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Murakami Translations.

Last week, I was given a copy of Haruki Murakami's Norwegian Wood. That, in itself, is not very special, especially when you add the fact that I've already read it; but this copy was actually not the Jay Rubin translation, which is the readily available version for us Westerners. Instead, it was a copy of the Alfred Birnbaum translation, which was produced inside Japan, reportedly for students to study English. I once read about one fan paying a hundred bucks for the two tiny books that form the novel. Of course, that's not how my world works, and how I ended up with the copies was because J. borrowed the books ten years ago, lost them, and then found them in a move. Since my love for Murakami is well known and I am now old and almost dead, they have been given to me.

So, for the last couple of hours I've been flipping through each book, comparing the styles. It's been quite interesting and I figured I'd share with you the opening and closing of the novel. First, the opening of Norwegian Wood:

Rubin Translation:

I was 37 then, strapped in my seat as the huge 747 plunged through dense cloud cover on approach to Hamburg airport. Cold November rains drenched the earth, lending everything the gloomy air of a Flemish landscape: the ground crew in water proofs, a flag atop a squat airport building, a BMW billboard. So--Germany again.

Once the plane was on the ground, soft music began to flow from the ceiling speakers: a sweet orchestral cover version of the Beatles' "Norwegian Wood". The melody never failed to send a shudder through me, but this time it hit me harder than ever.

I bent forward, my face in my hands to keep my skull from splitting open. Before long one of the German stewardesses approached and asked in English if I were sick.

Birnbaum Translation:

Here I am, thirty-seven years old, seated in a Boeing 747. The giant plane is diving into a thick cover of clouds, about to land at Hamburg Airport. A chill November rain darkens the land, turning the scene into a gloomy Flemish painting. The airport workers in their rain gear, the flags atop the faceless airport buildings, the BMW billboards, everything. Just great, I'm thinking, Germany again.

The plane completes its landing procedures, the NO SMOKING sign goes off, and soft background music issues from the ceiling speakers. Some orchestra's muzak rendition of the Beatles' "Norwegian Wood." And sure enough, the melody gets to me, same as always. No, this time it's worse than ever before. I get real bad. I swear my head is going to burst.

I crouch forward and cover my face with my hands, and I just stay like that. Eventually a German stewardess comes by to ask if I'm feeling ill. I'm fine, I answer, just a little dizzy.

The differences are interesting, are they not?

I am not a huge fan of Norwegian Wood, it must be said, and I don't think this is Murakami's best novel at all. In either translation I find the arrival of the narrator's memories, the physical pain of his past returning, to be heavy handed and jarring. Nonetheless, I think Birnbaum plays it best in his translation, trying to find a way around the ham fisted emotions and action by downplaying it with the 'same as always' line. Rubin, in response, just opens his hand and slaps the emotion down, going for the cliche of a skull split and a shudder that tears through the narrator. Oddly, I sympathise, as I often shudder when I hear the Beatles too.

I do find myself, it must be said, leaning more in favour of Rubin's description of the airport. There's nothing wrong with Birnbaum's, but his just doesn't evoke the scene as readily as the first.

However, it must be said, I much prefer Birnbaum's opening line to Rubin's. The "Here I am, thirty-seven years old, seated in a Boeing 747" has more style, more rhythm, more personality than Rubin's two steps away from being passive "I was 37 then, strapped in my seat as the huge 747 plunged through dense cloud cover on approach to Hamburg airport." I almost want to pin the plunging plane he's strapped in to Rubin and his tendency to be dramatic where it's not needed, but since Birnbaum's next line is about diving, I guess the problem is with Murakami and the way he lands planes in his novels.

Now, the final lines of each book:

Rubin Translation:

Where was I now?

Gripping the receiver, I raised my head and turned to see what lay beyond the phone box. Where was I now? I had no idea. No idea at all. Where was this place? All that flashed into my eyes were the countless shapes of people walking by to nowhere. Again and again I called out for Midori from the dead centre of this place that was no place.

Birnbaum Translation:

Where was I now?

I looked up, receiver in hand, and spun around in the phone booth, taking in my surroundings.Where the hell was I? I couldn't tell. Not a clue. All I could see about me were people, scores of people, all tired of walking about aimlessly. I held onto the line to Midori from there in the middle of nowhere.

It's that over played dramatic that does Rubin in, and leaves Birnbaum with the preferred translation, in my mind. Rubin has the narrator calling out and the description of the dead centre... and none of those are doing the final line of the book any service. It's bad Hollywood. Syntactically, the Birnbaum last line is a bit awkward, and could have been cleaned up, if only by dropping the 'from there' and rearranging it so that it read "In the middle of nowhere, I held onto the line to Midori". Though that's not fantastic, either. But I'm sure there's another way to end the book without using 'middle of nowhere'. Or perhaps not. Murakami obviously gave the sense of nowhere, no place, and that's why it is there.

Still, I think the answer to this translation issue is obvious: I need to learn Japanese.

That's what, like a week or something, yeah?



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Oct. 18th, 2005 12:36 pm (UTC)
Very interesting to see the different translation styles of the two. I liked Norwegian Wood quite a bit, although, like you, it's not my favorite of Murakami's novels.

One telling thing in the closers of the translations:

Rubin: All that flashed into my eyes were the countless shapes of people walking by to nowhere.

Birnbaum: All I could see about me were people, scores of people, all tired of walking about aimlessly.

The second is much more rhythmic to my eyes, and that emphasis on the people not just walking with no destination, but on being tired of doing so, is a marvellous telling detail.

Thanks for sharing this, since most of us won't have access to the Birnbaum translation.
Oct. 18th, 2005 12:42 pm (UTC)
you're welcome for the share.

i do agree on the rhythm of the birnbaum translation. he manages to capture a lot more with it than rubin.
Oct. 18th, 2005 01:02 pm (UTC)

I haven't read the book and found the difference between the two openings enormous. The Rubin, with the mention of being strapped in, made me think that this was a 747 out of control plunging to the ground. That coloured my reading of the rest of the passage. The Birnbaum on the other hand immediately gave me a sense of quiet weariness.
Oct. 18th, 2005 02:32 pm (UTC)
the birnbaum is much more appropriate for the book, i have to say. it's made me wonder just how different murakami's novels would be if birnbaum had kept translating the later books. even my favourite, wind-up bird chronicle, which was done by rubin.
Oct. 18th, 2005 02:33 pm (UTC)
I haven't read this one but gad, what a difference a translation makes.
Oct. 18th, 2005 09:44 pm (UTC)
makes you wonder how much of an author you actually get in a translation, doesn't it?
Oct. 18th, 2005 09:51 pm (UTC)
It does--I've read wind-up bird chronicle and after the quake. It means HM probably *really* kicks ass in Japanese. I don't have the heart to learn it at this point in time. I'm quite sure all those neuropathways have hardened at this point in time.

I ordered Kafka on the Shore from QPB as it was on sale. You didn't like that one much, did you? I'll probably give it a go though. I got it for $5.99 if I purchased another full-priced book which you know, wasn't tough for me.

Oct. 18th, 2005 09:57 pm (UTC)
i liked KAFKA ON THE SHORE a lot for the first half, but the second half didn't hold together. that doesn't mean i didn't like it, however, it's just that when i like an author like murakami, i become fairly critical when i talk about them. dunno why. it feels like a transition book to me, where murakami looks outside what he has done before.

oddly, a girl i know told me the same about his next book, THE DARK, i think it's called.
Oct. 18th, 2005 10:01 pm (UTC)
I can see that happening with his style. After the Quake is very tight though. I don't have a bad thing to say about those stories.
Oct. 18th, 2005 10:19 pm (UTC)
yeah, rubin did a good job with AFTER THE QUAKE.
Oct. 18th, 2005 10:23 pm (UTC)
Maybe Murakami will start writing in English. :-D Kazuo Ishiguro does but then again, he moved to England like when he was a preschooler... suppose that makes a tad bit o' difference. ;-)
Oct. 18th, 2005 10:26 pm (UTC)
murakami actually translates people like raymond carver into japanese, so one thinks he does have a good grasp on english.but i kind of doubt he'll write a book in english, especially when he doesn't need too. and really, i should just learn japanese.
Oct. 19th, 2005 01:27 pm (UTC)
I was lucky, lucky, lucky to hear Murakami read/speak about...two weeks ago? I've heard that he doesn't read in English in public very often (and possibly doesn't read in public very often, full stop). Even here, he read the first few pages of the story in Japanese first, then in English, then had someone else read the rest of it (in English).

Which was fascinating. I don't understand Japanese, so all I could hear was the rhythm--but that rhythm was markedly different, much quicker, much crisper. I'm just speculating here, of course. But I'd never really thought about that aspect of translations before. Even if it's a good translation--the feel and sound of the piece must change completely. I can't imagine being willing to give that rhythm up.

Thanks for the comparison. I agree that strengths and weaknesses, yah, but the Birnbaum does _feel_ better.
Oct. 20th, 2005 03:10 am (UTC)
I was lucky, lucky, lucky to hear Murakami read/speak about...two weeks ago?

i have jealousy. i don't usually go to hear readings, but i'd love to hear murakami read in the original japanese for the rhythm. had he translated his own work, you think?
Oct. 18th, 2005 06:56 pm (UTC)
My roomate speaks Japanese, he says the Rubin one feels a bit more literal. As a fan of Murakami, I always find it interesting to find different versions of his work. There's fan sites that can be found that have listings.
Oct. 18th, 2005 09:40 pm (UTC)
yeah, i've seen some of the fan sites. there's a good one out there with translations of his early novels, which are a bit hard to find.
Oct. 18th, 2005 07:25 pm (UTC)
2 weeks tops.

(That *is* all very interesting).
Oct. 18th, 2005 09:38 pm (UTC)
2 weeks?
Oct. 20th, 2005 04:27 am (UTC)
There's a lovely essay by Kevin Brophy in his latest book ( a collection of essays on writing ) where he compares various translations of Kafka, including Nabokov's and goes into some depth about the various poetics of translation. All in all, good stuff. I'm constantly fascinated by the tonal differences between translators - and for the record, I didn't think Rubin's finish was that much worse. For my money, "the countless shapes of people walking by to nowhere" reads more evocatively than "people, scores of people, all tired of walking about aimlessly."

I'm a big fan of Murakami, of course, but am ashamed to admit I only found him _after_ he was cool. I wonder if you've read any of Ryu Murakami's stuff? Apparently the two Murakamis are fans of each other. Anyhoo, Coin Locker Babies has one of the best first pages I've read this year.

Oct. 20th, 2005 05:10 am (UTC)
yeah, i agree that the rubin finish line isn't that bad. what works for me with the birnbaum is the repeat of people--and that's purely a taste thing.

as for ryu murakami, i haven't read any, but i have a copy of IN THE MISO SOUP here that i plan to read when all this thesis reading is done. bout a month or so, i imagine. it's all rewriting from that point on, maybe a bit of research to cover holes. but i can go back to reading for pleasure.
Nov. 4th, 2005 08:13 am (UTC)
Interesting. I much prefer Birnbaum's "Here I am, thirty-seven years old, seated in a Boeing 747." too. Just finished the book, see my review here (http://mis_nomer.blogspot.com/2005/11/norwegian-wood-by-haruki-murakami.html).

Just curious, which of Murakami's books do you like the best?

~ coffeeshot
Nov. 4th, 2005 10:44 am (UTC)
Jun. 19th, 2007 04:12 am (UTC)
Norwegian Wood Ending
My biggest question is, do Toru and Midori get together at the end or not? The 'calling out again and again' makes it seem like she hung up the phone on him like she did slightly earlier in the book when Toru was travelling Japan after Naoko's death, but considering he confessed his love to her and Midori had promised to wait for him, I wonder if she reacts positively to his confession. Such a confusing ending and I desire so much closure with this book because it's so beautiful.
Dec. 19th, 2007 03:37 am (UTC)
End of the book
For me, Midori hung up after waiting for Toru for so long. For me that's what means the "Again and again I called out for Midori"
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