Murakami Haruki's Lost Voice

Translating narrative style

By William Wetherall

First drafted 15 April 2005
Original first posted 5 February 2007
Expanded first posted 15 June 2007
Last updated 10 July 2008

This article is an expanded version of an article first posted as "The forest for the trees: Murakami Haruki's "Norwegian Wood/s". It also draws from "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle" stories and "Kafka on the Shore".

Murakami's voice Author versus translator standards | "Noruwei no mori" versus "Norwegian Wood" | "Norwegian Woods"
Fiction checking Wood or Woods? | Literary facts | Chopping metaphors
Illusions of translation Murakami translates "Murakami" (Wind-up bird stories) | The road not taken
Murakami's narrative style Review projections | Licking cliches (Kafka On the Shore)

Murakami's voice

Murakami Haruki's principle translators have been Alfred Birnbaum, followed by Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel. Kodansha's and Knopf's promotions of Birnbaum's translations in the late 1980s created a huge demand for more Murakami in English. When Rubin's translations came out, readers familiar with Birnbaum's couldn't believe their ears.

Had Murakami changed, or lost, his voice? Not quite. All that has changed are the voices of the translations. Murakami's voice remains lost in translation, but book reviewers and readers don't know this. Birnbaum's style bears no resemblance to Murakami's. Rubin, while noting the "clean rhythmicality" of Murakami's style and the "exaggerated hipness" in Birnbaum's (and "to a lesser extent" in Gabriel's) translations, has also turned a deaf ear to Murakami's voice.


Author versus translator standards

Many readers of Murakami in English, like this blogger, have been puzzled by the differences in Birnbaum's and Rubin's styles (unicorn eggs on waferbaby, archives, 2002/09/03).

murakami has had two main translators: alfred brinbaum & jay rubin. i think i prefer birnbaum's translations to rubin's. the books that rubin has translated don't flow as well for me as the birnbaum translations. of course, that also begs the question of how an author's writing style changes over time.

There are two variables at play here: writing style and translation standards. The problem is whether the different flows of Birnbaum's and Rubin's translations stem from (1) disparities in their standards of translation, or (2) changes in Murakami's style.

To determine disparities in translation standards, we have to compare Birnbaum's and Rubin's versions of the same Murakami story, with the original and with each other. To determine whether Murakami changes his style, we need to compare the originals of two stories, or English versions translated to the same standards of style as the originals. To evaluate both variables simultaneously, we need two originals and Birnbaum's and Rubin's translations of each.

Fortunately, Murakami Haruki's Noruwei no mori (ノルウェイの森 1987) has twice been translated into English as Norwegian Wood, first by Alfred Birnbaum (1989) for distribution in Japan, then by Jay Rubin (2000) for global distribution.

While lacking two translations of a common second work, we have something better -- a short story and the novel into which it was later expanded: Nejimakidori to kayōbi no onnatachi (ねじまき鳥と火曜日の女たち 1986), the short story, translated by Birnbaum as "The wind-up bird and Tuesday's women" (1990) -- Majimakidori kuronikeru (ねじまき鳥クロニケル 1994-1995), the novel, translated by Rubin as The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1997). So not only can we observe differences in translation and changes in style, but we can also see how Murakami has polished his style.

Readers who have discovered both the Birnbaum and Rubin versions are typically confused. How could two translations be so different? Many people prefer Birnbaum's versions, possibly because they discovered Murakami through Birnbaum's translations of his earliest novels, especially A Wild Sheep Chase (1989), Birnbaum's heavily edited and degraded version of Hitsuji o meguru bōken (羊をめぐる冒険 1982).

Others -- like the blogger -- who have read Murakami's earlier novels, most translated by Birnbaum, and later novels, many translated by Rubin, think Birnbaum is more readable, but suspect there may be more to the picture.

All this begs the question, though, of whether, if one were to read Birnbaum's and Rubin's versions of the same Murakami story, how much would they differ? Would one be better than the other? Would even the better one be good?

The most striking feature of the public discussion about the quality of the English translations of Murakami's stories, is that those who dominate the reviews and forums on the web, and the pages of The New York Times and literary journals, have no way of answering such questions, since they admit they can't read Japanese. And who can trust what the translators and even Murakami might say on publisher websites?

Rubin will not directly claim that his translations are better than Birnbaum's. He will say that Birnbaum likes to jazz things up. Or he will point out, as he did at the end of the Translator's Note in the back of Norwegian Wood, that Alfred Birnbaum's earlier translation had been published in Japan "with grammar notes in back, to enable students to enjoy their favorite author as they struggled with the mysteries of English," and that "the present edition is the first English translation that Murakami has authorized for publication outside Japan."

Copies of Birnbaum's translations of Murakami's earliest novels are hot and very pricy on the global antiquarian book market and on Internet auctions sites. Not a few people want them because the rumor is out that Birnbaum's "jazzy" translations are more readable if not closer to Murakami's voice. But are they?

To answer this question, I will first examine the Birnbaum and Rubin versions of Noruwei no mori, both called Norwegian Wood, then look at a structural translation I will call Norwegian Woods -- but not, as I shall argue, to be perverse. I will then turn to The Wind-up Bird Chronicle stories and to Kafka on the Shore, for more insights into Murakami's styles.


"Noruwei no mori" versus "Norwegian Wood"

Noruwei no mori opens with a 747 landing at Hamburg Airport circa 1987. The two versions of Norwegian Wood open very differently.

Murakami Birnbaum Rubin


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 it real bad. I swear my head is going to burst.

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.

Birnbaum more than jazzes things up. He retells Murakami's story in a voice that is rather anti-Murakami. The register of his words (procedures, issues, muzak rendition, gets to me, real bad, swear my head is going to burst), and the syntax of his sentences (present tense, stand-alone noun phrases), have no foundation in the original.

Rubin attempts to stay fairly close to Murakami's structures. He reduces four sentences to two, cuts things he thinks Murakami got wrong and other details, and degrades more show to tell than Birnbaum. Murakami's plane lands; Rubin's plane is on the ground. Birnbaum gets "muzak rendition" out of BGM, while Rubin loses the BG. Both translators prefer the explanatory adjective "soft" to the dramatic adverb phrase "in low sounds".

Both Birnbaum and Rubin nominalize Murakami's second sentence. While Birnbaum lets the noun phrase stand alone, in recognition of Murakami's preference for shorter sentences, Rubin tacks it to the end of the first sentence as an explanation. Whereas Murakami features an orchestra sweetly performing "Norwegian Wood", both translators degrade the relativized drama to a descriptive "some orchestra's muzak rendition" and "a sweet orchestral cover version" of the song.

Birnbaum thinks Murakami needs four sentences instead of two to show the effects of the song. He makes no effort to mimic Murakami's voice, much less confine himself to its emotional bounds. Rubin, who seems to dislike short sentences, compounds the final two sentences with a "but" -- and, like Birnbaum, pulls out a thesaurus. Both translators prove they have a richer vocabulary than Murakami but lack his sense of dramatic pause, retraction, and qualified repetition.


Norwegian Woods

Murakami's longer sentences are built of simple, declarative, subject-predicate-(object) phrases. This is how the above paragraph would read had he broken down the longer sentences into their basic elements and stripped them of most adjectives and adverbs.

Murakami (basic elements)   (1) The plane landed. (2) The no-smoking sign went off. (3) Music began to flow. (4) It was "Norwegian Woods". (5) An orchestra was performing it. (6) The melody disturbed me. (7) No, it disturbed and shook me intensely.

Murakami reduces these seven sentences to four by sequencing the first three, relativizing the fifth to the fourth, and letting the sixth and seventh stand alone. This is how the original paragraph would read in a full structural translation.

Murakami (structural)   [1] (1) When the plane completed its landing (2) the no-smoking sign went off, (3) and background music began to flow in low sounds from the ceiling speakers. [2] (4) It was the Beatles' "Norwegian Woods" (5) some orchestra was sweetly performing. [3] (6) And the melody as usual disturbed me. [4] (7) No, it disturbed and shook me incomparably more intensely than usual.

The rough edges can easily be smoothed by a little editing and stylizing with little loss of detail or change in structure.

Murakami (polished structural translation)   When the plane landed the no-smoking sign went off, and music began to softly flow from the ceiling speakers. It was the Beatles' "Norwegian Wood" sweetly played by an orchestra. And as usual the melody disturbed me. No, it disturbed and shook me far more intensely than usual.

The adverb phrase in low sounds is better reflected as another adverb softly modifying the same verb flow, than as an adjective soft modifying the subject music. Translating verb phrases as noun phrases, and adverbs (verb modifiers) as adjectives (noun modifiers), in a narrative intended to dramatize, generally degrades the narrative into one that merely explains -- hence loss of literary quality.

In English, the active verb phrase some orchestra was sweetly performing ("Norwegian Wood") works better as a passive ("Norwegian Wood" was being) sweetly performed by an orchestra when used as a relative clause attributive to the object of the verb.

Good writing is done through the ear as it listens to the mouth tell the story. Good punctuation reflects oral/aural needs to pause or stop, and is therefore structurally vital. Murakami's commas and periods perfectly pace his narrative. The comma in the first sentence sets off the topic of the paragraph -- background music, softly flowing. The soft BGM becomes the antecedent of the second sentence, which declares its name and relates how it was performed -- "Norwegian Wood", sweetly played. The third and fourth sentences reveal the effects of the BGM -- the melody was very disturbing.

Murakami does not write with great flair. Neither did Chandler or Carver, his mentors. Hard-boiled and minimalist are the antitheses of zesty, spicy, colorful, and noisy. There is absolutely nothing lively about Murakami's style. His vocabulary and phrasing, his diction and narration, are humble, unadorned, prosaic. The punch and power of his stories come from their ultra-simple, low-key, unpretentious telling.

Most of Murakami's vocabulary and phrasing easily maps into equivalent English. Why? Not because Murakami's style has been influenced by American literature or is otherwise close to English, but because Japanese and English share, as do most languages, the basic narrative structures that Murakami has chosen to use.

Rubin's claim that "The Japanese language is so different from English -- even when used by a writer as Americanized as Murakami -- that true literal translation is impossible" (p. 286) is echoed by many Japanese-English translators. It is, however, a gross misconception. Rubin, like most other J-E translators who argue against attempts at translating style, focuses on the formal differences rather than the functional similarities of the two languages.

Rubin limits the scope of "literal" to grammatical elements like definite/indefinite articles, singular/plural specification, relative pronouns, position of subordinate clauses in relation to nouns, presence of subjects and objects, and the position of verbs and tense and other markers. He makes no mention of narrative structures -- how a writer presents and manipulates information to tell a story, whether the writer shows or explains action or suggests or spells out motivation, how a writer paces the narrative within a sentence, paragraph, or scene -- among other choices all writers have had from Chaucer to Carver, from Murasaki to Murakami.

Murakami is plain vanilla. Rich, creamy, and fragrant, but plain. Rubin goes for non-dairy vanilla with swirls of fudge and a couple of cherries. Birnbaum trades the vanilla for a mix of rum raisin and mint chocolate chip, then gunks it up with butterscotch, crushed almonds, and rainbow sprinkles.


Fiction checking

Rubin's translation is somewhat shorter because he dropped the remark about the no-smoking sign going off. Rubin has said he felt something wrong while reading the original. Then he realized that no-smoking signs stay on after landing. So he axed the phrase before a sharp-eyed fact-checker could flag it.

It would probably have been wiser not to cut the phrase about the no-smoking sign. It is, after all, a work of fiction. And, as Murakami himself has said, the story is more important than the details.

Rubin also knew that "Noruwei no Mori" (meaning "woods" in the sense of "trees" in "forests" in Norway) is a mistranslation of "Norwegian Wood" (meaning wood from Norway). He points out that this was not Murakami's error, as but one made when translating the title of the song into Japanese in 1965. Yet an error is an error -- and "mori" in the book is otherwise translated as "woods" (see next).


Wood or Woods?

More important than factuality as measured by standards in the real world is credibility within the fictional world of the story. Thanks to more concern about legalistic facts external to the world of the story, than in the integrity of Murakami's metaphor, both the Birnbaum and Rubin versions of Noruwei no mori use "wood" for the 森 (mori) in the title of the book and the song, but "woods" for the 森 in the body of the story.

Imagine Henry David Thoreau subtitling Walden "Life in the Wood" then describing his life in the woods. Robert Frost used "woods" in some poems and "wood" in others, but he did not mix them. No poet, no good writer, would mix these words in a common metaphoric thread in reference to a stand of trees. They would use one or the other, never both.

Mixing "wood" and "woods" destroys the continuity of Murakami's metaphoric use of 森. with all apologies to the Beatles, the title of Murakami's novel, and of his version of their song, might better have been rendered "Norwegian Woods" -- to reflect its Japanization, and to agree with the "woods" that figure in the story. Or all the 森 in the story should have been spelled "wood" -- to agree with "Norwegian Wood". Either way would have been more respectful of the poetic spirit that Murakami shares with Basho, Thoreau, Frost, and Lennon.

The phrase ノルウェイの森 (Noruwei no mori) appears only once in Murakami's story, as the name of the Beatles' song in the graph just cited. The proper English name of the song has "wood" -- and this "wood" is almost certainly the material used for building or burning, not a stand of trees. In Japanese, however, the song is known as ノルウェイの森 (Noruwei no mori), and in the imagination of those who read the phrase in Japanese -- and as a metaphor in Murakami's story -- it refers to a stand of trees.

"Norwegian wood" is teasingly unclear. A kind of furniture, good for kindling? A pun for "Knowing she would" let me screw her, commit suicide, whatever? The only thing it does not seem to mean is a stand of trees. But translators have the bad habit of wanting to make vague lyrics both clearer and more poetic. And as a translation of "wood" in the sense of "woods", nothing could be more lucid or lyrical than 森 (mori).

For most listeners, including most native speakers of English, its hypnotic melody and lyrics induce one to hear "Norwegian Wood" without much thought about what it means. Translators, though, feel compelled to invest vague expressions with meaning. When putting this phrase into Japanese, someone imagined romance, mystery, and sadness. And nothing holds more potential for adventure, passion, and tragedy than a 森.

The emotional pull of ノルウェイの森 (Noruwei no mori) in Japanese comes entirely from the aesthetics of the character 森 ("mori" in Japanese, "shin" in Sino-Japanese) and the poetics of the word "mori". One imagines not a timberland, not even a forest, but a world of trees in which something thrilling promises to happen. But the powerful anticipation gained in the fanciful rendering of "wood" as 森 was lost in the "correction" of 森 to "wood". And two losses don't make a found. In other ways, too, attempts to "correct" Murakami in English have misrepresented his voice and style.


Literary facts

Translators and publishers interested in "correctness" have to be very careful. The association of 森 with the "wood" in the Beatles' song may have been erroneous, but the error is now a fact. One can argue that John Lennon did not intend this association, but this would not change the factuality of what the title of the song has come to mean in Japan and in Murakami's novel. One might even observe that Murakami and some of his readers are perfectly aware that 森 originated as a mistranslation -- yet even this would not alter the reality that 森 has become a literary fact.

Many readers of Murakami in English take elements of "western" pop culture in his novels as evidence of "westernization" in Japan. The same readers even characterize Murakami's stories as more "western" than "Japanese" because they seem to be inspired more by the Beatles than, say, Basho. However, ノルウェイの森 is evidence of Japanization, or how elements from overseas are selectively ingested, digested, absorbed, metabolized, and eliminated in Japan.

The Beatles, like Christianity and shoes, have not "westernized" Japan. Rather they have been assimilated and naturalized in Japan, according to local needs. In the process of localization, they become Japanese. They take on local meanings that are valid in Japan, however changed -- modified, distorted, or erroneous they may seem when viewed from the vantage point of people in their places of origin, where their meanings are likely to be complex, mutable, and disputed.

Though apparently predicated on a mistranslation, ノルウェイの森 is not wrong in Japanese. It is merely an artifact of Japanization and needs to be respected as such by Murakami's translators. In their rush to impose their "correct" understandings of Norwegian Wood on Noruwei no mori, Birnbaum and Rubin, and/or their editors, were unable to see the woods for the trees. By "westernizing" the Japanization of Norwegian Wood, they unwittingly lost, in their own mistranslation, the 森 that were gained in the Japanese mistranslation.

As literary facts, both the title of the novel and the Beatles song in its opening scene, which of course are the same, signify 森 and anticipate the 森 that figure in the second scene and elsewhere. By erring on the side of a standard of correctness external to Murakami's story, Birnbaum and Rubin -- neither of them poets or writers -- broke his thematic link between the song and the story, by rendering the one "wood" and the other "woods".


Chopping metaphors

More important than the credibility of no-smoking signs going out after landing is the integrity of Murakami's metaphors. Murakami carefully differentiates 雑木林 (zōkibayashi, mixed forest, thicket of trees, copse, coppice), and 松林 (matsubayashi, pine forest, pine grove), 森 (mori, wood/s), and 林 (hayashi, forest). Yet neither Birnbaum nor Rubin reflect these distinctions in free-wheeling versions.

雑木林 Chapter 1

Tooru reminisces about himself and Naoko in a 草原 (sōgen, grassy field, grassland, meadow) by a 雑木林. In this scene, Tooru and Naoko are walking and talking, and doing whatever else they might be doing, totally alone -- in the 草原, not in the 雑木林. They talk a lot about falling into and dying in a deep well that is rumored to be in the 草原 near where it meets the 雑木林. But they are never in the 雑木林.

Birnbaum   the woods, the woods, the woods
Rubin   the woods, the woods, the woods
Structural   a copse of trees, the trees, the trees

松林 Chapter 1

Tooru reminisces about himself and Naoko in a 松林. After relating their long talk about the well, Tooru remarks that they are now walking in a 松林 -- not the 雑木林. Presumably they wandered into the 松林 from the 草原 while talking. Naoko gets Tooru to promise that he will never forget her, especially their being together that day. She walks ahead, and then Tooru describes her as leaving the 松林 and warns her to be careful because the well might be there. He catches up with her, they resume walking together, and the reminiscence ends with Naoko getting Tooru to repeat his promise that he will never forget her.

Birnbaum   the woods, untranslated, the pine woods
Rubin   a pine wood, the woods, the pine wood
Structural   a pine grove, the [pine] grove, the [pine] grove

Murakami paints dynamic pictures with words. He segregates 雑木林 and 松林 on the canvas, and renders them in different colors and textures. Capturing such distinct elements of Murakami's painting requires that the two terms be differentiated in English.

The 雑木林 does not invite walking. It is an unimpressive thicket of smaller trees and shrubs seen from without. Call it a "copse of trees" and then just "trees" -- general, dry, impersonal. The 松林 invite walking. Its trees are recognizable and familiar. Call it a "pine grove" -- more specific, poetic, personal. Don't use "wood/s" here but reserve this more poetic expression for 森, which both Naoko (in Chapter 6) and Tooru (in Chapter 11) invest with great emotional significance. And leave "forest" for Reiko's more generic usage of 林 (Chapter 11).

The 雑木林 and 松林 are never again mentioned. But 草原 appears once more in Chapter 10.

Murakami Birnbaum Rubin Structural Polished


The thought of Naoko's fingers getting me off in the middle of the fields, that touch came to mind more vividly than anything.

The sensation of Naoko's fingers bringing me to climax in a grassy field remained vivid inside me.

The feel of Naoko's fingers, which had led me to ejaculation in the very middle of the meadow, has remained in the middle of me fresher than anything.

The touch of Naoko's fingers, which had led me to ejaculation in the middle of the meadow, has lingered inside me fresher than anything.

It is tempting, as both Burnbaum and Rubin have done, to reduce "The touch of Naoko's fingers, which had led me to ejaculation" to "The touch of Naoko's fingers leading [guiding, bringing] me to ejaculation". However, the simple past tense of the relative clause, in contrast with the past perfect of the predicate, puts a certain distance between Tooru's memory of Naoko's fingers and what they accomplished.

The prominence of the 草原 in the reminiscences in Chapter 1, and the single arc back to these reminiscences in Chapter 10, make the 草原 arguably the most important setting in the story. Why?

In Chapter 1, Murakami lays the foundation for the possibility of a sexual encounter in the meadow, without obviously hinting at such an encounter. Only after reading Tooru's recollection in Chapter 10 does the full significance of the reminiscing in Chapter 1 strike home.

The above cited association of an unforgettable sexual encounter with the meadow prefaces, in Chapter 6, a second encounter in bed with Naoko at Reiko's apartment while Reiko is out doing chores. Naoko uses her hand as she did before, says "Then remember this too" (じゃあ、これもおぼえていてね) before performing fellatio on him, causing him to ejaculate a second time. "Can you remember that?" (覚えていられる?) she says -- which also arcs to her concerns about him remembering her in Chapter 1. "Of course, I'll always remember" (もちろん、ずっと覚えているよ).

While careful readers will connect these dots, the lexical precision and clarity of Murakami's narrative voice would have been more evident had Birnbaum and Rubin rendered his reference to 草原 in Chapter 6 as "meadow", and had Rubin (in particular) paid more attention to the difference between "a" and "the". Such details are the hallmark of careful writing and careful (structurally faithful) translation.


森 as a literary fact

森 (mori) appears only twice in the story other than in the several mentions of Noruwei no mori (Title, Ch 1, 6, 8, 11), which Birnbaum and Rubin translate according to the usual name of the Beatles' song in English: Norwegian Wood. However, both of these appearances are related to Naoko's depression and death, and the Beatles' song.

深い森 Chapter 6

Tooru is at Reiko's apartment, where Naoko has been living. Naoko often asks Reiko, who has a guitar, to play ノルウェイの森, and she describes her feelings about her favorite song like this.

Murakami Burnbaum Rubin Structural


"Sometimes I get all lonesome when I hear that song. I don't know why, but I get to feeling like I'm lost in a deep dark forest," said Naoko.

"That song can make me feel so sad," said Naoko. "I don't know, I guess I imagine myself wandering in a deep wood."

"When I listen to this song I sometimes get really sad. I don't know why, but I get the feeling I'm lost in a deep woods," Naoko said.

暗い森 Chapter 11

Tooru and Kizuki were best friends in school. Kizuki and Naoko lived in the same neighborhood and became lovers. Kizuki first introduced Naoko to Tooru when the boys were in high school. Tooru sometimes accompanied them on dates. One night Kizuki, then seventeen, ran a hose from the exhaust pipe of his car into the window and gassed himself. He left no note, and no other obvious clues to why he took his own life.

The meadow episode takes place about a year after Kizuki's death and results in Kizuki falling in love with Naoko. A year later she hangs herself and leaves no note. The grief-stricken Tooru immediately understands that she has followed Kizuki in death to be with him. In a very emotional monolog, Tooru tells Kizuki how Naoko died.

Murakami Burnbaum Rubin Structural


Naoko hung herself deep in a forest as dark as her own mind.

In woods as dark as the depths of her own heart, she hanged herself.

She hung herself in the depths of woods dark like her own heart.

まわりの林 Chapter 11

The only use of 林 comes in a scene toward the very end of the novel. Tooru is visiting Reiko who tells him about Naoko's death. One night, while staying with Reiko, and drinking and listening to the Beatles, Naoko had told her about the one and only time she and Tooru had made love. When Reiko woke up early the next morning, Naoko was gone. Reiko had premonitions and organized a search which included the 林 around the dormitories.

Birnbaum   the woods
Rubin   the surrounding woods
Structural   the surrounding forest

In Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words, Rubin remarks that "The Japanese title, Noruwei no mori, means literally ‘A Forest in Norway', or ‘Norwegian Woods', which is not Murakami's but the standard Japanese mistranslation of the title of The Beatles' song ‘Norwegian Wood'" (p 149). He also described some "green-tea-flavoured, green-tree-shaped chocolates called "Noruwei no Mori (Forest of Norway)" (p 160). Then in April 2003, at Indiana University, he alluded to the confusion all this might cause (, 47:30-47:45).

There's a scene in Norwegian Wood in which the heroine says, "I don't know when I hear that song, I feel as though I'm wandering all over the forests." And I just translated it straight in English, and I don't know, an American reader might wonder, "What is she thinking?"

Reading the original, one might also wonder what Rubin and Birnbaum were thinking when they translated ノルウェイの森 as Norwegian Wood -- then differently rendered the 森 in the story and conflated 森 with 雑木林, 松林, and 林. Did it occur to them that ノルウェイの森, as a title of and artifact in Murakami's novel, defines its own standard of correctness, independent of the outside world?

ノルウェイの森 should have been rendered Norwegian Woods (1) to show that, in Japan, it is not quite the same as Norwegian Wood, and (2) to reflect the powerful images evoked by the graph 森 and the word mori in the story. If ノルウェイの森 is a "Japanization" of Norwegian Wood, then Norwegian Wood is a "Westernization" of ノルウェイの森. The 森 gained in the Japanese mistranslation is lost in the English mistranslation. And two losts don't make a found.


Illusions of translation

Wendy Lesser, editor of The Threepenny Review, declared Birnbaum a better translator than Rubin in a passionate essay called "The Mysteries of Translation" (The Chronicle Review, 27 September 2002, She confesses to being "an avid reader, but a shockingly monolingual one." The English language is her "golden prison" and translators are "the social workers" who bring "foreign companionship" to her cell.

To show why she prefers Birnbaum to Rubin, she cites the Rubin and Birnbaum versions of the first lines from The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. The lines in italics are those I added to complete the second paragraph of the scenes in both translations.

Birnbaum   I'm in the kitchen cooking spaghetti when the woman calls. Another moment until the spaghetti is done; there I am, whistling the prelude to Rossini's La Gazza Ladra along with the FM radio. Perfect spaghetti-cooking music.

I hear the telephone ring but tell myself, Ignore it. Let the spaghetti finish cooking. It's almost done, and besides, Claudio Abbado and the London Symphony Orchestra are coming to a crescendo. Still, on second thought, I figure I might as well turn down the flame and head into the living room, cooking chopsticks in hand, to pick up the receiver. It might be a friend, it occurs to me, possibly with a word of a new job.

Rubin   When the phone rang I was in the kitchen, boiling a potful of spaghetti and whistling along with an FM broadcast of the overture to Rossini's The Thieving Magpie, which has to be the perfect music for cooking pasta.

I wanted to ignore the phone, not only because the spaghetti was nearly done, but because Claudio Abbado was bringing the London Symphony to its musical climax. Finally, though, I had to give in. It could have been somebody with news of a job opening. I lowered the flame, went to the living room, and picked up the receiver.

You see? Lesser says. Birnbaum's version is superior -- among other reasons because "In this translation, the logic of cause-and-effect English sentence structure has been jettisoned in favor of some other mode, and it is that mode -- the intrusion of the surprising and the foreign and the unknowable into the mundane regime -- which marks the world of a Haruki Murakami novel." Lesser is "always surprised at the power a translator holds on a book" and believes that "The Birnbaum lines from 'Wind-up' are more magical and more fitting to what I think of as Murakami's tone."

Lesser, who fell in love with Murakami in the guise of Birnbaum, "adapted, eventually, to Jay Rubin's perfectly good translations, and even to the slightly more whimsical voice of Philip Gabriel," but yearned for her first love, Birnbaum. Learning that Birnbaum had translated Norwegian Wood years before Rubin, she paid a mint for a copy of the hard-to-find two-volume set and began reading. "Not surprisingly," she wrote, "I found that the Birnbaum version was better, in exactly the way his opening sentences of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle were better."

Lesser treasures the Birnbaum volumes. "They're like a souvenir brought back from a country I've never visited -- a strange, hard-boiled wonderland of wild sheep and vanished elephants, a place that never existed except in the imaginary terrain inhabited jointly if briefly by Haruki Murakami and Alfred Birnbaum."

Lesser tells a good story. The only problem is -- like many stories that readers, reviewers, critics, professors, translators, and editors tell about Murakami in English -- it has no foundation in Murakami's literature.


Murakami translates "Murakami" (Wind-up bird stories)

The first problem with Lesser's comparison is that Birnbaum and Rubin translated different versions of the story. Birnbaum translated a short story called "Nejimakidori to kayōbi no onnatachi" (ねじまき鳥と火曜日の女たち), published in the monthly literary magazine 新潮 (Shinchō) in 1986, and as "The wind-up bird and Tuesday's women" for The New Yorker in 1990. Here are the first two graphs of the short story.

Wind-up Story (which Birnbaum translated)   その女から電話がかかってきたとき、僕は台所に立ってスパゲティーをゆでているところだった。スパゲティーはゆであがる寸前で、僕はFMラジオにあわせてロッシーニの『泥棒かささぎ』の序曲を口笛で吹いていた。スパゲティーをゆであげるにはまず最適の音楽だった。


The novel, called Nejimakidori kuronikeru (ねじまき鳥クロニケル), was published in three volumes in 1994 and 1995. Rubin translated the entire novel, but Knopf imposed a word limit that forced Rubin to cut it. Here are the first two graphs of the novel.

Wind-up Novel (which Rubin translated)   台所でスパゲティーをゆでているときに、電話がかかってきた。僕はFM放送にあわせてロッシーニの『泥棒かささぎ』の序曲を口笛で吹いていた。スパゲティーをゆでるにはまずうってつけの音楽だった。


The opening of the novel is rather different from that of the short story. The contrast shows how much Murakami had improved as a writer in just a few years. There is more show and less tell in the novel version. The wording is more precise, the phrasing simpler and leaner. The narrative is more suspenseful because, unlike the earlier version, it presents action and thought in real time.

Birnbaum's translation of the earlier Wind-up story appeared in a 1993 anthology of Murakami stories called The Elephant Vanishes. In 2005, Murakami published his own "back translation" of this anthology as Zō no shōgen: Tanpen senshū (象の消滅:短編選集 1980-1991). Here is Murakami's "translation" of Birnbaum's translation.

Wind-up story (Murakami's "translation" of Birnbaum)   その女から電話がかかってきたとき、台所に立ってスパゲティーをゆでていた。スパゲティーはゆであがる寸前で、僕はFMラジオにあわせてロッシーニの「泥棒かささぎ」の序曲を口笛で吹いていた。スパゲティーをゆであげるにはとりあえず最適の音楽だった。


Murakami's "translation" is deceptive in that he has all but copied the original rather than actually translate Birnbaum's version. An unbiased rendering, by someone with no knowledge or interest in the original, would have looked very different.


The road not taken

Had Lesser been able to read either of the originals, and been able to hear as well as see Murakami's narrative styles, she would have realized just how much both translators had changed Murakami's narrative voice and degraded his literary style. Here is Murakami's truer voice and style in structurally closer translations.

Wind-up story (Structural)   When the call from the woman came, I was standing in the kitchen and boiling spaghetti. The spaghetti was almost boiled up, and I was whistling the overture to Rossini's Thieving Magpie to an FM broadcast. It was the most suitable music for boiling up spaghetti.

When I heard the bell of the phone, I thought I might pretend not to hear it and just keep boiling the spaghetti. The spaghetti was practically boiled up, and Claudio Abbado was about to lift the London Symphony to its musical peak. But still of course I turned down the gas flame, and still holding the chopsticks in my right hand I went to the living room and picked up the receiver. For I suddenly recalled that a call might be coming from a friend about a new job.

Wind-up novel (Structural)   While I was boiling spaghetti in the kitchen, the phone rang. I had been whistling the overture to Rossini's Thieving Magpie to an FM broadcast. It was the perfect music for boiling spaghetti.

When I heard the bell of the phone, I thought of ignoring it. The spaghetti was almost boiled up, and Claudio Abbado was just then about to lift the London Symphony to its musical peak. But of course I turned down the gas flame, and went to the living room and picked up the receiver. For I thought that a call might have come from a friend about the opening of a new job.

These translations could easily be tweaked without significant structural change or loss of much if any narrative detail. Even as working drafts, however, they highlight Murakami's dry, tight, linear, subject-predicate-driven past-tense voice.

These closer translations also suggest that Lesser's preference for Birnbaum is not without grounds. Birnbaum, while taking unforgivable liberties with Murakami's voice, is at least a lively stylist. Whereas Rubin, while rendering some phrases well, runs Murakami's sentences together, robbing them of their punch, and turns too much of his dramatic heaven into explanatory hell.


Murakami's narrative style

Murakami accepts the view that he is writing Japanese in ways it has never been written before. "My contemporaries and I are trying to create a new kind of Japanese language," he tells Jay McInerney." If you want to talk about something new, you have to make up a new kind of language" (Roll Over Basho, The New York Times Book Review, 27 September 1992).

Pressed by Jonathan Lethem to reveal how he came to write the way he did, Murakami said that while he liked reading hard-boiled writers like Chandler, he wanted to write serious literature rather than mysteries, so he took the structures of hard-boiled fiction and added different content to create his own style (The New School in New York City, November 3, 2000).


Reviewer projections

Reviewers of English versions of Japanese fiction typically project their expectations of how such fiction should be written -- in order to fit their preconceptions of "Japanese" this and "Western" that.

In her review of Kafka on the Shore (2005), Laura Miller said this about Murakami's style. (Crossing Over, The New York Times, 6 February 2005).

A lot of things happen in Murakami's novels, but what lingers longest in the memory is this distinctive mood, a stillness pregnant with . . . what? Some meaning that's forever slipping away. The author achieves this effect by doing everything wrong, at least by Western literary standards. Over the years, his prose has become increasingly, and even militantly, simple. Although Murakami is both an admirer and a translator of Raymond Carver, this simplicity isn't the semaphoric purity of American minimalism. Partisans of the beautiful sentence will find little sustenance here.

In a 1991 interview with Murakami, Elizabeth Devereaux claims that "His fusion of Japanese language and Western sensibility represents a turning point of Japanese literature" (Publisher's Weekly, 21 September 1991).


Licking cliches (Kafka On the Shore)

Also in her review of Kafka on the Shore, Miller writes this about Murakami's metaphors and use of brand names. (Ibid.)

Murakami can turn a pretty metaphor when he chooses -- headlights that "lick" the tree trunks lining a dark road, the "whooshing moan of air" from a passing truck "like somebody's soul is being yanked out" -- but he's just as likely to opt deliberately for a cliche "Sometimes the wall I've erected around me comes crumbling down." He also makes free use of brand names. In American fiction, the sanctum of the literary must not be polluted by the trash of commercial culture -- not, that is, unless it's coated in a protective layer of satire. But when Murakami tells us that a character drinks Diet Pepsi or wears a New Balance cap it's not to sketch a withering little portrait of this person's social class and taste, but to describe exactly what he or she drinks and wears, creating a small tether to a shared reality.

Who is turning "pretty" metaphors? Murakami or Gabriel? Or Miller? Lights licking what they illuminate are as common as rain and mud. How, in any case, could Murakami "opt" for anything except "deliberately"? For all we know, he thought "this expression is not a cliche in Japanese, but whoever translates it may turn it into an English cliche."

This is what Murakami actually wrote, how Gabriel translated it, and how it could be rendered to more faithfully capture Murakami's narrative voice (海辺のフクカ, 2002, 上, 196; Kafka on the Shore, 2006 [2005], 114).

Murakami Gabriel Structural


I breathe a sigh of relief when the road finally cuts away from the bluffs and turns into a forest. Trees magically soar above us. Our headlights lick at the trunks, illuminating one after another.

The road finally leaves the bluff (which relieves me a bit) and enters the woods. Tall trees magically tower around us. The headlights illuminate their thick trunks, licking one after another.

Murakami's narration of this scene invests objects with actions that have consequences and effects. But Gabriel boots Murakami out of the driver's seat and takes the story down a somewhat different narrative road. He makes Murakami's narrator, rather than the road, the actor of the first sentence, and creates a "sigh" to dramatize the sense of relief that Murakami parenthetically attributed to an effect of the road's veering away from the bluff. He then transfers title to the car's headlights to its human riders, and makes "lick" the main verb, whereas Murakami's "licking one after another" shows the effects of the light from the moving car's beams.

In such ways Gabriel, like Birnbaum and Rubin, also changes Murakami's narrative style.