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  • A Cultural History of Translation in Early Modern Japan by Rebekah Clements
  • Matthew Fraleigh
A Cultural History of Translation in Early Modern Japan by Rebekah Clements. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015. Pp. xii + 275. $99.99 cloth, $80.00 e-book.

Early modern Japanese read and wrote in a wide array of languages and registers: classical and contemporary Japanese, literary Sinitic, vernacular Chinese, and multiple European languages, among others. In a fine study that is rich in detail yet broad in scope, Rebekah Clements explores the range of practices employed in traversing the intralingual and interlingual borders of this textual terrain. With thoughtful analysis and clear prose, Clements analyzes the diverse ways in which various forms of linguistic difference were conceptualized during the early modern era, as well as how scholars understand them today.

The book’s opening chapter explores the status of language within the cultural and social context of early modern Japan, a period that saw a marked rise in the awareness of diachronic language change. While such sinologists as Ogyū Sorai 荻生徂徠 and Itō Jinsai 伊藤仁斎 brought philological sensitivity to bear on classical Chinese texts, their work also stimulated “national learning” scholars to apply analogous approaches to texts from Japanese antiquity. Clements identifies historical shifts that prompted novel approaches to classic texts, stimulated new conceptualizations of language as an abstract category, and afforded a more prominent role to the act of translation. Two particularly notable and intertwined developments dramatically transformed the seventeenth-century intellectual landscape: the emergence of a commercially viable publishing industry and the spread of literacy far beyond court, monastic, and warrior elites. Texts of longstanding cultural significance to those groups began to reach a broader population of readers, and they were also subjected to new scholarly approaches, including translation. Suzuki Toshiyuki 鈴木俊幸 has shown that Japan, from the latter part of the early modern period, was swept by nothing less than a “reading fever,” as the publication of newly accessible editions of abstruse classical texts enabled eager readers to study those works on their own.1 Building on this and other work, Clements [End Page 184] highlights how the shift toward more empirical approaches to scholarship, new attitudes toward the transmission of knowledge, and a widespread hunger to make use of and also contribute to a body of public information fostered the production of texts in which translation figured as an important technique of scholarship, education, and dissemination.

The heart of Clements’s book lies in its central three chapters, each of which examines early modern Japanese translation as practiced with respect to a particular category of source: texts in classical Japanese, in various forms of Chinese, and in Western languages. She follows these three chapters with a chapter exploring how the context in which translation took place shifted at the end of the early modern period, as official sponsorship for translation projects expanded in response to the crises that confronted the shogunate at the turn of the nineteenth century. A concise conclusion recapitulates some of her principal findings, while offering a brief consideration of continuities and discontinuities in translation practice on either side of the Meiji Restoration.

Beginning with source texts in classical Japanese, Clements notes that the late seventeenth century saw the printing of classical Heian literary texts in inexpensive editions, many of which came with glosses, headnotes, and other explanatory material. A rich commentary tradition had developed around the Heian classics during the medieval period, but such knowledge was typically conveyed by secret oral transmission or circulated only in manuscript. To satisfy the needs of a broader readership that was less well-educated but nevertheless interested in these materials, early modern commercial publishers began to produce print editions of some medieval scholarly commentaries on the classics, such as the fourteenth-century Genji kokagami 源氏小鏡 (A little mirror of [The Tale of] Genji), a digest focused on the many poems in The Tale of Genji (Genji monogatari 源氏物語).

New types of texts emerged at this time as well, and Clements adopts a suitably capacious understanding of “translation” to cover a range of approaches through which early modern writers presented classical Japanese literary texts. These approaches included not only digests and commentaries but also parodies and...


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pp. 184-190
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