Featured Translation: Wind/Pinball by Haruki Murakami

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There were over 450 new translations published this year, and trust us, we know from experience, keeping track of them all can be a maddening exercise. Each weekday from now until the end of the year we’ll highlight a different title that you may have missed. From short story collections to epic novels, from award winning works of the highest literary caliber to trashy romantic beach reads, we’ll feature the very best, and the very worst that 2015 had to offer, one book at a time.

Wind/Pinball by Haruki Murakami / Translated from the Japanese by Ted GoossenBear with me, I have lots of questions about this one. Doesn’t every rabid Haruki Murakami fan already own the Kodansha versions? Why not just repackage and republish Alfred Birnbaum’s translations? If you’re going to go to the trouble of retranslating these two short novellas, why not hire the two people who have translated just about everything else Murakami up to this point, Philip Gabriel and/or Jay Rubin, to do the heavy lifting? Didn’t Murakami release a new short story collection this year that someone could be working on translating instead? How about finally giving us a complete translation of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle or Underground instead? Am I the only one who looks at this book cover and thinks Phantasm? 

Whew. Now that I’ve gotten all that out of the way, I have to admit that I’m not exactly the world’s biggest Murakami fan these days. I used to love him, but after a while reading novel after novel containing the same approach to storytelling—boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy goes on strange quest to reclaim girl—got very old. So old in fact that I consistently mix up the plot of several of his novels when talking to people about them because they’re all so damn similar. For more of my thoughts on individual Murakami novels check here, here, and here. All you ever need to read by him however, as far as I’m concerned, is Kafka on the Shore.

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Back to Wind/Pinball. Let’s play a game of compare the translations. First up, Birnbaum’s interpretation of the opening paragraph of chapter nine of Hear the Wind Sing:

It was three whole hours before she woke up. And another five minutes before she put things into some semblance of order in her mind. However long it took, I stood, arms folded, gazing at the thick clouds on the horizon slowly changing shape and drifting east.

Here’s how new(ish) Murakami translator Ted Goossen chose to handle the same passage:

It took her about three hours to wake up and another five minutes to become aware of her surroundings. All that time I sat there with my arms folded, watching the thick clouds on the horizon change shape as they headed east.

Point Goossen. He’s tightened up the text, and sorry Birnbaum, but he’s also introduced some order and logic to it. Let’s pull another passage at random, this time from Pinball, 1973. I’ve opened to chapter fifteen of Birnbaum’s translation, which begins:

It was the winter of 1970 when I slipped into the enchanted kingdom of pinball. I might as well have been living in a dark hole, those six months. A hole dug to my size right in the middle of an open meadow, where I just covered myself, putting a lid on all sound. Not a thing engaged me. When evening rolled around I’d wake up, bundle up in my coat, and have myself a time off in the corner of the game center.

And then there’s Goossen’s take on the same text (from which chapter numbers have now been omitted):

I entered the occult world of pinball for real in the winter of 1970. Looking back, it was as if I spent the next six months living at the bottom of a dark hole. I dug a hole just my size in the middle of a meadow, squeezed myself in, and blocked my ears to all sound. Nothing outside held the slightest appeal. When evening rolled around I woke up, slipped on my coat, and headed for the game arcade.

We have a clear winner. It’s easy to see why Knopf (and more specifically Murakami himself) would want these pieces retranslated. It’s less clear why Goossen, who also translated last year’s Murakami release The Strange Library, landed the job over Gabriel or Rubin. Regardless, he seems more than up to the task.

You can read Murakami’s introduction to the two-book volume, in its entirety, here. If you haven’t read any of his earlier works, here’s some background on why you might be excited to finally get your hands on these two novellas. If, like me, you own the original Birnbaum translations, you may want to keep them in pristine condition as they seem to be fetching a decent price on eBay at the moment.

Wind/Pinball was translated by Ted Goossen and published by Knopf in August.

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About Aaron Westerman

Aaron Westerman is the Manager of Web Architecture for a national human services organization. When he's not busy tearing sites apart and rebuilding them, he spends his ever shrinking free time trying to keep up with his twins, reading works of translated literature, and watching far too many Oscar nominated movies.