Mummied Up

Pages 15-45 complete. I’m in the middle of Chapter 3, and Watashi has just passed through the waterfall with the old man into his lab.

Earlier in the chapter, I was really impressed with some of Birnbaum’s work. Check out this passage:

“Nice fragrance,” I complimented her on her eau de cologne.

“Thanks,” she mouthed, doing the hood snaps up to right below my nose. Then over the hood came goggles. And there I was, all slicked up and nowhere to go—or so I thought.

That was when she pulled open the closet door, led me by the hand, and shoved me in. She turned on the light and pulled the door shut behind her. Inside, it was like any clothes closet—any clothes closet without clothes. Only coat hangers and mothballs. It probably wasn’t even a clothes closet. Otherwise, what reason could there be for me getting all mummied up and squeezed into a closet.” (20)

And the original:



それから彼女はクローゼットの扉のひとつを開け、私の手を引いてその中に押し込んでから中のライトを点け、後手でドアを閉めた。ドアの中は洋服だんすになっていた。洋服だんすとはいっても洋服の姿はなく、コート・ハンガーや防虫ボールがいくつかさがっているだけだ。たぶんこれはただの洋服だんすではなく、洋服だんすを装った秘密の通路か何かだろうと私は想像した。何故なら私が雨合羽を着せられて洋服だんすに押しこまれる意味なんて何もないからだ。 (38)

And my version closer to the original so non-Japanese-readers can see what’s up:

“You smell great,” I said, complimenting her perfume.

“Thanks,” she said and closed up the snaps on the hood to just below my nose. Then she put on the goggles over the hood. This turned me into a waterproof mummy.

Then she opened one of the closet doors, took my hand and pushed me inside, flipped on the light, and shut the door with her other hand. Inside it was a wardrobe. But there was no sign of any clothes, just hangers and mothballs. Maybe this isn’t a wardrobe, I thought, maybe it’s a secret passage disguised to look like a wardrobe. If it weren’t, I have no idea why she would suit me up in this ridiculous rain gear and force me inside.

Have you spotted the line I’m interested in? Of course it’s the mummy line. Birnbaum translates over it in that second paragraph, instead going with “all slicked up and nowhere to go” (which is a hilarious line). He then reincorporates the mummy aspect at the end of the third paragraph: “all mummied up” (another great line). I like the way the “mummied up” translation preserves the passive aspect of the original Japanese, but I imagine Jay Rubin might argue that it is the equivalent of the “passivication” of English: the pudgy cute girl is clearly the person who causes Watashi to be 押しこまれるd, and why shouldn’t that get represented in English?

Despite Birnbaum’s playfulness here with the English, I think Rubin wouldn’t mind using the mummy line in the third paragraph. I once heard him say “if you take something out, put something back in.” Or maybe he said “if you take something out, put it back in somewhere else.” Either quote seems to apply in this case.

(Oh, and a small sidenote. I used the asterisks to denote italics because I can’t italicize things in my blockquotes right now for some reason. I need to figure out how to mess with my CSS without imploding the blog, so lemme know if you have any thoughts on how I might do this. Initially the theme italicized everything in blockquotes, which was just ridiculous, but I figured out how to fix that. Update 2013/2/17: I think I fixed the italicized thing. Thanks Thomas!)

Cool Kanji – 楼

Pages 15-35 accounted for. I finished Chapter 2 a couple days ago and was amazed at how much of a pleasure it was to be in the End of the World. Murakami provides so much specific detail for the world, specifically for the beasts but also for characters like the Gatekeeper, and he really takes his time with that first chapter and uses the beasts to introduce the world.

It was easy to understand what 望楼 (ぼうろう) meant from context, but I had to look up the pronunciation. 望 was familiar from compounds such as 展望台 (てんぼうだい) and 願望 (がんぼう), but I didn’t know 楼, which on its own is pronounced just ろう.

It’s made up of the 木 radical on the left, which makes sense since watchtowers are wooden, and then on the right there is 米 above 女, which points to the other meaning of the character suggested by the third definition in Yahoo – a restaurant (?) where johns retreat with a prostitute. That makes it easier to remember the radicals involved – food and ladies in a wooden building…up high.
Update: NOTE: This is just my personal mnemonic and is not based on any actual etymological history. Check out the comments for the actual 字源. Neat stuff.

A couple of notes about the chapter:

– Birnbaum translates the End of the World section in present tense, which works so nicely. The Japanese, although told in past tense, does seem to fit to present tense somewhat naturally since Murakami is describing the unending repetition in the town as it goes through the seasons. The last sentence in the chapter is このようにして街の一日は終わる。

– Only two minor cuts and an adjustment or two. One sentence details the three small watchtowers along the wall, and the other provides more specific details about the violence of the beasts when they fight. When Boku asks the Gatekeeper why he uses the knives, Birnbaum has him answer “I’ll show you” when the winter comes, but the Japanese is closer to “You’ll see” when winter comes. Nothing major beyond that.

Fat-bottomed Girls

No extensive cuts in the first ten pages of Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, just one paragraph and a few minor sentences, but Birnbaum does choose to leave out one really nice line. The elevator door has opened and Boku Watashi is following the plump lady in a pink suit:

The woman was on the chubby side. Young and beautiful and all that went with it, but chubby. Now a young, beautiful woman who is, shall we say, plump, seems a bit off. Walking behind her, I fixated on her body. (7)

Here is the Japanese:


Birnbaum gets everything, for the most part, but leaves out the last sentence for whatever reason. I thought it was nicely phrased:

The woman was chubby. Young and beautiful, sure, but chubby nonetheless. There’s something strange about a young, beautiful woman who is chubby. The whole time I walked behind her, I looked at her neck and arms and legs. It was as though a thick layer of fat had settled there overnight like a silent, heavy snowfall.

My guess is that Birnbaum didn’t want to make Boku Watashi seem like too much of a creeper this early in the novel. He cuts the final sentence and turns the specific target of Boku’s Watashi’s vision into a more general “fixated,” which I think reads smoothly but definitely alters the original.

Scouting the Competition

I wanted to see what the competition looks like in the Expats Blog writing contest, so I did the hard work and looked through all 42 other entries. Not surprisingly, there are a lot of weak ones. Something about travel writing makes it one of the easiest types of writing to do poorly. I know I’ve been a perpetrator in the past, but I’ve been surprised by the reaction I’ve gotten from readers – seems like I’m on the right track with this piece even if I’m not all the way there yet. If you haven’t, check out my entry “How to Fly First Class For Free” and leave a comment of support! Today is the last day to do so.

The biggest crimes that the entries seems to commit are:

– Listing things. This makes it clear that the author wasn’t able to synthesize a main idea. Feels far too bloggy to me, which is how a lot of the writers work (including this one). Nothing wrong with blogging, but I hope the judges will be looking for more than a blog post in this contest.

– Focusing on the departure. One common theme was the hustle and bustle in a home country before arriving abroad. I found it pretty boring, although maybe that’s because my own initial departure was so long ago. I guess it’s an easy place to start a story (one that I kind of rely on to a certain extent), but it again makes me think the writer didn’t have a focus and was just writing from a natural beginning. (Like starting a short story with the main character waking up.)

Three of the stories managed to reel me in:

“Fourth Grade in a Foreign Country”
Sharon Ashworth shares the trials and tribulations of sending her daughter to elementary school in Germany. This one had me from the solid first sentence: “Thankfully, there was a smile at the end of the first day of school.” I also loved the alliteration in the title.

“Finding our bliss in Bangkok”
This entry by Kathy Drouin-Keith is told largely in detailed scenes and has some really well penned lines, my favorite being the following: “If you want to see a tickled Thai, have a little Western boy wai them.” I can imagine being her son, who ruins her attempts at negotiation with his tears.

“Dude – where’s my bathroom?”
The title anecdote from Sarah Drane’s story is very funny – one of the most surprising I’ve heard from expats, although I did meet a JET who returned to his Aomori apartment after winter break to find his pipes frozen, exploded, and spewing water into his closet. Sarah would definitely be able to sympathize.

Cool Compound – 静物画

Pages 15-22 are in the bag. This was my first time reading Japanese for about 4-5 months, and there has been noticeable deterioration in my kanji recognition skills. I noticed this at Japan Fest the other day when I wrote ヨ and thought to myself, hey, that looks like a backwards E. This is not a good sign.

When I was reading through these pages, 静物画 (せいぶつが) really stood out to me. I had to stare at 静 for a while to remember what it meant and how to pronounce it, but I knew from context and memory what it meant in Japanese – it’s hard to forget the initial elevator scene in Hard-Boiled Wonderland. Long, wind-up opening chapters became Murakami’s trademark with this novel, and nowhere is it more fun to read than here. We’re locked in boku’s Watashi’s consciousness and humor: he sees himself as a still life portrait in this strange elevator.

The compound 静物, a very cool homophone with 生物, follows the pattern ADJECTIVE + NOUN (still/quiet + thing) and is then attached to 画.

The good news is that I did not have to look this one up and was still able to rustle up the meaning and pronunciation. I wasn’t so lucky with 歩幅 (ほはば), a NOUN + NOUN compound. I blame this on the stupid compound 几帳面 (きちょうめん), which came a few sentences before and primed my brain to read any 巾 kanji as ちょう.

A Confession

As part of my graduate assistantship, I teach one section of the required freshman composition course at my university. This is the third semester I’ve taught it, and I love the curriculum. Unlike the composition course I took twelve (!) years ago, the one I teach focuses on three different genres of writing – the students write a personal essay, a profile essay, and a review essay. While these don’t really prepare the students for future academic writing, I think the scaffolded approach to writing, the introduction of free/fast/automatic writing to generate ideas, the emphasis on personal experience, and the insistence that kids write about something that interests them makes it easier to see writing for what it is – an attempt to communicate with another person.** This becomes easier if the material is something you’re personally excited about rather than, say, bullshitting about symbolism in Lord of the Flies. This is something I didn’t learn until I started writing this blog.

(**I’m not completely remiss; since my second semester teaching, I’ve also had my students write short analysis essays that mimic the more structured academic form. I want them to be on solid ground when they leave this course, even if they don’t know it.)

During the profile unit this semester, I had the students interview each other and write one-page mini-profiles of each other. There were an odd number of students, so one got to interview me. The next day in class we examined the student’s writing as a group, and the others had a chance to ask me questions and fill in information the writer hadn’t included. This involved answering a number of questions about my experience in Japan. A few hours later, after class, I got the following message from a different student: “can you help me with Japanese because its hard”

I was initially confused by the email. This is a student who sat at the back of the classroom, didn’t take notes, and didn’t do much homework. I had to ask the student to put away his cell phone a couple of times during class. On the other hand, I had been surprised by his writing ability on the essays. The student speaks in African-American vernacular, but his essays were in “standard” English; he even included dialogue in vernacular within the standard English of his essay, an impressive feat of bilingualism.

I asked him if he was in the Japanese class at school, and he said yes, so we set up a time to meet and talk about studying Japanese. He came into my office on one of my off days, and we sat down and looked at the textbook.

“Why’d you pick Japanese?” I asked. My student looked down and smiled, revealing his braces. He scratched at his head. “Did you just think it was cool,” I continued, “or are you—”

“Naw,” he said. “I’m actually interested in it.”

I was surprised to hear it and asked a few questions about anime and other Japanese stuff, trying to get a feel for how he’d come around to Japanese, but he kept pretty quiet. So we started to size up where he was at. The class had just started Chapter 3 in Genki Japanese, but he was still getting the kana memorized. He had a D in the course. “Alright, well, we should try to bring that up,” I said. It became clear that he didn’t have a way in. The teacher had been covering the material but hadn’t given this student any study techniques that had worked for him.

Without a mastery of the kana, I felt handicapped, especially since the Genki textbooks don’t use romaji whatsoever (a good thing), so I showed him Anki and a couple of other websites. We looked through the textbooks. I asked him if he had any questions, but he couldn’t really articulate any, so we did a brief look at verb conjugation.

As we worked, I had a moment of realization: I am more focused and interested now than I usually am while teaching composition or lesson planning composition. It was an intense feeling of complete submersion and focus. And it made me really disappointed that I haven’t been able to keep up this website or my Japanese as much as I’d like.

My opportunities to practice Japanese have been few and far between, so I haven’t been able to find any “new ways in,” which is the most important content of this blog. The videos and Murakami stuff are fun, but language brought me to the dance, and language I will always go home with. I’ve taken a detour in my life with this creative writing program, and I need to make sure I stay on track. I’ve written a little about the origin of this detour in a new nonfiction essay I’ve submitted for a contest over at Expats Blogs. I certainly know how to treat a reader: sucker them in with a catchy title like “How to Fly First Class For Free” and then punch ‘em in the balls with 4500 words of personal essay told in the second person. It may or may not have been a huge mistake to submit this.

Either way, I’d love it if you checked it out and gave it Ye Olde Facebook Like or left a comment. The staff at Expats Blogs judge the contest but take into account comments and Likes. Tell me what I should fix. Tell me what works and what doesn’t. I think I still need another revision on this piece, but the basic idea is in place.

For the short-term future, my focus in life is producing and revising my non-Japanese-related work, both fiction and nonfiction. I still need something to keep up this blog and keep up my Japanese, and I’ve been thinking seriously about this composition course – what can I do from abroad that will keep me interested and motivated and will relate to Japanese?

The answer is, of course, Murakami. I hope not too many of you groaned because, as a way to resuscitate my interaction with Japanese, I’m going to temporarily refocus this blog and take up a new project that resembles my annual Murakami Fest.

Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World is 590 pages in Japanese, and if I read 10-20 pages a week for the next year, I should be able to find blog content, practice Japanese, and finally read the book that made me want to learn the damn language in the first place. So that’s what I’ll be doing. If I’m not back in Japan within a year, then I hope that I’ll at least be out of New Orleans in a city with a larger Japanese population.

Let’s see how this goes. 頑張るぞ!