Japanese literature translation sample: “コンビニ人間” (Convenience Store Woman [Konbini Ningen]) by 村田沙耶香 (Sayaka Murata)

By | April 17, 2017

On the blog Shosetsu Ninja, Yeti reviews Japanese books, and he has recently also started putting up a few translations of samples of books and other things. Last year, after discovering the book “そして、星の輝く夜がくる” on my blog (which I did a short translation of here), he read it and posted his own review here. (Update: This review here by another person is pretty good as well).

Then, the other day when I was reading his blog I came across his review of the (155th) Akutagawa Prize winning book “コンビニ人間” (Konbini Ningen, “Convenience Store Woman”) by Sayaka Murata, published by Bungeishunju (文藝春秋). Some time back, I had actually seen this book in Kinokuniya and was attracted by the cover, but for some reason I didn’t buy it that day. However, after reading Yeti’s review and learning the book was relatively short, I decided to try it out myself (and, in a sense, return the favor).

Before I even read the book I knew that I wanted to also try translating a little of it, partially because it seemed the book had several reviews in English and there was no still no English translation, or even any signs of plans for one. So this article will focus on the translation and not be a proper review (Update: I posted a review here).

I decided to limit the translation to just the first few pages that are available in the free sample available on the E-book site BookLive here. I cut it a few sentences short of the end of the sample, because I felt the place I stopped at was a little more dramatic (which turned out to be the last line on page 9 in the paper book). You can also buy the full E-copy on that site, and the current price is only 1000 Yen. I personally wanted a hardback, physical paper copy which I bought at Kinokuniya in Portland.

To make it very clear, this translation is completely unofficial and not endorsed in any way by the author or publisher. Feel free to link to this article, but please do not cut and paste and of the translated content into any other sites.

While I don’t see myself translating too much more of this work (at least not unofficially), let me know if you would like to read more of this. You never know who might be reading this blog, and your comments and likes may help us get an official English translation.

 

Convenience Store Woman   by   Sayaka Murata    [unofficial translated excerpt]

Sounds filled the convenience store: the sound of a door chime as a customer enters or a pop idol’s voice advertising some new product over a storewide cable station broadcast; the sound of a clerk greeting a customer or a barcode being scanned; the sound of something being put into a shopping cart, a bag of bread being picked up, or high heels walking around the store. These all blended together to make the convenience store sound that continually bombarded my ears.

A soft rattling sound made me raise my head as a water bottle was sold and another rolled forward to take its place. It was common for customers to grab a cold drink on their way to the register, so my body reacted unconsciously to the sound. I saw a woman holding a bottle of mineral water rummaging around the dessert section without heading to the register, and I went back to what I was doing.

As I gathered information from the innumerable sounds scattered throughout the store, my hands worked to stock a new shipment of rice balls. The big sellers around this time of morning were rice balls, sandwiches, and salads. In another part of the store, Mr. Sugamoto, a part timer, checked items with a small scanner. I systematically arranged the machine-made, pristine food products. The new flavor, pollack roe cheese, took up the middle two rows beside two rows of our best seller, the mayonnaise tuna, leaving the unpopular bonito on the far end. It was a battle against time as rules that were deeply ingrained within me gave commands to my body with little involvement from my brain.

I turned around when I heard the faint jingling of coins and glanced toward the register. I had become sensitive to the sound of coins since it was common for customers jingling coins in their pocket or hand to quickly purchase a newspaper or cigarettes before leaving. Just as I expected, a man carrying a can of coffee was approaching the register, one hand shoved into his pocket. I moved swiftly through the store, slipping in behind the front counter as to not keep the customer waiting.

“Good morning and welcome to our store, sir!”

I bowed slightly and took the can that he handed to me.

“Uh, I’ll also have a pack of #5 cigarettes.”

“Certainly.”

I whipped out a pack of Marlboro Light Menthols and scanned it at the register.

“Please tap to confirm your age.”

As the man touched the screen I saw him glance at the glass case where fast food was on display, and his hand froze. While it would be perfectly safe for me to ask if he wanted anything else, I’ve made it a habit to wait passively for customers who seem to be considering a purchase.

“I’ll have a corn dog too.”

“Of course.”

I disinfected my hands with alcohol, opened the case, and wrapped up a corn dog.

“Shall I separate this and the cold drink into different bags?”

“Uh, no, I’m ok. Put them in together.”

I swiftly put the can of coffee, cigarettes, and corn dog into a small bag. At the same time, the man–still playing with loose change in his pocket–suddenly reached into his shirt pocket as if he had just remembered something. From this gesture I knew immediately that he was going to pay with e-money.

“I’ll pay with Suica.”

“Ok. Please touch your Suica card there.”

My body was instinctively picking up the customer’s subtle gestures and expressions and acting reflexively. My eyes and ears were valuable sensors that could detect customers’ small movements and intentions. Being very careful to avoid making him uncomfortable from undue observation, I moved my hands swiftly in accordance with the information I received.

“Here is your receipt. Thank you for shopping with us!”

He took the receipt and left after mumbling thanks.

“Good morning and welcome to our store! Thank you for waiting.”

I bowed to the next customer in line, a woman. I could feel the time of the morning flowing smoothly within this small box of light.

Outside the glass window–polished so that not even a single fingerprint remained–I could see people hurrying by. It was the start of a new day. The time when the world was awakening and the gears of society were beginning to turn. I myself was one of these continually turning gears, a part of the world, rotating through the time we call morning.

Just as I started to run back to continue stocking the rice balls, the shift manager Mrs. Izumi called out to me.

“Mrs. Furukura, how many 5,000 yen bills are left in that register?”

“Um, there are two left.”

“Ooh, that’s not good. Seems like we’ve been getting a lot of 10,000 yen bills today. There’s not many 5,000 yen bills in the back safe either. Once the stocking and the morning rush calm down, maybe I’ll take a trip to the bank before noon.”

“Thank you so much!”

Due to a lack of night shift staff, the store manager had been coming in at night. That left me and Mrs. Izumi, a part timer around my age, pretty much running the store during the day, as if we were full timers.

“Alright, so I’ll head over to get some smaller bills around 10 o’clock. By the way, there was a special order of fried tofu rice balls today, so when the customer comes in please take care of that.”

“Yes ma’am!”

I looked at the clock; it was half-past nine. The morning rush was nearly over, after which I’d have to quickly finish stocking and then start preparing for the noon rush. I stretched my back, returned to the shelves, and continued stocking the rice balls.

My life before I was born as a convenience store clerk is kind of hazy, and I don’t remember it too clearly. Raised in a residential suburb, I was born into a normal family and loved normally by my parents. However, I was regarded as a slightly odd child.

For example, one day in kindergarten there was a dead bird in the playground. It was a pretty, blue bird that looked like someone’s pet. The other children were crying as they gathered around the tiny bird, its eyes closed and neck twisted unnaturally. Just as a girl was saying, “What should we do?” I quickly scooped up the bird in my palm and carried it to a nearby bench where my mother was chatting with someone.

“What’s wrong Keiko? Oh, it’s a little bird…I wonder where it came from…Poor thing, let’s make a grave for it.”

My mother said this with a soft voice as she patted me in the head, to which I said, “Let’s eat it.”

“What?”

“Dad likes yakitori, so let’s grill this bird and eat it today.”

I thought maybe my mother didn’t hear me, but when I slowly repeated myself she seemed startled, and the eyes, nostrils, and mouth of some other child’s mother sitting next to her snapped open wide, as if she too was surprised. Her face looked funny so I almost broke out laughing. But then I saw her staring at my hand and realized that one bird probably wasn’t enough.

“Maybe I should go find a few more?”

When I glanced at a group of two or three sparrows walking nearby, my mother screamed frantically, “Keiko!” as if she was trying to scold me.

“Let’s make a grave and bury the little bird. See? All the children are crying. They’re sad because their friend the bird is dead. Don’t you think it’s sad too?”

“But why? Why do I have to bury a bird I was lucky enough to find already dead?”

My mother was speechless.

All I could think of was my parents and baby sister smiling as they ate the little bird. My father liked yakitori, and my sister and I loved fried food. Since there were many birds at the playground all I had to do was go and get a bunch, so I couldn’t comprehend why I had to bury this bird and not eat it.

My mother did her best to convince me, saying, “Darling, the bird is so tiny and cute, right? So let’s dig a grave over there and then everyone can put flowers on it.” In the end she got her way, but I never understood why. The children all cried as they said, “Poor thing,” plucking off the stems of nearby flowers and killing them. As I watched them saying stuff like, “What a beautiful flower. I’m sure the bird will like it,” I felt like there was something wrong with these children.

A hole was dug in the ground behind a fence that said Keep Out where the bird was buried, a popsicle stick somebody took from a garbage can stuck in the dirt, and innumerable dead flowers piled upon it. “See, Keiko? It’s so sad. What a poor bird,” whispered my mother over and over again in an attempt to persuade me. But I never felt even a little sad about the bird.

 

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10 thoughts on “Japanese literature translation sample: “コンビニ人間” (Convenience Store Woman [Konbini Ningen]) by 村田沙耶香 (Sayaka Murata)

  1. Yeti

    Thanks for mentioning my blog in your post.

    This book seems to be really popular. Maybe it’s something that would sell well in an English translation. Hopefully you’ll get the contract!

    I was thinking that maybe pollack roe cheese sounds better in Japanese, but I checked the original and 明太子チーズ doesn’t sound much better to me. Do you think this flavor would be considered strange? It doesn’t sound very appetizing to me, but that wouldn’t stop me from trying it.

    Reply
    1. locksleyu Post author

      As an American, yeah that flavor sounds really strange to me, but Japan is the land of fish products. It’s an island after all.

      If you’ve ever been to a Japanese grocery store you’ll be blown away by the weird fish products you’ve never seen before (:

      Reply
  2. Angel

    Great! Thanks so much. I enjoyed reading the Japanese excerpt, translating it in my head and comparing it with your translations sometimes and helping myself reading yours when I couldn’t make sense of the Japanese original. Thank you so much! (By the way, you left the last few lines of the Japanese untranslated in your post). It has left me with the desire to keep on reading it!

    Reply
    1. locksleyu Post author

      Glad you enjoyed it! It’s a great book, and relatively short, so definitely read it through the end if you can.

      I saw your commend about leaving the last few lines out, that was purposeful and I mentioned it in my article (“I cut it a few sentences short of the end of the sample, because I felt the place I stopped at was a little more dramatic”)

      Reply
  3. Angel

    Hi,
    I hope you can help me with next doubt… There is a point where she’s stating that the lights of the kombini are never turned off since the opening day. She states that it’s the 19th time that she welcomes 1st of May. That she’s already 36 years old but the kombini as well as herself are also 18 years old, because she feels like she reborned when she started working there.

    My doubt is: If the kombini’s lights have been on for the 19th year in a row, shouldn’t she and the shop turn 19 years old as well??

    Does my confussion make any sense?

    Reply
    1. Angel

      On 12% page. It starts with “Watashi-wa tamani, dentaku-de, …..”

      Reply

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