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Mistranslating Murakami


Even the best translators are guilty of occasional mistakes, but few have been called out quite so publicly as Dimitry Kovalenin was at the workshop “The Joy of Murakami’s Works: From the Perspective of Translation” (「翻訳の現場から見る村上ワールドの魅力」), which took place in March 2006 as a part of a symposium entitled A Wild Haruki Chase: How the World is Reading and Translating Haruki Murakami 『世界は村上春樹をどう読むか』. The symposium — part of the motivation for which may have been to boost Murakami’s Nobel chances, as discussed previously — included workshops and speeches involving the collaborative efforts of over a dozen different Murakami translators from Western and Central Europe, North and South America, and of course, all over Asia. Kovalenin was there in his capacity as Murakami’s first Russian translator.

In June 2006, Bungakukai 『文学界』published two symposium workshop transcripts. The workshop in question centered around two stories from Yoru no kumozaru 『夜のくもざる』 (“Night of the Spider Monkey”), a collection of 2-to-3-page super-short stories (超短編小説). The title story is about a writer who is interrupted by a spider monkey that repeats everything he says. The story is a challenge to translate; Murakami makes full and creative use of all the Japanese scripts: the monkey imitates the writer “in katakana” but then is foiled when the writer switches back to speaking “in hiragana.”

During the workshop, Kovalenin mentioned how pleased he was with his own creative translation of the term kumozaru, “spider monkey”:

Dimitry Kovalenin: […] When I was translating “Yoru no kumozaru,” I was staying at a friend’s house, and I thought up a pretty clever translation with the family’s twelve-year-old kid. Basically, I decided just to leave it up to him (laughs). I asked the kid, “What kind of animal do you get when you combine a spider and a monkey?” So I had him write up a list of different types of spiders and monkeys and give me what he thought was the funniest combination. The result we thought best was obezyana (обезьяна) for the monkey and tarantul (тарантул) for the spider. Put them together and you get obezyantul (обезьянтул). The kid laughed whenever I said it, so I thought that was probably okay (laughs). (154)

The Japanese moderators Shibata Motoyuki and Numano Mitsuyoshi, both University of Tokyo professors, smoothly transitioned to the topic of wordplay in translation, but Czech translator Tomas Jurkovic returned to the issue soon after, and Malaysian translator Ye Hui was equipped with photographic evidence:

Tomas Jurkovic: […] I wanted to ask Mr. Kovalenin something. You chose to create an entirely different name despite the fact that spider monkeys actually exist and have a Russian name — why is that?

Kovalenin: What? Spider monkeys really exist? I thought it was imaginary, like the Sheep Man.

Ye Hui: No, they exist. I can show you proof. (Opens a magazine with a picture of a spider monkey.)

Numano Mitsuyoshi: If you look in Kōjien, this is what it says. “Mammals of the capuchin group. There are several species. Inhabit forests from Central America to northern South America.” Mr. Jurkovic has an important point here; do you use the official name of the actual animal, or do you use an invented word to bring out the humorous tone of it?

Kovalenin: How many people are there here in the audience today who knew that spider monkeys actually existed? Hardly any at all, right? I think Murakami used the word with that in mind.

Shibata Motoyuki: The Japanese version of Yoru no kumozaru has a drawing of a spider monkey in it by Anzai Mizumaru. It looks quite similar to the picture that Ms. Ye just showed us (laughs). (155-156)

Kovelenin is undoubtedly an impressive translator. He put a translation of Wild Sheep Chase online in 1996 before getting the money to publish it in 1998. During that two-year period it developed a notable readership. You can read a short article about his experience translating Murakami here. As they say in Japan, even monkeys fall from trees: Murakami’s long history of using the fantastic in his fiction, especially when it comes to animals, may invite a creative reading of kumozaru, but unfortunately they are real animals.

Murakami, on the other hand, knows how to take advantage of mistranslation. He made use of the legendary mistranslation of the Beatles song “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown).” The album Rubber Soul was released in Japan in 1966 and translated the second track as “Noruuei no mori” (ノルウェイの森) — the translator believing that the “wood” meant “forest” opposed to “lumber.” (According to Wikipedia, “‘Norwegian Wood’ refers to the cheap pinewood that often finished the interiors of working class British flats.) Japanese Wikipedia desperately makes the case that either interpretation of “wood” is possible (“This bird has flown…from the forest.”) but ends by noting that the original translator admitted he/she misunderstood the meaning. Murakami himself knew it was mistaken, but utilized the original translation as a metaphor for a dark, encapsulated psychological cavity — one of his pet images.

In the supplementary commentary to the Norwegian Wood volume of his Complete Works 1979–1989, he admitted to knowing about the possibility of another translation but also emphasized that he preferred the mistranslation, calling it true to the original song:

Even reading the original lyrics, I think that the words NORWEGIAN WOOD themselves have tendency to sort of expand naturally. They’re quiet and melancholy and even feel a little high. Of course I know there are several interpretations, but when you change it into Japanese, I feel like『ノルウェイの森』 is closest to the flavor of the original language. I once heard from a Norwegian that in Norwegian, the words “Norwegian Forest” mean something along the lines of that mood. I wonder if Lennon and McCartney knew that? (XII)

Odds are they didn’t, but poetic license acquits this extrapolation of a classic mistranslation.

Thanks to Languagehat for help with the Russian in this piece.

November 25, 2008

Daniel MORALES lives in Chicago and blogs at howtojaponese.com.

36 Responses

  1. Aceface Says:

    I had invited Prof.Numano for my program to speak on Murakami boom in Russia back in 2003.That was when I learned about Kovalenin for the first time and Pro.Numano told me that he thinks Kovalenin is the best among the Russian translators of Murakami.

    I was at the symposium in Komaba campus,but I didn’t remember this conversation.Perhaos this was at the workshop in Yamanaka-ko?(Surprised Jurkovic had brought back this issue again since he got so nervous when he was assisted to speak about the his experience,he couldn’t say a word for a minuite and stood still.)

    Being a keen zoo-goer,I don’t normally acknowledge this type of ignorance in zoology,But as you’ve noted Murakami does this sort of “inventive translation” well.I read one essay by American lit translator Aoyama Minami on this Murakami prefers mistranslation that catches the original groove.

  2. Matt Says:

    This is the danger of leaving everything to a single translator: it’s so easy for a major misinterpretation to go completely undetected. Ideally, you have one native-target-language speaking person translating and at least one other bilingual (and preferably two: one native in each language) checking the translation.

    But that being said, when it comes to lit, a smooth translation is preferable to a perfectly literal one any day of the week. The trick is to do it deliberately, though…!

  3. Aceface Says:

    Yeah,and what Matt had said can be applied to Murakami himself too.
    I loved his new translation of “Catcher in the Rye” and “Long Good Bye”.(LGB was definitly better than the previous translation)
    But then again,there is a feeling that the book had become too Murakamaized in a way.
    I mean,the difference in the writings between J.D Salinger and Raymond Chandler must be more detectable in the original text….

  4. Daniel Says:

    As far as I can tell, it’s from the workshop on March 26th at Tokyo University, Komaba Campus. Bungakukai just says Tokyo Univ. but the book of essay notes Komaba Campus.

    Bungakukai also notes that it was conducted 基本的 in Japanese. I wonder how much the Japanese was cleaned up…kind of like what they do on TV with subtitles (even for native speakers). Maybe that’s why it’s unfamiliar?

  5. Matt Says:

    Something of the translator always percolates into the translation (evident in the approaches that Birnbaum and Rubin took in rendering Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, wildly different yet charming in their own ways. Or in Murakami and Shibata’s translations of Raymond Carver. it’s inevitable in any language but I think particularly so in ones as linguistically different as Japanese and English.

    I seem to recall reading somewhere that Murakami and Shibata spent years poring over every line of Gatsby together as Murakami translated it. Nice if you can swing it. Most publishers and translators can’t afford to spend so much time on a given translation.

  6. Aceface Says:

    Maybe because I got out for a bathroom.
    Anyway everyone except Richard Powers(who had done a boring keynote speech while Shibata did the translation) spoke Japanese.

    Kovalenin also spoke fluent Japanese.Jurkovic,judging from a brief coversation at the party after the symposium.

  7. TheStrawMan Says:

    In the English translation of Murakami’s Underground, a non-fiction work about Aum Shinrikyo’s 1995 sarin gas attacks, the translator(s) repeatedly refer to Aum Shinrikyo’s アジト (safe-houses) as “ajid” written in italics.

    I think this is a mistranslation. アジト comes from a foreign-introduced word, either “agitating point” or “agitpunkt” depending on which source you believe.

    I can’t fathom why they translated it as “ajid” rather than “safe-house” or “hide-out” or some such.
    “Ajid” as a romanization, doesn’t make any sense anyway.

    Did the translators think this was some obscure Sanskrit word that Aum used for their safehouses? (Aum did use a number of other Sanskrit/Hindu words…)

  8. Daniel Says:

    Weird that you mention アジト. I learned it for the first time yesterday thanks to Metal Gear Solid 4.

    I wonder if there’s some reason why they did that. Maybe Aum TRC reports or other internal bureaucracy all used the term in English? Weird.

    I don’t know much about Jurkovic, but Kovalenin was involved with trade before he got into literature translation, so I guess it makes sense that he’s more fluent in spoken Japanese. Also, no spider monkeys in Russia.

    It’s interesting that Murakami likes more free-flowing translation when you think about his own translators. I recently re-read A Wild Sheep Chase and until then I hadn’t fully realized how different his style is from Rubin and Gabriel’s style.

  9. Daniel Says:

    his = Birnbaum’s

  10. TheStrawMan Says:

    I greatly prefer Birnbaum’s translations to Rubin’s.

    The first Murakami I read was Birnbaum’s translation of Norwegian Wood that I got from a library in Japan.

    Unfortunately, Rubin’s later translation of that book is the only one that is sold in bookstores now.

    Here’s an interesting article about translation, with an in-depth look at the differences between Birnbaum and Rubin’s versions of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle:


  11. W. David MARX Says:

    I am tempted to say that Birnbaum captures the essence of Murakami very well in English. When I read Hear the Wind Sing in Japanese, I was surprised about how much it felt like the English version.

    Perhaps Rubin is overthinking it and trying to interpret Murakami’s style as less Hemingway-esque.

  12. xee Says:

    Jurkovic is pretty young: I think his background’s mostly academic (i met him in tokyo last year doing postgrad research).

    I like Rubin as a writer about literature but, yeah, his translations can be a little, uh, colourless.

  13. Daniel Says:

    But at what point does a translation become too colorful? It’s great that the Birnbaum books read smoothly with that great voice, but is it too much of an affectation? It’s not like Rubin is trying to make his translations dry (I don’t think they are by the way) – he’s going by the Japanese.

    I think that’s the point of this story. You can’t fall into a pitfall like Kovalenin. No matter how tempting it is to translate くもざる as chimpanchula (or some other phrase into “cool” target language), it’s a spider monkey.

    I think really the only argument for chimpanchula in this case is the fact that くもざる is in hiragana and not katakana. I don’t have a native sense of that, but does that provide any wiggle room?

  14. TheStrawMan Says:

    I havent read Murakami in the original Japanese, so I can’t say which is closer. I friend of mine who has, says that Murakami strikes him as a very “erudite” writer, so maybe Rubin’s dry style is closer to the original. However, I definitely prefer Birnbaum to read in English.

    Regarding “Spider Monkey”, the country where I live also doesnt have spider monkeys, but I’ve always known they existed.
    I think Kovalenin’s excuse that Murakami’s other novel featured a “Sheep man” and therefore fantastic animals are to be expected is weak.
    A simple google search would have shown him that its a real animal.
    The fact that he chose not to do the research on this term, makes me wonder how many other words he fudged it on.

  15. Matt Says:

    I think most translators would agree that rendering the name of a real animal into something imaginary qualifies as a mistake, but an example of how to do this sort of thing right can be seen in Birnbaum’s translation of _Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World_.

    Monsters called yamikuro make an appearance at one point, the name a made-up word composed of the Japanese words for “darkness” and “black.” Birnbaum rendered this as INKling (the first three letters being an acronym for “Infra-Nocturnal Kappa,” a twist purely of his own creation but that works well in the context.) Some have criticized him for adding too much of his own spin, but I always felt that science fiction-y turn of phrase suited Murakami well.

  16. Anonymous Reader Says:

    Inklings apparently was the name of some English literary circle, which includes C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. Murakami, I’m told, approved of the translation and probably enjoyed the reference.

  17. TheStrawMan Says:

    That’s a great point about the translation of INKlings. I had forgotten all about that.

    I just ordered a second-hand copy of Birnbaum’s translation of Norwegian Wood on Amazon. I think I’ll try comparing bite-sized portions of it along with Rubin’s translation and the original Japanese.

  18. Aceface Says:

    ”I think most translators would agree that rendering the name of a real animal into something imaginary qualifies as a mistake, but an example of how to do this sort of thing right can be seen in Birnbaum’s translation of _Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World_. ”

    I can come up with another example.When Hugh Lofting’s “Dr Doolittle”series were translated into Japanese.

    There was an animal called “Pushi-me-or-pull-me”,an antelope with two heads on both end of thew body.This was turned into “オシツオサレツ”(押しつ、押されつ)

    The book was supposed to be translated by Ibuse Masuji井伏鱒二(the famous author of “The Salamander”)but,it’s been said that the famous writer was translatoi in name only and the actual translation works were made by Ishii Momoko石井桃子,the novelist who died this year at the age of 101.

    Regarding Birnbaum,I recall when I was reading Tsuzuki Kyouichi’s”Tokyo Style”,a coffe table book with many picture of real-life Tokyoite’s residence,in early 90’s.And I found Birnbaum’s name was printed as the translator of English text and his apartment was also shown only reffered as the residence of American J-lit translator.What amazed me was there was a copy of Taku Hachiro宅八郎’s “Ikasu!Otaku Tengokuイカす!おたく天国”(Taku is a sort-of-gonzo writer,Otaku critic and TV personality,later outcasted for stalking on Tanaka Yasuo)
    Otaku is now a key element to understand Japanese subculture,but back in the early 90’s,few foreigners focused on the phenomenon,if any.

  19. Daniel Says:

    Didn’t know it was Birnbaum! Will have to read through it again.

    That Tokyo Style book is awesome, but I always thought it was not so representative. He’s definitely going for a certain aesthetic – not dissimilar from Murakami’s boku, eh? Tsuzuki and Murakami did a collaborative travel book thing which I haven’t read yet…looks good.

  20. M-Bone Says:

    On the subject of Tsuzuki, I hope that everyone has a chance to get their hands on “Roadside Japan”, great stuff. I also enjoyed Tokyo Style – sometimes quirky vignettes are the way to go (sometimes).

    It was epic how Kovalenin got his ass handed to him in that seminar. I’ve been in or at hundreds of academic debates but have never seen someone actually physically whip out decisive evidence (I imagine it being like the moment in “12 Angry Men” where Fonda’s character digs the knife into the table).

  21. Matt Says:

    I love Tsuzuki’s book — I think the English title is “Tokyo: A Certain Style.” I’m not sure the rooms of movers and shakers like Birnbaum or manga artist Ippongi Bang truly represent “real Tokyo style, the places we spend our actual days” (as the intro says) but it is an amazing window into late-Showa era urban culture.

    Didn’t he recently release an updated version? I seem to recall seeing recently some super-thick (like, Bible-thick) photo collection of Tokyo rooms, this time with many of them featuring the occupants naked (!)

  22. Aceface Says:

    I have thing about watching people’s bookshelves.And for that,”Tokyo Style” interested me.Recently I saw the homepage of the Chinese blogger,Roland Soong of EastSouthNorthWest blog and he had picutres of his bookshelf there.It was really amusing,especially with many Latin American lit and all.

    There has been an argument related with the book and comment from late Susan Sontag about a decade ago.When Sontag was interviewed by Asada Akira and Karatani Kojin over Hihyou Kuukan批評空間magazine,Sontag said what made her so depressing about reading “Tokyo Style” was that there are very little books in the rooms pictured there.She felt this is decline of intellectualism in Japan and she criticized so many of them read manga.(In west,adults and serious intellectuals don’t read comic books,she said)So much for an intellectual gained her fame by an essay called “Note on Camp”.

  23. M-Bone Says:

    Manga – much derided by the same chattering classes who have canonized Murakami Takashi.

  24. Daniel Says:

    Matt: I have seen that massive version of Tokyo Style. Very sexy. Too expensive/large to purchase when I first saw it, and I haven’t seen it since.

  25. Matt Says:

    I figured it out: the sequel (?) is called Universe for Rent (賃貸宇宙):


    I think I prefer seeing the rooms without seeing the occupants. But anyway, Sontag’s comment is ludicrous — Tokyo: A Certain Style features plenty of rooms that are packed with books. In fact as I recall the only manga-packed room belongs to that of… a manga artist.

    Back to the matter at hand: speaking of odd translations, has anyone else read the Ito/Wilson translation of Soseki’s _I Am a Cat_? They rendered Japanese names such as 金田 (Kaneda) literally, as in the decidedly Jewish-sounding Goldfield. Another character, 寒月 (Kangetsu) became “Coldmoon.” Definitely a stylistic choice rather than a mistake but it always struck me as interesting — I can’t think of another instance where this has ever been done.

  26. M-Bone Says:

    “Sontag’s comment is ludicrous — Tokyo: A Certain Style features plenty of rooms that are packed with books.”


    Donald Riche and others have gone on and on about the “manga problem”. I don’t think that manga replace books – people who read nothing but a bit of manga would likely not be reading books anyway. It replaces what would be couch-potato television viewing in a “manga-less” society. People who read a lot of manga, in my experience, typically read a lot of books as well.

    In addition, reading something like Yokoyama Mitsuteru’s Sangokushi (getting a big push in bookstores now that Red Cliff is out) not only imparts information about the history, it also contains many difficult ancient Chinese terms that are seldom given furigana, let alone translated. It is a very literate visual work.

    I think that the choice made in the Ito / Wilson translation was brilliant – for me, it created a sense of a different sort of (odd) gaze being cast on the Japanese characters. Given that the whole thing is from the POV of a cat, this makes a lot of sense.

  27. W. David MARX Says:

    I just read that version of I am a Cat and I was surprised to find about 15 English words I had no idea about. Okay, I am not British enough to know “moggy”, but “thanatology” or “rakehell” or “cacchinate”? It’s a weird translation pretty much throughout.

  28. W. David MARX Says:

    Donald Riche and others have gone on and on about the “manga problem”.

    I would argue, on the other hand, that just because a super intellectual book like Asada Akira’s Structure and Power sells well in Japan, that also doesn’t mean that Japan is “intellectual.” College students bought it to buy it, not to digest it. A lot of study also went into Marxism in the ’60s that totally evaporated: nobody seemed to have really come out with any new kind of meaningful liberal morality or new way of self-deconstructing Japanese society. It’s just very hard to weigh countries’ “intellectualism” — apart from perhaps the strength of universities and number of PhDs, but even that…

  29. Matt Says:

    Donald Riche and others have gone on and on about the “manga problem

    I’m sure oral storytellers said the same thing about those newfangled books when they first came out. Damn kids and their ink and paper… What’s the world comin’ to?

  30. xee Says:

    Marxy, you seriously don’t say ‘Moggy’ in the US?

    ‘cacchinate’ is one of my favourite words, it sounds proper cackle-y.

  31. Aceface Says:

    Richie is now tackling on “Keitai problem” from what I’ve learned from reading his “Japan Journal”.He was writing about passivity of the Japanese youth as being symbolized in looking into the cellular in Yamanote line will ultimately revive fascism in Japan….

    “A lot of study also went into Marxism in the ’60s that totally evaporated: nobody seemed to have really come out with any new kind of meaningful liberal morality or new way of self-deconstructing Japanese society. ”

    Wait a minuite.How about likes of recently deceased newscaster Chikushi Tetsuya and likes of his kinds in mass media?I bet he will be considered too left leaning had he been working for major newsnetwork in the U.S.
    This is a country where even the high ranking bureaucrat of METI openly proclaim that the owner of the corporation isn’t stock owner…

  32. W. David MARX Says:

    Structural Marxism terms and ideas abound, can’t argue that. Maybe I am unfair to think that post-Marxists must be “liberal.”

  33. W. David MARX Says:

    I’ve never heard moggy before and I like cats.

  34. Aceface Says:

    “Maybe I am unfair to think that post-Marxists must be “liberal.””

    Define “liberal”.Marxy.
    The way I see the recent elected American president,he is too militaristic and leaning too much to market capitalism…But then,this is all judged by the standard of “our” liberalism..

  35. W. David MARX Says:

    I dunno, looking out for the underdog, breaking up monopolies, protecting consumers, offering more rights to women. That kind of stuff. The problem with market capitalism in Japan until now is that it doesn’t allow the powerful companies to retain enough control for ever and ever. The whole myth that the “Japanese” system protects against income inequality does not really make much sense.

    I would say the JCP’s platform is pretty standardly liberal but they are what, 5% of the electorate. LDP and DPJ are basically the same guy, different name badge.

    We are getting off track on this post. Mostly my fault.

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