Harvest Moons and Rabbits


The right word can make such a difference in writing. Or in translation, of course. There's rather a big difference between "Four score and seven years ago" and "Eighty-seven years ago," isn't there? True, "score" was no doubt more commonly used then than it is now, but when we read that today we get quite a bit of peripheral baggage along with the number of years. The word "score" is relatively unused in this sense in modern English and imparts a heavier, more formal tone, as does the fact that the number is given as a "quantity and quantity" rather than the more prosaic "eighty-seven."

I rather doubt any serious speaker would use this style now unless they were deliberately trying to sound like Lincoln. And I think they'd have to be very careful about how they used the phrasing to avoid sounding just plain silly. But there's no denying that a few tweaks in vocabulary or structure can totally change the peripheral meaning carried by the words. And peripheral meaning constitutes such an important part of literature...

As I've quoted before, Grania Davis said in her afterword to Speculative Japan that "...the very best Japanese SF&F tends to be mood-driven instead of action-driven." Sure, action demands strong verbs in English, but most people learn that in their first creative writing course. "He ate the cake" is quite a bit different from "He wolfed the cake down." Mood, on the other hand, is influenced by cultural perceptions, word choice, sentence structure, story setting and no doubt lots of other things I haven't thought of.

Take the moon, for example. Why the moon? Well, I happened to see a very nice, deep orange full moon recently; what I would call it a harvest moon. It was a bit after the equinox, but that's OK. Not surprisingly, the Japanese also have a harvest moon (収穫月, minori-tsuki). But when an American looks at the full moon around this time of year the Man in the Moon looks back; a Japanese, on the other hand, may see a Rabbit in the Moon. And American children, of course, have Halloween to look forward to, while Japanese may prefer to think of sitting in the moonlight and eating omochi cakes.

If your story happens to mention October moonlight, then, an American reader might immediately have an image of hordes of bizarrely-dressed children running screaming from house to house claiming their prizes, while the Japanese author actually meant to raise the image of a calm, peaceful evening, sitting quietly and enjoying a sip of green tea while the children watch sparklers fizzle down to darkness. That's a pretty big difference in atmosphere for the reader.

Evening and night have their own meanings, of course, and I think most cultures fear the darkness to some extent (after all, if you can't see what's hiding in it, there's a certain degree of danger), and have native expressions relating dawn-day-dusk-night to the human cycle of birth-life-aging-death. That sort of usage could probably be translated without much difficulty. But the Japanese don't have a tradition of lycanthropy under the full moon, so cute English usages like "howling at the moon" or "he's a real wolf at night" when talking about lusty heroes may not work very well in Japanese.

What would an English-speaking reader make of a passage describing a character as having emerged from a peach, or a bamboo shoot, though? Probably not much, but a Japanese would get the allusion immediately. The folktale hero Momotarō emerged from a peach, later growing into a champion of the poor and performing great deeds, while Princess Kaguya was discovered in a shoot of bamboo by a poor woodcutter, later catching the eye of the emperor himself.

The problem is how to work these references into the translation without destroying the narrative flow, or worse, what the author wanted to say. There aren't too many options here. Basically, you have a choice of dropping the reference entirely (whch might destroy the content), leaving the reference but skipping an explanation (which is certainly an accurate translation but the reader might never get the point), adding a simple in-line explanation (often the best solution, if you can find a quickly-digestible way to say it that looks like part of the original story), adding a more detailed explanation, as an aside or footnote (certainly gets the message across, but works best in scholarly texts, not fiction where flow is crucial), or adding a glossary later (also effective in scholarly work, but people rarely look at a glossary for fiction until after reading the story). The best solution will depend on the specific issue, and how good the translator is at explaining the cultural background in question seamlessly. Often, then simply is no good solution, and the translator must settle for the least offensive.

This situation, like so many of the other glyphs I've written here, is not unique to the Japanese-English language pair, or course, but the degree of difference between Japanese and Western culture and worldview is quite a bit larger than differences between, say, cultures with a common English language or Roman heritage. There are a number of blogs about the same thing, such as this truly excellent hands-on study by Daniel Hahn, an award-winning translator who works between Portuguese and English.

See you next week. I'm off to see the penguins!


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