PUN POTENTIAL — Eve Kushner on Kanji and Translation, part 1

May GLLI Blog Series:  Japan in Translation, No. 4 (part 1)

With my project Joy o’ Kanji, I’m writing one essay about each of the 2,136 Joyo kanji, the characters the Japanese use in daily life. In the essays I explore all facets of a kanji, including its readings, the evolution of its shape and meanings, and the way its definitions reflect different sides of its personality. I look extensively at how kanji behave in compounds and in sentences, but essentially I come at kanji from the most micro perspective possible.

I therefore feel far removed from Japanese novelists. As they write, they probably select kanji after kanji with a heightened awareness of the nuances. Despite all the work that must involve, Japanese writers manage to string together tens of thousands of characters.

To me, writing something as long as a novel seems daunting. Doing so while paying close attention to such details seems superhuman.

I’m equally awed by the translator who considers the authorial intention behind scads of characters and figures out how to reflect all that subtext in the translation. How is that even possible?!

Playing with Synonyms

Muddying the Waters

When I wrote an essay about 濁 (muddiness), I included a literary excerpt that gave me pause:

People’s thoughts were soon taken over by the muddy stream of the era.

人間 (ningen: person); 思潮 (shichou: thought); 忽ちの内 (tachimachi no uchi: soon); 濁流 (dakuryuu: muddy stream); 支配 (shihai: controlling, dominating); 処 (tokoro: nominalizer)

Notice the use of the rarefied 思潮 here instead of, say, the commonplace 考え (kangae: thought). How clever this choice was. The image of a tide (潮) perfectly matches the muddy stream metaphor.

In fact, the excerpt is part of a longer sentence in which author Sachio Itou (1864–1913) likened human thought to water. The passage is from his essay「茶の湯の手帳 (Cha no Yu no Techou: “Tea Memorandum”)」. In that piece from 1906, Itou expressed concern about how much the Japanese were changing. As they imported more foreign goods and Western ways and as the upper classes became wealthier, intellectual pursuits declined. People lost interest in the tea ceremony, which requires mental training, and instead took up mindless amusements. The “muddy stream” in his comment apparently symbolizes the cultural changes altering the older and better values in Japan.

Unfortunately, in the English version of the excerpt, there’s no evidence of what Itou pulled off with 思潮. That word has become “thoughts,” which lies flat on the page. It seems impossible to have translated it in any other way.

Pun Potential

I’ve spent years marveling at the richness of kanji, but Itou’s intriguing use of 思潮 awakened me to new possibilities. I realized that there must be countless times when an author makes an unconventional kanji choice for the pun of it.

When words have multiple kanji renderings, the pun potential is high. For example, one can represent ki(ru), “to cut,” with five kanji:

切る (to cut (through))
斬る (to kill (a human) with a blade (i.e., a sword, machete, or knife); slice (off); lop (off); cut (off))
伐る (to cut down (e.g., trees, enemies))
截る (to cut (e.g., cloth))
剪る (to cut; prune; trim (branches, leaves, flowers, etc.))


I found 伐る in the title of a work by a professor who has reviewed many architecture books and who has gathered those articles into one volume:

Architecture Investigator, Dispensing Harsh Criticism

建築 (kenchiku: architecture); 探偵 (tantei: investigator); 本 (hon: book)

When the Japanese use きる figuratively as “to criticize harshly,” they usually opt for 斬る, which literally means “to cut a person with a sword.” So why does this title include 伐る? Here are several theories:

  1. The entity being criticized is books. As books are made from trees, 伐る (to cut down (trees)) is a clever play on words.
  2. The act of reading may be akin to selecting trees in the forest and bringing them out into the world of people, thereby finding materials for people to use.
  3. Because 本を伐る (to cut down a book) looks so much like 木を伐る (to fell a tree), with just one stroke’s difference in the first kanji, the title could be a visual pun.

My money is on the third idea! Of course, I’m biased because this is the perfect illustration of the possibility I’ve sensed ever since I read Itou’s sentence. With 本を伐る, someone has picked an unexpected kanji for the pun of it.

Come back tomorrow for some “Mishima Mischief” in part 2 of Pun Potential!

Eve KushnerEve Kushner lives in Berkeley, California, with her husband and their dogs Chai and Masala. She has written two books (both in their second printings) and hundreds of articles for dozens of markets. Now she writes exclusively about kanji, working obsessively and quite happily on her huge project Joy o’ Kanji. With this undertaking, she aims to write one essay about each of the 2,136 kanji (written characters) used in daily life in Japan.

10339360_10203703467893736_1000817698243960595_oDavid Jacobson organized this series on Japanese literature in translation. He is the author of Are You an Echo? The Lost Poetry of Misuzu Kaneko, a 2017 NCTE notable poetry book. A longtime journalist, David has written news articles and TV scripts that have appeared in the Associated Press, The Washington Post, The Seattle Times and on CNN and Japan’s NHK. Since 2008, he has worked with Seattle book publisher Chin Music Press. An experienced Japanese translator, he is on the board of the Global Literature in Libraries Initiative.

And in case you missed it…

May 1:  Roger Pulvers on Ishikawa Takuboku (Japan-in-Translation, No. 1)
May 2:  Kathryn Hemmann on outsider stories in contemporary literature (Japan-in-Translation, No. 2)
May 3:  Deborah Iwabuchi on memorable translations (Japan-in-Translation, No. 3)

27 thoughts on “PUN POTENTIAL — Eve Kushner on Kanji and Translation, part 1

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