Translating Catholicism through the Buddhist Tradition


by Susanna Fessler
Translator of Hanatsumi Nikki: The Flowers of Italy, by Masaharu Anesaki

The problems of translating the canonical present their own challenges above and beyond the ordinary translation issues. Certainly the translator must deal with multi-faceted cultural associations — that in itself is not unique to the canonical — but there are added layers of complexity. The final product will be viewed by its readership as canonical, too, which means that word choice is incredibly important because in future, one's translation of a canonical religious text is likely to be used itself by scholars in analytical studies and practitioners in liturgy. That's problem one.

Problem two is that often canonical texts represent complex religious traditions that transcend a simple correlation between words. For example, the 'host' in Catholic communion is much more than a 'host' or a 'wafer'. The complexity cries out for a lengthy footnote, but footnotes are discouraged in most translations, and must be used sparingly. How to convey these complexities without falling into stilted, awkward language? There is no one perfect answer to this question, but one man's experience with such work perhaps gives us an example of one solution. His name was Masaharu Anesaki (1873–1947), and he was a pioneer in the field of Comparative Religions at Tokyo University at the beginning of the 20th century. In 1908 he made an extended journey to Europe. Most of his time was spent in Italy, where he traced the path and life of Saint Francis of Assisi. One product of his journey was a book-length travelogue titled Hanatsumi nikki (Journal of Gathering Flowers) in which he introduced many Catholic concepts to his Japanese audience.

Strictly speaking, Anesaki was not translating a text. He was translating a tradition (Catholicism) and, in so doing, a culture. Still, the process of writing his travelogue presented a number of translation issues.

Anesaki was a Buddhist, but he was keen on studying, understanding, and explaining other world traditions, particularly Roman Catholicism, which he held in higher esteem than Protestantism.[1] Although Catholicism had existed in Japan since the arrival of European missionaries in the late 16th century, it never had a large following and indeed had been illegal from the 17th century until the 1870s. The Portuguese and the Spanish who landed on Japanese shores in the 16th century were there to spread Catholicism (they were Jesuits and Franciscans) to a land wholly void of the tradition, and one in which the language was wholly unrelated to their own. The language barrier was formidable—St. Francis Xavier is famously quoted (perhaps apocryphally) as saying that Japanese was the 'devil's tongue' because it was so difficult for the missionaries to master, and that it had been devised by the devil to prevent the spread of Christianity. Legend aside, the Europeans persevered in their efforts to translate Catholic concepts and their signifiers into Japanese with moderate success until Westerners and their traditions were banned from the country. The Tokugawa Period (1600–1868) saw the institution of a 'closed country' policy, one during which there was very little exchange between Japan and the West.

When Christianity was made legal in Japan in 1873, there was little left of what the Europeans had left behind hundreds of years earlier. The so-called 'hidden Christians' who had carried on their traditions in secret churches had done so without texts for fear of being discovered. Hence, their prayer were passed from generation to generation orally, a process that lends itself to slow but steady change. By the dawn of the Meiji era (1868–1912), those prayers were still ritualistically very strong but semantically often meaningless because they were representations of Portuguese and Spanish terms that had become incomprehensible through the generations. The only translation of the Bible until the Meiji Period—created by the Jesuits in the early 17th century—was lost. 19th-century Christians, then, began essentially from scratch working with Latin and Chinese terms. The latter were coined in China by Western missionaries and adopted to some extent by the Japanese. Anesaki, in the 1920s, published a series of studies of Christianity in Japan, part of which examines the sorts of texts that were produced in the Meiji Period. Consequently, he was more familiar with what had been attempted than most of his contemporaries were. He was also fluent in French, German, and English, yet did not fall to the easy habit of transliterating Christian terms from those languages. His choices were conscious, and part of his larger attempt to be a cultural translator.

Anesaki knew that his audience would be unfamiliar with most of the terminology of the Catholic church. But he himself was unusually knowledgeable about Catholicism and Christianity in general, and appreciated the details of what he saw and heard. Anesaki was a follower of Pure Land Buddhism, and thus was also intimately familiar with that tradition.[2] His job, then, was to produce a text which was easily readable yet highly informative. He wanted to portray the essence of Christian concepts to an audience wholly unfamiliar with them. His solution was three-fold and involved cultural 'mapping', neologisms, and extant words used in a new way.

First, when possible, he mapped extant Buddhist concepts onto Christian concepts. This was not solely a linguistic issue for Anesaki, because he also advocated a kind of united faith among humanity, one that was represented by different 'phenomenon' in different cultures, but ultimately was the manifestation of a singular event. For example, he used the word for a Buddhist temple, tera, to represent the word church in English; both types of buildings were meeting and worship places in their respective traditions, and there were notable architectural examples of both types in their respective countries. Decades later an entirely different word would come into common usage in Japanese for church (kyōkai) but it still has an oddly foreign ring to it even in the 21st century. Likewise, Anesaki used the Japanese word for stupa () for the English steeple, because the two types of architecture played similarly central (but certainly not identical) roles in Christian churches and Buddhist temples. The ideogram for 'saint' or 'saintly' (sei) is used in many compounds, such as the word for 'Bible' (seisho, or 'saintly text') or 'Virgin Mary' (seibo, or 'saintly mother'). Particularly in the latter case the choice is notable because the religious significance of virginity, or the idea of the Immaculate Conception, have no parallel in the Japanese tradition. However, the idea of a 'saintly mother' had appeared in Chinese texts as old as the Han Dynasty—the Chinese did not use the term in those older texts in any way to refer to the Virgin Mary, but the precedent of putting the two characters together made it such that the term seibo made more sense than a direct translation of 'Virgin Mary' ever could.

Now, there is certainly a mode of translation which would argue against the appropriation of one tradition's for another because the words are heavily laden with meaning, often some of which are not appropriate in a new environment. Let's return to the word 'virgin' for an example. In Shintōism、the indigenous tradition of Japan, there existed between the 7th and 14th centuries two shrine positions for your women—one at the Ise Shrine (saiō),and one at the Kamo Shrine (saiin). Both of these positions are standardly translated as 'virgin' in English ('the Ise Virgin' or 'the Kamo Virgin'). But what did the title of 'virgin' really mean? Certainly not that the woman in question was impregnated with the son of God, or, to go further back to the Roman tradition of the Vestal Virgins, that she was obligated to remain a virgin for thirty years or else face death by being buried alive. The girls who were chosen for these positions were usually the daughter or a close relative of the emperor. They would hold their positions for a few years,and then step down upon the death or abdication of the emperor, usually to return home and marry. But because the position is translated as 'virgin', many English speakers impose other characteristics on these women. The first ideogram in both words,sai, can mean 'mourning, abstinence, taboo, religious purification, holy, or pure' And,indeed, the woman in question was expected to oversee ceremonies of religious purification. But there are stories in classical literature of the woman having a love affair, and some indication that there were even some married women in this position. None of this corresponds to what we would normally expect when we see the word 'virgin' in English, but scholars have been using it as the standard translation for many years,and it does not seem to cause much confusion beyond the undergraduate classroom. This leads me to think that we can forgive Anesaki for substituting Buddhist terms for Christian concepts, because—like the use of 'virgin' instead of ' religiously-purifying-princess'—it seems to do more good than harm.

What to do when there was not a parallel Buddhist term for a Christian concept? Anesaki sometimes used a neologism (not always of his own making, but invariably something that had been coined in the past few years) using Chinese ideograms (kanji) which would convey the meaning of the original term. For example, baptism is not a Buddhist ritual, but it certainly holds a place of importance in Christianity. The Japanese word for baptistery (senreidō) that Anesaki uses is written with the characters for 'wash', 'ritual' and 'hall'. Although the word is foreign, its components are fairly straightforward. That term, senreidō, is not unique to Anesaki, but the term he chooses for 'baptismal font' (senrei no mizuba) was his own creation, and apparently not adopted by others. Regardless of whether the word(s) were commonly used or idiosyncratic, if there were no East Asian tradition associated with the concept the audience probably felt somewhat distanced from the reference. And, in Anesaki's travelogue there is no annotation beyond the occasional Romanised version of a proper noun. Thus the reader was left to his/her own devices when new terms appeared. The new words did not appear in a dictionary, and needless to say there was no Internet to which one could turn.

Third, Anesaki sometimes used an already extant term which came as close as possible. For example, he uses the term kokuji ('announcement' or 'notice') for the Annunciation. Today, the word jutaikokuchi ('notification of receiving into one's body') is used for this concept, which is probably more informative than Anesaki's choice. But it is also twice as long—four characters compared to two—and unwieldy because of its specificity. Certainly a reader can understand exactly what jutaikokuchi is from the characters used to represent it, but it can only mean the Annunciation—an arcane reference to early Christian history—and nothing else. Anesaki preferred kokuji perhaps because it was a familiar word, and one that did not require the reader to dig deep into memory for the specific reference.

Anesaki usually chose the familiar, easily digested word to convey these foreign concepts. Did that harm his audience's understanding? Perhaps in some cases yes, in the same way that we confuse American English speakers when we translate the word nigiri as 'rice cake', conjuring up visions of a sweet confection and not a savoury ball of glutinous grains. But given the choice of 'savoury ball of glutinous rice' vs. 'rice cake', I cannot imagine one choosing the former over the latter. And so, when Anesaki's readers saw the word yakusō ('attendant monk' in the Buddhist tradition) for what was a sacristan in the Catholic church, they probably envisioned a Buddhist monk, not a Christian monk. But for Anesaki, I think it was close enough. If he had given too much detail, explaining the defining characteristics of a sacristan, he may have lost his audience. Better to stay with the familiar, even if it was not precise.

In all cases, Anesaki was keen on conveying the meaning of the word. One might ask, 'Isn't that what translators do?' and to some extent it is. But, in the Japanese language, the translator has more choices than one might expect. As described above, one can pull together ideograms (which are Chinese in origin, but were adopted by the Japanese early in their history) to convey a concept. And indeed, such coining of terms was quite common in modern Japanese history. Japan went through tremendous modernising change during its Meiji Period (1868-1912). Part of that change was a rapid importation of new concepts from all fields—science, medicine, law, politics, philosophy, economics, etc.—and along with that importation came the need for a vocabulary for each 'new' item. In the case of concrete items—a bicycle, for example—it was not too hard to pull some ideograms together and create a word that in back-translation would be 'self-propelling vehicle'. But dealing with abstract concepts is much more difficult, as the experienced translator knows. Still, many words for abstract concepts were coined in response to Westernisation, such as shakai ('society') and kenri ('[legal] right'). In the 20th century it became increasingly common to simply transliterate a foreign term in the phonetic kana system, leaving the reader to figure out what it means. To give a few modern examples, the word for 'television' is terebi, the word for 'part-time work' is arubaito (from the German Arbeit) and a common term in the 1980s for a 'couple' was abekku (from the French avec). All of these words are written in kana,which is a purely phonetic presentation (as opposed to the semantic representation of Chinese ideograms.) So, in coining words there was an ideogram-only choice and a phonetic-only choice. And there was a third choice: combining the two. This combination practice used ideograms glossed with an idiosyncratic, western reading, in effect providing a double entendre. For example, one can put together the characters for 'smoke' and 'grass' and gloss it tabako (tobacco) when, if we were to follow basic conventional pronunciations of the ideograms, the word should be read ensō. Likewise, we can put together the characters for 'salt peter' and 'child' and gloss it garasu ('glass') when it should be read shōshi. Although this practice has all but disappeared today, at the turn of the 20th century it was quite common.

Anesaki resorts to transliteration rarely, and usually when there was no viable alternative, such as with proper nouns. As previously mentioned, the majority of his translations were Buddhist terms, chosen to most closely resemble their Christian counterparts. When that failed, he found the closest corresponding secular term without resorting to glosses. On the surface this may not seem remarkable, but in the no-holds-barred world of Meiji language such metered choices deserve note.[3]

The final chapter in this story is my own: I translated Anesaki's travelogue into English.[4] In doing so, I had to decide what to do with all those terms in Japanese that had perfectly serviceable 'old' equivalents in English. First I decided not to distinguish between transliterations, neologisms, and Buddhist terms. If I had done so it would have resulted in an arcane academic study, one that would not have been readable. (Maybe a translator's creed should be, 'First, do no word harm'?) Likewise I decided to avoid what the late Edwin McClellan, renowned translator of modern Japanese literature, used to call the 'honourable chopsticks' school of translation. That is, taking too literally what is on the page and translating it despite awkwardness in the target language in a quaint effort to express the foreignness of the original text. McClellan, like Anesaki, felt that there was an intrinsic human experience, and that the job of the translator was to find the idiom for that experience that was fluid, lucid, and natural. So, in my translation all the 'temples' became 'churches' again, all the 'attendant monks' became 'sacristans', and all the 'Holy Mothers' became 'Virgin Marys'.

Another problem I came upon was what to do when Anesaki used a generic term when English required a more specific word. For example, Anesaki uses the same term (sōin) in the title of an entry wherein he describes both a nunnery and a monastery. Usually sōin is translated as 'monastery', but 'monastery' in English is not usually used to describe where nuns live, so I could not give the section a title with the word 'monasteries' without risking reader confusion. I needed to find one word for both 'monastery' and 'nunnery', or I would have to add terms to the subtitle (which I was loath to do). The answer was to use the word 'abbey' in the title, but then later use the terms 'nunnery' and 'monastery' in their respective places to help the reader understand the context.

In all cases I was keenly aware that Catholicism had its own canonical lexicon, and that I needed to use it whenever possible. That is, I could not write 'evangelism' I had to write 'propaganda'; I could not write 'marks', I had to write 'stigmata'; I could not write 'clothes', I had to write 'habit'. Anesaki wanted to convey these foreign concepts to his audience, but I as his translator wanted to convey to a Western audience how attuned Anesaki was to the finer aspects of our familiar Western tradition, and how those 'mapped' onto Buddhism. If I had made a direct translation to emphasise the 'foreignness' of Catholicism to the Japanese, I would have belittled the author's thoughtful and sensitive consideration, and ultimately distracted the reader from his point which was precisely that there is a strong affinity between Catholicism and Pure Land Buddhism, not a chasm.


1. Although the reasons for this are too complex to explain here, simply put Anesaki felt that Protestantism, particularly Lutheranism, was used primarily as a political tool, not an expression of spirituality.
2. Briefly, Pure Land Buddhism is a major branch of Mahayana Buddhism, one dedicated to seeking salvation through the compassion of Amida Buddha.
3. Although it is out of the scope of this article, I should also point out that Anesaki uses a regular form of Classical Japanese grammar in Hanatsumi nikki, one that makes his text much more readable than many contemporary works, even some by his own hand.
4. Flowers of Italy: A Japanese Intellectual's Journey to Europe (Fukuoka, Japan: Kurodahan Press, 2009).

Republished with permission from "In Other Words" Summer 2010 (No. 35; Special Issue: Translating the Sacred and the Canonical), copyright © 2010 British Centre for Literary Translation.


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