One of the elementary schools I taught at for three years was deep in the mountains. Every Thursday I’d drive the beat-up red town car from the junior high school west along the river and then turn right, head into the mountains. The school only had about 30 kids total from 1st to 6th grade, so I taught sets of two grade years: 1st and 2nd, 3rd and 4th, 5th and 6th.

I thought it would be difficult at first, and it was a little when the kids rose a year and got matched with a different set of students, but the older kids always helped the younger ones along. I found that I could get the older kids to provide examples of different patterns and games.

Once I was teaching the 5th and 6th graders vowels. In Japanese the word for vowel is 母音 (ぼいん). [On an interesting side note, the word for consonant is 子音 (しいん)]. 母音 has an unusual pronunciation, so I wrote it on the board for the kids, but for some reason when I said it, the kids started laughing hysterically. I said it again, and they laughed even harder! One kid added, ダニエル先生、すごい! At one point the assistant principal, who was overseeing the class, had to tell kids to stop laughing. I still had no idea what was so funny. I could tell something I said was strange, but I just moved on with the lesson.

A couple weeks later I was teaching the same material to 3rd and 4th graders, and 母音 elicited the same response. This time, however, one of the little boys mimed a giant set of breasts. Ah ha! I thought, ボイン is the noise that boobs make when they move up and down! No wonder they were laughing so much. I had been standing up in front of the class saying, "Okay, guys, there are two types of boobs – long boobs and short boobs, and they make different sounds for each letter."

Laughter is an amazing warning sign. I love it when people laugh at my Japanese. It lets me know that my joke has worked or that I’ve said something incredibly incorrect and strange. Either way, it’s an easy way for people to reinforce better speaking without having to say, “Hey asshole, you messed up.”

If I get laughed at for a mistake, I don’t usually make that mistake again. On the internship I wrote about previously, I once brought omiyage for the group, announcing them by saying このお土産を京都から連れてきました。They all laughed, and the division head let me know that 連れる is only used for people; basically, I had just said, “I have accompanied this omiyage from Kyoto. Please enjoy.” 持ってきた is the correct pattern. Needless to say, I haven’t made that mistake again.

The point? Try not to take it personally if someone laughs at your Japanese, and feel free to laugh at strange English. You’re doing them a favor.

This isn’t really a puzzle, but I will beer the first person to explain the pun from and relevance of the title.

(I also wrote about laughter when I nearly killed a tanuki.)

号外 – Oops!

    I’ve got another Murakami-related piece online over at Néojaponisme. Just a funny little extract from a Murakami conference. Dimitry Kovalenin clearly hasn’t been to a zoo for a while. Although, in all fairness, spider monkeys don’t live in Russia – too cold, no onsen.
    It is unclear when Kovalenin did his translation of the story, but nowadays there are several things he could have done in terms of fundamental groundwork for the translation, none of which would have taken much time.

Google Images

    A search for くもざる (kumozaru in hiragana) turns up a variety of strange images, including the cover of the collection and a few monkey pictures, but Google also suggests that you might be looking for クモザル (“もしかして:クモザル”). Search for the katakana version and you’ll find nothing but real monkeys.
    Google Images is quick and easy way to research what a word means and implies to people. And it’s good for more than just people, places and animals; a search for 派手, a word that can sometimes be difficult to translate in natural-sounding English, is revealing. An image search will never tell you what a word means, but it can provide you with some usage clues.


    Wikipedia entries are all cross-linked with their foreign counterparts. A list of languages for a given entry is provided in the left sidebar. This makes it an excellent tool for translation research
    Of course, this doesn’t always work. A Wikipedia search for くもざる currently brings up only three results – the Asahiyama Zoo, Murakami Haruki, and Anzai Mizumaru. Even クモザル is a little confusing; it is included within the Japanese entry for Atelidae, “one of the four families of New World monkeys.” But if you browse through that section, クモザル亜科 is listed as one of the species, and there are half a dozen examples of spider monkeys.


    Professor Numano was quick on the draw with his Kōjien citation, so I’m guessing he looked it up in an electronic dictionary. Go ahead, get yours out now. I already checked mine, and it’s nearly identical to the definition that he gave in Japanese. (オマキザル科の哺乳類。数類があり、中米から南米北部の森林に生息。) SPACEALC, a useful online dictionary that often generates a horde of contextual examples, also gives spider monkey as the definition.

    Wikipedia does not list Yoru no kumozaru as having been published in Russian, so perhaps Kovalenin translated it especially for the symposium and dodged a bullet by discovering his mistake quickly. As they say in Japan, even monkeys fall from trees. The translator’s burden is a heavy one – very little of the credit for success and all of the blame for failure. Modern resources and looking up every damn word you are unsure about can help ensure that you don’t win the Miss Translation pageant.

Cool Verb – おののく


If you look at it long enough, it almost doesn’t even look like a word at all. It begins to crawl along the page, chomping on other letters and words and leaving sentences half-erased, おののくughts half-finished おののくing a Ludovician love song.

I learned it at おののくoday, and it means tremble or quiver. It sometimes brings it’s friend 恐れ with it 恐れおののくttached as a caboose, adding a sense of fear and awe.

Cool word.            … おののく


Well, it’s Election Day back in the States, so I thought we’d look at party names in translation.

The Republican Party – 共和党 (きょうわとう)

Unsure here, but this looks like a direct translation. 共和 is also used in a lot of country names, such as the Republic of Afghanistan (アフガニスタン共和国) and the Republic of Guatemala (グアテマラ共和国). Exciting.

Break it down by kanji and you get the “together-peace party.” Hmm…suspect.

The Democratic Party – 民主党 (みんしゅとう)

Here we have another direct translation. 民主主義 (みんしゅしゅぎ) is democracy, the theory, and looking on ALC for 民主 delivers a horde of political discourse.

Breaking it down by kanji gives us the “people’s-sovereignty party.” (Yes, the 主 is for 主権, sovereignty.) Hmm…suspect.

Honestly, party names themselves have so little meaning, that direct translation is the only way to go. We are so divorced from the moment when they actually meant something that they only seem like rusty, old institutions, starting to creak with age beneath the weight of generations.

Discourse, my friends, is a lie in any language.

号外 – Mr. Shorty Shorts

Saturday night the booze flowed, and the muse was speaking to me; I thought up an awesome Japanese name for people, such as one of my roommates, who continue to wear shorts into the winter months: 短パンマン.

アンパンマン is a legendary Japanese cartoon character named after a dessert bread stuffed with azuki bean paste.

Actual アンパン:

Actual アンパンマン:

The azuki bean bread (アンパン) easily transforms to shorts (短パン), making a great pun. It received high praise from the other roommates.

You heard it here first. (In the words of John Henson, former host of Talk Soup, "Come on, it’s funny!")

Cool Link – すべらない名無し

2channel is a Japanese internet forum. You can try browsing it yourself, but it’s massive and seems like it would take a long time to find exactly what you’re looking for. After you click on the main graphic, there is a huge list of topics on the left.

The other day while searching for examples of 差し入れ, I came across a blog that seems to cull the funniest posts from 2channel and post them as blog entries – すべらない名無し. It’s kind of an Overheard in New York for 2channel.

The topics vary but are almost always funny. It proves that Steven Segal provides just as much unintentional comedy in Japan as anywhere else. You can also read about the displeasures of fellatio, the misfortune of setting your 変換, and how to make hilarious manga titles by adding/changing one character. Recommended reading. The comments are generally fun, too.

名無し (ななし) refers to the name, or lack of name, of the posters on 2ch. Almost everyone posts anonymously, and the default anonymous name is 名無し or some funny reworking of 名無し; in the literature section, for example, it is 我輩は名無しである, a pun on a Soseki novel. すべらない you might recognize from Hitoshi Matsumoto’s すべらない話. I’m unsure if it’s related to 滑る, which has the same pronunciation and means “to slip,” but even if it’s not, that’s an easy way to remember what it means – if it slips (すべる), it’s not funny; if it doesn’t slip (すべらない), it’s funny. So basically the title means “Funny No-names.”

Eels, Monkeys, and Doves

With the goal of stirring up even more interest in Murakami between now and mid-October tomorrow!, when the Nobel Prizes are is 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, 3, 4. This is, of course, the final entry in this series. Hope you enjoyed it.

夜のくもざる (Yoru no kumozaru, Night of the Spider Monkey) is a collection of 36 超短編小説 – “super short stories.” Each story is only 2-3 pages each, so it’s a great collection when you are first starting to read Japanese prose and are unable to focus for a long time.

Murakami wrote the stories in two sets as a series of advertisements, the first for a line of clothing from 1985 to 1987 and the second for a fountain pen company from 1993 to 1995. Not that they have anything to do with those things, as Murakami himself readily admits in the afterword. One of his friends just asked him to write short pieces, literally on whatever he wanted to write about, and the stories were set next to the ads in several Japanese magazines. Yoru no kumozaru is a collection of all those stories. I’ve translated one story from each set.

The first story is titled “Eel.” It comes from the early set and features May Kasahara at least five years before she would appear as the infamous biker-blindfolder from The Wind-up Bird Chronicle:


    May Kasahara called my house at three thirty in the morning, and naturally I was fast asleep. I was nestled in the thick, warm, velvety mud of sleep with some eel and a pair of long rubber boots, and although it was only temporary, I was devouring a somewhat effective fruit of happiness. And that’s when the phone rang.
    Ring, ring.
    First the fruit disappeared. Then the eel and the rubber boots. Finally the mud disappeared, leaving only me. Only me – thirty-seven years old, a drunk, and nobody likes me. Who has the right to steal eel and rubber boots from me?
    Ring, ring.
    “Hello?” said May Kasahara. “Hello?”
    “Yes, hello,” I answered.
    “Um, it’s me, May Kasahara. Sorry it’s late, but the ants are out again. They’re making a nest by the column in the kitchen. I chased the bastards out of the bath, but tonight they’ve moved their nest over here. The whole thing! They even brought all their tiny little white babies. I can’t stand it! So bring that spray over again. I’m sorry it’s so late, but I absolutely hate ants. Hey, you understand?”
    I shook my head violently in the darkness. Who the hell is May Kasahara? Who the fuck is this May Kasahara to come and steal eel out of my head?
    So I put that question to her.
    “Oops, I’m sorry. Looks like I made a mistake,” said May Kasahara sincerely. “The ants have me all confused. You see, the ants are moving their nest together. Sorry.”
    May Kasahara hung up the phone first, and I set the receiver down. Somewhere in the world, ants were moving their nest, and May Kasahara was looking for someone’s help.
    I sighed and pulled my futon covers over my head. I closed my eyes and looked for signs of those friendly eel in the mud of sleep again.

Murakami has often mentioned that he starts writing with one word or image in mind, using that as a generative source and following the path of whatever springs into his head from that point. The stories in 夜のくもざる illustrate this technique better than anything else he’s ever written.

The most awkward sentence there is “I was devouring a somewhat effective fruit of happiness.” In Japanese it is: それなりに有効な幸せの果物を貪って(むさぼって)いたのである。Clearly this is kind of an idiom, but you have to keep it somewhat literal because the fruit disappears shortly after. Murakami also uses the kanji for ant – 蟻. Strange considering it’s often written in katakana.

The next story comes from the later set. It is, as far as I know, the only story that Murakami has ever written in 関西弁, the Kansai-accent prevalent in Kyoto, Osaka and Kobe. Murakami grew up speaking it but stopped using it when he moved to Tokyo. There are a million different ways to translate this story, as it could really be translated into any vernacular of any language. I went with the one I’m most familiar with, one that I would call “American preppy thug”:


A monkey, yo. You know, a monkey. And I’m not fuckin around here, there was a real live monkey up in a tree, yo. Surprised the hell out of me, too! Whoa, what the hell, a monkey, I was thinkin, and there it was. Dude’s a monkey, ya know. So then, I just watch the fucker for a while. Thinkin, holy shit, a monkey! So then the dude falls. Straight out of the tree. The fucker slips and falls straaaight out of the tree. And I was starin at it thinkin yo what the hell, what the hell. No lie, bro, a real live monkey fell out of a real live tree. Just straight down, and bam. And don’t they say that shit all the time? Even monkeys fall out of trees. Ya know? Just like the old saying. Couldn’t fuckin believe it. Those old dudes were smart motherfuckers. They said some wise shit. Even monkeys fall out of trees. You don’t come up with shit like that every day. What I’m tryin to say is that a monkey actually fell out of a tree, dude. That shit actually happens. Can’t just laugh at those old sayings. Old motherfuckers were wise, yo. Dudes knew shit, yo. So I was thinking. So that saying, “Even monkeys fall from trees,” ya know…so say a real live monkey falls out of a tree, and he falls out and bam, you couldn’t walk up to the fucker and say, “Yo, dude, you gotta watch out, there’s this old saying ‘Even monkeys fall from trees.’” Yeah, old sayings are supposed to be warnings, yo. But a real live monkey that fell out of a tree, think you could actually go up and say that to him? That’d be some cold shit to say to a monkey. Think you could do it? Know I couldn’t. But that reminded me that old sayings are some wise shit for real. Cuz monkeys do fall from trees, ya know. That’s some smart shit. Surprised the hell out of me. Yo, you ever seen a dove get shot by a bean shooter? I have, for reals. A while back I was watching this dove. I’m not fuckin around, yo. For reals. Wise shit, yo. Surprised the hell out of me. So it gets hit by the bean. And then…

The first ことわざ here translates into English pretty easily, but the second doesn’t. In Japanese it is 鳩(はと)が豆鉄砲(まめでっぽう)を食らったよう. Apparently it refers to the look of surprise on a dove’s face when it gets hit by a bean from a bean-shooter. That I learned from this 慣用句辞典, a most excellent resource. Highly recommended.

I also highly recommend 夜のくもざる. It’s a nice, light collection. All of the stories are strange and funny. I believe the hardback edition is out of print, but you can still find the paperback version new.

Here is one of Mizumaru Anzai’s monkey drawings from the collection: