Hard-Boiled Mistakes and the End of Faithful Translation

Winning several prestigious prizes and gaining world-wide success, Murakami Haruki himself doesn’t need further explanation. About the translation of his work – up to now into 45 languages –, there’s more to say. Last summer I read “Kafka on the Shore” (umibe no kafka 海辺のカフカ) in Dutch, my mother tongue. Jacques Westerhoven did a splendid job: He transformed the Japanese into fluent and natural Dutch. I loved the nuances in language use of the different characters, the richness of the Dutch expressions as original equivalents and the skillfully interpretation of typically Japanese terms.

Not all translations deserve such praise. My teacher told me about a “forgotten” paragraph in “Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World” (sekai no owari to hādoboirudo wandārando 世界の終りとハードボイルド・ワンダーランド). It caught my interest and I started to compare the English version with the original. I found some suspicious sentences. Let’s forget about the reversed title, but focus on the artistic ambitions of the translator, Alfred Birnbaum, himself. After all, he’s professor of creative writing too.

This is an excerpt of chapter 39, at the end of the book:


I tried to translate as close to the Japanese as possible:

I started to carry the empty beer cans to the bin and threw them away.Then I took my credit cards out of my wallet and lit them amid the ashtray. Again, the good-looking mother stared at me. Normal people didn’t do things like burning their credit cards on monday mornings in the park. First I burnt my American Express-card, then I burnt my Visa card. My credit cards seemed to light with a good feeling in the ash tray. I was just about burning my Paul Stuart tie as well, but after some thoughts, I decided not to. The tie stand out too much, and there was no need to burn it after all.

Now compare with Birnbaum’s translation:

I carried the empty cans to the trash. Then I took out my credit cards and lit them with a match. I watched the plastic curl, sputter and turn black. It was so gratifying to burn my credit cards that I thought of burning my Paul Stuart tie as well. But then I had second thoughts. The well-dressed young mother was staring at me.

There are sentences switched, invented, omitted. Not only that, at some point in the story, a paragraph disappears as easily as the elephant in that other book. The translator takes the liberty of resuming one and half a page into just this tiny paragraph:

Even if no one would miss me, even if I left no blank space in anyone’s life, even if no one noticed, I couldn’t leave willingly. Loss was not a skill, not a measure of a life. And yet I still felt I had something to lose.

Murakami reflects here about the sadness of the character’s existence. My teacher told me how she missed the “cold” sentiment in the translation, evoked by the snow and the sorrow, and how crucial these scene is in the story.

The translation in Dutch (by Marion Op den Camp and Maxim de Winter) is based on the English translation. The translators do not speak a word Japanese and have uncritically replaced Birnbaum’s creation by a Dutch one. In how far is this still Murakami’s work?

I think it’s time for an updated translation.

Facts for fun

– In the Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (nejimakidori kuronikuru ねじまき鳥クロニクル) some chapters are missing and one chapter is moved.


– fragments: all rights reserved for Kodansha; Kodansha international; Atlas

Murakami, Haruki. Sekai No Owari to Hado-boirudo Wandarando. Tokyo: Shinchosha, 1988.

Murakami, Haruki. Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World : a Novel. Tokyo; New York: Kodansha International : Distributed in the U.S. by Kodansha America, 1991.

Murakami, and Marion Op den Camp. Hard-boiled Wonderland En Het Einde Van De Wereld. Amsterdam [etc.]: Atlas, 2002.


3 thoughts on “Hard-Boiled Mistakes and the End of Faithful Translation

  1. I have read a version of Musashi in Dutch that was just plain painful to read. The translator commited the opposite mistake from the one you describe above: the sentences didn’t read like Dutch, they read like literally translated Japanese. Since the two languages are so fundamentally different, the reading was best compared to the sensation of driving along a very bumpy road for hours on end. I hope that one day I will become good enough at Japanese to read Japanese books in their original language.

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