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'
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 www.lesleydowner.com.