Sep 5, 2013

The Problem of Mistranslation of “Norwegian Wood”

The title of the Beatles’ song “Norwegian Wood” was translated as “ノルウェイの森 (noruei no mori)” in Japanese. “noruei” means “Norway”, and “no” means “of,” and “mori” means “forest,” so “ノルウェイの森 (noruei no mori)” means “Forest of Norway.”

Some one pointed out that this was mistranslation, because “Norwegian Wood” means Norwegian wood furniture. Basically I agree with it.

I looked up the word “wood” in a dictionary.
1 [uncountable and countable] the material that trees are made of 
Put some more wood on the fire. 
a polished wood floor 
soft/hard woodPine is a soft wood. 
Her house was made of wood. 
a piece of wood 
2 [countable] also the woods a small forest: 
a walk in the woods
The word “Wood” in “Norwegian Wood” isn’t plural, so it doesn’t mean the second definition “a small forest” but the first definition “the material that trees are made of.”

And let’s read the lyrics of "Norwegian Wood."
She showed me her roomIsn't it good Norwegian wood?
No one might think that there was a small forest in her room. It is obvious that this “Norwegian wood” is Norwegian wood furniture.

Haruki Murakami named his novel  “ノルウェイの森 (noruei no mori)” after the Beatles’ song. He wrote about this problem in his essay.
I, as one of a translator, want to say that the right interpretation of the word “Norwegian Wood” is just “Norwegian Wood.” The other interpretations might be more or less mistranslation. If you look at the context of the lyrics, it is clear that the ambiguous tone of these words dominates this song and lyrics. It is difficult to definite these words as one special meaning. It is not different between in Japanese and English. If you wanted to catch it, you would lose it. Of course, one of images that these words contain might be “Norwegian wood furniture” = “Nordic furniture.” But it isn’t the only meaning of them. If you insisted that they meant just “Nordic furniture,” the narrow way of assertion would detract the deepness of this song that the ambiguity (this deepness is the point of this song). It is just to miss the forest for the trees. “Norwegian Wood” might not be “ノルウェイの森 (noruei no mori),” but at the same time it isn’t “Norwegian wood furniture,” I think.
翻訳者のはしくれとして一言いわせてもらえるなら、Norwegian Woodということばの正しい解釈はあくまでもであって、それ以外の解釈はみんな多かれ少なかれ間違っているのではないか。歌詞のコンテクストを検証してみれば、Norwegian Woodということばのアンビギュアスな(規定不能な)響きがこの曲と詞を支配していることは明白だし、それをなにかひとつにはっきりと規定するという行為はいささか無理があるからだ。それは日本語においても英語においても、変わりはない。捕まえようとすれば、逃げてしまう。もちろんそのことば自体として含むイメージのひとつとして、ノルウェイ製の家具=北欧家具、という可能性はある。でもそれがすべてでない。もしそれがすべてだと主張する人がいたら、そういう狭義な決めつけ方は、この曲のアンビギュイティーがリスナーに与えている不思議な奥の深さ(その深さこそがこの曲の生命なのだ)を致命的に損なってしまうのではないだろうか。それこそ「木を見て森を見ず」ではないか。Norwegian Woodは正確には「ノルウェイの森」ではないかもしれない。しかし同様に「ノルウェイ製の家具」でもないというのが僕の個人的見解である。(村上春樹「雑文集」)
Honestly, this passage is inarticulate.

If he was right, no one could translate the words “Norwegian Wood” in Japanese. There is no perfect translation, but translators seek better translation. In this case, it is clear that “ノルウェイの森 (noruei no mori)” isn’t relatively adequate.

I’d like to know how native English speakers think about the words “Norwegian Wood.”


  1. I've always thought that the lyrics were referring to wood as in maybe mokuzai (?), there's an article on Wikipedia about the origins of the lyrics -

    It seems Lennon/McCartney were referring to the wooden interior not as in a forest/wood/mori, so perhaps it is right to say that "noruei no mori" is a mistranslation, although "noruei no mokuzai" maybe sounds very literal without any ambiguity perhaps?.

    I've not checked but how is the name of The Beatles song known in Japan?, maybe it was left the same to avoid any confusion, so that when people read the title of the book they might immediately associate it with the song?.

    I need to re-read Norwegian Wood!..

    1. Thank you very much for your comment.

      At first, the title of the Beatles' song "Norwegian Wood" was translated as "noruei no mori." At that time, the translations of pop music were arbitrary, in other words, intensionally mistranslations. I guess that the song with a title "noruei no mokuzai" might not be popular at all.

      Then, Haruki Murakami named his novel after this song, same name "noruei no mori."

  2. Apologies! I've just noticed that you mentioned the translation of The Beatles song at the beginning of your post, sorry!.

  3. A woods is a small forest. Wood, in the singular, is the material made from planks cut from trees. Norwegian wood is wood from Norway. But that's not a forest, it's construction material. Trouble is, there's an erotic innuendo implied because one of the slang expressions for a man's erection is to call it a wood. I have no idea how that carries over into Japanese, if at all. Haruki Murakami's English is usually pretty good, maybe he just missed the target on this one. He's still an amazing author with profound insight into people's character.

    1. Thank you for your comment.

      I agree with you. The title of the novel "Norwegian Wood (ノルウェイの森)" doesn't lose it value at all.