'Simplified' translations made by the Jesuit Mission to Japan

Dr. Michael Watson

Lecture 2004-06

We made our way to Shibuya Kyôiku Gakuen in June through rain brought by a very large typhoon; fortunately for us (though not for those on the Japan Sea side) it pivoted north-east from Shikoku and the rain was letting up by the time we headed home. Our speaker on this occasion was Dr. Michael Watson, Professor of Japanese culture and literature at Meiji Gakuin University. He had taken as his subject "'Simplified' translations made by the Jesuit Mission to Japan" and his talk was very easy to follow as the points he was making were projected visually onto a screen by a Powerpoint presentation from his laptop computer. (Once again we are indebted to SKG for providing the necessary hardware.)

The works Dr. Watson was discussing were a version of the Heike Monogatari, published by the Collegio Amacusa in 1592, and of the Fables of Aesop, published in 1593. The purpose of these versions was to teach the Jesuit missionaries Japanese, and, in the case of the former book, also to acquaint them with Japanese history. A certain number of copies of these works have survived (although many were burnt), and there is a unique single copy in the British Library of the two bound together with a third work Morales Sentenças (Moral Maxims), translated from the Chinese (Sino-Japanese) Kinkushu. There are some three hundred versions of the Heike story, the most famous of which dates back to 1371, and the "simplified" one produced by the Collegio follows the original fairly faithfully; it is, unusually, in the colloquial form of the language, but was probably based on an intermediate version in the literary language. The Fables of Aesop were translated from Latin, and the colloquial Japanese version was probably similarly preceded by a literary one.

The Jesuit Mission Press was set up in Japan in 1590 and continued until 1610, when the Mission moved to Macao. Its output during this period was enormous, in the fields of both language and doctrine. Ernest Satow traced some of the doctrinal works, and printed them privately in 1888 under the title The Jesuit Mission Press in Japan, 1591-1610. Linguistic works include the Vocabulario da Lingoa de Iapam of João Rodrigues, published in 1603, and his grammar book, Arte da Lingoa de Iapam, published in 1608; a revised edition of the latter was published in Macao in 1620. The printing press for this work was brought from Europe by the four boys who had been sent there on a mission in 1582; on the way over, the Jesuits were trained in its use during lengthy stops at Goa and Macao, waiting for a favourable wind; it was put to use immediately on arrival at Nagasaki in 1590. What happened to it after the Mission relocated to Macao needs more research; some evidence disappeared in a fire in the 18th century. The actual site of the Collegio is not known ("Amakusa" might refer to the whole island as well as the town), but the traditional site is Kawaura, and there is a historical marker there.

The editor of the volumes is Fabian Fukan, born in 1565, who was at first a very effective proselytizer of Christianity but later apostatized and attacked his former faith with equal vigour. In his preface to the readers he first explains that in order to teach the Holy Word it is essential to know the customs of the country and to master the language. He then outlines the principles he has followed in simplifying the Heike Monogatari. He avoids calling the same person by alternative names and titles, and he precedes each name with a superscript letter to indicate whether it is the name of a person, place, office or the like. There is also a list of contents and errata and a glossary of the more obscure words, defined in Japanese, and the pages are numbered. One innovation he introduces is to write the story in the form of a dialogue, with the master answering the pupil's questions, though this form is not always rigorously followed.

The Heike Monogatari (Feiqe Monogatari) was a one-off, but the Aesop's Fables, by contrast, were the prelude to other 17th-century editions. One of these is printed in the movable type introduced by Hideyoshi from Korea, while another is an illustrated woodblock edition. The book seems to have been translated from the Latin/German edition of 1477/78 published by Steinhöwel in Ulm, and one-third of the book is devoted to the life of Aesop. The Japanese title is Esopo Monogatari, though the name is written in kanji as Isopo, (there being no kanji for e, only ye -- HEW). Though references to Aesop can be found in ancient Greek writers, no collections of his fables were made until imperial Roman times, and these became popular in Europe only with the advent of humanism. Aesop is said to have been born a slave in Phrygia, extremely ugly and incapable of speech. His master, finding him unsuited for work in the city, sent him to work in the country. The Japanese edition elaborates slightly on the reason for his being transferred. It also sometimes adds explanations to elucidate the narrative, or effects a cultural transformation; for example, in the fable of the lion and the horse, the lion sees his being kicked by the horse as a punishment for his own evil designs, whereas in the Japanese version he sees it as the result of pretending to be other than he really is. The translators do not try to change the geographical setting -- Greece and Egypt appear -- but unfamiliar objects are sometimes changed to familiar ones; thus figs become persimmons, and the nightingale is replaced by the cicada, both being harmless species which are renowned for their song. In the case of the Heike Monogatari there was not so much cultural transformation; some of the references to Buddhism were eliminated, but most were retained.

To sum up, the Mission Press produced remarkable examples of three very different texts. The Heike Monogatari is is a remoulding of a literary Japanese text in a colloquial form, with a mixture of dialogue and narrative, a radical approach which did not become fashionable until Meiji times. Aesop's Fables likewise were first translated from the Latin by an unknown hand into the literary language, and then modernized. Both works have made judicious cuts in their material, and have added explanations where necessary; they are also notable in their use of punctuation, and what was at the time the innovative use of the spoken form of the language in written Japanese. Dialogue is central to both works, and in the fables has the advantage of showing the hierarchy among the animals as exhibited by the levels of keigo.

Other information elicited during the question and answer session included: The covers of the original volumes bore illustrations, but the fully-illustrated Aesop came later. There were no illustrations till 1659, and often an illustration has no direct connection with its place in a book; blocks tended to "migrate" -- that is, a printer might put a picture from an older book into a new one simply because it was the right size. Not all books has numbered pages but they followed the custom of putting at the bottom of one page the first word of the next.

To a question about how slavery was explained to the Japanese, Dr. Watson replied that slavery was known in Japan; there was indigenous slavery, and also slaves were brought from places like Malaya. One illustration of Aesop shows him included with a group of better-looking slaves with a discount offered to anyone who would take him! Western illustrations of the period made Aesop dark-skinned, but in Japan he was raised to the class of a court jester.

Dr. Watson said the books were almost certainly the combined work of foreign Jesuits and native Japanese. The 40-page glossary was an extraordinary piece of work.

Why did the Mission choose the Heike Monogatari? -- its philosophy might be inconsistent with the Christian message. But the Jesuits attempted to give themselves titles that mimicked the Zen hierarchy; to the Franciscan missionaries who worked with the poorest of the poor, the social pretensions of the Jesuits posed a problem. The Heike was perhaps regarded as a linguistic model suitable for the Jesuits, who were aiming at the upper class. Rodrigues gives levels of language, and places the Heike in the middle.

Dr. Watson noted that, as in Portuguese, diacritics were used to distinguish the close o from the open one, the former resulting from a contraction of ou and the latter from that of au. (He could also have pointed out that the form of Japanese used was the shenshei, jenjen variety, which was the Kansai standard at the time, as opposed to the Kanto sensei, zenzen.. -- HEW) He further added that the Aesop texts were forgotten by the 18th century and then newly imported from China, so the names came out differently. But the fables themselves had come from many sources, Indo-European and others.

To a comment that modern Egyptian tradition made Aesop a crippled Ethiopian, black as ebony, Dr. Watson replied that the strongest tradition put him in Phrygia near Troy, the modern Anatolia. There are references to him in Plato and the tragedians (and as far back as Herodotus -- DS); his figure is there long before we have texts of fables ascribed to him.

To the question: Did the Jesuits conversely translate Japanese tales into Latin to help Japanese priests to improve themselves? the reply came, No, Latin was taught in the old-fashioned way, with primers of grammar, and European grammatical terms were used, very unsuitably, in teaching Japanese grammar. (They still are, in some language schools! -- DS)

Finally Prof. Charles De Wolf gave a brief vote of thanks to a scholar he had known for nearly twenty years, when both of them had been working for a man who had been a previous lecturer to the Society. At that time Dr. Watson had specialized in Anglo-Saxon; later his name had appeared on a Japanese linguistics mailing list, and acquaintance had been renewed.

The evening's programme ended with a presentation made to our retiring office secretary, Ms. Haru Taniguchi, as an expression of our gratitude to her for the capable and devoted way she has carried out her many tasks.