Visit Page
Skip to content

Take your inspirations where you find them

Posted in Language

I'm reading a new-to-me famous Japanese work by Toson Shimazaki entitled Before the Dawn. It tells (at great length) the story of the experience along one of the famous mountain pass roads that connect the western and eastern parts of Japan and provide access to Kyoto and Edo.

Regarded in Japan (where it first appeared in serial form in the 1930s) as the historical novel of the period it portrays, this monumental work tells the turbulent story of the fall of the Tokugawa shogunate, an event precipitated by the arrival of Commodore Perry's Black Ships, and the early years of the Meiji Restoration. The focus is on a mountain village lying across the highway between Tokyo and Kyoto, which was used by the Tokugawa regime as a posting station, and in particular on its headman Hanzo, closely modeled on the author's father, a rural intellectual who suffers the tragic consequences of being a man ahead of his time. Shimazaki shows that the Tokugawa shogunate, for all its repressiveness, had much to commend it; that the restoration, for all its successes, created a great deal of frustration and disillusion; and that, contrary to common belief, Japan's transition from feudalism to the modern age was not a leap but a slow and painful process. The author's supreme achievement is to dramatize wrenching social and political change at the level of individual response. This viable link between event and character, coupled with Toson's limpid, low-key style, is what makes his story so readable despite the massive historical research that infuses it.

–Publishers Weekly

The edition I'm reading, from an unidentified translator, is fascinating, but not just for the story it tells. Instead, it's the insight into the Japanese language and its story-telling traditions that are really interesting.

You see, my edition is a fairly… primitive… translation. There are occasional typos, but that's not what I'm referring to. What I like are the raw renderings of the metaphors common to every language, and the imperfectly mitigated grammatical rules and conventions that are also apparent.

For example, when telling a story, it may begin in the past tense but there is a rapid transition to present tense for the story itself, so that it can be presented as playing out before your eyes. In other cases, there are confusions of gender (male adults who become girls as youths) which I assume reflect something real and conventional in the original language.

As an example of raw (unrendered for translation) metaphors, one lord sends help to a traveler in the form of “two men and two legs”. In context, I would suspect the “two legs” might refer to a palanquin (though wouldn't that need two men and thus four legs?). As another instance, people put their food down on a “ferry” and then eat. In context, the “ferry” is probably a flat platter of some kind.

And sometimes you can't quite tell what to do with a puzzling rendering.

Contrary to the expectations of the people who greeted them, Songun did not look so tired from his journey. He didn't look like a man who had sent six years of his life on a long journey and then went to Kyoto Honzan.

I'm sure that “sent” is a typo for “spent”, but look at what a wonderful phrase results: “a man who had sent six years of his life on a long journey.” Think of those six years sailing off and then returning to him to relate what they had done.

Gave me shivers when I read it, instead of my usual irritation at imperfect translations and copyediting.

Subscribe to My Newsletter

...and receive a free ebook: The Call, a short story that precedes the start of The Hounds of Annwn.


  1. I’ve missed your posts and your presence at TPV – glad to see it back.

    I admire your patience – I have so little for reading right now, and am forced to be patient with the writing due to the limitations of the flesh.

    This sounds like a fascinating story. I may never get to read it, but now I know of its existence. Maybe, if they ever get the monster that is ME/CFS under control (possibly because of research into another post-viral syndrome you may have heard of – long-covid), I have so much to read!

    May 21, 2021
    • Karen Myers
      Karen Myers

      Good to be back. I’ve had two disrupted years (various issues, including (now finished) health items). I’m finally back on track and starting the 3rd book of my not yet released series The Affinities of Magic. I’m planning on having 3 ready and the 4th started before starting to release them, 1 or 2 months apart.

      May 21, 2021
      • You’re a bit ahead of me on the trilogy front: mine is about 2/3 finished of book 2.

        However, mine are 167K or so, so I’m probably ahead on words on this one.

        You have no idea how hard I try to write shorter!

        Hope the issues are behind you enough so you can write.

        May 21, 2021
        • Karen Myers
          Karen Myers

          Yep — I’m raring to go. Just have some bookkeeping to finish up first…

          I already have 30 pages of key scene fragments — once I start letting myself go, it takes over my dreams. 🙂

          May 21, 2021

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *