A fascinating article by Wendy Lesser, in which she discusses the art of translation and has the (all too rare) opportunity to compare two translations of a modern author, in this case Haruki Murakami. Here are versions of the first two paragraphs of his The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, first Jay Rubin’s:

“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.”

And now Alfred Birnbaum’s:

“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.”

This comes via Billy’s Blog; I agree with his preference in translators, but I’ll let you decide for yourself before checking with him.
Update. A great discussion about translating Murakami, who I may actually have to read. Thanks, Nelson!


  1. Hi Language Hat,

    I also prefer Birnbaum’s version, without reading the original or the article you mentioned.

    some details that caught my eye

    1) he doesn’t underestimate the reader: uses crescendo instead of “musical climax” (although musically I don’t know if it would be the correct term); uses La Gazza Ladra instead of the translation of the opera name

    2) the opening line in present continous instead of the past gives the piece more narrative punch

    3) I tell myself: Ignore it. In little colloquial bits like this an universe of information is contained. Much better than the other solution.

    Just some random notes jotted in haste,


  2. Yes, that’s the way I feel too. Nothing wrong with the first one, but the second is alive and vibrant because of such details.

  3. A round table discussion on translating Murakami, which includes Rubin and Philip Gabriel but unfortunately, no Birnbaum.

  4. Nelson: What a great discussion — thanks! I’m going to add it to the original entry so other interested parties can see it.

  5. So I get to be the first one to prefer Rubin’s version. The present is good for oral narration but this piece reads like an illiterate’s rambling, resembling rap, the opposite of literary narrative. The omission of quotation marks in ‘Ignore it’ makes the picture complete. La Gazza Lardra sounds terrible. (Especially to a Russian ear, accustomed to Soroka-Vorovka: La Gazza = lyagatsya, to kick, of a horse; Lardra resembles larva, larder, and lard.) The Thieving Mag-pie is so much better, especially the pie in combination with the pasta. ‘Bringing the London symphony to its musical climax’ is splendid: good fun with sexual connotations. One can almost picture the stick’s movements. ‘Its’ is most appropriately placed. A crescendo, on the contrary, is just one of a hundred crescendos. I don’t know what Murakami meant exactly, but technically speaking, a musical climax is called a culmination and not merely a crescendo, if I’m not mistaken. ‘Are coming to a climax’ would sound intriguing, too.
    Besides, there’s the rhythm: again, it’s ballad vs. rap. ‘When the phone rang I was in the kitchen, boiling a potful of spaghetti and whistling along’ has a beat that sends one back to ‘There were ninety-seven New York advertising men in the hotel, and, the way they were monopolizing the long-distance lines…’ — the beginning of a story not without Japanese connections, either. The trouble is in what follows: ‘along with an FM broadcast of the overture to Rossini’s’ is unnecessarily lengthy. With Murakami’s permission, I’d skip some of that, as well as ‘which has to be’, to get
    ‘When the phone rang I was in the kitchen, boiling a potful of spaghetti and whistling to the ouverture from Rossini’s Magpie on FM, the perfect music for pasta preparation.’
    Now even ‘Rossini’s La Gazza’ becomes acceptable. Or even, ‘Rossini’s Ragazza’ if Haruki doesn’t mind.
    Dobro dolzhno byt’ s Murakami

  6. Besides, I hate the detached view in ‘There I am.’ Sounds artificial.
    Anyway, I thought I should ask my wife, who had been devouring Murakami for three weeks, for a Russian translation… I virtually know one of the two major Russian translators of Murakami; here’s their joint site,, which has the Wind’s Song and Sheep Hunt but there’s nothing like The Wind-Up Bird there (nor do I know anything about the copyright implications).
    Finally, I found it. (Here: Again , I wash my hands of copyright infringement.) I’d render the beginning thus:
    When the phone rang, I was cooking spaghetti in the kitchen, whistling the ouverture from Rossini’s The Thieving Magpie, which was being played on the radio. Ideal music for spaghetti.
    I thought about sending the call to hell: the spaghetti was almost ready, and Claudio Abbado was leading up the London Symphony Orchectra to the musical apogee.
    Well, sort of like that, only the translator uses plural with spaghetti — a colloquialism in Russian. Claudio Abbado reminds me of Claude Abadie, in whose band Boris Vian, the author of another book that has a cult status in Russia, played the trumpet. L’écume des jours, yes. Now translating Vian is a superhuman challenge, but the Russian translation was magnificent. Adequate or not, I cannot judge, but magnificent.

  7. Very interesting. You haven’t convinced me to change my preference, but you’ve certainly given me a different take on it. I’ll have to try the Russian translation. (How do you say “bananafish” in Russian?)

  8. We don’t say that in Russian — I still have no idea what the bananafish looks like, but I remember one translation titled, “Khorosho lovitsya rybka-bananka”. Alternatively, there are “Luchshiy den’ bananovoy ryby” and “Otlichnyy den’ dlya bananovoy sel’di”. No use trying, it turns out pretty bad anyway.

  9. We don’t say that in English, either — it’s an invention of Salinger’s. I was just wondering how the translators handled it. You’re right, it doesn’t work as well in Russian.

  10. I thought it was actually a name of a species. Here’s what they say about it:

  11. “Also known as ladyfish and banana fish…”
    Well, I’ll be damned! I’ve lived all these years thinking Salinger just made it up. I wonder how many people who read the story realize that there is actually a fish by that name? (It’s not even in the OED.)

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