Thursday, 31 March 2016

Remembering the Master Translator


Most Japanese today take the fact that they possess one of the most supremely integrated, rational and entirely beautiful languages in the world almost for granted. That the Japanese of the newspapers they read and the words they speak are one and the same seems only too natural. But it was not always so. In the mid nineteenth century, literary Japanese and the Japanese spoken on the street were almost two different tongues. The movement to combine these two forms (Genbun Itchi) represents one of the more epic achievements of the Meiji era and owes not a little to the exertions of one of Victorian England's most extraordinary geniuses. 

Born in 1822 and educated at Charterhouse and Cambridge (1838-41), Edmund Blutchett was noted from an early age as a linguist of prodigious capacity, having mastered many of the European and both the classical languages before his 16th birthday. An early associate with Dickens in 'Household Words' and a historian of the literary coterie, the Kit-Kat Club, Blutchett's interest in Japan appears to have been fanned by a Dutch account of a trading mission to Okinawa (then known as the Lookuu Islands). Blutchett proceeded to teach himself both Japanese and Chinese, the former primarily acquired from copies of the 'Kojiki' and 'Manyoshu' brought back by the Dutch. 

Throughout his life, Blutchett declared Japanese to be a linguistically simple tongue that with proper application could be mastered in a mere three weeks. Blutchett's lifelong hero had always been the French Egyotologist and decipherer of the Rosetta Stone, Champollion, and it seems that Blutchett too craved for a task that would match his linguistic genius. In the 1850s he produced translations of the Confucian scholar Arai Hakuseki, the acclaimed rendition of the 'Shinkokinshu' (still in print today), and the 'Footloose along the Tokaido' (Hizakurige), together with numerous Chinese classics. The popularity of these translations may be gauged by the degree of resulting interest in things Japanese throughout the British Empire and America in the 1850s, reaching its climax at the frenzied reception awaiting the Japanese at the Paris Exhibition of 1867. 


At the same time, Blutchett was a keenly practical man, an East Asian cartography advisor for the Royal Institute, and became the leading expert in Japanese art and pottery of the day. A meeting with Whistler at the Royal Academy Exhibition of 1854 turned the American's attention to the sumptuous beauty of the ukiyo-e print, inspiring his 'Sonata in Red, Green and Indigo' three years later. The American collector Freer would later record in his diaries that Blutchett was his platonic form of art connoisseur and dedicated a wing of his Washington gallery (pictured below) in his honour. 


Blutchett had numerous opportunities to sail to Japan, but refused them all, citing that his interest in the country was primarily in the literature, and for that why need he make a six-month passage? Others declared however that Blutchett had been mortally embarrassed when one of the first Japanese visitors to the West (from the insurrectionist Choshu clan) had entirely failed to make his simple greetings understood by the great translator. 

After the Meiji Restoration of 1868, an official invitation to visit was again tendered by the senior statesman, Hirobumi Ito, and Blutchett's reply in classical Japanese, while mildly berating Ito's slovenly use of honorifics, declared that Blutchett spoke only the language of books. This was published on the front page of the Asahi newspaper. A young reader of the letter, Futabatei Shimei (pictured below), wrote to Blutchett protesting his wish that one day a novel might be written in which the seemingly irreconcilable gulf between the written and spoken language be bridged. A fruitful correspondence between Blutchett and Futabatei continued for some years before the publication of 'Floating Clouds' (Ukigumo) in 1887-89, now held to be Japan's first modern novel. 


In the twilight of his life, Blutchett became much in demand for his translation services again as it became patently obvious that he was the best possible interpreter for such literary giants as Mori Ogai and Koda Rohan, Japan's failure to secure a Nobel Prize for Literature until 1968 was blamed by many on the absence of a second Blutchett. 

Blutchett died of stomach haemorrhages, alone and still a bachelor, in 1895. His brain was extracted and is kept in a jar in the British Museum and is still occasionally examined by cerebrologists. The rest of him is buried in Notting Hill.