Killing spiders and eating melons

Murakami Haruki's "Hitsuji o meguru boken"

By William Wetherall

First drafted March 1990
First posted 5 February 2007
Last updated 10 June 2008

Murakami Haruki 村上春樹
Hitsuji o meguru boken 羊をめぐる冒険
Tokyo: Kodansha 講談社、1985(上下)
1994 Kodansha Bunko 講談社文庫(上下)

Haruki Murakami
A Wild Sheep Chase
Translated by Alfred Birnbaum
Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1989

Birnbaums's translation of Murakami's widly popular Hitsuji o meguru boken betrays the typical flaws of the sort of commercial work he was cranking out for Kodansha at the time. The literary quality of the original is severely sacrificed to the gods of freestyle, do-as-you-please translation.

A roving reporter just out of college

In the first scene of Hitsuji o meguru boken, the protagonist hears from a friend that a woman they both know has been killed.

Murakami Birnbaum Structural


It was a short one-paragraph item in the morning edition. A friend rang me up and read it to me. Nothing special. Something a rookie reporter fresh out of college might've written for practice.
     The date, a street corner, a person driving a truck, a pedestrian, a casualty, an investigation of possible negligence.
     Sounded like one of those poems on the inner flap of a magazine.
     "Where's the funeral?" I asked.
     "You got me," he said. "Did she even have a family?"

A friend who happened to learn of her death in a newspaper told me about it on the phone. He slowly read out the single-column article from the morning edition through the mouthpiece. It is an ordinary article. It's sentences resembled those a roving reporter just out of college had been made to write for practice.
     On such-and-such day of such-and-such month, at such-and-such street corner, a truck driven by so-and-so ran over so-and-so. So-and-so is under investigation on suspicion of professional negligence resulting in death.
     It sounds like a short poem on the title page of a magazine.
     "Where will they have the funeral?" I asked.
     "I have no idea" he said. "Did the girl even have a family?"

Birnbaum conveys the most essential details of Murakami's story in a quicker and easier style. In thus hijacking the narrative, though, he turns much of Murakami's "show" to "tell" and otherwise degrades its literary quality.

Murakami immediately puts three characters on stage in a single dramatic breath -- she died, a friend read about it in the paper, he called to tell me; Birnbaum prosaically spotlights a paragraph in the morning edition. Murakami mimics the style of a Journalism 101 incident report; Birnbaum describes the style, replacing action ("a truck driven by so-and-so ran over so-and-so") with a list ("a person driving a truck, a pedestrian, a casualty").

Birnbaum suppresses the fact that someone died, and was a she, until the very end of the scene. Perhaps he did so in order to build suspense. Why? Because he believed that he knows how to tell the story better than Murakami? Or that he is doing the reader a favor by telling the story both differently and more simply? Birnbaum not only abandoned Murakami's narrative style but ignored entire phrases and even lines, as we see in the next scene.

The web of a spider that had lost its balance

In the second scene, the protagonist finds out where the woman's family lives and prepares himself with a map to go to the funeral.

Murakami Birnbaum Structural


Of course she had a family.
     I called the police department to track down her family's address and telephone number, after which I gave them a call to get details of the funeral.
     Her family lived in an old quarter of Tokyo. I got out my map and marked the block in red. There were subway and train and bus lines everywhere, overlapping like some misshapen spiderweb, the whole area a maze of narrow streets and drainage canals.

Of course she too had a family.
     That day I called the police and got them to tell me her family's address and phone number, then called the family and asked the date of the funeral. As someone has said, most anything can be learned if one doesn't skimp on effort.
     Her family was in Shitamachi. I opened a ward map of Tokyo, and I put a mark on the block number of her house with a red ballpoint pen. It was truly a Shitamachiesque neighborhood of Tokyo. Subways and national trains and route busses crossed, and overlapped, like the web of a spider that had lost its balance, a number of drainage canals flowed through it, and a mishmash of streets gripped the earth's surface like the wrinkles of a melon.

Murakami dramatizes sequences of action -- "called the police and got them to tell me something" -- whereas Birnbaum renders the second action as an explanation of the aim of the first action, thus turning Murakami's show into tell.

Birnbaum also deleted the observation that one can find out almost anything with some effort. The remark is not just an aside but a reflection of character. One could argue that the actions speak for the protagonist's desire to pay the woman his respects, but apparently he wants to stress that all he had to do to attend the funeral of someone he has cared about is to pick up the phone. The phrase stuck in the mind of at least one reader, who wrote in a blog that it suddenly popped into his head.

Birnbaum axed even more detail in the next paragraph. Murakami features a spider as a protagonist of a mini drama in which the spider loses its balance while spinning a web, resulting in a mess -- whereas Birnbaum eliminates the spider, suppresses the spider's action, and merely describes the result.

In his mission to tell the story his way, Birnbaum also ate the melon, then threw out the skin, and with it the image of the streets clinging to the ground like its wrinkles. In the last line of Murakami's text, I have shown しわ in bold. Murakami marked the graphs for し and わ on the right to make them stand out visually.