Volume 3, No. 3 
July 1999

Niculina Nae



Translation Journal
Social Change

Concept Translation in Meiji Japan

by Niculina Nae

1. Summary
In this article I offer a few considerations on the problem of the implications word import may have in cross-cultural translation. The discussion centers on the Saussurean dualistic model of linguistic sign, and it aims to point out a problem that is ever present in the Japanese language—that of word borrowing.

2. Introduction
Expressed in Saussurean terms, translation operates the transfer of an instance of parole (or, in Jakobson’s formulation, message) from one langue (code) to another. However, every langue is an autonomous system where elements are arranged in a particular order and are governed by specific rules, often different from other systems. The situation is more complicated if one considers not only internal rules that govern a language, but also cultural factors, which may render languages untranslatable. According to Saussure, the message is structured as a string of linguistic signs, organized according to a paradigm. In his view, the linguistic sign is a mentally construed dual entity, composed of a signified—the concept, and a signifier—the acoustic image. There is no necessary relation between these two, as there is no necessary relation between sign and its referent, which Saussure chooses to exclude from his definition. According to Nida and Taber’s concept of dynamic equivalence in translation, “dynamic equivalence is therefore to be defined in terms of the degree to which the receptors of the message in the receptor language respond to it in substantially the same manner as the receptors in the source language. This response can never be identical, for the cultural and historical settings are too different, but there should be a high degree of equivalence of response, or the translation will have failed to accomplish its purpose” (1969:24).
translators were confronted with the absence of not only translation equivalents for these concepts, but what is more, they discovered that the Japanese language actually lacks the realities behind these words.
In order to be intelligible and therefore acceptable (although acceptability does not necessarily imply intelligibility, says Nida 1986:243-44), a translation must aim at reproducing the content rather than the form of the message. If one puts this in Saussurean terms, translation is the process that transfers meaning from one language system to another. However, the transfer does not leave the object (the content, the meaning) intact, it changes it to fit into its new paradigm. One cannot speak about a perfect transfer of the same concept from one signifier into a different one, but rather about a transformation in both formal and conceptual levels; the transfer of linguistic signs can be represented as S'[Sr1/Sd1]—S"[Sr2/Sd2], where S' is the sign in the source language, with its components, signifier (Sr1) and signified (Sd1), and S" is the translated sign with a new signifier (Sr2) and a different signified (Sd2). Reproducing the content is more or less possible when both source and target language share the same conceptual framework. However, Sapir, Whorf, and others, who advocate the impossibility of translation, believe that our way of seeing reality is given by language, and culture is only one aspect of the irreconcilable differences between peoples. According to Umberto Eco, words and concepts are not mere entries in a dictionary, but moreover, they are cultural entities, since usage permanently adds new senses to the already existing ones. For examples the word “chien” is supposed to be the French translation equivalent of “dog.” However, when used as invectives, the two words cease their equivalence relationship and “dog” is more adequately translated in French as “cochon.” For Sapir language and culture move along parallel lines; he emphasizes that one should not make the mistake of identifying a language with its dictionary. He also notes “A society that has no knowledge of theosophy need have no name for it; aborigines that had never seen or heard of a horse were compelled to invent or borrow a word for the animal when they made his acquaintance” (Sapir 1963:219).
    The Meiji Restoration created the intellectual background against which by means of translations Japan became acquainted with new concepts such as society, individual, freedom, rights, God, nature, beauty, etc. When I say “new” I intend to say that, although the Japanese people were familiar with these notions, their way of seeing them was different from the Western image. As Yanabu Akira and other authors pointed out, the same word evokes different images, memories and reactions within receptors who speak different languages, not only through its multitude of specific, culturally determined connotations, but also through the concrete reality it refers to (e.g., the image “tree” evokes to an Englishman is different from that of a Japanese) (Yanabu 1978). However, the English “tree” and the Japanese ki are often regarded as equivalent, due to their shared features—they both denote “a plant having a permanently woody main stem or trunk, ordinarily growing to a considerable height, and usually developing branches at some distance from the ground” (Random House Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary). It is due to the concreteness of the referent that “tree” and ki are often translated one for the other. However, the case of such abstract nouns as “liberty” jiyuu, “common sense” joushiki, or “god” kami is much more complicated, because their referents cannot be perceived with one’s senses, and do not evoke any image in themselves.

3. Historic overview
Before approaching the core of the matter, a brief historic overview is necessary in order to introduce the premises of the problem under discussion.
  l  On January 3, 1868, a group of samurai succeeded in overthrowing the powerful Tokugawa shogunate, and gave Japan an unprecedented impulse to open to Western culture and civilization. A closed country with a rigid feudalistic system organized according to Confucian doctrines, Japan was virtually unknown to the world, and moreover, was in almost complete ignorance of Western culture. Few attempts to open the country had been made during the Tokugawa shogunate and earlier, but they all failed and the messengers of Western civilization went home disappointed. Among the ambitious plans of the group of young samurai who carried out the Meiji restoration were abolishing the feudal system, introducing modern industries, and, more important, promoting a new trend of thought that would inevitably result in creating a strong and internationally competitive Japan. The country gradually abandoned its moral, religious, and political principles and turned to Europe for guidance (Aston 1975:384). Translations from great European thinkers like Mill, Darwin, Spencer, and Kant, authored by Fukuzawa Yukichi or Nakamura Masanao, helped in disseminating Western ideas of the individual, freedom, right, equality, progress, etc. The absorption of these ideas prompted a change in the profile of the Japanese individual and his relation to the world. Thus, in the place of one who guided himself after Confucian and Buddhist doctrines of effacing the self, or always relating to and relying on the group, a new individual emerged, who was more aware of his individuality, and more success-oriented. A free and more materialistic individual replaced the traditional Japanese, who had existed in and through community only as an anonymous pawn in an intricate network of hierarchic relations.
    From the point of view of individual liberation, the Meiji enlightenment played in Japan the role the Renaissance played in Europe, where individualism was “a social system in which the individual is ideally alone in a secularized world, freed from the bonds of family and tradition” (Walker 1979:6). However, while in Europe ideas about society, individual, freedom, etc. took centuries to develop, Japanese intellectuals expected to assimilate them in a very short period of time. New concepts were rapidly introduced. Nevertheless, the translators were confronted with the absence of not only translation equivalents for these concepts, but what is more, they discovered that the Japanese language actually lacks the realities behind these words. As David Pollack points out, Meiji Japan embarked upon a quest for “ a viable sense of its own identity in the face of the West and, [...] within the socio-political terms of the need to invent, for the sake of modernization, an analogue to the Western “self” as the necessary precursor to the political concepts of “liberty,” “freedom,” and “rights” which are founded upon it” (1992:55).
    The disruption of Japanese cultural codes—so far dominated by Buddhist and Confucian dogmas, at the same time with the rapid introduction of totally unknown value systems, made them become obsessed with questions like “Who am I?” or “What is my place in the world?” However, says Pollack, before they “could ask ‘Who am I?’ they had first to ask an even more fundamental question: ‘What is an I?’” (1992:54). The absence of a new kind of self urged translators to create a new concept, modeled after its original. This process resulted in the dissemination of abstract and opaque terms, whose sense was unintelligible to the common reader, and, as Tsuda Soukichi points out, by means of intellectuals’ tacit understanding, Japanese translation of new concepts preserved the original concept, while changing only its name. This resulted in most cases in translations that were difficult to understand. According to Tsuda, Japanese translation of new concepts had the formula S'[Sr1/Sd1] – S"[Sr2/Sd1], where S' is the sign in the source language, with its components, signifier (Sr1) and signified (Sd1), and S" is the translated sign with a new signifier (Sr2) and the same signified (Sd1). It can be said that translation in The Meiji era encountered two major problems which are worth discussing here: one is the absence of translation equivalents for major Western concepts, and the other one is the acceptability of the newly created terms.

4. The avatars of society
In his book Honnyakugo Seiritsu Jijou (Consideration on the Formation of Translation Words) (1995) Akira Yanabu discusses the problem of concept import, pointing out that, like other words, the terms kojin—the modern translation equivalent of “individual”—and shakai” (society), started to circulate in today’s form and sense in the 10th year of The Meiji era (ca. 1876). Shakai appears in 1873 in Shibata Shoukichi’s English-Japanese dictionary, where “society” is given as nakama (meeting, assembly, party, association, club), kumiai (association, guild, union), renshu (companion, party), kousai (intercourse, association, society, company), icchi (union, combination, fusion, congruence), shachuu (colleague), and where, as it can be seen, the terms define society as an association, either in a friendly manner, or with the purpose of mutual benefit.
    According to Oxford English Dictionary 1994 edition, the term “society” is defined as “ 1. Association with one’s fellow men, especially in a friendly manner, companionship or fellowship; 2. The state or condition of living in association, company, or intercourse with others of the same species; the system or mode of life adopted by a body of individuals for the purpose of harmonious co-existence or for mutual benefit, defense, etc.” Yanabu notices that, as far as the Japanese Meiji society is concerned, only the first point of this definition was applicable, where society is a human association, companionship or fellowship, usually based on friendship. Indeed, the early English-Japanese and Dutch-Japanese dictionaries insist on the concept of association or gathering. Imamura’s 1796 Dutch-Japanese dictionary gives two equivalents for the term genootschap (society): a verb—majiwaru (to associate, cross, intersect), and a noun—atsumaru (gathering, meeting, coming together). Later on, in the first English-Japanese dictionary (1814) Angeriago Rintaisei, Motoki Masahide defines the term “society” as ryohan (companionship) or souhan (participation). A more comprehensive Japanese-Dutch dictionary was completed in 1855-58 by Katsura Hoshuu, entitled Oranda Jii (Dutch Vocabulary), where genootschap is translated as yoriai (meeting, assembly, party, get together) or shuukai (meeting, assembly). In Hori Tatsunosuke’s English-Japanese dictionary of 1862 Eiwa Taiyaku Shuuchin Jisho (An English-Japanese Pocket Dictionary), “society” appears as nakama, icchi (companions, colleague, comrade, company, party, circle, set, fraternity). There were also other terms given as equivalents: kumi (class, group, team, set) renchuu (party, company, clique) shachuu (clique), etc. Unlike “society,” which is, after all, “a system or mode of life adopted by a body of individuals (my emphasis), not one of these definitions takes the individual as the minimal unit for the human relationship.
    Starting with the end of the Tokugawa shogunate and the beginning of the Meiji era, “individual” was often translated as h’tori. However, h’tori seemed insufficient to encompass the whole range of senses implied by the original texts. In 1872 Nakamura Tadanao published his translation of J. S. Mill’s On Liberty, which opposes two fundamental concepts: that of society—which should exercise only a limited authority over the individual—and that of individual, who should enjoy sovereignty over himself. However, as both the notions of society and individual in the European sense appeared obscure and difficult to understand for the Japanese readers, in his translation, entitled Jiyuu no Ri, Nakamura chose to oppose two more palpable realities, contained in the actual hierarchy of the Japanese feudal society, namely seifu or nakama kaisho (the government), and ikko jinmin (one of the people) (Yanabu 1995:26). This choice is the more interesting if one takes into account the fact that the concept of society as Westerners perceive it did not exist in Japanese culture. However, it would be a mistake to think that at the end of the 19th century Japan was not an organized society. The word seken, as well as han (clan), kazoku (family) had been used for about a thousand years to express the concept of human association. Seken reflects a very concrete aspect of this relation, and although seken and shakai are often reciprocally defined, the former is seldom used as a translation equivalent of “society” (Yanabu 1995:19).
    According to Kadokawa Saishin Kanwa Jiten (Kadokawa Kanji Dictionary, Second edition, 1983), seken is defined as “1. world, this world, society; 2. extent of one’s association with others; people around oneself.” Nelson’s Japanese-English Character Dictionary (Second edition 1987) defines it as “world, society, life, people, society, the public; rumor, gossip.” It can be easily seen that while seken refers to the world in its concrete, palpable dimension, shakai denotes human association in an abstract sense. The Western imitation frenzy of the Meiji era imposed the larger use of shakai, since its abstractness gave the expression of a sense of refinement. Gradually, under the influence of the intellectuals gathered in the Meirokusha circle the term shakai started to be used not only in translations, but also in the works of some intellectuals. Nakamura Masanao, who in his translation of J. S. Mill’s On Liberty tried various terms for “society,” in an article published in the of Meiroku Zasshi magazine, No. 16 (1874) uses the term kaisha (written with the same characters as shakai) with a sense that is closer to the second definition of society, namely, it does not express the idea of association based on fellowship or friendship only, but it also denotes conscious association of individuals, based on common interests (Yanabu 1995:16). Finally, in his Gakumon no Susume (Invitation to learning) (1876) Fukuzawa Yukichi uses the term shakai no eiyo (social honor), which can only be attained through learning. It is opposed to worldly honor, whose prerequisites are not necessarily knowledge and virtuous behavior, but rather the validation of seken.

5. From pawn to king
Fukuzawa was keenly aware of the preponderance of power within Japanese society, especially under the long rule of the Tokugawa shogunate. He pointed out that history, science, and religion belonged to the rulers, while the ruled ones were ignored and were hardly ever present as distinct individuals. During Medieval Japan, the notion of human association, based on friendship, blood relation, neighborhood, and common interests was defined by words such as kuni (country, land, realm; province), and han (clan, feudal fief), which were associations of human identities, rather than individuals (Yanabu 1995:6). The individual self existed either as a paramount of virtues, refinement and harmony between man, nature and art (Prince Genji in Genji Monogatari), or as a samurai, who abandoned his self in order to attain enlightenment, and was dedicated to the noble cause of dying for his lord.
    The existence of the individual could not be conceived outside a strict hierarchy of relations and, more than that, legally the individual practically did not exist (Walker 1979:5-6). Fukuzawa Yukichi, whose papers aimed at disseminating the ideas of human equity and individual freedom and success brought a major contribution to the development of modern Japanese thought, attempted to coin a new equivalent for “society,” which would specify more clearly the concept of human, individual interaction. In his 1868 translation of Political Economy, for Use in Schools, and for Private Instruction (author and year unknown), he used, among others, the term ningen kousai as an equivalent for the English “society.” The term kousai, with its variant seken no kousai had been in use, but its sense was rather vague, and did not overtly imply individual participation. Other terms that expressed the idea of human association like “clan,” “family,” and “country” did not specifically point to an interaction between individuals. Moreover, the word kousai, which means “intercourse, association” implies an association between people as independent individuals, and not as a group.
    In 1875 Nishimura Shigeki made a presentation of Guizot’s History of European Civilization, according to which individual and society are the two fundamental elements that lay at the basis of civilization. In his presentation Nishimura translated “society” as nakama no kousai, and “individual” as isshin no mimochi. Since the word “civilization” derives from the adjective “civil,” which originates in the noun “city,” Nishimura opposes the individual who lives in town, who is knowledgeable, virtuous and refined, to country people, who do not possess such qualities. Individual in this context refers to urban dwellers only, and has a preponderantly moral nuance. Fukuzawa Yukichi chose to use an already existing word, hito, in his translation of F. Wayland’s The Elements of Moral Science (1863). The following passage from the original gives a clue to the conceptual gap translators were called to fill: “Every human being is, by his constitution, a separate, and distinct, and complete system, adapted to all the purposes of self-government, and responsible, separately, to God, for the manner in which his powers are employed. Thus every individual possesses a body...” (in Yanabu 1995:32, his emphasis). The Japanese individual was by no means self-governed and responsible to God—he was, rather, governed by his leaders and responsible to his superiors.
    The idea of an individual who stands alone before God and who is responsible for his own deeds was completely foreign to Japanese readers, and therefore their image of individual expressed by hito or h’tori and that of individual in the Western sense were fundamentally distinct. Translators attempted to create new terms, often unintelligible, in order to signal to the readers that there is a reality gap between the original and the translated terms. However, Fukuzawa did not introduce a new term, but rather used an old one in a new context. In Gakumon no Susume (Invitation to Learning) he discusses the problem of human equity, pointing out that “the man divinity created is neither above nor under the others” (my translation). He uses here the term hito for “man” and ten for “divinity.” The idea that individuals stand equal in front of God, totally new to the Japanese, reflects the outstanding role Western thinking played in Meiji Japan.

6. Intelligibility and acceptability
The problem of acceptability has always been connected with that of intelligibility. However, intelligibility does not guarantee acceptability, and, as Nida points out, it is not the prerequisite of acceptability. People are more attracted to a religious service that is conducted in Latin than in their own native language, because it sounds more exotic, and because people are rather drawn to something they cannot understand. The explanation for preferring an unintelligible text is that “the form of the language communicates associative values which far outweigh the lack of cognitive content” (Nida 1987:243). The case of shakai or kojin in Meiji Japan is no different. Instead of mediating between the language of the original and the target language, translators attempted to adapt the Japanese language to the newly introduced concepts by creating new and sometimes awkward words. Some of them were discarded, but some, like the two words mentioned above, were readily adopted mainly under the influence of the Meirokusha intellectuals, who were the promoters of modern ideas in Japan, and therefore, the elite of cultural life at the time. The fact that they were different from terms used in daily conversation (the case of abstract shakai vs. concrete seken) made them ideal not only as translation equivalents, but also the use of abstract terms was a sign of refinement and cultivation.

Modern Japanese displays an interesting case of word, or rather concept borrowing from Western culture. Meiji translators strove to establish a sort of dynamic equivalence between the original and the translation, creating new terms in order to describe realities, which were fundamentally different from Japanese ones. Their efforts resulted in creation of an almost new language that was adjusted to the new concepts rather than translating new concepts with already existing terms.