Translating Japanese History: For Love, Not Money

Rendering Japanese history into English is an important yet seemingly little undertaken endeavour. The challenges are immense and the rewards not overly lucrative. It is no surprise then that few Japanese historians are given a voice in English.

This talk will describe the speaker’s own experiences in translating Japanese history by examining the difficulties involved in translating primary sources, secondary sources, and historical novels. There will be a discussion of the tools and resources available for translation in this field. In addition, there will be an examination of the differences in translation of historical novels compared to non-fiction historical texts.

In examining translation of primary sources, this talk will discuss the example of translating documents from the late Bakumatsu and early Meiji periods. Despite the availability of katsuji (printed writings) compared to hand-written texts, such as letters, there are still challenges with grammar, and searching for the modern version of old-use kanji (Chinese characters) is time-consuming. In particular, the challenges of translating kanbun (Chinese writing) and kanshi (Chinese poetry) written by a Japanese national will be considered.

Finally, the speaker’s own experiences in teaching Japanese history through the medium of English to native Japanese student’s will also be examined briefly.