The old woman who lived under a hill

Sorry again, people, this time work was literally breaking off my legs and feeding them to gorillas. Literally. I should be back on track for a Monday-Thursday posting schedule now, although it will be less convenient to walk to the bookshelf for reference material.

As I was saying, I have a lot of respect for the early 20th-century Mother Goose translations by KITAHARA Hakushū 北原白秋, but there are some cases where I feel he did not really grok the original. Consider the Old Woman who Lived Under a Hill. This is the two-line version I heard as a kid, and apparently the basis for Hakushū's translation:

There was an old woman lived under a hill
And if she's not gone, she lives there still.

What I liked about this one as a child was the meta aspect. It starts off like any other nursery rhyme, giving us a peculiar character as if to set the scene for an enumeration of their dietary or sumptuary quirks — but then shuts down immediately. The listener is caught off-balance; the other shoe has dropped much more quickly and unproblematically than expected. (Note, though, that the poem is not nonsense: on the contrary, it makes perfect sense. It's a whole 'nother genre of disingenuous poesy.)

Now take a look at how Hakushū handles this:


First, I interpret oka no fumoto as translatorial treachery, overcorrection: the woman does not live "at the foot of [that] hill", she lives under it. She is not some rustic everywoman: she is a fairy-figure, a suboronian. (And if this isn't what the original intended meaning was, that's what it should be now.)

The second problem is one of structure. Hakushū's version has too much of it. It's recast in proper four-line kishōtenketsu 起承転結 form, if you like: "Beginning, development, turn, conclusion." The actual information there is basically the same as the English, apart from the matter of relative hill placement, but the lines are too long: the whole thing becomes a balanced quartet.

Compare to the English, which is unusually short, cut off at one couplet where you would usually expect at least two. (Er, notwithstanding the versions of four lines and more that also exist.) It's a kiketsu structure, if you like, but Hakushū has failed to maintain it.

Popularity factor: 8

language hat:

Even as a child, I understood it to mean "at the foot of a hill." But I am deficient in fantastic imagination.

Tim May:

I don't think I've ever seen this one before, but I agree with Matt's interpretation. Possibly because I am familiar with "There was an old woman who lived in a shoe", and therefore primed to expect a fantastic dwelling.

Leonardo Boiko:

There’s an anti–fairy-tale in Portuguese with a similar subtle conclusion that catches you unaware. It rhymes in the original, and goes like this:

Era uma vez
um gato xadrez
pulou a janela
e virou japonês!

I couldn’t do English poetry for my life, but a literal translation would be:

Once upon a time
’twas a checkered cat.
He jumped the window
and became a Japanese!

My wife’s father often told her this when she asked for a story, and she <i>hated</i> it. She would begin to protest at the second sentence. Sometimes he' trick her using the postponed adjective of our syntax, like, “Once upon a time there was a girl called Little Red Riding Hood… <i>xadrez</i>[checkered]”, and then engage the rest of the verse. Of course she hated that even more. Now we tell this story to our own 3-year old, who has similar reactions.

Leonardo Boiko:

Er, I meant SUDDEN conclusion, not subtle conclusion.


I was afraid I was going out on a limb there with that "under the hill" thing. But really. These people live in shoes, they fly in umbrellas... living under a hill is really a very minor and believable peccadillo.

Leonardo: That's great! I'll have to save that one (figure out an English translation first I guess)


Great post, made still greater by the fact that (judging by Google) it's the only place on the entire interwebs to contain the word "suboronian". Omedeto!


re 'under' used in English when refering to location...what about place names such as Newcastle-under-Lyme..? Lyme being (probably) a river or stream..surely the old meaning of 'under' means at the foot of or nearby or near the source of...I mean if the place was literally under the Lyme it would be buried and not visible at all.

So under the hill and the Japanese translation are as far as I can see a decent stab.


Yeah, it's certainly a plausible interpretation, by far the most plausible if we exclude from our analysis the fact that this is a Mother Goose rhyme. I guess calling Hakushu's translation _objectively_ wrong was an error. I still feel though that he at least should have found a more ambiguous way to say it

Comment season is closed.