The Pool

It’s been a few weeks since the end of my Nobel series and the announcement, so I think I’m ready to start up again with my “Save the Blog!” project (which is basically the same as the Nobel project) and continue taking a close look at the translation of Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. Conveniently for me, all of the Nobel series posts featured far more dramatic changes: Chapter 12 “A Map of the End of the World” has no major cuts by either Birnbaum in translation or by Murakami in the 1990. So this will be a very short post.

In Chapter 12, Boku starts to explore the Town and make a map. He reads a few dreams, asks the Librarian about the Pool, and then, despite her hesitancy, they visit the Pool.

I’ll take a close look at just one quick paragraph. Here is Birnbaum’s translation of the moment when Boku and the Librarian come to the Pool:

We continue for several minutes over the thicketed moor, guided only by the eerie call of the Pool, when suddenly a vista opens up before us. The wilderness stops and a meadow spreads flat out. The River emerges from the Gorge to the right, then widens as it flows toward where we stand. From the final bend at the edge of the meadow, the water appears to slow and back up, turning a deep sapphire blue, swelling like a snake digesting a small animal. This is the Pool.

And the original:


Birnbaum compresses as always, especially when Murakami gets a little over specific with the description, but I’m most interested in the way he handles the final line. Birnbaum ends dramatically, boldly announcing “This is the Pool.” It follows the creepy snake image well. But it’s not what Murakami has in the original, which is closer to: “I walk along the river in the direction of the Pool.”

I’m not sure how to feel about translations like this. Any thoughts, readers? Is this too far? Do you think the translation benefits from Birnbaum’s work? Or would it have been just as fine, perhaps even more “toned down” and “moody,” the way that Murakami has it?


With the goal of stirring up even more interest in Murakami between now and the next week (or two), when the Nobel Prizes are announced, I will post a small piece of Murakami translation/analysis/revelation once a week from now until the announcement. You can see past entries in the series 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 Librarian, Old Man


Differences between the original and translation of Chapter 11 are apparent from the chapter title: in English, the title is “Dressing, Watermelon, Chaos” and the version in the Complete Works is 「着衣、混沌」. The 1985 version, which is「着衣、西瓜、混沌」, quickly shows that the changes here are being made by Murakami and not Birnbaum.

This was another short installment, so it was easy to locate those changes. In this chapter, the librarian gets dressed (very sensually, as Watashi admires from the corner of his eye) and then leaves with the library books after giving him her number. Watashi then preps for shuffling the data, explains the shuffling process, and starts shuffling.

Shuffling required scientists to extract the “core” of his consciousness in the form of a “drama.” The title of Watashi’s interior drama is “End of the World,” but they didn’t tell him anything about the drama. He just calls it up, putting himself in a dream state, shuffles the data, and then turns it off, remembering nothing after.

First I’ll look at the way that Birnbaum translated the 1985 version, and then I’ll show you what Murakami did differently in 1990. Without further ado, the 1985 version followed by its translation, which is very accurate and makes very few changes/cuts:














“There is no need for you to know more. The unconscious goes about its business better than you’ll ever be able to. After a certain age—our calculations put it at twenty-eight years—human beings rarely experience alterations in the overall configuration of their consciousness. What is commonly referred to as self-improvement or conscious change hardly even scratches the surface. Your ‘End of the World’ core consciousness will continue to function, unaffected, until you take your last breath. Understand this far?”

“I understand,” I said.

“All efforts of reason and analysis are, in a word, like trying to slice through a watermelon with sewing needles. They may leave marks on the outer rind, but the fruity pulp will remain perpetually out of reach. Hence, we separate the rind from the pulp. Of course, there are idle souls out there who seem to enjoy just nibbling away on the rind.

“In view of all contingencies,” they went on, “we must protect your password-drama, isolating it from any superficial turbulence, the tides of your outer consciousness. Suppose we were to say to you, your End of the World is inhered with such, such, and such elements. It would be like peeling away the rind of the watermelon for you. The temptation would be irresistible: you would stick your fingers into the pulp and muck it up. And in no time, the hermetic extractability of our password-drama would be forfeited. Poof! You would no longer be able to shuffle.”

“That’s why we’re giving you back your watermelon with an extra thick rind,” one scientist interjected. “You can call up the drama, because it is your own self, after all. But you can never know its contents. It transpires in a sea of chaos into which you submerge empty-handed and from which you resurface empty-handed. Do you follow?”

“I believe so,” I said.

“One more point,” they intoned in solemn chorus. “Properly speaking, should any individual ever have exact, clear knowledge of his own core consciousness?”

“I wouldn’t know,” I said.

“Nor would we,” said the scientists. “Such questions are, as they say, beyond science. [They are the same questions the scientists at Los Alamos ran into.]”

“[They might even be more important than the problems at Los Alamos.] Speaking from experience, we cannot conclude otherwise,” admitted one. “So in this sense, this is an extremely sensitive experiment.”

“Experiment?” I recoiled.

“Yes, experiment,” echoed the chorus. “We cannot tell you any more than this.”

Then they instructed me on how to shuffle: Do it alone, preferably at night, on neither a full nor empty stomach. …

As you can see, Birnbaum’s translation is quite accurate. He cuts the space break, and yes, he’s colorful here and there, notably with the “Poof!” but there’s really not much to complain about. The only lines he cuts completely are those referring to the development of the atom bomb by scientists in Los Alamos (which I’ve bolded in Japanese and bolded/bracketed in English).

The one thing worth noting is that Birnbaum’s translation makes the text slightly more Kafkaesque than the original. Murakami uses 彼ら (they) as a speaker tag in the original, and he occasionally picks out a single scientist to interrupt this plural subject, but in translation Birnbaum decides to be more explicit and dramatic by translating this as “they intoned in solemn chorus.” I really like this rendering. It adds a hint of fear to the proceedings, which is reflected in the Japanese dialogue in the way that the dialogue mirrors the dialogue of the old man/scientist/grandpa slightly with its んだs and がねs: these scientists are just a little off, and Birnbaum hints at that nicely with the ornamented speaker tag.

In the Complete Works version, this is how the passage looks:




“There is no need for you to know more. You can call up the drama, because it is your own self, after all. But you can never know its contents. It transpires in a sea of chaos into which you submerge empty-handed and from which you resurface empty-handed. Do you follow?”

“I believe so,” I said.

Then they instructed me on how to shuffle: Do it alone, preferably at night, on neither a full nor empty stomach. …

Significantly shorter. All the sections about the development of the conscious mind are gone. So is the watermelon metaphor. As is the ominous question SHOULD WE HAVE TRUE SELF KNOWLEDGE.

I really don’t like these cuts and I’m not sure what Murakami was going for. It feels like he sterilized the text to a certain extent, maybe to speed it up, maybe because he didn’t feel like the section ties in with the main themes of the book. There’s no question that the result is less funny, although I have to admit that Birnbaum’s translation probably makes it sillier than the original. Still, the “Experiment?!” line on its own is pretty funny, and it gets cut.

Which makes me wonder if that’s why Murakami cut it – not because it was funny but because it might ruin the believability of the plot a little. If Watashi had some idea that shuffling wasn’t anything more than a complex experiment poking around in his melon, as it were, would he really have participated? We know he’s a pretty easy-going “for convenience-sake” kind of guy – this has been well established since the very first chapter, which also introduced watermelon as a metaphor for his brain – but even he has his limits. Maybe that’s what Murakami was going after here.

Thus concludes Murakami Fest 2013! The Nobel Committee has not yet revealed the date of the Literature announcement, but it will likely be at some point next week or the week after, in the middle of the other prize announcements. I’ll probably continue to read Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, so check back for more blog posts.

Review of Colorless Tazaki Tsukuru and His Years of Pilgrimage


Well, I finally finished reading the new Murakami novel. I read half back in April when it came out, took a long break to finish my thesis and get a job, and then finished the second half on my daily commutes. It took another month or so to digest the thing, put the two halves together, write the review, and eventually come to a sort of understanding about it. I think I liked it. You can read my review over at Neojaponisme.

My reaction reminds me a lot of the way I responded initially to Norwegian Wood: the ending surprised me and I felt like I didn’t “get” it, there wasn’t enough “weirdness” like in other Murakami books, and I didn’t appreciate the basic character interactions.

Colorless Tazaki Tsukuru and His Years of Pilgrimage isn’t on the same level as Norwegian Wood. Murakami doesn’t capture a period the way he did in that book (even if the emotional landscape of the lead character does reflect attitudes in post-3/11 Japan). In fact, he still feels out of touch with the times a little; Tsukuru is too quick to rely on the phone when most 36-year-olds would send a text/email or post on a love interest’s Facebook wall (“Hey Sara, I know it’s 4am and I didn’t want to disturb you but I was just thinking about that green dress you wear – it’s awesome! Can’t wait to see you tomorrow!”).

The book is far better than 1Q84, but Tsukuru reminds me a lot of Tengo. He’s introverted, passive, and at times incredibly frustrating; so frustrating that when I was reading I occasionally found myself pressing my temples with my fingers so hard that I nearly brained myself. But I think that’s kind of what Murakami was going for. Tsukuru is a wounded, flawed character who finds it incredibly hard to love before he loses his friends and even more so after the fact. His actions are supposed to be frustrating. I’m sure he wishes it was easier to put himself out there.

It’s no surprise that Tsukuru finds pleasure and comfort in the ordinary, the everyday, the predictable—hard, artificial, inhuman things like Chuo Line trains coming and going on a rigid schedule at Shinjuku Station. There are scenes in the book where he just sits and watches them come and go.

I’ll be interested to see how the translation goes. Thanks again to Matt Treyvaud, David Marx, and Ian Lynam for the edits and art. Matt made an important change in the text of my review—initially I’d written Tsukuru’s friends’ names as Ao, Aka, Shiro, and Kuro, but he changed them to Blue, Red, White, and Black, which, for me, totally changed the feel of the review and made me realize that Phillip Gabriel might translate the book that way. I’ll be interesting to see if he does so.

(Graphic courtesy of Ian Lynam and Neojaponisme.)