Western tofu

Interesting passage in Sammy I. Tsunematsu's translation of Natsume Sōseki's Bungei no tetsugakuteki kiso 文芸の哲学的基礎 ("The philosophical foundations of literature"). Here Sōseki is talking about Guy de Maupassant's short story La parure ("The necklace").

One day, the wife, carrying a bamboo basket or something similar, left the house to buy Western tofu and unexpectedly met the woman who had lent her the diamond necklace some years before.

First of all, it's not a mistranslation; the original clearly says "bamboo basket" and "western tofu":


Nor is it Maupassant exhibiting the old Japanism, as a look at the original will confirm:

Or, un dimanche, comme elle était allée faire un tour aux Champs-Elysées pour se délasser des besognes de la semaine [...]
Then, one Sunday, when she was going to make a tour on the Champs-Elysées for to de-tire herself of the doings of the week [...]

So what is it? A joke!

Sōseki may not have remembered exactly why Maupassant's heroine was out and about, but he didn't seriously think it might have been to buy any sort of tofu. He lived in England for two years. He knew very well that Europeans did not even know what tofu was, let along go out with a traditional Japanese basket to buy it. No, what we have here is an intentionally ridiculous hyperlocalization conveying two things: (1) these details are not the important ones, and (2) this is a casual and fun story. Sōseki: proto-Kate Beaton.

(One change to Tsunematsu's translation I might have suggested is "to buy Western tofu or something" instead of just "to buy Western tofu," to to keep the handwave quotient as high as the original's. The explicit lack of concern for detail is how the joke works.)

Popularity factor: 4


This kind of humor feels like the absurd gags that Osamu Tezuka liked to insert even in serious stories.


Nice trail! I check translations and often find myself putting "Needs more irony" or "This is supposed to be funny", which aren't the most useful of comments. I'll add "Increase handwave quotient here" to my arsenal.




Hey, if you have a better amusingly off-key literal translation (preferably a cognate), I'd love to hear it!

Comment season is closed.