Monday, 14 August 2017

A kimono by any other name ... by Lesley Downer

Writing about old Japan, there are many words which are very difficult to translate. The architecture, customs, clothing, even hairstyles are so different that the words simply don’t exist in English. For the entirety of Japanese clothing, as diverse in terminology as our blouse, skirt, dress, etc, we have only ‘kimono’ and maybe ‘robe’ and ‘gown’ that come remotely close.

In Japanese ‘kimono’ just means ‘something worn’, ’clothing.’ It’s come to mean traditional Japanese clothing, usually women’s wear.

Maiko and okami-san (house-mother): 
2 sorts of 'kimono' 

Not surprisingly in pre-modern Japan, the period I write about in The Shogun’s Queen, the different parts and types of clothing all had different names. The basic garment which we call a kimono was a kosode. Then there was the uchikake, a rich brocade overgarment (‘brocade’ - does it really communicate the rich silk?) with a quilted hem that trails on the ground behind you. I tried calling it an ‘over kimono’ and finally settled on ‘mantle’ though ‘mantle’ evokes something quite different from an uchikake.

Young unmarried girls including maiko (teenage trainee geisha) wear furisode, kimono with long swinging sleeves, while one of the markers of the fully qualified geisha is that she wears a kimono with shorter sleeves.

As for the obi, do readers understand the Japanese word or should I translate it as ‘sash’ or cummerbund’?

And how to describe tea ceremony? Does ‘bamboo scoop’ or ‘bamboo spoon’ evoke the tiny exquisitely shaped artefact that you use to take two scoops of green tea? Does ‘bamboo whisk’ conjure up the delicate shaving brush-like implement you use to beat the tea?
Chasen, chashaku, chawan (bowl), natsume (caddy)

Then there’s traditional architecture. When you visit someone you slide open the door and step into an area I call the vestibule, the entry way or the entrance hall. It’s where you leave your outdoor shoes and is a good step below the level of the main floor of the house. There you’re still outside, you haven’t intruded into the house proper, so you call out. And when you’re invited in you’re actually invited to step up. But do vestibule or entry way or entrance hall sufficiently communicate all this? And does it matter?

My YA author friend Victoria James has been busy changing the language of her novel to make it comprehensible to American readers. Do Americans understand ‘nobble’? And what do they understand by ‘biscuit’?

This probably all seems very simple. Of course writers should be as understandable as possible, should do their best to make even the most foreign of cultures accessible. My editors naturally want me to make my text as comprehensible as possible.
Maiko in furisode

But what is the best way to take the reader on a journey to another place and another time? To what extent do we need to hold the reader’s hand?
Following the rule of accessibility I might write, ‘She put on her kimono and over it her mantle and went to the entrance hall and slipped her feet into her wooden geta clogs ...’ But supposing instead I wrote ‘She put on her kosode and over it her uchikake and went to the genkan and slipped her feet into her geta ...’

Supposing I used chashaku instead of bamboo spoon and chasen instead of bamboo whisk and genkan for the entrance hall of a Japanese house?

In Sea of Poppies Amitav Ghosh is completely unforgiving. He peppers his sentences with foreign words. Some you understand straight away from the context, for some you have to flip back to the last use of the word and some you never understand. You just have to glide over them. He uses no italics and there is no glossary.

For example:: ‘... this was no ordinary ship bearing down on him but an iskuner of the new kind, a ‘gosi ka jahaz’, with agil-peechil ringeen rather than square sails. Only the trikat-gavi was open to the wind and it was this distant patch of canvas that had woken him as it filled and emptied with the early morning breeze. Some half dozen lascars sat perched like birds on the crosswise purwan of the trikat-dol, while on the tootuk beneath the serang and the tindals were waving as if to catch Jodu’s attention.’
'Sash'? 'Cummerbund'?
The green garment is the ends of the tayu (courtesan)'s obi,
knotted at the front to indicate that if you are rich, lucky
and bold enough you might be allowed to untie it. 

Speaking in New York he said that growing up in India he’d read English literature voraciously. He’d read, for example, the word ‘marshmallow’ and though he didn’t know that it was soft and white he knew it was edible and that was enough. He argued that it wasn’t necessary for the reader to understand every word but that the use of authentic words of the era created white noise, a phrase which evokes rather wonderfully the creation of atmosphere in fiction - though some might argue that he does take it rather far.

To me it raises very interesting questions. How do we write about a very foreign culture? How many foreign words can we include? Do they give atmosphere or hold up the reader? Following Ghosh’s example, could I use kosode and uchikake, and if not, why not? Ghosh’s language is actually quite difficult but that doesn’t stop you reading.

To quote him: ‘Language in novel works differently from language in journalism — it establishes atmosphere and background. Each good novel has white noise — filmmakers do it through visuals. Novelists do it with words, and so one must throw as a writer everything into the mix.’

Lesley Downer's latest novel, The Shogun's Queen, is now out in paperback. For more see


Susan Price said...

A personal view: if a book continued to bombard me with collections of letters that convey no meaning to me, as the passage you quote from Ghosh does, I would quickly stop reading. 'White noise' after all is principally used as a torture.

I was fascinated by the different names for Japanese clothes, utensils and rooms and would enjoy reading about them - but I would want to have some understanding of what these new words meant.

For me, anyway, clusters of incomprehensible verbiage don't create 'atmosphere.' They create confusion and annoyance.

Michelle Ann said...

Reminds me of Master and Commander, where so many nautical terms are used, there is even a separate glossary you can buy to explain them. It didn't stop me reading though, as I just gathered they were adjusting the ship, and could skip over it, but if the terms were fundamental to understanding the story, I would have found it very irritating.

Leslie Wilson said...

Yes, to a lesser extent I have had that problem writing about Germany. I have seen people who have included actual phrases in other languages without translation - like the German I was proud to supply Hilary Mantel with, for use in Wolf Hall. There is a way of doing this which can make it quite clear from the context what is meant. I think many readers must like the inclusion of words from the culture, and clearly people's reception of such things are various. Using the actual words in the Ghosh book seems to me to supply richness and colour, and yet, I would have liked to know, if the sails weren't square, what shape were they, and surely it would have been possible to say ''oblong' or whatever shape they were, agil-peechi ringeen.' The tootuk beneath the serang and the tindals is taking things a bit far if you ask me, and sounds like jabberwocky. I used to jump over words I didn't understand when I was a child, rather than looking them up, and sometimes my guesses from the context were correct, but I think I lost something also thereby, and as an adult, I do like to find out.
However, I think obi is fairly commonly understood, and I'd feel myself it could be used. I think putting a glossary at the end is a good thing, and it's what I'd do and appreciate.