Mishima’s Mischief — Eve Kushner on Kanji and Translation, part 2

May GLLI Blog Series:  Japan in Translation, No. 5 (part 2)

For part 1 in this two-part piece, see May 4:  Eve Kushner on kanji’s punning potential (Japan-in-Translation, No. 4)

Mishima’s Mischief

Japanese writers choose whether to render terms in kanji (also known as Chinese characters because they came from China), or in its two phonetic scripts, hiragana and katakana. Not many languages have multiple scripts, so Japanese text is special in that richness. Japanese readers are accustomed to seeing certain words in kanji, certain words in hiragana, and so on. To grab attention, an author can go against the grain in that sense.


So it was with the famous novelist Yukio Mishima. As he explained to the journalist Robert Trumbull in a fascinating but error-filled 1965 New York Times article, “‘The visual effect of a Chinese character is very important.’ He slashed out the rounded, multi-stemmed character for ‘rose,’ and looked at it admiringly. ‘See how the rose appears physically in the shape of the Kanji,’ he said. ‘A writer loves to give such an effect to his readers.'”

Trumbull didn’t say (or perhaps know) that the Japanese almost always write the word for “rose” with the hiragana ばら (bara), not with kanji. In fact, Mishima was quite rare for having been able to draw 薔薇 at all! (As the article says, he often drew kanji that his publisher’s printer could not reproduce, needing to have a type foundry cast them specially!)

Though it was fine for Trumbull to have skipped over that tidbit, what would a translator do upon encountering Mishima’s 薔薇 in a text? Would footnote commentary help? I’m sure that’s not the answer!

Sailor who Fell from the Sea

By the way, the article also touches on Mishima’s wordplay with homonyms. His novel title「午後の曳航 (Gogo no Eikou)」contains eikou. That term means “towing (a ship)” when written as 曳航 but “glory” when written as 栄光. A native Japanese speaker would immediately grasp the title’s double meaning (Afternoon Towing or Afternoon Glory). Not so for the rest of us.

Wikipedia presents a compelling account of how the translated title became The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea, rather than a direct take on the “untranslatable” one. The behind-the-scenes glimpse shows how translator John Nathan (only 25 at the time and entrusted with translating Mishima!) did his best to replicate the double entendre until he was told to let it go, which seems to have afforded him great relief.

Contemplating Components

With the comment about 薔薇, Mishima showed that he considered a character all the way down to its minute strokes and the visual effect they created. What if writers instead chose kanji based on the meanings of their components?

TorideToride 2Toride 3

Here’s an example:

砦 or 塁 or 寨 (toride: fort)

All three kanji are homonyms and synonyms, so an author could choose the one that best reinforced her themes.

Maybe she would consider the most prominent material in the fort; if it were stone (石), earth (土), or wood (木), she could pick 砦, 塁, or 寨 accordingly. In response, a translator could easily characterize the fort as stony, earthen, or wooden. But how could he ever be sure that she intended such a distinction? That would be impossible.

In fact, if she did consider the various components before selecting 砦, maybe she chose that kanji not for its stone but because 砦 contains 止 (to stop). That would fit perfectly with an army’s stopping in an impenetrable fort for weeks, doing so to stop the enemy.

Here’s a more down-to-earth take on the matter. Maybe the author would opt for 砦 because it’s the most common of the three toride kanji!

Mining the Wealth

If a novelist fretted over every kanji down to its components, it could easily take 10 years to finish a book. There are so many other matters to consider: stringing together sounds euphonically, sequencing words so as to emphasize the right parts, developing plot and characters (the human kind!), and the more mundane matter of not mixing up sound-alike kanji! Oh, and finding a publisher and attracting a social media following!

Is there also time to think about kanji that slyly extend metaphors or that make puns? What about the choice of kanji whose form matches their function? Or the rich information packed into the components of each character?

I don’t know how Japanese writers could manage to take all that on, too. Then again, how can they afford not to think in such a way?

Any writer has to mine the wealth of the language. I would think that people using an ideographic script need to master all of its dimensions so as to communicate with readers on every possible level.

As for the translators of such work, I don’t have the slightest idea how they can funnel audiovisual richness into a romanized script with only a phonetic function. Even if they find secrets and jokes tucked into kanji strokes, how can they possibly tell us about their findings? In addition to being superhuman, they must be rather frustrated!

Coming up on Monday:  a translator roundtable with Juliet Winters Carpenter, Margaret Mitsutani, Paul McCarthy and Phyllis Birnbaum.

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)
May 4:  Eve Kushner on kanji’s punning potential (Japan-in-Translation, No. 4)


26 thoughts on “Mishima’s Mischief — Eve Kushner on Kanji and Translation, part 2

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