Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

Oriental Translations: Linguistic Explorations into the Closed Nation of Japan

Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

Oriental Translations: Linguistic Explorations into the Closed Nation of Japan

Article excerpt

If linguistic translation can be figured in metaphorical terms as going abroad and returning with foreign knowledge, perspectives, and wealth, the literal counterpart to this movement is the overseas journey. During the long eighteenth century, Japan represents a singularly foreign destination, both linguistically and experientially, for European travelers. Enforcing a policy of sakoku (literally, "closed country," which lasted from 1639 to 1854), Japan stands as an anomalous nation in a time when elsewhere in the world mercantile and intellectual commerce increased. However, complete national closure functioned more readily as an abstract ideal than as a tenable practice. Motivated by a desire for foreign products, the Japanese at this time permitted a limited trade with China and Holland. One area, however, where the ruling Shogunate attempted to enforce complete control is that of textual or linguistic exchange. Not wanting foreign ideas and influences to enter their nation, Japanese officials banned the ownership of all foreign publications by Japan's citizens and confiscated all books from foreign traders for the duration of their stay in Japan. The communication that the Japanese government allowed between its citizens and the Chinese and Dutch merchants took place ostensibly only through the means of its state-employed interpreters. Despite these formidable restrictions, information about Japanese culture and history does reach Europe. The two works that I examine here, published in the late-seventeenth and the mid-eighteenth centuries in English from translations of Dutch and German works, attest that the "closed" nation, especially the linguistically hermetically sealed one, is ultimately an impossible construct. These works both document instances of Western fascination with the Japanese language, linguistic difficulty, mistranslation, the surprising transfer of information that gives insights into Japanese life, and the metaphorical translation of Japan into often unlikely idioms and concepts so as to render it comprehensible to European readers. The convergence of these two factors-European texts that deal with issues about translation and language, and Japan, a country that actively tries to resist all translation-provides a particularly fruitful locus to examine ideas about translation in the long eighteenth century.

The first work, Atlas Japannensis, published in 1669 in Dutch by Arnoldus Montanus and then "English'd"-substantially altered, added to, and published by John Ogilby in 1670-is a sprawling and heterogeneous work. The English text represents a translation practice whereby the "original" text provides the raw material for what becomes a substantially different work. For this reason, when writing about Atlas Japannensis, I take the unconventional step of referring to Ogilby as the work's author and refer to his English edition. Atlas Japannensis is an elaborately illustrated attractive folio of limited factual accuracy. Providing comparatively little information about Japan relative to the substantial volume of text, Ogilby constantly compares Japan to biblical and classical models. This work reads as the product of a historical juncture when beliefs in a universal humanity begin to give way to a more fragmented pluralized view of human existence. The second, Engelbert Kaempfer's five-book A History of Japan, published first in English translation in 1727 (more than fifty years before it eventually appeared in its original German), is a well-organized and scholarly text. Based on the author's detailed personal observations and his reliance on historical accounts written in Japanese-and surreptitiously yet efficiently translated for him by his personal interpreter-the History remains throughout the eighteenth century a comprehensive and authoritative work on Japan. It does, however, move into the realm of fancy, when in the face of considerable evidence to the contrary, Kaempfer asserts that the Japanese are a "pure" race and that their language is the "original" sacred Babylonian tongue. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.