Spontaneous pictures

Basil Hall CHAMBERLAIN's Japanese Things: Being Notes on Various Subjects Connected with Japan contains, under the cringe-inducing heading "English as she is Japped", many examples of Meiji-period English bloopers.

Clearly, the predominance of handwriting back then was a major factor in producing teratography like "There is no neceity exklain ally aeknorulebqe by thebll customers." But one of the errors is far, far more interesting. I'll let Chamberlain set the scene:

[A guidebook briefly mentioned] is, however, eclipsed by "A Guide on Hakone,"--a perfect jewel, which sells on the spot for "30 zonts.". Here is part of its description of the locality in question:--Whenever we visit the place, the first pleasure to be longed, is the view of Fuji Mountain and its summit is covered with permanent undissolving snow, and its regular configuration hanging down the sky like an opened white fan, may be looked long at equal shape from several regions surrounding it. Every one who saw it ever has nothing but applause. It casts the shadow in a contrary direction on still glassy face of lake as I have just described. Buildings of Imperial Solitary Palace, scenery of Gongen, all are spontaneous pictures.

There is nothing remarkable about this, in my opinion, until you get to that "spontaneous pictures" thing. This phrase is fun because it echoes some of the ambiguity and Western-influenced language evolution of its time.

The Japanese which inspired "spontaneous" was, I am quite sure, "自然の". In modern Japanese, you would almost always understand this to mean "of nature, natural". The writer wants to say that the scenery of Gongen etc. is as beautiful to behold as a picture conceived and created by a conscious human artist.

But the word they used was "spontaneous", not "natural", and this is because the two-kanji word 自然 originally had a more abstract meaning which you can get a feel for by, say, comparing the last sentence of several translations of Chapter 25 of the Tao Te Ching, the original of which was "人法地, 地法天, 天法道, 道法自然".

The identification of 自然 with "nature" as a concrete thing -- the set of all forests, lakes, etc. -- was, by contrast, a Meiji innovation, heavily influenced by Western thought. This guy claims that 自然 wasn't even used casually as a noun until the 1880s.

An unskilled translator who chose the wrong word from his J-E dictionary could make the same mistake today, obviously. But there is something evocative, for me, in the idea of someone more than a century ago, setting out to write a sales pitch for at a Western audience, using Western ideas that had already been successfully imported into Japanese thought-- and then stumbling at the final hurdle of getting it back into English. All the more so when you consider that what trips the writer up here is the legacy of a parallel process in which Chinese words and ideas were imported wholesale. All this, and who knows what other factors I remain completely ignorant of, tucked between two words in a casual description of some cheap pamphlet.

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Intriguing. That's all I can really say because this is way over my head. Intriguing nonetheless.

language hat:

"English as she is Japped"! The past is another country...


Yep, you'd never get away with that kind of language today...

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