How to Seinfeld

I’m in The Japan Times with a look at how “Seinfeld” is being translated into Japanese: “These senbei are making me thirsty? How ‘Seinfeld’ sounds in Japanese.

“Seinfeld” was added to Netflix last October, and my editor noticed Japanese comments about using the show as English study, now that they’d finished bingeing “Friends.” He was curious to see how it was being translated, so I took a look earlier this year. The piece just went up with some updates thanks to the JT.

I found what I basically expected to find: The dubbed translation is far superior. The voice acting is pretty incredible, actually. I recommend checking out the “these pretzels are making me thirsty” line from “The Alternate Side” (S03E11) to see how well it works.

I didn’t have space for this in the article, but I found a few mistakes in the translation.

In “The Puffy Shirt” (S05E02), George has moved back in with his parents, and they’re treating him like royalty after his recent hand modeling success. His mother offers him jello, and his father makes a critical comment. Here’s what the English looks like:

FRANK: Why’d you put the bananas in there?!
ESTELLE: George likes the bananas!
FRANK: So let him have bananas on the side!

The dubbed version gets the ensuing conversation correct:

なんでバナナ入れたんだ? (Nande banana ireta nda?, Why’d you put the bananas in there?)
ジョージはバナナが好きなのよ! (Jōji wa banana ga suki nano yo!, George likes the bananas!)
バナナは別にしよう! (Banana wa betsu ni shiyō!, Put the bananas on the side!)

The subtitled version, however, somehow has his father asking for the bananas to be added in:

バナナも入れろ (Banana mo irero, Put in the bananas, too)
ジョージの好物よ! (Jōji no koobutsu yo!, George loves bananas!)
食わせてやれ! (Kuwasete yare!, Feed him the bananas!)

Seems like the subtitler got mixed up in all the yelling.

And in “The Yada Yada” (S08E19), I found a nearly impossible to translate joke. Tim the dentist has converted to Judaism and starts telling Jewish jokes. This line isn’t a joke, but it’s tough to put into Japanese:

English: Give me a schtickle of flouride.
Sub: ユダヤ教徒用のフッ素をくれ (Yudaya kyōto yō no fusso o kure, Give me the flouride for Jews)
Dub: フッ素を少し頂戴 (Fusso o sukoshi chōdai, Give me a bit of flouride)

I can’t tell exactly, but I think the dubbed version might give the 少し a skosh more shh on the front of the word to try and capture the sense of the Yiddish, but it’s really difficult to tell. The subtitle goes with a frankly terrible translation – “Give me the flouride for Jews”? It seems like the translator does recognize schtickle as a Yiddish word, but what a terrible decision. There must be some other approach that would work.

Later in the episode, Kramer calls Seinfeld an “anti-dentite.” Here’s how it gets translated:

English: You’re an anti-dentite
Sub: お前はアンチ歯科医 (Omae wa anchi shikai, You’re anti-dentist)
Dub: お前は歯医者差別主義だ (Omae wa haisha sabetsu shugi, You discriminate against dentists)

There are problems with both of these translations. The sub captures the “feel” of the English, but the dub better expresses the discriminatory aspect present with the antisemite connotation. Some of this is just going to get lost, unfortunately, like with the schtickle line. I think the dub is more successful in the end, but that could be because you get all the emphasis in the verbal jousting between the characters.

I can’t imagine anyone doing a full rewatch with the dubbed version in Japanese, but if you’re interested in watching some high-level voice acting, it’s not a bad exercise. For the life of me, I could not track down who did the voice acting. I’m always curious to know who does the voices because they’re all so prolific that they’ve done many other roles. Anyone know where this information might be hidden?

How to 菓子パン

I just sent out the May newsletter. I wrote about my love of 菓子パン (kashipan). The croissant above I don’t think technically counts as 菓子パン? My theory is that anything laminated and/or crunchy is a European-style pastry. 菓子パン are defined by their softness, to a certain extent. But I just had to share the image here because it’s one of the most ridiculous things I’ve ever eaten. This is the cafe. Their pastries and meal sets are incredible. I’ve been once for the croissant and once for a quiche. Will need to go back and try more in the near future.

Radiko – Japanese Online Radio

We live in a world where the son of Jewish Ukrainian immigrants can grow up in California, get inspired by mariachi music, go on to an incredibly successful pop career in the US… and have one of his hits take on a completely different life in Japan.

Yes, I’m talking about Bittersweet Samba (permasearch) by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass.

The song has served as the All Night Nippon theme song for 55 years. It has a dedicated Japanese Wikipedia entry but not an English one.

I always associated the song with Ninety Nine, but I started using Radiko recently and noticed that it also plays for オードリー (Audrey) and their ANN shows as well.

These are all available on Radiko along with a lot of music shows, like Tatsuro Yamashita’s Sunday Songbook, and news. Previously aired shows are available for a week after they’ve run, and there’s a ton of live content available as well. I have confirmation that Radiko will work abroad with a VPN, and there’s a plugin for Chrome-based browsers as well.

It’s difficult to express exactly how much Japanese language content is available right now. It’s an impossible amount. Literally unimaginable to 1999 Daniel. Radiko is just a drop in the bucket. Now that I think about it, I don’t think I could input Japanese into my computer until 2002 or 2003 at least…I have vague memories of needing to use a Hotmail account to send Japanese emails because my college only had ASCII-based email or whatever.

This is just a short post to share this resource, but I guess one of the lessons is that it’s all out there for you right now. Consistency is the way to understand it all, which I’ll get into in the newsletter this month…keep an eye out for it.

How to Cheese Imomochi

February newsletter went up yesterday with some good reading recs and even MORE television recs.

For the blog I need something quick, so a preview of what I’m (probably) going to write about in the March newsletter seems like a good plan.

Here’s the preview:

かっちゃねる is my latest YouTube obsession. She’s hilarious, and her recipes look like a lot of fun. Unfortunately I haven’t had time to cook any of them. Something to look forward to when I get back from Japan (!) this summer.

I think she’s borrowed a lot of really effective Japanese TV techniques in her channel, and I think I want to write something about that, but I need more time to formulate my thoughts. Stay tuned!

Best Practices for Watching Japanese TV

I may have developed a dangerous habit over the winter break. I learned about TVer in late November and didn’t really do anything with it until New Year’s rolled around, which is when I got nostalgic for 年末 programming. So I watched a bunch and then decided that watching J-drama was an effective way to study Japanese.

Which is how I ended up with an 8+ hour/week television habit. This is a surprise even to me. I tried watching some J-drama on Netflix last summer, but nothing really hooked me. I think the fact that you only have a week to watch shows on TVer combined with the anticipation of new releases has sharpened my interest.

In addition to the four shows I wrote about in the newsletter this month, I’ve added:

A manga artist still struggling to get established gets wrapped up in a murder mystery when one of her junior high classmates (with whom she recently reunited at their reunion) is pushed from a bridge. She herself also seems to be targeted. Does it have something to do with the time capsule they dug up?

This show is…fine. There’s one very bizarre character who makes the whole thing worth watching. And the scenes from Yamagata stand out and make me a little nostalgic for Tohoku. I could take or leave this show.

A woman is found passed out in the woods wearing a white coat. She turns out to be a medical prodigy, but she remembers nothing about her past. Is someone following her?

This one is middling…but fun enough that I end up watching it while doing kanji practice. Another I may end up skipping depending on how busy I get.

A recent addition to my lineup! Nakagoshi Chikara has just moved to a new apartment complex with his family. He’s a bit OCD and has a good heart, so he has trouble keeping himself out of other people’s business, especially if they need help. What secrets are people in his building keeping?

This show is quirky and fun, although maybe a bit too pure…at times it does feel like it’s being written with social lessons in mind. But I’m more likely to stick with this show than some of the others.

Ninety Nine’s going into their 23rd season of ゴチになります! So of course this one is on the list. I think it’s the only non-drama I’m watching right now. Are there any other variety shows out there worth following?

Alice in Borderland
Ok, this is a Netflix addition, and I’m watching it slowly, but I’m a good chunk in. Imagine a bizarro Japanese version of Squid Game. It’s like that. Not quite as good as Squid Game, but higher production values than any of the shows listed above and relatively interesting.

A couple things I’ve noted after watching 40+ hours of Japanese TV in the past month:

– Subtitles/closed captions are a critical tool, but you need to practice watching with and without subtitles. I noticed a striking difference when I actively use the subtitles and when I have them off. It’s almost like practicing two different skills. Ideally you would not use them, but I think they are such a terrific way to confirm vocabulary and grammar points that you may not be catching all the time. If you’re just reading the subtitles, however, I think part of your listening brain does turn off, to a certain extent. I don’t feel terrible about this because I know a lot of viewers in English-speaking countries use closed captions religiously in their native language because it can be difficult to hear things on TV. But I’d try balancing the two. I keep subtitles on and try to shift between focusing on the audio and then confirming something with the text when I need to.

– Make watching TV an active practice by targeting specific grammar patterns. I was struggling to fine tune some of the conditional grammar patterns (〜たら、〜ば、〜なら) at the end of last quarter, so while watching I kind hunt these sentences down and (when I’m able to) copy them into a document I’m keeping. This gives me the ability to compare usages against a wide spectrum of examples, all of which are from ostensibly natural, native interactions (even if fictional). You could look for specific verbs, intransitive/transitive usages, passive constructions, causative constructions, etc. Go wild. Fine tune this practice to your own needs.

What am I missing? Are there any good shows out there I should be watching?

Cool Compound – 悠々自適

Hard to believe that 2020 is finally coming to an end…or is it?

I’ve had a couple of tweets do pretty well the past week, and I’m going to attribute most of the success to sheer luck. I happened to be transcribing a 悩み (nayami, problem/distress/sorrow) from Higashimura Akiko’s podcast (same episode I mentioned in the newsletter this month, just an earlier call) the other day and came across the great compound 悠々自適 (yūyūjiteki), which felt incredibly appropriate to share:

This is definitely my personal goal for 2022, although I do feel like it’s a luxury to be able to completely tune out the outside world. Once I get through the program I’m in, I’m planning to make phone calls for the governor’s races in Georgia and Florida, and I hope you contribute time or money as well.

As for Japanese language study, I do think it’s incredibly helpful to transcribe native Japanese audio from time to time. I find myself doing this for my writing every now and then, usually from NHK or Higashimura-sensei’s podcast, which provides good balance between 報道 (hōdō, broadcast) language and more natural language. It’s obviously helpful to listen to these without transcribing to practice your listening skills at a native pace, but transcription forces you to get in there and confirm particles and verb forms in a way that enables you to then implement the patterns more accurately. It’s not fun work, but if you can set a schedule to do this once a month or so, I promise that you’ll find yourself improving.

I hope that you all find the time to take a breath at the end of the year. I was really looking forward to spending the New Year’s holiday in Japan. There’s really nothing like relaxing in Japan during that period. I will admit that I’ve enjoyed the 80F/24C days in New Orleans I’ve had the past 10 days, and I’m also looking forward to returning to my monastic existence in Chicago. I’m probably putting together a virtual hang for New Year’s Eve, so if you’re a friend of the blog, reach out and I’ll share the link. Otherwise, 良いお年を!

August 2021 JT Blog Bonus Coverage

I am extremely ご無沙汰 with my Japan Times update. I had two articles published at the end of August.

The first — “Make Japanese politics more concrete by training your ears” — was inspired by this little passage I heard on NHK Radio News on June 14 at 7:00pm. I was so surprised I could understand it that I transcribed this passage about the Israeli elections:


For whatever reason, the sounds all just stood out. う and さ do so much work despite each being just a single syllable. It gave me an intense appreciation for all the time I’ve spent doing Japanese, and at the same time it made me wonder what was the best way to communicate this phenomenon to students who are just starting their studies. There’s such an emphasis on learning what the language looks like visually that the importance of the sounds sometimes gets lost in the shuffle.

Please also enjoy this introductory paragraph that got lost on the drawing room floor:

There’s something comforting about the infamous English textbook phrase “This is a pen”: It’s so physical and definite, not to mention the nearly one-to-one correspondence with the Japanese equivalent これはペンです (Kore wa pen desu). You can imagine students on any side of the Pacific, desperate to cement their understanding of the language, wrinkling their brows with focus as they stare at a pen clutched in their hand.

So that’s where my mind was when I wrote the article. I think there’s a way to do “flashcards for sounds.” I’m not sure exactly how it would work. Maybe it’s something that teachers could implement as as short activities alongside regular coursework. Drilling sounds. The one thing I remember doing to train my listening was transcribing things that the teacher said.

I also had an article about 敬語 (keigo, polite speech): “Let the verbs do the work when it comes to pronouns and polite speech in Japanese.” Something that clicked for me at some point was the idea that pronouns are naturally built into Japanese speech patterns. Polite speech is pretty complicated, but one thing that’s easy to understand is that certain verbs correspond to people of different social status (e.g. the Emperor gets his own special verbs) and make it so that you don’t actually have to say their names.

And here’s a paragraph that got cut from this article as well:

Keigo is extremely useful in situations that might require you to be a little nosy. For example, if you need to politely ask for someone’s name (either for the first time or because you can’t quite remember it), you can take the versatile verb 伺います (ukagaimasu, to ask/to visit/to go) and use it in a sentence like お名前をお伺いしてもよろしいでしょうか (Onamae o o-ukagai shite mo yoroshii deshoo ka, May I ask your name?).

This will be my last post on this side of the Pacific for a bit: I’m heading to Japan in just over a week! Stay tuned here, on Twitter, and over at my newsletter for any insights I encounter. I’m sure there will be many.

Podcast Appearance – Translation Chat on Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World

I was on Translation Chat, Jenn O’Donnell’s new podcast about translations! Check out the podcast here.

This was so much fun. We talked about Alfred Birnbaum and Elmer Luke’s 1991 translation of Haruki Murakami’s 1985 “Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World,” so I had a chance to review my six-year Hard-Boiled Wonderland Project—my close blogging of a comparison with the original Japanese and a look at the changes that Murakami made in revision for his Complete Works edition.

Looking back at my close reading, it’s clear that I was working on limited information. Of note, I did not know when the translation was completed in relation to the Complete Works edition.

Well, I have that information now. David Karashima mentions it in his book, and apparently I missed it my first time through. I re-read the chapter about HBW in preparation for the podcast, and it’s very clearly stated that the translation was completed in 1991 and actually took longer than anticipated. At that point, the Complete Works version had already been published. Actually, Murakami mentions in his pamphlet essay included with the Complete Works volume that the book was in the process of being translated but had not yet been published. He also notes that the publisher wanted to title it “Hard-boiled Wonderland,” and of course he said no.

This has pretty cool implications: Birnbaum and Luke were translating based on two versions of the original text. I’m fairly certain that they had access to the 1985 original and Murakami’s revisions. Take a look at Chapter 15, for example. There’s a short stretch in English that includes lines from the 1985 version that were cut from the 1990 version and a sentence from the 1990 version that was not originally in the 1985 version.

This makes me very curious to see what Jay Rubin does with his translation. Yes! He’s working on a new translation. I somehow neglected to mention this during the podcast.

It’s so cool to get all of my HBW knowledge out there in audio format. I did a re-read of the book for the episode, and it was the first time in over ten years that I actually did a relaxed read of (mostly) just the English translation. It really is an incredible piece of art. It’s not perfect, but neither is the original. That’s actually something that really struck me: Murakami’s original is very flawed, but I’d also argue it strikes a better balance between ambition and execution than The Wind-up Bird Chronicle.

Murakami admits the book has flaws. In the Complete Works commentary, he writes about recognizing the 参ったな部分 (literally: “the places where I thought ‘Oh damn’”) as he was re-reading it and about its 完成度 (degree of completion) not being what it could be. So he couldn’t stop himself from making revisions. But by and large they are cosmetic changes.

Thanks so much to Jenn for having me on. She was on the second season of the How to Japanese podcast earlier this year.

And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that I discussed the Murakami Complete Works on the How to Japanese podcast episode with Molly Des Jardin. We didn’t get into it too deeply, but it’s fascinating to think what a true Murakami Complete Works could look like. There would be so much MORE writing in it!

Fortunately for us, Osakabe Yoshio is (was?) the biggest Murakami fan on the planet and kept a very detailed track of everything that Murakami published early in his career. (I believe he even ran a marathon with Murakami at one point!) His Geocities website is gone but is archived on (see here: 村上春樹全作品リスト Part 1 and Part 2). I would recommend saving a PDF copy if you want to make sure it sticks around. I have one that maybe I’ll try to translate and put online sometime. Maybe a good project for a vacation sometime next year. For now, I’m going to give it another close look and cross my fingers that I have a chance to make it to the National Diet Library if and when I make it to Yokohama.


The final week of Murakami Fest 2021! Here are the previous posts:

Year 1: BoobsThe WindBaseballLederhosenEels, Monkeys, and Doves
Year 2: Hotel Lobby OystersCondomsSpinning Around and Around街・町The Town and Its Uncertain WallA Short Piece on the Elephant that Crushes Heineken Cans
Year 3: “The Town and Its Uncertain Wall” – Words and WeirsThe LibraryOld DreamsSaying GoodbyeLastly
Year 4: More DrawersPhone CallsMetaphorsEight-year-olds, dudeUshikawaLast Line
Year 5: Jurassic SapporoGerry MulliganAll Growns UpDanceMountain Climbing
Year 6: Sex With Fat WomenCoffee With the ColonelThe LibrarianOld ManWatermelons
Year 7: WarmthRebirthWastelandHard-onsSeventeenEmbrace
Year 8: PigeonEditsMagazinesAwkwardnessBack Issues
Year 9: WaterSnæfellsnesCannonballDistant Drumming
Year 10: VermontersWandering and BelongingPeter Cat, Sushi Counter, Murakami Fucks First
Year 11: Embers, Escape, Window Seats, The End of the World
Year 12: Distant Drums, Exhaustion, Kiss, Lack of Pretense, Rotemburo
Year 13: Murakami Preparedness, Pacing Norwegian Wood, Character Studies and Murakami’s Financial Situation, Mental Retreat, Writing is Hard
Year 14: Prostitutes and Novelists, Villa Tre Colli and Norwegian Wood, Surge of Death, On the Road to Meta

Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

The next chapter is メータ村 (Meta). Ubi takes the group off the highway and they drive into the mountains through several small villages. It’s Palm Sunday and everyone walking around is holding olive branches. Ubi gives the background on some of the surrounding villages of Peschiera and San Savino. Despite their proximity to Meta, the people there walk differently and have a different worldview, or so Ubi claims. His father is from San Savino, his mother from Meta.

They see the father’s cottage he keeps in San Savnio, animals that he has around, and then they arrive at Meta, meet his mother at the family house and eat. Ubi’s dad comes in and is clearly a drunk; Murakami describes him as having a red nose like Santa Claus.

They head to a bar and meet the brothers, one who works in trade and another as a town council member. Then they go to the mother’s family home, which is made of stone and has a hidden area where the family secreted away an English pilot who crashed nearby during the war. The Nazis actually came to the village looking for the pilot, and when they couldn’t find him, they took away some of the young men (? – Murakami gives it as 若者) from the town.

The chapter is a return to form, for the most part. It does feel a little scattered, which I’ll chalk up to Ubi being scattered himself. Murakami does a nice job with the dialogue, keeping a running joke with Ubi’s catchphrase シンジラレナイ (“Unbelievable!”).

Here’s the closing section which is pretty nicely penned:

Evening approaches, and Meta gets colder and colder. Ubi and his mother and Usako and me and my wife go up to the old town at the top of the mountain. (Batista is wasted and shuts himself away in his hideaway in San Savino.) All we can see are mountains. And here and there in the mountains, small villages like Meta (but with different outlooks on the world and ways of walking) exist, fixed firmly to the mountain surface. A frigid wind whistles between abandoned homes. I can’t believe the German army made it to a place like this. I’m absolutely impressed. The Germans really are a diligent people.

“You see those mountains over there,” Ubi says and points. “When I was little, I thought that was the end of the world. Honestly no one knew anything about what was beyond. No one told me anything. So to me that was the end of the world. And this—Meta—was the center of the world.”

He puts a cigarette in his mouth in the wind and lights it.

“Shinjirarenai (Unbelievable),” he says. And he laughs.

夕方が近くなって、メータ村はますます冷えこんでくる。ウビさんとお母さんとウサコと僕と女房とで、山の頂上にある古い町に上がってみる(バチスタは飲んだくれて例のサン・サヴィーノの隠遁所に引っ込んでしまった)。山しか見えない。そしてその山のあちこちにメータ村と同じような(しかし世界観と歩き方の違う)小さな村々が山肌にしっかりとへばりつくように存在している。冷やかなな風がひゅううっと廃屋のまわりを吹き抜けていく。よくこんなところまでドイツ軍がやってきたものだと思う。まったく感心してしまう。 ドイツ人というのは本当にまめな人類なんだろう。



「シンジラレナイ」と彼は言う。そして笑う。 (236-237)

This appears to be a fortuitous ending to Murakami Fest this year: This is the end of a section, and in the next section it’s spring and the Murakamis are off to Greece. See y’all in 2022!