Coffee with the Colonel

With the goal of stirring up even more interest in Murakami between now and October, 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 Women


On to Chapter 8. We’re back in the End of the World, and we’re with Boku at his residence where he’s playing chess with the Colonel.

(On a ridiculous side note far too early in this blog post, I’ve always wondered if the Colonel was, by any chance, inspired or influenced by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, notably El coronel no tiene quien le escriba, which is a story about a poor, retired colonel waiting to receive his pension.)

No major cuts, additions, or revisions in this section, but I will take a look at a few places where Birnbaum uses his standard operating procedure.

While they play chess, Boku asks the Colonel about the Town and the Gatekeeper and meeting up with his shadow. Eventually, he asks, “Yet what does he have to fear from me?” (84)

The Colonel pauses and then says, in Japanese:


Birnbaum’s translation:

“He fears that you and your shadow will become one again” (84)

He cuts the second sentence, which should be something like:

“If that happens, he’d have to start over again from the beginning.”

Not a very substantial line, but it is a little more ominous than the official translation allows. It might be the first implication that there’s a point to the separation process, a goal that the Gatekeeper has in mind. Sure, the Gatekeeper’s been gruff and basically wouldn’t admit that he’d let Boku see the shadow, but there was no threat of death to the shadow, or even of a finality of a process. An interesting little line to cut.

In the next section, Birnbaum has, I think, nicely rendered a metaphor that otherwise would have been awkward in English. Here’s the translation first:

“These next few weeks will be the hardest for you. It is the same as with broken bones. Until they set, you cannot do anything. Believe me” (85)

In Japanese, Murakami writes:

「ここのしばらくが君にとってはいちばん辛い時期なんだ。歯と同じさ。古い歯はなくなったが、新しい歯はまだはえてこない。私の意味することはわかるかね?」 (121)

My translation:

“The first little while will be the hardest part for you. Same as with teeth. Your old teeth have fallen out, but the new ones haven’t grown in yet. You get what I mean?”

I feel like a smoother translation might incorporate “baby teeth” somehow, but I’m not sure. At any rate, the broken bones metaphor feels much more natural, and while it may be more of a “localization” than a translation, I guess it works. What do y’all think?

And I have to point out cuts in the final paragraph of the chapter again. Birnbaum (or possibly his editor at Kodansha International?) makes strategic cuts to the final lines to create an in media res ending. Check out the translation:

“Good move,” says the Colonel. “Parapet guards against penetration and frees up the King. At the same time, it allows my Knight greater range.”

While the old officer contemplates his next move, I boil water for a new pot of coffee.

And the original text:



You can see from the size of the second paragraph alone that there’s a lot of additional text in Japanese. I’ll add my translation of it to Birnbaum’s first line:

While the old officer contemplates his next move, I boil water for a new pot of coffee. Countless afternoons must pass this way, I think to myself. There is almost nothing for me to choose here in the Town surrounded by the tall Wall.

I was tempted to get fancy with that last line and write something like this: “There’s almost nothing arbitrary” or something like that. Or maybe “There’s nothing left for me to decide in the Town surrounded by the insurmountable Wall.” But no matter how you render it, nothing is quite as good as ending with Boku going for another pot of coffee. I’ve mentioned the importance of coffee in previous blog posts, and here again it serves to connect the two parts of the story and to suggest an endlessness to the End of the World.

And I guess one final interesting point in the section is Birnbaum’s decision to name the chess piece “Parapet” instead of “Wall.” I like the word choice, which sounds much more like a board game piece, but I don’t like how it dissociates it with the Wall that surrounds the town. It doesn’t matter as much in translation, however, since Birnbaum cuts the last line.

Some very interesting parts of a small chapter.

Sex With Fat Women

Now begins the Sixth Annual How to Japanese Murakami Fest!

With the goal of stirring up even more interest in Murakami between now and October, 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.

For those of you who don’t know how this works, check out the past five years:

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 Sapporo, Gerry Mulligan, All Growns Up, Dance, Mountain Climbing

This year I’ll be even lazier than normal and just continue my close comparison of Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World with its translation. I’ll be looking at a chapter a week.


This week I’m looking at Chapter 7, which is in the Hard-boiled Wonderland section of the novel. Watashi gets home from his job laundering the data, has a sleep, and gets up the next day to do some shopping and consider his new gift from the old man: a unicorn skull (but he doesn’t know that yet). He checks out some books at the library, hits on the librarian, and then has her bring him books on unicorns after it’s clear that Semiotecs are scoping out his apartment and trying to get the skull.

I am a changed man after reading this chapter.

Why? you may ask. It is because, for the first time in my history of reading Murakami (14 years, now), I have DEFINITIVE PROOF that Murakami makes edits to his manuscripts for the Complete Works editions.

But first, let’s look at the translation. Birnbaum is up to his usual techniques in this chapter:

– He compresses where Murakami sometimes goes long. When Watashi returns from shopping, he details how he puts away all his groceries – wrap the fish and meat, put the coffee and bread in the freezer, put the beer in the fridge, throw out the old veggies, hang the clothes, etc. Birnbaum renders this “Back at the apartment, I put away all the groceries. I hung my clothes in the wardrobe” (76). Capiche?

– He cuts possibly unnecessary culture drops. Wilhelm Furtwängler anyone?

– He translates a little more cleverly than Murakami’s Japanese. For example, this passage:


Birnbaum renders this:

Paperclips were indeed used by everyone. A thousand yen will buy you a lifetime supply. Sure, why not. I stopped into a stationery shop and bought myself a lifetime supply. (76)

It’s a neat translation but not precise with the 千円ぶん. He uses the transitive property to translate that as “lifetime supply” rather than “a thousand-yen worth.”

– He cleans up the end of the chapter. Rather than end with a short declarative statement by Watashi (私は喜んで道順を教えた; I gladly told her the way to my place), he ends it on a line of dialogue by the librarian: “I don’t know why I’m doing this,” she said, “but I don’t suppose you’d want to tell me the way to your place” (82). The translation is cleaner and much more suggestive.

This is Birnbaum being Birnbaum. This is why we love him.

I was prepared to write a very different entry because I found what I thought was a very large addition by Birnbaum to the manuscript. On page 73, after Watashi eats lunch at a restaurant, he drinks his post-meal coffee and thinks about the fat granddaughter, then about the last time he slept with a fat girl. I’ll give the section in its entirety here because it’s great:

The last time I’d slept with a fat female was the year of the Japanese Red Army shoot-out in Karuizawa. The woman had extraordinary thighs and hips. She was a bank teller who had always exchanged pleasantries with me over the counter. I knew her from the midriff up. We became friendly, went out for a drink once, and ended up sleeping together. Not until we were in bed did I notice that the lower half of her body was so demographically disproportionate. It was because she played table tennis all through school, she had me know, though I didn’t quite grasp the causal relationship. I didn’t know table tennis led to below-the-belt corporeality.

Still, her plumpness was charming. Resting an ear on her hip was like lying in a meadow on an idyllic spring afternoon, her thighs as soft as freshly aired futon, the rolling flow of her curves leading gracefully to her pubis. When I complimented her on her qualities, though, all she said was, “Oh yeah?” (73)

This passage is nowhere to be found in the Complete Works edition. I was prepared to discuss how this might have been an attempt by Birnbaum to give the book a little more fleshed out (excuse the pun) back story (excuse the pun) and connect it with a Japanese historical timeline. But just to be safe, I decided to pull out my paperback and hardback copies of the book (yes, I have, like, five copies of this book; it’s a sickness).

And there it was. The passage is complete in both of the pre-Complete Works versions. Birnbaum makes a few minor adjustments, but it’s nothing out of the ordinary. All within his standard operating procedures. After this paragraph, however, Birnbaum does cut two smaller paragraphs that go on longer about sleeping with fat females.

For what it’s worth, here are those two extra paragraphs in Japanese:



Here’s my translation:

I did also sleep with a fat woman whose body was more evenly distributed. And with a woman who was a total beefcake – muscles all over. The former taught electric organ, and the latter was a freelance stylist. So even being fat has its own little quirks.

The more women you sleep with, the more scientific you end up being about the whole thing. The pleasure of the act of intercourse itself starts to fade away. Of course there’s no science in sexual desire. However, when sexual desire follows its appropriate course, it produces the waterfall of sexual intercourse, and as a result, it does lead to a pool filled by a sort of science. And soon enough, just like Pavlov’s dog, it creates a consciousness circuit that leads directly to that pool. Or maybe it’s just that I’m getting old.

I’m not sure if I’m following Watashi’s thought process here, but that might be the point: maybe he’s supposed to sound like a guy who’s tired and confused, drinking a cup of coffee and thinking about women he slept with, possibly whom he had feelings for…or not.

The passage is more important than I initially suspected. I understand why Birnbaum cut it – Murakami does sound a bit rambly, as is his tendency – but it’s got the consciousness circuit and the waterfalls! As we all know (SPOILER ALERT!), Watashi will fall into an endless consciousness circuit because of his shuffling. And the book is heavy with waterfalls. There were waterfalls in Chapter 1 (Watashi thinks about Houdini going over Niagara Falls while trapped in the elevator), the waterfall covering the old man’s lab, and the sound of the Pool in the End of the World (which he notes is different from a waterfall). Not hugely important in terms of the overall book, but consistent enough to be called imagery and thematically significant.

Which makes me wonder why Murakami cut it in the Collected Edition. Did he think he sounded lazy or imprecise? Or did he cut the two other women because they aren’t as well developed characters, which then required the cutting of the other paragraphs?

Perhaps seeing Birnbaum’s cut in translation convinced Murakami to trim the entire section in the Collected Works manuscript? Or maybe he felt the reference to the Asama-Sansō incident was out of place when he compiled his Collected Works in the the early 90s. We may never know unless the Paris Review lets me interview the man.

Good Ideas

55-65 read and understood. Most of this section was spent in the End of the World, which was awesome. The paragraphs suddenly become longer and denser, and Murakami takes the reader through the buildings of the town for the first time. The text thins out a bit thanks to dialogue once the Librarian gets introduced.

In terms of the translation, I was really interested in some adjustments that Birnbaum makes towards the end of the previous chapter during and after the data laundering process. The old man explains what the data is, how he’ll use it to control sound, and Watashi says that he should be careful that it doesn’t fall into Semiotec hands:

“I know, I know. That’s why I’ve withheld all my data and processes, so they wouldn’t be pokin’ into things. Probably means even the world of science doesn’t take me seriously, but what of that? Tosh, a hundred years from now my theories will all’ve been proved. That’s enough, isn’t it?”


“Okay, son, launder and shuffle everything.”

“Yessir,” I said, “yessir.” (35)

At first I thought that this was an egregious translation, but after I typed it out and thought about it for a while, there’s really only one minor part that Birnbaum cuts, and the rest are just “adjustments”:




「なるほど」と私は言った。 (28)

My humble version:

“I’ve also been keeping that point in mind. Which is why I’m concealing the data and processes; I’ll only be announcing it in theoretical form. Then there’ll be no way they can decipher it. The academics will probably come after me as well, but who cares about that. In a hundred years all my theories will’ve been proven, and that’ll be enough.”

“Hmm,” I said.

“So it’s all up to your laundering and shuffling, ya see.”

“That figures,” I said.

The only line cut (which I’ve bolded), I realized on second read, is the fact that the old man will be presenting his theories, which isn’t apparent in the English. On first read I felt like it made the old man slightly more sinister and interested in the fame and acclaim. I guess it’s not a major change either way, but it does contrast with the English.

The adjustments at the end of the section, however, are more radical. Birnbaum has the old man encourage Watashi and Watashi replies with a simple affirmative, whereas in the Japanese Murakami has the old man place the responsibility squarely on Watashi’s shoulders and then has Watashi reply with the なるほど. I can’t tell how sarcastic this was meant to be; is it on the same level as a やれやれ or slightly lower? I went with “That figures,” (get it, figures? Ha ha.) but I think “Of course” might work too.

Birnbaum also plays with Watashi’s characterization at the very end of the chapter. During a break in the data laundering, Watashi asks about the mute granddaughter, and the old man curses himself for forgetting to return her speech to normal. Then the old man says he needs to go back and return her to normal. Watashi’s response in translation is merely:


But in Japanese, it is this:

「その方がよさそうですね」と私は言った。 (58)

In translation:

“That sounds like a good idea,” I said.

Here again Birnbaum alters one of Watashi’s lines of dialogue at the end of a section making him seem more aloof and less sarcastic in translation. Although as we’ve seen in other posts, he is adding a generous amount of it back in in other places.

Paperclips and Gestures

Belated post to account for pages 45-55, which I completed in a single reading last weekend. I’ll be focusing on the English this time around and some of Murakami’s narrative techniques.

Still in Chapter 3 with Watashi making his way to the laboratory and working with the old man. This is a very long chapter, especially in comparison with the first two chapters. Chapter 1 is 11 pages in translation but perhaps feels longer because of all the waiting and thinking involved – we’re in Watashi’s head the whole time. Chapter 2 is a scant six pages, but it has great images, concisely establishes tension with the Gatekeeper, and is effectively the inverse of Chapter 1: while Chapter 1 focuses on Watashi’s inner thoughts, Chapter 2 has almost no response from Boku to his surroundings, no interiority.

I think this is a really good strategy for the beginning of the book. The short chapters help the reader feel like they are moving at a good pace, and the interiority or lack thereof sets up themes that Murakami will cash in on later. The concision of Chapter 2 also does an amazing job of creating an air of mystery – through specificity of detail and not through vagueness – and generates an incredible desire to spend more time in this world.

It makes sense, then, that Chapter 3 is longer. As a readers, we’ve now been primed and are ready to get through material to jump between worlds and learn more about both (and experience the different pleasures that each offers). Murakami can now take his time and give the details about the System and the Factory, Semiotecs and Calcutecs, etc. and we will put up with it. Had he frontloaded this information, it might not have gone down so easily. (This is probably a technique Murakami should have considered for 1Q84.)

In Chapter 3, Murakami also makes effective use of gesture, which he often gets criticized for in other works (temple rubbing, etc). In this case Murakami uses gesture to characterize the old man:

The old man looked me over. Then he picked up a paperclip and unbent it to scrape at a fingernail cuticle. His left index finger cuticle. When he’d finished with the cuticle, he discarded the straightened paperclip into the ashtray. If I ever get reincarnated, it occurred to me, let me make certain I don’t come back as a paperclip. (26)

This makes great use of the paperclip, which will recur throughout the story, and characterizes the old man as unthinking in the way he treats the paperclip. Murakami brings it up once more briefly in these ten pages, but it doesn’t feel overused. I’ll be keeping an eye on this for the rest of the chapter, which is just another three pages.

And a bit o the Japanese since I can’t help myself. The last line is an interesting translation by Birnbaum, but I think he does the Japanese justice:


Murakami does put Watashi into the mindset of the paperclip with the adversative passive, which I think corresponds not indelicately in the English version as I considers being reincarnated.

That phrase ぞっとしない is confusing even to Japanese people, apparently, and the Internets sez it was invented by Soseki himself. Not bad, eh?