Amateur Translations: Bengarachou Hakubutsushi Prologue (1)


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1873 (Meiji 6)

Ueno (Present Gunma Prefecture) Tomioka

A Certain Factory…

The factory was newly constructed a year ago, and inside, with an air of courteousness resembling a newly ironed shirt fresh off the ironing board, were the systematically lined spinning machines, operating in tandem with a roaring noise. Women recruited from far and wide across the land were once again at their hearth-smithied, spinning-wheel-replacing, newly manufactured spinning machines… … but, though we dearly wish to call it quits at that description, there was still the separate building where the new cocoons from the silkworm shelves were being boiled in a massive cauldron – meaning that the whole had yet to be fully automatized – which makes us hesitant in painting such a laudatory picture of modernization. With that said, the management of the factory saw it as a large work in progress – a sign of the country’s growing prosperity! On the other hand there was that issue of the lives of the workaday ladies, for which we now designate the genre ‘sad histories of factory girls’ (or, in more academic terms, social realism) – but relating all of that would be a different story altogether.

But, at any rate, whether it was the factory women burdened with the lives of their families in distant hometowns, or the supervising officials holding dim and ambiguous visions, and related pressures, of what would be called the country’s ‘manifest destiny’ – both citizen and authority had their hearts unclouded about one particular deal – that this was all certainly the permeating atmosphere of the era known as the Meiji Era. And it wasn’t just that there was grim formality as the only mood, but a certain gambol filled the air as the country wholeheartedly decreed “make clear, make clear!” So, when the inspector left the spinning room with its zealously churning machines and body heat, and wandered into the hall to catch a breath – he came across the translator attached to the in-charge, loitering at the window (light glow of the sun streaming in) and flipping through the pages of his leather bound book – and even though such a matter was an indolent act worth criticism and censure, the inspector was in no state of irritation.

Inspector: “Ah, what a day… rest after a hard day’s work?”

The tone was intimate, and he had no air of seniority when interacting with the young translator (of roughly 20 years in age). The translator, wary of his position, decided to shift into a posture more befitting of the inspector’s status, but he kept his book open.

Translator: “Oh, no… the director is currently in a meeting with guests from his country. I think, most likely, those from his generation.”

Inspector: “Guests from over there eh? And furthermore, of his generation… I see, so you don’t have anything to do in the meantime… or, should I say, you were kindly expelled?”

Translator: “Possibly…I suppose.”

The translator had a crease of sadness in his brow, but as he parsed the inspector’s joke, he developed a light smile. Although the inspector used that kind of mischievous speech, he had no lack of respect for the director. And despite the fact that that person would be leaving after teaching all he could to the people here, perhaps returning once again to the distant lands from which he came – even then – a teacher should be given the proper respect deserved.

The inspector glanced at the spinning room for a brief while, ensuring that there was no trouble, before casting his gaze on the youth’s book. A red bound cover with gold leaf on the front, and that characteristic new leather smell, but, above all, a peculiar and exotic fragrance emitted from it. It was the men of this age that looked upon “goods from afar” with a mix of awe and longing, and he had the same gaze – staring at that particularly peculiar book.

Inspector: “Could that be… a French book?”

Translator: “Ah… yes, this was a present from a friend of the director, and he kindly bestowed it upon me.”

Inspector: “I see… so it seems that you are not merely skilled in speech, but you understand the written form as well. And, what kind of book is that – guidelines on management form?”

Translator: “No, not a heavy book like that… what I’m reading is called Le Tour du Monde en 80 Jours.”

And, both the fluency and the rolling tongue of the difficult French syllabary entered into the layman inspector’s ear.

Translator: “And, the meaning would be A Travelogue of Eighty Days… no, wait, it would be Around The World In Eighty Days – would be the better way to say it.”

Surely – the words he whispered at that time had to be the roots of the first ever translations to come to a country like this. In later years, when our country would birth that writer who would singlehandedly dream up Japan’s Science Fiction genre, this wonderful story would be one of those books just hot off the presses as well.

Inspector: “Excuse me?”

A slight loss for words.

Inspector: “To say that, in other words… in a mere 3 months, or something close to that span of days, one can make an entire trip around the countries of the world. That’s… kind of impossible, isn’t it?”

Translator: “But… a round-the world trip, if one were to think about the shortest path in a great haste, it would be from London to Egypt, cutting through India, going through San Francisco, and returning all the way back to London, and if you use a steam train as well as a steam boat to their maximum potential, it seems rather possible.”

Translator: “Although… that’s what I saw from just a rough skim reading.”

The torrential flood of location names, combined with the usage of a steam engine to cross to foreign lands, reminded the Inspector of a peculiar… something. This country had opened its own railroad a bare few years ago. The vision of a huge lump of metal floating across the water, sailing through the huge seas bringing about factory workers from foreign lands – that kind of knowledge was hard to envision. And the idea of the whole world map was still dubious to him… for there was surely still that concept of a huge savagery of lands, left behind by stories of ages past.

Inspector: “Those book makers over there are really amazing aren’t they? Being able to come up with something like this.”

The Inspector tried to conjure up an image of that spectacle, and then he gave up. Even travelling from Ueno to the Imperial Capital was such a large distance, and traveling from country to country was, quite frankly, and outrageous tale of fancy – there was no other way to describe it. Even then, as the Inspector brushed his eyes across the grinding metal gears spinning out stream after stream of thread in the very factory he was situated in, a casual thought entered his mind. Or, it could have been a premonition – after hearing from that young translator about the sights and sounds from distant lands, he felt as though his sensitivity was spurred. His gaze drifted into a far away space.

Inspector: “No, actually, it may be possible. If something like that were to happen, it may just be possible. In this world, that thing appearing may just be possible.”

Translator: “Really? But, this is… it’s just a fanciful story though…”

Inspector: “But think about it… and it may just be that you’re younger than me so you don’t have the sense of things yet – for example, gaze wide at this factory…”

Inspector: “If you had told me as a child, that I would one day see huge metal clankers mixing up thread like this – I wouldn’t have believed it at all…”

Inspector: “And there weren’t any talk of railroads… and we’d only just started seeing those foreign tar-painted ships – and just look at today…well, what about it? What do you think about today?”

Inspector: “Look at that today, with all these big clankers going at such speeds. And maybe… beyond the land and the seas, don’t you think we’ll be able to see one machine conquer the air?”

Translator: “A thing like that. I think, I’ve heard of people making that somewhere before, but…”

Perhaps it was that the young translator was drifting too much into fantasy, and he felt as though he had to bridle himself against falling into a delusory stupor – so he stirred back into opposite thoughts.

Inspector: “On the contrary, just think – in the blink of an eye, whether it’s Japan, or England, or America – there seems to be no limit to what can be done.”

And the young man felt something stirring inside, and turned back towards the older Inspector – struck with an even greater wonder & admiration than whatever was conjured by the foreign book that he was passing the time with – or, rather, it was surprise that appeared on his face in varieties of hues – truly something like that could happen… couldn’t it? The Inspector just an Inspector, but with his own words he had brought forth the image of a splendid future that was to be embraced with full arms. When he noticed the translator looking at him, he felt slightly bashful, and cleared his throat, returning to a posture of professionalism. He gave a bitter smile.

Inspector: “Well, that’s all just an old story. But that… Around the world in Eighty Days was it? It sounds greatly interesting. Perhaps, if you’ve finished it, would you care to tell me about it? What would you say about that Kawashima?”

Translator: “Of course, I wouldn’t mind at all.”

To help save his senior a bit of face, he politely complied, and but deep inside he was quite troubled with all the work he had, and in the afterhours he would be dragged into the splendid worlds of these Western books – although he hadn’t yet thought of pulling any all-nighters.

And as of yet, the man, Kawashima Chuunosuke, had no conception that he would be the first person to translate that tale of adventure for all the see.




Since Dan’s poetry (& his ‘omnisonnet’ form) taught me that poetry can be made from almost any kind of material with no boundaries, I was inspired to write this ‘omnisonnet’ about Kawashima Chuunosuke:

First Introductions

Grammar crept, when he saw Around
The World in Eighty Days – Kawashima must
Have fought at his desk, against the elephants

Of Verne’s Indian forests. Distant words
Stuck to his craw, in Japanese. He tried containing
All the steamships, steam-trains, and those far planes

Of adventure. French cadences edged
Into his head, clashing in narrow
Possibility. He didn’t think it could have been –
Made in 80 days. The world flanked outwards, giving

Him a headache as he pored – over mirages
Of decency slicked into prose. Thought bustling –
Shivered too. That Vernian adventure, in my head
As I stood in class with my Hajimemashite.