Continuing with my reading of Underground by Haruki Murakami and comparison with the translated version by Alfred Birnbaum.

The following passage:



The translation by Alfred Birnbaum is as follows

Japan Railways [JR] was the big thing to aim for in terms of jobs. So many guys wanted to be Shinkansen [bullet-train] drivers. JR turned me down when I graduated, but Seibu and Odakyu and Tokyu and other private lines were generally popular, although the catch was that you had to live in areas served by those lines to get the job. Yeah, pretty tough. I'd always wanted to work on the subway and the Subway Authority was pretty popular. The pay's no worse than anywhere else.

Isn't this translation a bit strange? I think it goes beyond the choice of words and trimming down to the point of mistranslation. My personal understanding of the passage is

As for place to work for, as expected, JR was popular. It was not the case for me, but there were quite a lot of people who want to be Shinkansen train drivers. However, when I graduated, JR was not looking to hire so generally, places like Seibu, Odakyu and Tokyu were popular. However, for those places, surprisingly, there was a rule that you have to live along the train lines to be able to enter the company. Also, if you don't have experience working part time there then it's no good. Yeah, quite tough.

From the start, I wanted to work for the metro. The Subway Authority too is quite popular, since the pay is not bad comparatively, and also there isn't anything like you entering the company intending to work on the train lines but end up being transferred to sales.

Since I am trying to learn Japanese by myself, I generally don't have anyone to turn to to make sure that I'm on the right track so I resort to comparing my reading with translation (asking questions on places like here takes quite a bit of time to set up so I only use it sparingly and as a last resort), but so far my experience with published and sold translation like this has been kind of bad. Is my understanding of the passage on track here? Again, thank you for any help.

  • Translations often do take a lot of liberties, though this one seems a bit extreme. Here are some specific to Murakami: yoshabunko.com/translations/Murakamis_lost_voice.html
    – Ringil
    Oct 12, 2018 at 18:35
  • I have to say that continuing on with the translation, mistakes continue to happen at an alarming rate. I have no clue why someone so apparently qualified can be this bad (unless he somehow translated another version of the text). Things like 「私は菱沼さんに「...」と言いました」is somehow translated as "he said..." for example. Posting every example is going to be a gigantic waste of time and would seem like bullying (though I paid for the thing so I should be in my right to be angry I think) so I'll just put this note here for anyone interested and give this thing a rest. Oct 14, 2018 at 2:08

1 Answer 1


I agree with your interpretation and would go so far as to say the official translation is not accurate.

The most plausible explanation I can think of is having overlooked the "人を" in the sentence in question, resulting in "でも僕が卒業した当時はJRは採用していなかった" or "JR didn't hire (me)". Japanese can often be ambiguous and without the "人を" it could be interpreted either way.

In fact, it's certainly possible the text was translated at a different point in time, i.e. the "人を" was actually added to the Japanese text afterwards for clarification (of the Japanese). Frankly the absence of the statements about part-time work or being bait-and-switched to a different job is also quite suspicious; these could very well have been added afterwards too.

  • 2
    Even if it were not for this 人を, I would certainly read it as "JR was not recruiting people on that year."
    – naruto
    Oct 12, 2018 at 7:52
  • @naruto Fair enough. I’m trying to give benefit of the doubt where possible and can’t think of another reason for it to have been translated this way.
    – lc.
    Oct 12, 2018 at 7:57

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