the Gatehouse while the Gatekeeper is out burning beasts, steals the key, and then frees his Shadow from the subterranean room where he’s kept. The Shadow can’t walk, so Boku carries him and they make their way to the Southern Pool, which the Shadow believes is the only way out of the Town.

There are a handful of lines cut, but nothing all that dramatic. Just a trimming here and there, some of which comes naturally in the translation process. So it’s a little difficult to pick out a section to highlight, but the paragraph with the most cuts also happens to be the Shadow’s explanation of how he determined that the Southern Pool is the only exit from the town, so these feel like the weightiest cuts. Here’s Birnbaum’s official translation:

“At first, it was only intuition that told me the Town had an exit,” he says. “For the very reason that the perfection of the Town must include all possibilities. Therefore, if an exit is our wish, an exit is what we get. Do you follow me?” (385)

And here’s the original translation with my translation which, as usual, features Murakami’s extended explanation:

「俺がこの街に必ず隠された出口があると思ったのははじめは直感だった。でもそのうちにそれは確信になった。なぜならこの街は完全な街だからだ。完全さというものは必ずあらゆる可能性を含んでいるものなんだ。そういう意味ではここは街とさえもいえない。もっと流動的で総体的なものだ。あらゆる可能性を提示しながら絶えずその形を変え、そしてその完全性を維持している。つまりここは決して固定して完結した世界ではないんだ。動きながら完結している世界なんだ。だからもし俺が脱出口を望むなら、脱出口はあるんだよ。君には俺の言ってることわかるかい?」 (569-570)

“At first I just had a feeling the Town had a hidden exit. But soon enough I was convinced of it: the Town is a perfect town. Perfection as a concept always includes all possibilities. In that sense, this isn’t even a town, really. It’s something more fluid, more wholistic. It presents every possibility, changing constantly, thereby maintaining its perfection. In other words, this isn’t a fixed, complete world. It’s a world that completes itself as it moves. So if I want a way to escape, then a way to escape there is. Do you get what I’m saying?”

I’m not sure I get what the implication of this passage is, other than that perhaps a human self is self-complete, even as it changes and adjusts. It can never not be itself, which is what the Town is. Something like that?

Or maybe it’s just Murakami “completing” his novel by creating the explanation for an escape. The edited English version feels like a fine localization.

And then there were two (chapters)…


It’s a month delayed this year, but welcome to the eleventh annual How to Japanese Murakami Fest!

My calendar tells me it’s been almost a full year since I last blogged about Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, so I think I’ll use this year to try and knock out the last few chapters.

Here are the past entries in the fest:

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

I previously used the fest to look at Hard-boiled Wonderland back in 2013 and 2014. This week I’m looking at Chapter 37. You can see the rest of the entries in this series here.

Chapter 37 is titled “Lights, Introspection, Cleanliness.” Watashi is awakened on the couch by the Librarian when she sees that the unicorn skull is emanating lights (just like in the End of the World sections!). They have a couple beers and watch the skull, they talk about how Watashi feels oddly sensitive to small details around him in the world like snails and the way their clothes are piled on the floor. More talk about themselves. They sleep together again (maybe?) and then she falls asleep. Watashi gets up, inspects her kitchen and cooks breakfast while listening to the radio. After they eat, they get cleaned up and ready to head out and Watashi gifts the Librarian the unicorn skull.

There are actually a lot of heavy cuts in this chapter. Birnbaum (or his editor) does his usually thing and adds a space break to provide emphasis. They get rid of the first couple beers they drink; remove most references to the snail which Watashi has noticed and gets fixated on; and cut and adjust lines of dialogue so that it really trims the chapter down.

There’s some wordplay that kind of gets lost in translation. The two keep echoing 悪くない (Warukunai, Not bad, eh?). Birnbaum keeps the first instance but adjusts one in translation and cuts another altogether. This feels like a very Murakami-esque dialogue element, suggesting that, eh, the world ain’t so bad, even though I’ve been screwed over by a massive governmental agency that was experimenting with my brain. Sad to lose the other instances.

And there’s a phrase 清潔で使い道がない (seiketsu de tsukaimichi ga nai, clean and useless) that could be maintained more closely, perhaps.

But then Birnbaum’s prose is just killer in places, such as here:

As dawn drew near, sunlight gradually diminished the cranial foxfires, returning the skull to its original, undistinguished bone-matter state. We made love on the sofa again, her warm breath moist on my shoulder, her breasts small and soft. Then, when it was over, she folded her body into mine and went to sleep. (376)

I mean, damn. You can’t teach that! You can either write like that or you can’t.

Here’s the Japanese…and to be honest, I’m not really sure they have sex again. It seems to be highly suggested based on a clever space break actually provided by Murakami here. Here’s the Japanese:


ワインを飲みほしてしまうと、彼女はその小さな時間の中に身を折り畳むように静かに眠った。… (553)

As dawn began to break, the sunlight gradually washed away the skull’s brilliance, and it returned to its original, smooth, white bone with nothing at all unusual about it. We held each other on the sofa and watched as the darkness of the outside world was lifted by the morning light. Her breath was damp on my shoulder, and her breasts were small and soft.

After she finished the wine, she quickly curled up and quietly fell asleep. …

As you can see, Birnbaum takes a sentence from the subsequent paragraph and combines it with the previous paragraph to kind of complete the narration, whereas Murakami splits it up—in the next paragraph while she falls asleep, he’s wide awake and his attention is on the sounds of the day getting started.

抱き合う (dakiau, hug/embrace or couple, as in “sleep with”) here could easily be sleep with, I think, but it does feel a little strange that way when combined with the second half of the Japanese sentence, which is “watch the room grow lighter.” I mean…if that’s what he was doing, then the sex must not have been that good? What do you all think about this choice?

BOHE also make a very large cut of references to current events at the end of the chapter. Check out the English translation:

She was still getting dressed, so I read the morning paper in the living room. There was nothing that would interest me in my last few hours. (378)

There’s a lot missing in between those two sentences! Here’s the Japanese:

私は彼女が服を着ているあいだ居間のソファーに座って朝刊を読んだ。タクシーの運転手が運転中に心臓発作を起して陸橋の橋桁につっこみ、死んでいた。客は三十二歳の女性と四歳の女の子で、どちらも重傷を負った。どこかの市議会の昼食に出た弁当のカキフライが腐っていて、二人が死んだ。外務大臣がアメリカの高金利政策に対して遺憾の意を表明し、アメリカの銀行の会議はへの貸付け金の利子について検討し、ペルーの蔵相はアメリカの南米に対する経済侵略を非難し、西ドイツの外相は対日貿易収支の不均衡の是正を強く求めていた。シリアがイスラエルを非難し、イスラエルはシリアを非難していた。父親に暴力をふるう十八歳の息子についての相談が載っていた。新聞には私の最後の数時間にとって役に立ちそうなことは何ひとつとして書かれてはいなかった。 (557)

While she was getting dressed, I sat on the sofa in the living room and read the morning paper. A taxi driver had a heart attack while driving, ran into an overpass support, and died. Two passengers, a 32-year-old woman and a 4-year-old girl, both suffered serious injuries. The fried oysters in the bento lunches at a city council somewhere had gone bad and two people died. The Minister for Foreign Affairs expressed his regret over the United States’ high interest rate policies, U.S. banks were meeting to look into the interest rates for loans to Central and South America, Peru’s Finance Minister was criticizing America’s economic penetration into South America, West Germany’s Foreign Minister was insisting on a correction to the trade imbalance with Japan. Syria was criticizing Israel, Israel was criticizing Syria. There was a letter seeking advice about an 18-year-old son who was violent with his father. There wasn’t anything in the paper that seemed of any use to me in my final hours.

Pretty different! Remember that this book was written in 1985 and the translation released in 1991, so the project spans the fall of the Berlin Wall and very nearly the fall of the U.S.S.R. (which went in December 1991). I guess they make this cut because the information isn’t entirely necessary, but it definitely gives the text an entirely different effect.

I wonder if the reality of the current events detracts from the kind of cyberpunkish Tokyo vibe…which is really only present in the scenes with the old man scientist and the thugs. The rest just feels like Tokyo in the 80s. Personally, I like the original and all its breathlessness. It works.

But one of the most thematically notable cuts this chapter is much smaller. Here’s what happens when they see the skull shining:

I gently disengaged her from my arm, reached out for the skull, and brought it over to my lap.

“Aren’t you afraid?” she now asked under her breath.

“No.” For some reason, I wasn’t.

Holding my hands over the skull, I sensed the slightest ember of heat…

And here’s the original Japanese with my translation:




頭骨を手のひらで覆うと、そこにはかすかな残り火のようなあたたかみが感じられた。 (546-547)

I gently released my right arm from her grip, reached out for the skull on the table, and quietly set it on my lap.

“Aren’t you afraid?” she asked quietly.

“Not at all,” I said. I wasn’t afraid. Somehow, someway it was connected to my being. No one is afraid of their essence.

When I placed my hands over the skull, I could feel a faint warmth, like some sort of embers.

I imagine that an editor made a cut here and got rid of the 私自身, either because it felt awkward and unnecessary or it was too on the nose. It’s not an easy thing to translate well. I think translating it simply as “myself” doesn’t work because perhaps some of us are afraid of ourselves. I wondered if “my self” would work, but that strikes me as something that might confuse the reader and look more like a mistake. Any ideas on how you might address this?

Very interesting stuff this chapter, one that could serve as a microcosm of the translation of the whole novel. Three chapters left!

Cool Word – オブラート

I’m in the Japan Times this week with a look at a couple of websites that I’ve noticed popping up whenever I search for a polite way to phrase something: “When stumped in Japanese, go where the stumped Japanese go.”

The websites are Mayonez and Tap-biz. Mayonez seems like a more fleshed-out, coherent project, but they’re clearly very similar. I wondered how they were funded, but further investigation has shown that the articles are really just cover for the job hunting websites that likely fund the whole shebang.

Still, the articles are pretty interesting, and I think they offer pretty effective language tips.

In the course of reading through the Mayonez article about 希望しない alternatives, I saw the phrase オブラート包んでお断りすることがマナーです (Oburaato tsutsunde okotowari suru koto ga manaa desu, Saying no in a roundabout way).

オブラート (oburaato, oblaat) is a very interesting word I hadn’t heard before. Oblaat are those thin, transparent layers of rice starch that are used to wrap things like dagashi.

So the phrase オブラートに包む, then, means to kind of mediate a phrase in a way that makes it more palatable/handleable. Pretty cool.

And of course there’s a ridiculous Yahoo Chiebukuro site involving オブラート: “「死ね」 をオブラートに包んでください(“Shineo oburaato ni tsutsunde kudasai, Say “Go kill yourself” in a polite way). Some pretty funny answers.

And on a side note, next month is the four year anniversary (FORTY EIGHT consecutive months!) of the Japanese Reading Group that I’ve been running through the JET Alumni Association Chicago Chapter. We’ve been meeting on Google Hangouts for the past year or so, and it would be great if you’d join us! Check out the event details here.

Magnetic Lassos and Other Translation Thoughts

Wrangling a translation.

The last five months have flown by. In March I moved on from my job with the Japanese Consulate into a new position here in Chicago that still has me connected with Japan. My exit from the consulate position was comically awfully, due to no fault of my own (…well, not really). I’ll resist spilling the details here, but you should definitely buy me a drink sometime and force me to tell you about it.

During the week in between jobs, I was contacted about translating a Japanese light novel. I started a sample translation the same week I started the new job, and the offer for the project came two weeks after that.

And for the five months since, I’ve been translating at a pace of about two 文庫本 (bunkobon, paperback) pages a day. Some days I did significantly more, and I took off a few days here and there and about two weeks to travel to Japan for a conference in May.

I submitted the translation last Sunday and wanted to record my thoughts about the experience while they’re still fresh in case they’re of use to anyone (and so that I can remember what this felt like when I’m 95).


  • I submitted the translations in two halves with two invoices, minus a small advance that came immediately upon accepting the project (which was taken from the first half payment). I had about the same amount of time for each half.
  • I won’t discuss my rate other than to say that I tried to get close to what I request for most translations (a fairly reasonable rate, as far as I’m aware). I wish I’d kept track of the hours I spent on the project because I’m confident I spent more hours on this project than I do on most translation work. Not that I slack off on other projects, but fiction is an entirely different beast.


  • Given everything I had going on in life (mostly: day job, brewing beer, attempting to have a social life), I set a pace and stuck to it. Two pages/day was the average mark I tried to hit, but this was easier for the first half. I had a convergence of obstacles that slowed the start of translating the second half and upped my page quota. But even during the first half I tried to do closer to 3-4 pages a day. I ended up with about a week to revise for both deliveries. The quota was a helpful way to keep track of how I was doing but also to give myself permission to take breaks.
  • Something I realized (that may be obvious) is that not every page of fiction is created equally. Some pages are dense with description and others are lean with dialogue. And then there were the two pages near the end of the novel that were, mercifully, verbatim copies of a section from the beginning of the novel. This is another important reason to set a pace quota. You’re basically page-time averaging, although it’s also good to be aware of what the terrain looks like as you progress.
  • I did not read the novel in advance. Thankfully, this didn’t screw me later on in the translation process…I don’t think. I’m not sure how long it would’ve taken for me to read the novel (maybe 10-14 days based on previous paces), but that would’ve cut into my translation and revision calendar. Over the course of the project, however, I did start to read ahead. I read a few pages ahead on my commutes, just to get an idea of what was coming up, or even just a page or two as I was translating. This was generally “skimming” rather than looking up every word, but it was important to get a feel for the text. If this project confirmed anything for me, it was that you have to translate on the paragraph and page level and not the sentence level.
  • Having both a Kindle and Paper version was helpful. I managed to get a full copy of the book right away with Kindle, so I was off to the races, but it was reassuring to see my progress through the paper copy. It also came handy during revision when I could have the book version open and use my phone for a dictionary app instead of the Kindle app.
  • I do have some major complaints about the Kindle app. The app limits the number of times you can copy and paste from the text. Once you’ve reached the limit, you’re out of luck. This can make it difficult to find the reading of words you don’t know because the Kindle dictionary will only find exact matches (i.e. no inflected verbs or adjectives). You can also use the “share” feature to export text to email and instant message, but this feature is also limited. I mean, I get why they’re doing this, but I also have a hard time imagining that someone would copy and paste an entire ebook. Although maybe I’m underestimating Japanese internet pirates.
  • A portion of what I made from this project paid for my Japanese teacher, and it was well worth it. During my week between jobs, I hired a Japanese teacher over Skype to brush up some of my business Japanese. This ended up being extremely convenient; once the translation project started, we just shifted to my questions about the book. I used the Kindle app to highlight the sections I had questions about and then took screenshots. I sent my teacher the screenshots, and we went over the questions an hour at a time. I found these sessions to be most helpful if I reviewed the sections of the text before the lesson. It was also important to take notes on her explanations and then to make the revisions necessary as soon as possible. And there were definitely revisions necessary. I’m not sure how I imagined translators when I first started studying Japanese and then translating myself, but I think there’s a certain sense that they are supposed to be flawless experts who know every word immediately. It’s safe to say that this isn’t true. It’s critical to have someone to bounce text off of when you don’t understand it. It doesn’t do any good to be too proud to admit you don’t understand something. My teacher helped me figure out some pop culture puns, countless grammar patterns, and general nuances for different sections. She also made fun of me when I asked questions that were too easy. “Just translate it however, it doesn’t matter,” she said a couple of time, ha. I don’t usually promote services, but I can safely recommend Linguage. I believe they have a physical school in Japan, but they also do introductions to online teachers. You can buy sets of 10 lessons, and they cost less than $30/lesson (although this varies with the exchange rate), which seems extremely fair. My teacher actually lives in Germany, which makes the time difference less of an issue.
  • Revise as you go. This is a mistake I made in the first half. I was doing all these Japanese lessons but also so concerned about keeping pace that I pressed forward rather than take a half hour after each lesson to fix what we’d just gone over. I adjusted my process for the second half of the novel. Not only did I make the revisions from the lesson immediately, I did a read through after each chapter and revised as much as I could so that the final revision wouldn’t take as long as it did during the first half. I think this probably made the final revisions easier as well.
  • For the final revision, I tried to read the translation and focus on the English as an entirely separate product. Does the language make sense? Are there any phrases that could be more natural, and would it be too much of a stretch to simplify or combine words/phrases? What exactly was the author trying to say with this section and has that been communicated? I looked at the Japanese as necessary, but it’s an important step to take the English on its own.
  • The metaphor that came to me as I was working was the Photoshop magnetic lasso feature. Translation doesn’t produce an identical product as the original, but it does resemble that original. I like to think that there’s some ideal English product, even though this isn’t true. I do think there are more ideal phrasings (or maybe more natural phrases) than others and that the translation should stick to the original loosely in the way that the magnetic lasso sticks to the outline of an object. If your language strays from the original, you’ll notice. If the language is too far off, the reader will notice as well, even without knowing the shape of the original. I have some examples of this from the revision process that I’ll be able to share when it comes out.

I’ll share more information when I can. It’s a relief to be done! I can adapt the adage and say that it feels better to have translated than to translate, but to be honest not by much! It’s fun to be in there with the text, wrestling with what the Japanese means and how to convey it in English. By my measure, translating fiction is far more pleasurable than writing fiction.

My Translation Desktop

Monday night in Kanda, May 2018. Apropos of nothing other than that I, too, am a hardworking person.

I only vaguely remember my first electronic dictionary. I know I had a very small one I bought in Akihabara in 2003 that deftly jumped around between kanji and compounds. But I left it in a classroom when I got back to the states and someone took it. I’d written my name on it, I think, but it smeared a little.

I bought a new one on Amazon Japan first thing when I moved into my JET apartment, but it was bigger and bulkier and didn’t do the same tasks, despite being the same brand. Should’ve stuck with old reliable.

This was 2005, and I didn’t end up using the dictionary all that much. I switched over to the Nintendo DS kanji dictionary, which made it a breeze to draw out kanji I didn’t recognize. Since I got a smartphone in 2012, I haven’t even used that all that much.

Some of my reading I do either “skimming,” without looking up each word, and the rest (which I’m likely doing for JT articles or translation work), I’m right next to the computer and have the internet at my fingertips.

Part of the reason I can find these characters is Jim Breen. I was in the Japan Times late last month with a profile of him and a look at his WWWJDIC and underlying EDICT dictionary files: “At 180,000 entries, Jim Breen’s freeware Japanese dictionary is still growing.”

Jisho.org has been my favorite EDICT-based resource. I know that WWWJDIC has the mult-radical method as well, and maybe I should give the website another chance, but I just find Jisho so easy to use and well designed.

It’s also not often that I have to look up characters. I’m working on a big translation project that I hope to share soon, and I’m reading the text through Kindle on my iPhone, which I’ve written about previously.

I do have major complaints with the dictionary feature. Unlike Jisho, you have to hit the exact word or else it won’t return any hits. Which basically means you can’t search for conjugated verbs or adjectives or you have to hope that the individual kanji has a separate meaning/reading that will then enable you to find it with other stuff.

And my most major complaint with the Kindle is the limit on your ability to copy and paste text. I mean, I get it. You don’t want people copying and pasting the entire text, but it was so damn easy to copy from the iPhone and then paste on my desktop through the MacOS/iOS integration. There must be a way to allow copying and pasting single phrases/words with no limit. We have software smart enough to do this.

So my basic translation desktop setup is this:

Kenkyushu Green Goddess (5th edition) app open on my iPhone (for deep dives into usages and meanings that aren’t easily summarized in a few words)

And the following browser tabs, in no particular order:
http://jisho.org (for basic word look up)
http://www.alc.co.jp (for usage and context clues)
http://thesaurus.com (to give a tired English brain some alternatives or inspiration)
https://ejje.weblio.jp/ (for more diverse and at times reliable context and usage clues)
https://kotobank.jp/ (for Japanese definitions in order to more fully understand a word)

What am I missing? I feel like there must be an easier way to look up individual kanji. Any suggestions?

The Best Japanese Postcards

Quick update for June aimed at any travelers headed to Japan this summer!

The best place to pick up post cards in Japan is at the Post Office, and one of the best post offices is the Tokyo Central Post Office, just opposite the Marunouchi side of Tokyo Station. You can walk around and do your shopping at the Maruzen nearby along with all the great Tokyo station shopping, and then you can pick up post cards, have a coffee while you write them, and drop them in the mail.

They have the very cool postcard set featuring famous sights in a kind of simplified cartoon style. For a while they offered only the old school Japanese postbox, but now it’s expanded to include sights across the country. Stop in the local post offices while traveling to see what’s on offer.

And they have a variety of nicely designed postcards celebrating the history of the Japanese Post Office with really nicely styled post cards.

There are also great souvenirs to bring home as you can see above. Bags, magnets, and other goods. I came home with two magnets.

And don’t forget to ask for nice stamps. There’s almost always something cool, even if it means your stamps exceed the actual cost of postage. They had a Mario set that I regret not asking for, although I did get to use 風神 and 雷神 stamps, which was cool.

PDF Quote-a-palooza

Greetings from Kumamoto! I’m here for work for the rest of this week and then I’ll have a few meetings in Tokyo. I’ll have a few days free at the end of the second week, so if you’re in Tokyo and are interested in getting a beer, get in touch and I’ll let you know what I’m up to.

I was in the Japan Times last week with some tips on deciphering dialogue in Japanese fiction. Big props to the editors for this headline: “Whose line is it anyway? Tips for deciphering dialogue in Japanese fiction.”

Thanks to the JT, this tweet got a bump:

Seems like it’s a topic of interest for many. It sparked a conversation about dialogue in light novels between a few folks on Twitter, which I have to admit I couldn’t really follow.

I’ve been reading a detective novel recently and had forgotten how difficult it can be to follow dialogue in Japanese fiction sometimes. I guess I’m so used to reading Murakami, who makes a point of marking his dialogue well…and, now that I think about it, rarely has more than two people talking on their own.

I don’t have too much to add other than what I wrote in the article, but I did find two interesting links worth looking at. The first is a paper on an Ekuni Kaori short story collection by Michiyo Goda: 江國香織『きらきらひかる』における会話の提示――英訳版と比較して (An Analysis of Speech Presentation in Kaori Ekuni’s Twinkle Twinkle: In Comparison with the English Translation).

Her statement at the top of the paper is similar to the point I make at the beginning of the Japan Times piece:

小説の会話の分析というと、キャラクター 造型との関わりから、発話「内容」に注目が 集まる傾向がある。もちろんこのこと自体に問題はないのだが、文体という観点から会話を扱うならば、その提示「方法」にも注視してしかるべきであろう。
In analysis of dialogue in fiction, there’s a tendency to focus on the “content” of speech in relation to the construction of character. Of course, there’s no problem with this in and of itself, but if we take dialogue as an aspect of literary style, it seems appropriate to place more emphasis on the “methods” of its presentation as well.

I haven’t finished reading this article thoroughly, but there are some really interesting examples, and some excellent points made. She notes for example that in Japanese 伝達部の省略は当たり前になされる (It’s natural to eliminate the communication tags), and then she goes on to explain why:

When communication tags are repeated for each element of speech as in English, Japanese can quickly give a monotonous impression, and this can be considered a mechanism to avoid that.

I need to read this more fully. It has some really interesting thoughts for translators to consider as they work with Japanese. Any translators out there have strong feelings about dialogue work?

The other link is by Kazumi Tachikawa: 日本語教育における引用表現 (On Quotation in Teaching Japanese as a Second Language).

Another super interesting article. I need to read it more in depth, but I fast forwarded to the conclusion (as you do), and found myself nodding:

Even when comprehension of quotations is sufficient, it is apparent that their level of verbal expression hasn’t developed. On the other hand, diverse methods of quotation are used in written expression.

Very interesting indeed. Especially in light of this observation:

First, in classroom (spoken language) quotation expressions, student speech was mostly made up of fragmentary utterances and quoted expressions were not observed. On the other hand, instructors made use of a wide variety of quotations, in terms of phrases and speech content, and they also made use of many different sentence-ending speech constructions, not only using “と (to) + quotation verb” but also “と(って) [to (tte).”

I wonder if there’s a hesitation to drill casual forms of the language such as って. My own experience in the classroom was definitely a です・ます experience, and I can understand why, but I feel like this can be a disservice at times.

Adding these articles to the reading pile, and I hope you do too.