A Shôguness vex

Another object lesson from the early modern Translation Wars: Japanese plays (versified) (love the parentheses there), published 1890 and credited to "the late Thomas Russell Hillier McClatchie, interpreter, H.B.M.'s Consular Service, Japan; edited by his brother, Ernest S. McClatchie (author of 'False Plumage,' 'Stefan Melikof,' &c.)." Oh, those McClatchie brothers.

"This book," Ernest McClatchie explains in the preface to the new edition, "was originally published at Yokohama eleven years ago, and—taking into consideration its success out there—it has been thought fit to bring out a New Edition, in the hope of the rhymes being found of some interest to readers in England, who may desire to become better acquainted with the style and character of play-acting in the Far East."

On the other hand, the preface to the first edition disclaims the whole collection as mere "efforts to sketch, in a cursory manner, the general outline of the plots of these drama," which despite the repetition of the "style and character" thing in the next sentence raises serious questions about the extent to which readers in England would become even slightly better acquainted with the style or character of Far Eastern play-acting.

The original preface continues:

A Japanese play, as a rule, lasts for many hours, and it is questionable whether it would, if literally and fully translated, possess any interest for the foreign reader. The plan here followed has been to select one personage as the hero or heroine, and to give an outline of those scenes only in which that particular personage appears; for this reason several of these rhymes are termed 'Fragments'. A Japanese audience, though certainly sympathetic, differs considerably from a foreign one: the spectators here are by no means averse to showing their amusement when an unfortunate woman is murdered by mistake, but are easily moved to tears when the murderer finally commits suicide after a long speech garnished with grandiloquent allusions to the spirit of 'loyalty' that caused him to perpetrate the outrage in the first instance. Thus, in endeavouring to versify these plays, no style has appeared so apt as that of the "Ingoldsby Legends," that delightful mixture of pathos and bathos, of true poetic expression and of jingling rhyme. This idea has been kept in view throughout.

I am, I confess with shame, unfamiliar with the Ingoldsby Legends. Still, the idea is quite clear from the very first chapter, entitled "Hayano Kampei" and introduced as a "fragment from the play of the Chiusbin-gura," i.e., the treasury of loyal bottles. (Ha! No, is my joke for print mistake of "b" for "h".)

Yoichibei, leading a woodcutter's life,
Is bless'd with that treasure,— a virtuous wife;
And, as happens with most married folks who agree,
The pair are as happy as happy can be:
   Though lowly their lot,
   And humble their cot,
Though the winds may blow chill, or the sun beat down hot,—
Yet little they reck, in their mountain retreat,
Of the strife of the city that lies at their feet;
Content with each other, they dwell in the hills,
Each halving the other's joys, labours, and ills;
   Their pleasures they share,
   Their trials they bear,
And, in fact, all their neighbours are wont to declare
That they never yet saw such a jolly old pair!

And it just goes on like this. Characters are spared no indignity if a rhyme is at stake. When the forty-seven ronin see their daimyō forced to commit hara-kiri, their principal response is to "growl like the deuce", so that the next line can end with "use." A robber "settle[s] Yochibei's 'hash'" on the road solely to rhyme with "flash."

And the macaronisms! Here's a bit that incorporates material from three external languages in as many lines:

So dutiful, charming, so gay and so free,
And possessed, above all, with happy esprit;
Her tasty attire might a Shôguness vex,—
"Munditiis," Horace would tell us, "simplex"!

Ah, for the days when you could expect a mass audience to know how many syllables to pronounce "munditiis" with. Not that McClatchie expected his audience to remember all their lessons:

   Straightaway all his joy
   Turns to 'otototoi,
(That's a word, reader, known to the youngest school-boy;
But if you by chance have forgotten your Greek,
To enlighten your ignorance here I will speak;—
Victor Hugo explains it, then, dearest lecteur,
As a term that parfaitement exprime la douleur).

"The Enchanted Palace" on page 97 is another highlight. McClatchie introduces it as "a fragment from the original Japanese play of 'Saiyuki' ('A Trip in the West')", which is by far the aptest rendering into English of that title I've ever seen. Oddly, McClatchie selects as his hero not the irrepressable Monkey but rather "Bishop Sanzô, that eminent man/ The most popular preacher in all Hindostan!" (I should note, however, that McClatchie later claims that "Bisho Sanzô" can play the banjo and tin whistle, which leads me to doubt this "popular" story.)

McClatchie's work clearly bears some resemblance to Shōyō's jōruri Julius: free adaptation into a form both wildly different from the original and highly specific to the target culture. The obvious difference is tone: McClatchie is jovial, Shōyō deadly serious.

Of course, light verse does not lend itself to solemnity, nor jōruri to slapstick, so perhaps it would be better to identify the main difference as intention. Although both translations are framed as attempts to make the source material accessible outside the original language, McClatchie strives first and foremost (and perhaps a little too hard) to entertain his readers — who, after all, he expects to be seeking only "some slight acquaintance" with the original. Shōyō, on the other hand, wanted to improve his readers, and indeed their entire culture. To judge from his own statements, his injection of Julius Caesar into the jōruri form was not caprice, but rather an earnest attempt to hybridize Shakespeare with traditional Japanese theater to create a new art combining the strengths of both. This is the Meiji Japan-Contemporary Europe relationship in a nutshell.

Popularity factor: 9


Fascinating! That really is a perfect example. That Chushingura is a mess though.

L.N. Hammer:

I am, I confess with shame, all too familiar with the Ingoldsby Legends, and as soon as I read that, I knew that we connoisseurs of crashingly bad verse were in for a treat. The specimens fulfill my every expectation.



Dear God.

... For, only see there,
In the midst of the Square,
Where, perch'd up on poles six feet high in the air
Sit, chained to the stake, some two, three, or four pair
Of wretches, whose eyes, nose, complexion, and hair
Their Jewish descent but too plainly declare ...


Note that from our POV McClatchie seems as quaint and ridiculous as these Japanese plays seem to us. I hope I live to see the culture that snickers at us in its turn.

language hat:

There's a much worse passage in the opus Shii links to, beginning:

'There's one plan,' he resumed, 'which with all due respect to
Your Majesty, no one, I think, can object to --
-- Since your Majesty don't like the peas in the shoe -- or to
Travel -- what say you to burning a Jew or two?
Of all cookeries, most
The Saints love a roast!
And a Jew's of all others the best dish to toast...

I haven't the heart to quote the rest of it, but if you have a strong stomach, you know where to find it.


Er, I mean, McClatchie seems as ridiculous to us as the original plays (apparently) did to HIM.

I'm afraid to read any more of that one Shii and Hat found.


I can't resist, even if there are two Latin words.

"And possessed, above all, with happy esprit; / Her tasty attire might a Shôguness vex,— / 'Munditiis,' Horace would tell us, 'simplex'!"

"Straightaway all his joy / Turns to 'otototoi."

Everybody sing:

One Latin word, one Greek remark,
And one that's French!

Tim May:

The RSS feed's broken again, Matt.


Fixed! Sorry Tim.

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