Author Archives: locksleyu

Japanese novel translation: “The Rainlands” by Haruka Asahi [Chapter 4]

This is the 4rd chapter of the fantasy novel “The Rainlands” (雨の国) by Haruka Asahi (朝陽遥) which I am translating from Japanese with the author’s permission. It is about a man’s journey to a mysterious land and his encounter with the indigenous people there.

If you enjoy this story and want to read more, please consider liking this post or leaving a comment. That will help me decide whether I should translate more of this, or move onto another story. You can also vote for it on this poll.

You can see a synopsis and table of contents with other chapters (as they are posted) referenced here. You can find the original Japanese text for this chapter here.

Generally, I recommend reading the previous chapters first, but if you want to start here I’ll give a brief synopsis to this point:

A man decides to travel into the mountains to a place called The Rainlands where there is torrential rains year round. He begins to learn about how they live and experiences their unique culture, like how they hold colorful weddings outside on the rare days when the sky is clear. He also discovers the ratio of women to men is much higher than usual. Later, he realizes that a few of the boys he had used to meet frequently had suddenly stopped showing their faces in the tunnels. Throughout all this, he wonders what keeps these people living here under these harsh conditions…

 

“The Rainlands”  by Haruka Asahi:  Chapter 4

Later that night, on my way back to the small room where I slept, I caught a quick glimpse of a short person heading deeper into one of the tunnels.

It was dim and the figure was a good distance away, so I couldn’t be certain. But I could have sworn it was the amber-eyed girl.

Soon after arriving in these parts, I was strongly warned not to go deep into the tunnels because it was dangerous. But the girl had just passed over the very spot I’d been told that even the natives would not venture beyond.

I chased after her. Remembering her dejected expression several days ago when we last spoke, I became concerned that something was deeply troubling her.

I was about to call out to her, but it dawned on me that I didn’t know her name. While I was trying to decide what to say, she continued deeper and deeper into the tunnel. I kept up for a while but eventually lost sight of her. Sometime along the way the path began to curve gently, and a little farther ahead it split into two.

I followed the arc of the passage, ending up in a place where the illumination from the lights I’d passed no longer reached. But up ahead there were more lights. Upon seeing those I immediately knew that what I’d been told about nobody ever going this deep was a complete lie.

Even so, I hesitated to trespass further into this forbidden area. Besides, if the stories about danger here were not true, surely I had no reason to be concerned with her safety.

I turned around and began to retrace my steps, but an odd groaning sound made he halt.

At first I thought it was simply a sudden gust of wind or perhaps the sound of the rain reverberating throughout the caverns. However when I slowly turned back around and listened carefully, I became convinced it was a human voice.

The voice sounded raspy and weak.

Could someone have gotten injured and trapped here, deep in the tunnels? In the dead of the night, at a place like this?

I had my doubts, but I knew if I just left this alone, I wouldn’t be able to get a good night’s sleep, so I decided to continue forward. The idea of turning back and reporting what I’d heard to someone also crossed my mind, but my feet were propelled forward by the fact that I’d already intruded into this forbidden place.

There was a fork in the path. Because of how the tunnels tended to muffle sounds, I had no way to be certain which direction the voice was coming from. Having no choice but to guess, I picked the path on the right for the time being.

Even though I should have been fairly deep into the mountains by that point, I could still hear the rush of torrential rain outside. I had the sensation the noise was coming from far behind me, and yet at the same time originating from the direction I was headed. The constant breeze probably meant that the tunnel didn’t dead end, but instead returned eventually to the outside.

Before long, in the near darkness I caught sight of another fork up ahead. It was only then that the possibility I was lost finally entered my mind.

Yet, as I approached it reluctantly, I was surprised to discover that what initially appeared to be the tunnel branching off was in fact the entrance to a small room. The alcove had been created by boring into the wall, just as the people here did to make their living spaces.

Inside the room was a truly bizarre sight: a grid of iron bars.

It was the first time I had seen such a thing in these caves, where the concept of doors didn’t exist. No, perhaps they were not iron bars after all. Their texture felt like metal or something similar, but in this region I had never come across ironworks of such a scale, larger than anything brought in by the caravans.

In any case, before me was some kind of bars. Unnecessarily large bars. When I thought about their size, at first I guessed a criminal was imprisoned here, and the bars also served to deter others from approaching too close.

When I gazed into the dark depths of the prison cell, I gasped in horror. Inside was Ian, one of the troublemakers who had often come to listen to my tales.

 

Eyes shut and weary, Ian’s shoulders trembled when he heard my gasp.

On the other side of the steel bars was a bottomless darkness from which his upper body protruded as if emerging from nowhere, lit by the faint light seeping in from the tunnel. I could see his arms were even skinnier than when we’d last met a few days back.

The incessant howling of the wind intensified for a moment, resembling a wail of sorrow.

“What happened to you?”

I asked this, voice hoarse and barely audible, but Ian didn’t immediately answer. Whether he was too weak to respond or simply unwilling to, I couldn’t be sure.

His face looked nothing like it had several days ago, and it wasn’t only because of the darkness. A hint of masculinity showed in his features, suggesting he might enter adulthood in the near future. But nonetheless, it was still the face of a child that you would expect to see running and jumping around outside, without a care for the world. The cheeks were painfully emaciated, the lips feeble and limp.

His condition was quite unusual just for someone who had been imprisoned for misbehavior. I wondered what reason there could be for this boy to be given such a harsh punishment.

Ian opened and closed his mouth several times. He seemed to be struggling to say something.

I crouched down and put an ear as close to the boy as the bars would allow me.

I had become somewhat accustomed to the boy’s accent, at least compared to when I first arrived, although spending around only ten days here wasn’t nearly enough to gain a complete understanding. Having said that, there was no mistaking the meaning of his words now.

I’m starving….

“They aren’t feeding you anything?”

When I asked this, Ian responded with a slight nod of the head. The boy used his arms to sit upright upon the bare floor of the jail cell, as if the act of speaking had helped regain some of his energy.

When I looked closer, I spotted what appeared to be a small container filled with water near the bars. Ian took this and raised it to his lips carefully, as fearful of spilling even a drop. I could see his fingers trembling just from the effort of lifting the wooden bowl.

“What happened to you!?”

Without meaning to, my voice had turned abrasive. I knew that logically there was no use in expressing my anger to Ian, however I had nowhere else to vent these feelings.

My voice resounded loudly through the tunnels, mixing with the sound of the storm until it finally faded away.

I was about to ask, “Does everyone know about this?” but decided to keep quiet. Of course everyone knows. When I’d asked about the boys’ disappearance, the others had just dodged the question with vague responses, staring me down with disturbing expressions.

“It’s a custom.”

Ian said this and coughed weakly. He then began to talk, slowly and with frequent pauses, about a tradition handed down from many generations, from even before the time of his great grandmother’s great grandmother. Those that didn’t pass this trial were not considered as men of the village.

It took the boy a very long time to explain this to me. Even speaking required a great amount of energy.

They call this a ‘custom’? You’ve got to be kidding…

This was just a fancy word that meant getting rid of children to help conserve food, I thought as I remembered my hometown.

The place I was born and raised was also impoverished. Heavy rains often triggered natural disasters. At times the fields would flood or the wheat crops wilt from lack of sunlight. Without enough food to go around, children were frequently abandoned by their parents who could barely survive themselves.

Things were no different here. Children were starved and fooled into believing in some important ‘trial’, while the others silently waited for many of the children to grow weak and eventually die.

Ian told me that all men who lived in these lands went through the same trial in order to become respectable adults. But he failed to mention the part about how some children were left to die.

“What about Yakt? Is there any other children here?”

Ian responded to my question with a bony finger pointing to something behind me.

Afraid of what I might find, I spun around quickly; there was another small cell enclosed with bars on the other side of the tunnel. Within the darkness of the cell, Yakt’s limp, emaciated hand was visible, illuminated by the lights in the passageway.

He was remarkably thin, even compared to the other children, with a unnaturally small body that seemed underdeveloped. A bad feeling came over me and I blurted out his name. Behind the bars something moved–one of his scraggy fingers had twitched.

He was still alive.

I ran up to his cell and extended my hand through the bars where I made contact with a finger. It was nothing but skin and bones, and yet a hint of warmth remained. The boy mumbled my name, voice frail as if on the verge of tears.

For a moment I gripped his hand tightly in silence, unable to get any words out. I could see the whites of his eyes shining faintly, floating in a sea of absolute blackness.

Ramen Ryoma: One of the top Ramen restaurants in Portland, Oregon

Last year, I had posted a review of Kukai (also called Kizuki) Ramen, mentioning it was one of the best places I had Ramen in the United States.

While tastewise, I still hold to that judgement, putting all things into consideration, there is another serious contender for the Ramen throne.

The restaurant is called “Ramen Ryoma” (ラーメン龍馬), and is technically in Beaverton, but close enough to Portland. I think their name originated from the historical figure Sakamoto Ryoma (坂本龍馬), which can learn about more here. (By the way, it’s a good general rule that any Japanese restaurant with a name of a common city or everyday word (ex: Sakura, Tokyo, Umai, etc.) it probably isn’t owned by Japanese people and/or is not authentic).

The broth (a key aspect of Japanese Ramen for me) is a bit less complex than Kukai’s, and the noodles are not as ‘authentic’, as least compared to other great Ramen restaurants I’ve been to, like Ippudo in New York or California. Furthermore, the atmosphere is pretty drab and doesn’t compare to the modern, stylish look of Kukai. The menu choices are also pretty limited, with your usual Miso/Shio bases, though you can add common toppings like delicious hanjuku (half boiled) eggs and nori (seaweed), and even finish with a typical mochi ice cream desert.

But, having said all that, the ramen in Ramen Ryoma is just plain delicious, and consistently so. The chashuu pork is also always tender, and always wonderful, on average better than what I had at Kukai. And the broth is very drinkable.

Another area Ryoma excels is the service: it’s consistently fast and great, with generally the same crew, including a few Japanese people (especially in the kitchen) and some Americans who know at least basic Japanese (one of the guy’s pronunciation is pretty good, he might be fluent). This is one area Kukai is sorely lacking, and this is a comparison based on several trips to each restaurant.

Ryoma also happens to be in the same plaza with Uwajimaya asian grocery store (a great place to get all types of Japanese food and other products), and of course Kinokuniya, the only real Japanese bookstore that I know of in Oregon. Ryoma happens to be a little closer to me than Kukai, which is another reason I end up choosing the former. I think it’s also a little cheaper, but I haven’t done an actual price comparison.

One of my only complaints about Ryoma is that the handful of posters on the wall near the entrance have pretty bad English translations (though in a way this adds to the authenticity of the restaurant, at least to me). But honestly this doesn’t really matter, and makes a good conversation point when you are waiting on a table, which isn’t at all uncommon around noon. Another minor annoyance is they don’t take reservations.

I won’t hesitate to say this is one of my favorite restaurants in Oregon, hands down, and I’m not sure if I would get tired of their stuff even if I went once a week.

So, while it is a tough call, I’m going to say Ryoma is tied with Kukai/Kizuki for the overall experience. I’ve tried a few other Ramen places in or around Portland, but while a few have been passable they have generally been a disappointment.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Some announcements about “Final Days of Summer” by Masaki Hashiba

One the translation projects I’ve been working on the last few months is the story “Final Days of Summer”  (残夏) by Masaki Hashiba (ハシバ柾), which is a set of short, interrelated fiction stories . So far, I’ve completely translated the first story “Stargazer” which you can see in full here.

The other day I was doing some searching around and I discovered that this story actually won a literature award in February this year (2017). It was selected as a “First Kino Kuni Literature Prize Excellent Work” (“第一回Kino-Kuni文学賞佳作”)

Shortly after I found out, I sent a congratulatory email to the author, who was very humble about it.

Having selected this story myself to translate out of many other free novels posted online, this gave me a little smile to know that something I thought was great was recognized by one or more judges (presumably native Japanese people) who selected this work. While this is no “Naoki Award” or “Akutagawa Award” (arguably the two Japanese biggest literary prizes), and there was a few others who won at the same time, it is nonetheless an honor to be given to the privilege to translate this story.

You can see the full details of what the judges said about this story on this page (search for “残夏” near the bottom).

On a related note, the author of the story created an image to represent the first short story as a token of thanks to me translating it. Turns out he is a pretty skilled artist as well. You can check it out below (look closely at the last ‘R’ to see a cool finishing touch he added).

As a result of these two things, the translation of the second short story (English title TBD) has jumped to higher priority for me, so hopefully I’ll get to it pretty soon. But in the meantime, you can check out the first story, which is a bit longish so I broke it into four chapters.

 

 

 

 

Japanese novel translation: “The Rainlands” by Haruka Asahi [Chapter 3]

This is the 3rd chapter of the fantasy novel “The Rainlands” (雨の国) by Haruka Asahi (朝陽遥) which I am translating from Japanese with the author’s permission. It is about a man’s journey to a mysterious land and his encounter with the indigenous people there.

If you enjoy this story and want to read more, please consider liking this post or leaving a comment. That will help me decide whether I should translate more of this, or move onto another story. You can also vote for it on this poll.

You can see a synopsis and table of contents with other chapters (as they are posted) referenced here. You can find the original Japanese text for this chapter here.

 

“The Rainlands”  by Haruka Asahi:  Chapter 3

Wild cheering erupted out of nowhere. When I turned around, vivid colors unlike anything I’d ever seen burst out from a nearby rock ledge.

A myriad of flowers was piled there in a spectacular rainbow of hues. Where could all these flowers have come from? While there seemed to be plants living inside the caves, in the land of unending rain I had a hard time believing this many flowers could survive on the scarce sunlight seeping in from cracks in the cave’s rocky ceiling. This meant that in a very short span of time someone must have ran around outside, gathering them from all over the mountain.

Women sang together with high-pitched voices. I couldn’t make out the song’s words too well, but it had a lively feel to it and was, perhaps, a song of celebration.

Surrounded by flower petals and cheerful voices, a man and woman walked closely together, arm in arm.

The crowd was calling out to the couple, their embarrassed smiles visible even from a distance.

“Oh, it looks like a wedding ceremony. I’m very fortunate to be able to see this,” said a peddler with a grin.

When I looked around, I spotted the amber-eyed girl from earlier and another girl she’d been talking with observing the spectacle on the rock ledge with flushed cheeks. I stared at them, strangely moved by how girls tended to express that particular emotion in the same exact way, regardless of the country you were in.

“In these parts, you see, wedding ceremonies are held only on clear days, like today.”

The caravan man who said this looked to the sky, eyes squinting against the light. It was only natural that in a place which suffered from torrential rains, the blessing of radiant sunlight upon the mountains was the ultimate adornment for a wedding.

According to him, tradition dictated that each tribe was comprised of blood relatives living together in a single cave. When there was a marriage, the groom left his cave and was welcomed into the cave of the bride. Marriages between members of the same cave were forbidden.

I could see the logic in this. It is said that repeated marriages within the same family can lead to unforeseen, undesirable effects on newborn children, thus their tradition can be viewed as an important piece of wisdom evolved over many years.

The girl with the amber eyes called out to the other girls nearby, then quickly spun around. She sprinted away, bare feet striking lightly against the sun-warmed rock. For an instant she disappeared from my sight, only to reappear moments later, climbing the rock ledge where the ceremony was held. Because of her uncanny speed I couldn’t figure out how she had reached there.

With an exuberant smile, she spoke with the bride and then the groom. I guess she was close to both of them and had rushed up there to wish them well.

Someone scattered flower petals from a rock ledge higher up. Picked up by the wind, they gradually fluttered down to the rock ledge below.

While being congratulated–or perhaps teased by the crowd, the couple walked together, bodies dangerously close, until they disappeared into the cave.

 

After that day of wonderful weather, I continued to pay attention to my surroundings and confirmed that the number of men here was, in fact, terribly low.

Even assuming that men are more likely to lose their lives in an accident, the difference I observed was very extreme. It may be that men are born less frequently in these lands, just as some mothers’ bodies seem to have a predilection for girls or boys. In those days I had thoughts like this in the back of my mind.

Sometime later, the children whom I had been seeing frequently around in the caves suddenly disappeared.

One day, during a break in one of my usual storytelling sessions in the cave, something felt different. I realized that since yesterday, I hadn’t come across two of the children who had always listened to my stories with great interest.

“I wonder if Ian is going to come by today. And what happened to Yakt?”

When I asked about the boys by name, a hint of awkwardness emerged in the expressions of those present in the form of a vague smile or frown.

“Those boys won’t be back anytime soon.”

This was mumbled by an old woman. Her voice sounded somehow sad and yet distant at the same time. I was caught completely off guard by her sudden change of attitude, as she had been so friendly to me up until now. I guess I had said something inappropriate.

“Did they get sick? Or hurt?”

When I asked this, the others shook their heads, responding that nothing like that had happened so there was no need to worry.

Then were they being punished for some wrongdoing? Still confused about what had happened, I asked this because they seemed like the type of boys to get easily carried away and play a prank of two. At my question, the crowd broke into raucous laughter, but even that had a strange awkwardness to it.

A girl mending something in the corner of the room looked up to me and spoke.

“It is a custom of ours.”

“A custom…”

When I repeated this back idiotically, she averted her gaze and hung her head. It was her–the girl with amber eyes.

“Now is the time when those two cannot be seen by others,” she said and pressed her lips together tightly, as if declaring she would speak no further on this matter.

Her eyes, which had sparkled like diamonds in the sun that day, were now downcast and filled with sadness.

An eerie silence filled the room. For some reason unclear to me, the others glared at the girl with looks of disapproval or caution.

Still confused, I tried to talk to her once again, but an old man stood up before I had a chance. He approached the girl, took her hand, and said something to her with a bitter expression.

Ecudoraara. That’s what it sounded like. I didn’t know what this meant, but his tone of voice sounded like he was trying to urge her to do something.

She whispered something in response, then shook her head and covered her mouth with her hand.

The old man led her out of the room by the hand, the tools from her unfinished needlework still on the ground.

Just then, the sound of the rain intensified, its roaring surge booming throughout the tunnels. No one spoke, and the tiny room became thick with an uncomfortable silence.

Out of curiosity I considered following the girl out of the room but hesitated. Before I could make up my mind, the old woman who had spoken earlier tugged on my sleeve. “Got any other stories for us?”

As I began to tell a new story, complying with her request, my eyes kept darting to the room’s doorless exit.

But for the rest of that day, the girl never returned to the room.

 

Several days later, on a morning when the rains had paused and only a few clouds dotted the sky, the caravan departed The Rainlands.

Apparently completing business to their satisfaction, they left behind a large number of goods in exchange for rare items such as strange dried goods whose purpose eluded me, as well as medicinal herbs and fragrant wood that were only available in this area, carrying these on their backs in tightly wrapped packages.

They had come here to trade, braving long hours on foot over unforgiving roads that prohibited the use of pack animals, so even the odd items would surely be used as high-priced medicines.

After seeing off the caravan, the men here said they were going out to hunt so I tried to tag along. However, perhaps because they considered me clumsy, I was told that I’d just get in the way and was immediately sent back to the cave.

I had nothing left to do but return to one of the larger rooms, where a group of people was mending and doing other work with their hands. As I entered, I saw their eyes sparkle in the candlelight, as if eager about what sort of extraordinary story they would get to hear today.

That day I had planned to tell them a legend about a bird that could speak the language of humans, a tale told for ages in the western lands.

In that region, it was said there was a place surrounded by an abundant forest, called bird’s paradise by some. A great variety of bird species flew about, exchanging calls noisily, and in this forest lived a bird who could speak human language.

In one city, the legend said that this bird was an incarnation of God and had helped a group of children lost in the forest return home. In another city, there was a story where the same bird tricked a man who had escaped to the forest after killing someone, leading him to fall from a cliff to his death.

By the time I had finished telling several stories, the men had returned with potatoes gathered from the bottom of a cliff. As they passed out food–something like a porridge made from boiled, finely mashed potatoes–I noticed again how their arms and legs were terribly emaciated.

The potato porridge was delicious. These potatoes, which grew with their roots deep into the ground to prevent being washed away by the rain, had a rich flavor that gave the impression they were packed with nutrients. Indeed, all one needed to do was step foot in the forest which sprawled far below these barren mountains and you would see the abundance this country had to offer.

But in truth, even that forest was a dangerous place, where at any time you could be swallowed up by a flooding river or buried by the crumbling mountainside. Just climbing down the cliff and walking through the forest was fraught with peril. The climb itself was virtually impossible unless the rains let up.

Was there really a good reason to prefer living in these mountainous lands, given all the inconveniences they forced upon their inhabitants? In my time in The Rainlands, I pondered this conundrum many a time.

Could it be that those who lived here since birth did not consider these things to be inconveniences, but rather a natural part of daily life?

It was evident that their eyes sparkled with delight as they listened to my tales, always pestering me for more. And yet, some time later I had a realization: no one had ever spoken about visiting these distant lands. Not even a single person expressed a desire to live in any of the places I spoke of.

Japanese phrase: “warukatta” (わるかった・悪かった)

Over a year ago I’d made a post about the expression “yokatta” (よかった), and I thought I would follow that up with a post on the Japanese expression “warukatta” (“わるかった”, sometimes written in Kanji as “悪かった”). If you are relatively new to Japanese you may hear this word as “warukata“, but if you listen closely there is a small pause between the “ka” and the “ta”, which is why it is properly written in romaji as “warukatta“.

While “yokatta” has some nuance that is not obvious from its literal meaning, “warukatta” is a bit more straightforward to understand.

“warukatta” is the past tense of the adjective “warui” (わるい, 悪い) which means “bad”. So “warukatta” ‘s  basic meaning is “was bad”.

Let’s start with a simple sentence that uses this word. Like “yokatta”, there are many nouns that can work together with it, for example “seiseki” (“成績”) which means “grade(s)”, like a grade from a test at school. For example,

  • 僕は成績が悪かった  [boku ha seiseki ga warukatta]
  •  My grade was bad. (more naturally: “I got a bad grade”)

Once you understand this pattern you can apply it to many other words, for example “気持ち悪かった” (kimochi warukatta), which means “(I) wasn’t feeling good”. Note that in this example and the previous, the “ga” particle (which indicates a subject) can be omitted, especially in spoken language.

However, if that is really all there is to “warukatta”, then I am not sure if would have been worth writing a whole post about. I’ll go over some other common uses of this word.

The words “warui” and “warukatta” can be used to express someone was at fault regarding something (a little similar to the “~no sei” pattern):

  • ごめん、僕が悪かった。  [gomen, boku ga warukatta]
  • Sorry, it was my fault.

Not that it is critical to use the subject particle “ga” instad of the topic particle “ha” since the subject is being emphasized.

As an extension from this, these two words (warui/warukatta) can be used as a rough, informal apology, a little similar to the English expression “my bad”. You can use either word by itself if the context is clear enough for the listener to understand what you are apologizing about:

  • 悪かった  [warukatta]
  • Sorry about that.

If you wanted to add a nuance of friendliness you could tag on the particle “ne” (“warukatta ne”), or if you wanted to sound a little more aggressive you could use “yo” (“warukatta yo”). Adding “na” instead sounds a little masculine to me. Keep in mind, in all these cases the tone of voice is as important as the words you say.

If you want to state what you are sorry about, you can use the “te” form of a verb, followed by “warukatta”:

  • 邪魔して悪かった    [jama shite warukatta]
  • Sorry to disturb you.

It’s important to note that just like “my bad”, I don’t recommend using “warukatta” in this way with a superior or someone older than you in Japanese, unless you are on friendly terms. Personally, I stick to “gomen (nasai)” for less formal apologies or “moushiwake arimasen” for more formal situations. Also, don’t forget the useful “sumimasen” which can mean “I’m sorry” or “Excuse me”.

“warii”, sometimes written as “わりぃ” is another rough, slang way to pronounce “warui” when it is being used as an apology. I’ve heard this repeated as “わりぃわりぃ” (“sorry sorry”) before.

Another useful expression (again, somewhat informal) is “warui kedo” which can be used to preface some other statement in the sense of “I’m sorry, but…”

  • わるいけど、僕はもう帰る。 [warui kedo, boku ha mou kaeru]
  • Sorry but I’m going home now.

You can use “sumimasen ga” for a similar expression with a little more formal tone.

  • すみませんが、私はもう帰ります。 [sumimasen ga, watashi ha mou kaerimasu]

Everything about this statement is more formal/polite: “sumimasen”, “ga”, “watashi” and the ~masu verb form. In case you are not familiar with this usage of “ga”, it is not being used as the subject-marking particle, but rather as something like “but”, similar to “kedo” used above.

Anyway, back to the discussion about “warui” and “warukatta”. It’s also good to know that these words usually not used to describe something that is “bad” morally. For that, you would typically want to use “dame”, “ikenai” or “naranai” (or the polite forms of these). In particular, these three words are commonly used together with “~te ha” to describe something as improper. For example,

  • ドアを開けてはだめ  [doa wo akete ha dame]
  • You shouldn’t open the door.  (more literal but less natural: “It isn’t good to open the door”)

Note that in practice, “~te ha” is often abbreviated as “~cha” (ex: “開けちゃだめ”)

While I think your meaning would get across if you said “doa wo akete ha warui”, it wouldn’t be natural Japanese, at least in many situations.

On a final note, those familiar with the “~te yokatta” form that means the speaker is happy with something that happened (“ukatte yokatta” = “I’m glad (I) passed”) may be tempted to use “~te warukatta” to express regret or being unhappy about something. While this may convey your point, it’s somewhat unnatural. Instead, I recommend the “~nakereba yokatta” form:

  • 行かなければよかった  [ikanakereba yokatta]
  • (I) wish (I) wouldn’t have gone.    (There is no subject here so the default is to assume “I”, unless context dictates otherwise)..

In this example, the Japanese phrase literally means something like “If (I) didn’t go, it would have been good”.

 

 

Japanese novel translation: “The Rainlands” by Haruka Asahi [Chapter 2]

This is the 2nd chapter of the fantasy novel “The Rainlands” (雨の国) by Haruka Asahi (朝陽遥) which I am translating from Japanese with the author’s permission. It is about a man’s journey to a mysterious land and his encounter with its indigenous people.

If you enjoy this story and want to read more, please consider liking this post or leaving a comment. That will help me decide whether I should translate more of this, or move onto another story. You can also vote for it on this poll.

You can see a synopsis and table of contents with other chapters (as they are posted) referenced here. You can find the original Japanese text for this chapter here.

 

“The Rainlands”  by Haruka Asahi:  Chapter 2

Strangely, a gentle wind was always blowing within the cave.

Coming from somewhere down deep in the tunnels, this wind continually flowed up and out through the entrance. Its sound reverberated against the cave walls and–combining with the roar of the rain–was indistinguishable to the murmur of a large crowd. As I spent time there, I gradually grew accustomed to this noise and eventually stopped paying attention to it, but there were still times when I suddenly had the eerie sensation of being surrounded by a massive group of people.

I’d once heard that careless usage of fire in an enclosed area could lead to a harmful buildup of smoke. But thanks to the constant breeze, it seemed those living here could freely use fire without such concerns. As a result, the air inside was generally warm and dry.

The cave’s structure was surprisingly complex. The passages themselves were not particularly wide, although they extended deep into the mountain, diverging and rejoining in various places, and there were alcoves attached here and there. These tunnels seemed unlikely to be natural formations; I imagine they were instead the work of several people digging into the rock over time, little by little.

No one used lights within the alcoves, only relying on the faint illumination that leaked in from the passages. Probably because of this, these people didn’t seem to have any concept of doors.

Walking through the passages, I came across a few alcoves which had no signs of use.

At first I thought they had simply become vacated for some reason or another, but as I looked closer, I got the impression they were being used as small shrines for a special purpose. There was nothing formal like an altar; they just appeared to be kept immaculately clean, and people generally stayed out of them. I soon realized that the cave’s inhabitants always wore solemn expressions when passing by these alcoves.

It was quite a strange spectacle to see people behave this way towards an empty room. Yet I had to admit that around the world, each region had their own unique set of beliefs. I began to follow the example of the inhabitants here, straightening my posture ever so slightly each time I passed one by.

I was told that as their guest, I could freely come and go to most areas inside the cave, however I was not permitted to go deeper than a certain point. They claimed it would be dangerous to do so, but when I pressed them as to why the explanation I received told me nothing.

The people of The Rainlands almost never raised their voices, perhaps because of how sounds echoed through the caverns. But soft voices were easily be drowned out by the incessant rain outside, making communication difficult. I assume that their habit of engaging in conversations from an extremely close distance–such that I nearly misunderstood the intentions of a few young women–was because of that.

Everyone here was exceptionally friendly, and many were eager to hear my tales of distant lands. Judging from this, I gathered that visitors from the outside world were quite rare.

When I began to speak in one of the cave’s rooms, people would gather and form a small circle, listening intently to my stories, my voice barely audible above the rush of rain falling outside. I told them about whatever came to mind, things I’d heard and experienced throughout the world.

For example, I told the tale of how in the far, far south there was a place where the sea boils, emitting thick, white steam. I spoke about the ancient legend of the northern people where the sun never sets in a land of eternal twilight on the top of the world. Another day I talked about massive rhinoceroses the size of small mountains that inhabit the central plains, and the tribe there who made a living on hunting them on an appointed day, once every three months.

In exchange for my tales of far-off lands, they gladly shared their food with me.

I heard that on the rare occasions where the rain let up the men would venture outside, scale down steep cliffs, and hunt for fish and other prey. The majority of meat available was from bats and snakes. There was also dishes prepared with ingredients like mushrooms and moss, which were apparently gathered from somewhere inside the cave. When I was offered my first bite of one of these, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t hesitate. But it was clear I wasn’t in a position to be picky about what I ate, and as a visitor, I thought twice about being selfish.

Furthermore, once I got used to it, the taste actually wasn’t half bad. But the downside of the food here was it wasn’t filling at all.

 

One day when the weather was unusually clear, everyone ventured outside.

It goes without saying that the men went out to hunt and gather when it was cloudy out or no more than a light drizzle. But on that day, when the weather was truly great, there was a mad rush where virtually every man, woman, and child went to one of the rocky spots outside of the cave to soak up the bright sunshine that shone down on the land. Watching the children frolic to their heart’s content was a sight unlike anything I’d seen before.

On that day even the bird calls echoing through the valley sounded livelier than usual. When the sun rose, the sky that had been thick with morning mist turned crystal clear as far the eye could see.

As I sat on an outcropping of rock and looked around, I was reminded of how a surprisingly large number of people lived within a single cave. There were several similar caves in the nearby area, each of them supporting a community of a different size.

There was another thing that I finally realized after all this time: the small proportion of men here.

Food and other necessities for everyday life that could not be obtained inside the cave, including fish and meat, as well as things like nutritious fruits growing on the side of cliffs and branches that would burn when properly dried–anything that carried with it an element of danger–acquiring any of these things was always done by men. I was deeply touched as I looked at each of their faces, guessing that there was no small number of men who lost their life for this reason.

Faces that I thought I knew so well from my time in the cave took on very different appearances when viewed carefully under the bright sunlight. I also discovered that a certain girl who had often greeted me shyly since my arrival was quite beautiful and not nearly as young as I had thought. She smiled back self-consciously when she recognized me. Her eyes were a deep, pure amber color.

Her smile lasted only for a brief instant. When I took my eyes off her, she joined a group of girls around the same age, jovially laughing and chatting with them. For a moment I paused, absorbed in the sound of her voice. It had a pure, clear ring to it, completely different from when I had heard it inside the cave.

Things had become quite festive. People who had previously spoken in hushed voices inside the tunnels were now, in the warm sunlight, laughing boisterously and looked to be enjoying themselves thoroughly.

I observed the women of the village had a tad more body fat compared to the men; this was another thing that I hadn’t realized until I saw everyone outside in the bright sun.

In particular, the teenage boys were nothing more than skin and bones. I was surprised to discover the boys who had always come to see me, eager to hear my stories, were actually much skinnier than I’d thought.

Perhaps their bodies, running on such a restricted diet, couldn’t keep up in a time of accelerated growth. When I thought about that, I felt a tremendous pity for them. But the objects of my pity were now frolicking around happily, seemingly oblivious to me as I observed them. They also seemed oblivious of the dizzyingly deep valley that sprawled below the rock ledge they freely jumped upon; this sight was enough to make me held my breath.

I continued to watch them, enjoying the rare sunlight, when suddenly a short old woman hurried towards me with a precariously fast gait, grinning widely.

She nodded and introduced herself with a gentle voice, then muttered a few thickly-accented words. Someone from the caravan who had been relaxing nearby opened his eyes wide as if surprised, quickly crouched down, and whispered to me. This woman, it seemed, was the village chief of this cave, a very important person, so I had better avoid saying anything inappropriate.

As I stared in astonishment at the old woman, she sat her petite body down on the ground and waved a hand back and forth in front of her face slightly, as if saying there was no need to worry. This gesture of hers struck me as being very down to earth. Having calmed down a little, I finally introduced myself. This time in place of a simple nod, I gave a deep, formal bow.

She spoke once more, this time more slowly. It seemed she was asking what I thought of this place.

I answered something to the effect of everything I come across is so different and interesting, and she nodded generously, displaying the subtlest of smiles.

Her expression now, as before, had a certain ethereal quality to it, exuding a sense of divinity that was unlike any being of this world. While it may sound strange to say this about a woman her age, her smile was truly beautiful.

The old woman got up slowly as she said something about me staying here as long as I like. As if compelled by some unknown force I watched her recede into the distance, while the people around from the same cave gazed at her tiny form with a deep sense of reverence, almost as if they were about to prostrate themselves on the ground in worship.

Fiction Novel Review: “The Lightkeepers” by Abby Geni (an interesting study in literary style)

Once I got to the point where I could read novels in Japanese, it became difficult for me to budget time for English novels. Although I still read much faster in English and would say I still enjoy it more on average than Japanese books, each Japanese novel I read will improve my vocabulary, (hopefully) my reading speed, and gradually close that gap.  While one can make an argument an occasional break will help avoid burnout, generally I am more for the immersion philosophy which means I do as much as something reasonably possible. Of course, this also applies to my Japanese studies in general.

Once I started doing Japanese to English translations and that became my highest priority (which includes reading Japanese stories to find things to translate), it seems that I had even less time to devote to reading in my native language.

However, when I look at things a bit closer, one of the reasons I enjoy translation is because my love of English fiction, and this hobby also connects to a long-time desire I’ve had of writing my own short stories and novels (which I’ve done a little bit of, but nothing too series yet, at least nothing I’m ready to try to publish). Furthermore, even the act of translation itself requires a good grasp of vocabulary, grammar, phrasing, and many other things for which reading novels in the target language (English in my case) is one of the best ways to improve.

So when I could grab a spare hour or two, I drove to the neighborhood bookstore and read the first page or two of a bunch of books. Although I typically say I like to read ‘science fiction and fantasy’ the fact is that I often prefer stories that are not easy to pigeonhole in a specific genre, so I just ended up going through many of the ‘top selling’ or ‘recent favorites’ sections in Barnes & Noble.

In the little time I have spent in my own fiction writing and critiquing others works, I developed the strong opinion that a book must really catch my attention from the first paragraph. To be sure, there are many books that have a slow start (or perhaps I am not used to the style and it takes me time to adjust), but end up being great stories. But, given limited time, I’d by far rather make a try at a book that felt great from the first paragraph, or at least the first page.

Anyway, to make a long story short, I ended up on really enjoying the beginning of “The Lightkeepers” by Abby Geni (published by Counterpoint in 2016). While I don’t think the first paragraph on its own is the best first paragraph ever, it was good enough to get me to read on, and after a few pages I was hooked. Here is the first paragraph just to give you an idea of what the literary style is like:

THE BIRDS ARE making their battle cry. Miranda can see a group of gulls wheeling in her direction. White feathers. Glinting beaks. Mad eyes. She has enough experience with their capacity for violence to recognize their intent. They are moving into attack formation, circling her like bomber jets homing in on a target.

For a good portion of the book, I was really into the style of this book–quite dramatic, with frequent use of creative smilies and other figures of speech that adeptly describe not only the senses of the main character, but also her feelings and thoughts. While I think some parts of the story were a little slow, overall the writing itself is very well paced, flows smoothly, and uses a variety of patterns to keep things interesting.

Some of the emotional descriptions were so realistic that I felt for sure that many of these things had to come from real experiences (or at least feelings) of the author, just as one suspects when you see a skilled actor or actress. While I haven’t researched Geni in much detail, reading her short story collection “The Last Animal” and any books that she publishes later may help answer that question.

From the point of view of looking for a fresh style to analyze, understand, and eventually integrate portions of it into my own translations and writings, this was a great experience. Coincidentally, this book shares an important element with my last major translation project as well as my current one, which is the element of nature. Actually, I would say that is the most important element in the book, more predominant than any one character.

When I read through this book I went in two phases: the first 50-60% I was in the mindset of analyzing the style and appreciating the atmosphere (another major element). But sometime a little after the halfway mark, I got more invested in the story (I think this was partially because it picked up the pace) and stopped paying so much attention to the structure of each sentence, instead just focusing on reading as fast as I could to see how things ended. It was, oddly, a pretty drastic transition: one day I was reading with one mindset, and the next day with a different one.

In this second phase, I felt that the style was actually staring to get a little repetitive, and there was one or two similes near the end that just struck me as over the top. I am not sure if this is because Geni spent more time on plot and less on sentence crafting, because of my impatience and focus shift, or a little of both. However, while I would say I did have a small bout of disillusionment (at least with the book’s style), the story was quite good, and overall I enjoyed it to the very end.

You may have noticed I have said practically nothing about the story itself, even the premise, and this was intentional. In retrospect, I think one thing that increased my enjoyment was being in the dark about what this story was about. Even around the halfway mark, I wasn’t sure where the story was going to end up (and that is mostly a good thing). But I will quote the single sentence of description on the back cover of the book which really piqued my interest before I decided to buy it.

A remarkable debut set on the mysterious Farallon Islands that redefines the way we look at the natural world

Having read the book cover to cover, I’ll have to concede this is an excellently written line, in both what it says and what it omits.

In short, if you are looking for a great novel this is a strong recommendation. The only caveats are that the content is somewhat dark, and there are a few graphic scenes that are definitely not for children or the faint of heart.

I’ll close out this post with a short quote from the book that I liked so much I earmarked the page: (pg. 217)

…The surfboard was heavy. It swayed in my fingers as though it retained some memory of its time among the waves.

I like this combination of sentences because the first short one describes something with simple and plain language, then follows up with a longer sentence that uses a very creative simile.  By the way, I generally see myself  writing passages like the above by connecting them with a comma instead (i.e. “The surfboard was heavy, swaying in my…”), but if you try that you’ll see the flow and feeling is much different, and the cumulative effect of this helps to shape the overall tone of the novel. I think this tendency to frequently employ short sentences like this is a fundamental part of the literary style of this book.

Geni delivers these sorts of great figures of speech so frequently that I started, ironically, feeling that there was a formula to it, and this is a technique that can be learned by anyone. I noticed on the back of the book the author was a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, something I may want to investigate further when I get more serious about doing my own writing.

Japanese novel translation: “The Rainlands” by Haruka Asahi [Chapter 1]

I’ve discovered an interesting short novel called “The Rainlands” (雨の国) by Haruka Asahi (朝陽遥), and gotten the author’s permission to translate it into English and put it on my blog. You can find the entire original Japanese text for the story here (on Kakuyomu), and the first chapter here.

It’s a fictional, fantasy/adventure tale (the genre is officially listed as “alternate universe fantasy”), and as it is a longer work I’ll be presenting it in a series of unnamed chapters. The original work was published as four longish chapters, but I’ll be breaking these down into more bitesized pieces.

If you enjoy this story and want to read more, please consider liking this post or leaving a comment. That will help me decide whether I should translate more of this, or move onto another story. You can also vote for it on this poll.

For those who are interested, you can see a brief synopsis below. The first chapter follows that.

You can see the table of contents with other chapters (as they are posted) referenced here.

Synopsis

There were rumors of a place where the rains never ceased. Half of the month was a deafening, torrential downpour, and the other half a drizzle, at best slightly overcast. The sky was clear at most once or twice a month.

How could people actually live in a place where it rained constantly? Was it some sort of divine protection, or simply the raw power of the human mind? Driven by a burning curiosity, I departed on a journey to the mountainous region known as The Rainlands.

What I would discover was nothing like what I expected–a culture at times oddly familiar and yet disturbingly foreign.

 

“The Rainlands”  by Haruka Asahi:  Chapter 1

There, the rains never ceased. Half of the month was a deafening, torrential downpour, and the other half a drizzle, at best slightly overcast. A clear sky was seen, at most, once or twice a month.

I heard there were people somehow living in a place like that, and driven by a burning curiosity, I decided to travel there.

How could anyone actually survive in a place like that? The more I thought about it, the stranger it seemed. I was born in a small village nestled in the mountains. Compared to other areas, I’d say it rained pretty frequently, but even that was only once every two or three days. If, by some freak act of nature the rain continued for several days, the mountainsides would surely crumble, and the crops wash away. Rivers would flood, houses rot and collapse.

In fact, once in a blue moon something akin to that would happen in my hometown–when the rains continued for nearly ten days and everyone had to escape to the high ground, leaving their possessions behind.

Was it some sort of divine protection, or simply the raw power of the human mind that enabled people to actually live in a place where it rained almost constantly? That is what I endeavored to know. If due to human ingenuity, some part of me hoped I could bring back even a small piece of it to my village. But this trifling wish paled in comparison to my overwhelming curiosity.

 

On the way there, traversing a road I’d heard of in a nearby city, sure enough, the sky began to darken by degrees. A long range of mountains continued in the direction where I was heading, obscuring the sky with irregular shapes. Occasionally, clouds spilled over from the far side of the mountains, enshrouding the peaks.

I was told that surrounded by those mountains, at the end of a treacherous, winding road, lie The Rainlands.

The existence of a road meant that people still used it. Otherwise, it would have disappeared long ago.

However, even for a seasoned traveller like myself, the way was far from easy.

Thanks to my large stature, it was easy going on the road that looked up to the towering mountains. The trouble began as soon as I entered the ragged mountain path.

To begin with, a light drizzle clouded my vision. The road initially ran along the bottom of a gorge, but at some point, it gradually sloped to one side, eventually becoming the edge of a steep cliff formed from a stretch of bare, bleak rock.

In a place with unending rain, wouldn’t something like a road be immediately buried by the crumbling earth of a landslide? This thought was in the back of my mind before I had begun this journey, but now that I was actually here, the answer was obvious. This land was made from crude, craggy mountains without a trace of soil. Any dirt had probably been washed away from the surface ages ago.

The rocky path had turned slippery from many years of wind and rain, and a moment’s distraction could make you lose your footing. At worst, you could find yourself suddenly plummeting headlong into a ravine.

With such unsure footing progress was difficult, worsened by rain that sapped my strength. There were notches that had apparently been carved in the rock to prevent slipping, and with firm steps I proceeded inch by inch, the soles of my shoes against the tenuous foothold. My nerves were soon worn thin, and after only 15 minutes of walking I was exhausted.

Why in the world did anyone want to live in a place like this?

While resting in a cave, I complained to a merchant from a caravan I had chanced upon. With a relaxed smile he said, “It is said that this ancient road has been here since the beginning of time.”

He narrowed his eyes as he spoke, as if trying to see back through time. Apparently when this road was first built, The Rainlands had not yet existed.

This means people had been living here first. At one point there was some sort of extreme natural occurrence which transformed the climate, triggering continual, torrential rains, and it became The Rainlands. Nevertheless, the people here survived. More than just surviving, they decided to stay here. At least that is how the story goes.

 

After that, they let me join the caravan, where I followed in the rear.

When I peered up at the sky through the fine rain, the sun was barely visible behind a thin layer of clouds. When the downpour eased up, I halted and for the first time in awhile examined my surroundings. It was quite a strange sight to see such dense vegetation cover the ground, especially in a place like this with so little sunlight.

My arms and legs had lost feeling sometime ago from the elements. As I walked, I nibbled on dried food, causing rain to get in my mouth. But my endurance wouldn’t hold out unless I had something to eat.

The closer I neared my destination, the harder the rain fell. To my dismay, the wind also began to pick up. A few times it was so harsh that I had to stop and crouch down to shield my body until the gusting finally let up.

Far below me, I heard the rush of flowing water. In the valley I guess the rain had intensified, making the river surge downstream.

Shortly after, a faint glow appeared on the far side of the curtain of rain. But my exhausted mind could only vaguely comprehend there was some sort of light beyond and lacked the energy to consider its significance.

The members of the caravan continued on in silence. From the beginning, they seemed to avoid raising their voice to be heard above the din of the rain, and for the most part refrained from speaking, except at certain critical junctures in the road when communicating with those behind using pre-arranged vocal signals.

Just when I had safely navigated a few sudden changes in elevation by following the signals of the caravan, and the light that had been visible for some time was finally near at hand, suddenly the visibility improved drastically. I realized that the rain was no longer beating down on me.

I gazed up to discover a rocky ceiling above me. I had ended up in a cave.

Whew, I’ve finally made it.

I simply stood there with a dumbstruck expression as the members of the caravan around me each voiced relief.

The inside of the cave was warm and its air surprisingly dry. There were fires burning here and there. It seemed these were the origin of the light I had seen from outside.

The man who appeared to be the caravan leader smiled, his arms around another person’s shoulders as they celebrated their reunion.

The other person was an older man of short stature. It took me a some time to realize it, but the folks from this land all tended to be on the short side. This was perhaps due to some nutritional deficiency, or possibly things had ended up this way because big bodies tended to get in the way while living in a cave.

The leader introduced me to the old man, mentioning I was an infrequent traveller to these parts.

The old man, an inhabitant of The Rainlands, slowly smiled and mumbled something in response. Because of his thick accent it took me a moment to make out the meaning of his words. But they appeared to be an expression of welcome.

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

When I discovered the book “Convenience Store Woman” (Japanese title “コンビニ人間”) by Sayaka Murata had won the 155th Akutagawa prize (arguably the biggest prize for Japanese literature), I decided to check it out myself. I purposefully stayed away from reviews or information about the book, and all I really knew was the book was about a woman who works at a convenience store and has some deep connection with it. For example, see this excerpt from the book’s description on Amazon Japan: (with my rough translation)

仕事も家庭もある同窓生たちからどんなに不思議がられても、完璧なマニュアルの存在するコンビニこそが、私を世界の正常な「部品」にしてくれる――

Regardless how much my classmates questioned my life or career choices, it’s the convenience store–with it’s perfect, by-the-book existence–that enables me to become a smoothly functioning “piece” of society.

The problem I often have with writing reviews is that I don’t want to give any spoilers, but it’s hard to give any useful critique without giving at least a little away. So I’ll first give you my spoiler-free opinion, and then go into some more details for those who want to read further.

Put in a nutshell, the book was a worthy read, especially considering it’s short length (under 200 pages) and that it touches on some important philosophical and societal topics. There is some harsh dialog and sexual references, so this is not a book for children.

If you are studying the Japanese language, this is a great book to read for several reasons. First, the story is real-world based, which means not only that it will be easier to understand, but that what you learn will be helpful in the real world. Second, the grammar and vocabulary is mostly straightforward (with a few exceptions being a few industry terms I hadn’t come across before, like “POP”, and a few slang terms). Of course there is the fact the book is relatively short, and being able to say you read a Akutagawa prize-winning novel is always a cool conversation topic. Just know in advance that you will still need solid grammar and kanji basics to be able to get through this book, so I would say ideally you should have studied Japanese for at least a year or two before you try and tackle it.

Ok, now onto the more in-depth part where there are some things alluded to about the story (mild spoilers).

When I started reading this book, I admit I had high expectations, given it had won such a prestigious literary award. In the beginning, I was very intrigued by the main character’s personality and philosophy about life, and while her philosophy is quite extreme I think there are some real people who think or behave a little bit like that.

The writing style is simple, easy to follow, and there is a good amount of dialog to propel things forward. Although I would call the book more emotion-based than story-based (I felt there was only a few key scenes where something critical happened), up until the last page I was really interested in how things were going to end. Unfortunately, the payoff was mediocre since the ending involved the author spelling out certain things (spoon feeding), as opposed to leaving them to the reader’s imagination. While I won’t say I had guessed how it would turn out, I will say that there wasn’t any great surprises near the end.

Ironically I think this may be one of the reasons why the novel won critical acclaim in Japan, since I’ve noticed a tendency for Japanese novels (and other things like anime) to have stories that end on a vague or even confusing note. This book was, to my disappointment, so much the exact opposite of that.

One of the central themes in this book is the societal pressure from friends, family, and coworkers for men and women in their 20s or 30s to get married and have children, and this is even alluded to in the excerpt of the description I translated above. While I have never lived in Japan, I’ve seen this element in several other TV dramas, to the point I almost consider it over-used. However, I think Mrs. Murata (the author) takes this timely topic and presents it in a straightforward, easy-digestible form that anyone can associate with, and perhaps it is this universality that does make this book deserving of the Akutagawa prize. The element of a ‘convenience store’ itself is also universal in its own right–not only is it something that most people on the planet (in modern societies) are familiar with, but personally Japan’s (relatively) clean, well-managed convenience stores left a big impression on me.

It is interesting to note that this book has several things in common with the novel “Hibana” (“Spark”), by Naoki Matayoshi, which also won the Akutagawa prize recently. I admit I first started thinking along these lines because the paper version of “Convenience Store Woman” I bought had a piece of marketing material on it that showed an endorsement from Mr. Matayoshi saying this was an “awesome” (すごい) book. There are a few other connections, like how the book is relatively short and does not have chapters, though this is probably because of the types of works usually selected by the Akutagawa Prize. But to me the biggest connection is how each of these books is basically a study of a character that embodies a certain philosophy of life, in a sense. I haven’t done much research about Ms. Murata, though I have heard she herself works at a convenience store, and this leads to one other potential connection: both books could be argued to have a semi-biographical element.

I have a few minor nitpicks with the book, for example the slow realization of key thing(s) related to the main character’s life, and why she didn’t try to further her career in line with her ideals. But these things didn’t ruin the book by any means.

While I don’t think enough time has passed in order to say yet whether this book will truly become a ‘classic’, I can imagine if someone were to read this a few decades from now, it could serve as a great window to experience an important part of Japanese culture and society in 2016 (the book was published last year). Also, this book has something in common with a few of the books I read in high school (in English) that were considered ‘classics’: the events themselves in each story weren’t that groundbreaking, but in a handful of places scattered throughout the book there were little philosophical tidbits that glowed and really make you think about life. I think these two reasons are why this book should undoubtedly be categorized as ‘literature’, despite the fact that term is somewhat vaguely defined.

If you don’t know Japanese, unfortunately there isn’t an English translation as of now, and I haven’t heard of any plans for one yet. But, I’ve decided to translate a few pages myself, so if you want a taste for what “Convenience Store Woman” is like, check it out here. If you do know Japanese, you can get the book on places like Amazon Japan, or BookLive. On the latter, you can read a free sample of the first few pages.

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

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.