<gue> to fabulas

ESOPONO FABVLAS: Latinuo vaxite Nippon no cuchi to nasu mono nari (エソポのハブラス:ラチンを和して日本の口となすものなり) was a Japanese translation of Aesop's fables printed in Rōmaji in the year "Goxuxxe yori M. D. L. XXXXIII" (1593 AD) by -- who else? -- Portuguese Jesuits. And, as my link above implies, it is online. There are three books: Aesop's biography (abbreviated) (Esopoga xogai monogatari racu), the fables themselves (Esopoga tcucurimonogatarino nuqigaki), and a second volume (guequan) of fables.

The last three links in that paragraph lead to webpages which summarize, tabularocitously, the contents of each volume. Click on a story link in the second column to see the original text, with Japanese-orthography version below, followed by cross-references and related fables from different books.

For example, here's the horse and the ass:

Vmato, robano coto.

Aru vomani ychidan qecco>na curauo voqi fanayacani xite saite touoruni, robano miguruxiguenani vomoniuo vo>xete yuqiyo<ta tocorode, cano nori vmaga coreuo mite, nangi najeni vareuo rajfai xenu zo? tadaima vareuo fumitauoso<mo miga mamagiato yuyuxigueni nonoxitte suguitaga, sono vma fodono< rio<axiuo fumivottaniyotte, norivmaniua niyauanu toyu<te, coyenadouo vo>suru tameni giguye tcuca uaita. So<atte funtouo vo>xerarete denbacuni zzuru to qi, cudanno robani yuqiayeba, robaga tachitodomatte yu<ua: cocouo touoruua itcuzoya tai(m)en xita norivmadeua naica? satemo sono toqino nangiga qua g(o)nua itcuzonofodoni fiqicayete cacu asamaxu<ua nar(i)s(a)gattazo? vareua motocara iyaxij mi naredomo, (m)a da funtouo faco<da cotoua naito fagiximete suguita.


Fitoua yxeino sacanna tote, tauoba naiyaximeso: sacayuru monono tachimachi votoroyuruua mezzu rax(i)caranu xejo<no narai gia.

Man, so true. Pride coming before a fall? Totally mezzuraxicaranu. Some observations:

  • I really love that verbal 和す (to JAPANIFY [a writing system]) in the title.
  • Particles are not separated from the word they follow, which places more emphasis on that aspect of the syntax than modern romanization systems do (it's as if we wrote "thedog was chasing acat" in English)
  • The particle は (/wa/ in modern Japanese, but /ha/ in OJ) is <ua>, which is primary evidence that by the late 1500s the /ha/ → /wa/ change was well and truly complete.
  • On the other hand, at first glance it looks like the /wo/ → /o/ change hadn't yet begun; the particle を (MJ /o/, OJ /wo/) is <uo>. But then you notice that, for example, 置き (MJ /oki/, OJ /öki/) is <voki>. Assuming that "initial <u> → <v>" was an orthographic rule (not uncommon), this indicates that <uo> actually represented the mora which, in MJ, is pronounced /o/. Huh? Why? Because in the Edo period, that mora was pronounced /wo/. Y'see, the separate OJ morae /wo/ and /ö/ (the non-umlauted alternate /o/ never appeared as a consonantless mora, IIRC) had merged into /wo/ by Edo times, but they didn't become /o/ until later. Oh, Edo period! You so bilabial!
  • Similarly, words like 逢えば (MJ /aeba/, OJ /aheba/ (逢へば)) are written with a <y>: <ayeba>. Japanese mora ending in /e/ have a weird history in which they all started out different, then gradually merged into /ye/ (well, not all; /he/s at the start of words and morphemes were retained), then changed to /e/ relatively recently. The English word <yen> is another example of this.
  • Not to belabor the point, but <fito> for modern /hito/, etc. This one surprised me; for some reason, I thought that change had happened earlier.
  • Am I the only person who finds "lt" and "gt" unintuitive for < and >, and wants to use "lt" and "rt" (left and right) instead?
  • が and か in Chinese loanmorphemes (MJ /ga/ and /ka/, OJ /gwa/ and /kwa/) are still <gua> and <cua>*. (At first I was confused by <gue> and <gui>, but then I realized that that's just the Portuguese showing. I think.)
  • Were the morals (下心, which in modern Japanese usually means something like "ulterior motive") in the original, or did the Jesuits add them for the benefit of their local audience?

The full text of the Fabulas is also available here, although for some reason the capital letters are all double-wide but the lower-case ones are standard ASCII, so if your browser can't figure it out make sure you set it to view as Shift-JIS.

(No luck finding the Feiqe Monogatari, except for pictures of the cover.)

* Not surprising, because this lasted until pretty recently, especially in the upper classes. A history teacher friend told me that Hirohito still pronounced them this way.

Popularity factor: 8

Carl Johnson:

I have heard that くゎ died last in the Kyoto dialect, so it sort of makes sense that the Emperor would use it.

Kwannon is definitely a cooler name than Kannon.

Also, I live in Toyama and sometimes hear tiny y-s in 円. Particularly if the word before ends in ん, you get a kind of "ni sen'yen" sound.

Ian Myles Slater:

"Were the morals ... in the original, or did the Jesuits add them for the benefit of their local audience?"

I can't comment on the text in question, but there is a long history of "Aesop" translations, mostly adaptations. Sometimes a familiar proverb was substituted in the course of translation, even if the "fit" wasn't very good.

I don't know if the Jesuits were working with a moral-in-final-position text, which is what we now think of as standard, but they were certainly familiar with that format. I would not be surprised if they followed precedent in adapting Japanese proverbs, or even tried to work up their own proverbial-sounding formulations.

However, there is considerable variation found in the long history of the "Fables." The name "Aesop" is used to cover both Greek versions, in verse and prose, many anonymous, some with credited authors, and Latin adaptations (notably the verse "Phaedrus'), as well as innumerable translations into other languages.

There is a well-informed and lucid short discussion of the problems by Laura Gibbs in "Aesop's Fables" (Oxford World's Classics, 2002), which contains her translations of 600 fables drawn from all of the main ancient versions.

Some tellings of fables contain an internal "moral" expressed by one of the characters. Others have an external commentary. This is sometimes in the form of a title, and sometimes in the now-standard final position. And some are found with both internal and external formulations, but they do not necessarily agree on the "real" message!

Some translators try to impose uniformity; P.F. Widdows' translation of "The Fables of Phaedrus" (University of Texas, 1992) shows instead the considerable variation in a single ancient collection.

There is actually a translation called "Aesop Without Morals" (by Lloyd W. Daly), which tried to get past the childhood associations by omission. And, of course, there are versions of some genuine fables which don't provide any such neat formulation, so this wasn't completely arbitrary.

By the way, I would avoid the attractive-looking 1998 Penguin Classics translation by Robert and Olivia Temple, as "Aesop: The Complete Fables." It is a "complete" translation only of Chambry's edition (Paris, 1925-26) of the diverse "anonymous" Greek versions; alas, both the translation and their commentary are less than reliable.


Carl: I hear you. I also like "Kwaidan" more than "Kaidan". Re the extra /y/, do they say "yedamame" instead of "edamame" too? Because if so, that's totally awesome and you should put some sound files online.

Ian: Thanks, that was very informative. Clearly the Aesop situation is more complex than I thought. (Bummer about the Penguin edition, though.)

Big Ben:

This throws what I thought I knew about the は行 into chaos. Cool.

So was the whole は行 bilabial like modern ふ? I assume we're not talking about lip-biting English-style "f"s, right?


Yeah, as I understand it, there was never a labiodental "f" like the one we have in English. It went /p/ (bilabial plosive in ancient Japanese) → /F/ (bilabial fricative, like the sound in modern ふ, starting in the Heian period sometime IIRC) → the situation today (a bunch of different realizations, some of which have fossilized and are not considered to have anything to do with the は行 any more, like the /w/ in 会わない)


I actually wrote a short piece about the history of Japanese /p/->/F/->/h/ for a historical linguistics class. Poke me at my geemail (silentdibs) and I'll dig it up and post.


Found it...
AND my IPA fonts...

Ian Myles Slater:

Thanks. I could have been clearer about the source of the Penguin translation; it is based mainly on the 1927 second (and shorter) edition of Chambry, a collection which is restricted to prose texts.

For those interested in numerous versions of the fables, including ancient and medieval original-language texts, there are invaluable resources at Laura Gibb's website:

These include BESTIARIA LATINA and 1000 LATIN PROVERBS, and, most notably, AESOPICA.NET. The latter includes Gibbs' published translations, although not her notes and commentary, along with four other English versions, starting with Caxton in 1484.

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