Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Nihon Distractions and Apollinaire

Surfing the great interweb, I came across old Nihon Distractions today, and I read a great post about Ishikawa Takuboku and a book of poetry he wrote, On Knowing Oneself Too Well. While reading the review, and in particular the sections from Ishikawa's poem about smoking, I was put in mind of a poem by Apollinaire, Hôtel. I tried searching for Oliver Bernard's translation, which is the one I have in my bookshelf, but I could only find that wretched one in the above link. The French being mercifully simple, I decided to give it a go putting it into English myself.

My room resembles a cage,
The sun puts his arm through the window
But I who want to smoke and dream
I light my cigarette with the sunlight.
I do not want to work -- I want to smoke.

I later found a great version of the poem here.

Monday, 22 February 2010

The day's schedule: 教務だより: 凡事徹底

Coming into school this morning, I was greeted as usual by a resounding canon of ohayougozaimasu from vice principle & co. and also, as per usual, by a sheet of paper on my desk with the heading 教務だより (kyoumu-dayori) the school's daily schedule. Every day, these are filled with both useful and cryptic messages authored by the movers and shakers of Matsubushi Junior High, foremost among them, the head master. I normally begin the day by taking out my electronic dictionary and decoding the information. 「今日の予定」や「明日の予定」や「本日の出張」など、そういうものを。It is usually quite boring stuff, made up of groups of kanji with very little or no kana. It is, after all, a bulletin, so brevity is to be expected. For a student of Japanese it is often joyless work, slogging through onyomi and kunyomi, trying to elucidate some meaning from the funny squiggles. Today's schedule, for example, reads, simply, 3年期末テスト(1日目: ①数学②理科③国語④音楽美術) and 企画委員会(15:20-: 会議室) which indicate, respectively, that 3rd year students have their finals today in four subjects (quite important, I suppose) and that from 3:20pm there will be a planning committee meeting in the conference room, and I'm not really sure what goes on in those. I mean, I'm not exactly in a rush to find out what they talk about. Probably quite boring, I should imagine.

In a more exciting part of the schedule, near the bottom, was a 四字熟語, a four kanji aphorism, 「凡事徹底」, which reads bon-ji-tet-tei. I tapped away at my dictionary but to no avail. The term is apparently not in common use. I then googled 「凡事徹底 意味」 and my search bore fruit. According to quite a few blogs, the phrase means: 当たり前のことを当たり前のように徹底して行うことです, that is, natural things should be performed in a thoroughly natural way; which, in normal English, I suppose means, what is expected of you should be performed in a way that is second nature. A little more searching through blogs and company profiles who have used the phrase in some capacity brought me to this website where the company in question specifies, 私達にとって当たり前のこととは、お客様に満足していただくことお取引先に信頼していただくことです, that is, "For us, what you would call a natural thing is a customer's satisfaction, or a business partner's trust." So, for that company, those things must be, like, a priori, or axiomatic.

The aphorism has, on the school bulletin, been put in a little box and set apart from the rest of the notices. There is another little box near-by which also states the a priori 当たり前のこと of Matsubushi Junior High. These are: あいさつ, greetings; 服装, uniform; 朝の会, morning meetings; 帰りの会, meetings before going home; and 授業の充実, classroom fulfillment. The first four are disciplinary warnings; the teaching staff have to lay down the law, make sure things happen properly and stuff. The last is obviously telling us to make our lessons as interesting and educational as possible.

[Edit: I talk about the phrase 凡時徹底 again, later, here.]

Thursday, 18 February 2010

金柑の日 Kumquat Day

Today's school lunch was accompanied by two very small oranges, or so I thought. Actually they are called "kinkan" in Japanese, and though related to oranges and other citrus fruits, they are quite different. They have a taste similar to yuzu, though they are much sweeter; and as I began to fastidiously peel the skin of my first ever kumquat, I also learned from the well-natured laughter of my fellow teachers that they can be eaten whole, which they demonstrated to me in answer to my scowls. Ah, not the usual laughter, I was relieved to find out. In fact, whilst the skin is very sweet, the centre is somewhat more sour, so what you get is a really groovy contrast in taste, kind of similar those one penny sweets I used to eat when I was younger. Some people, I was informed, only eat the skins.

I have to say that one of the things I like most about the school lunches in Japan is that they showcase throughout the year the various seasonal fruits and vegetables, which is a wonderful way to enrich a child's education, I think. Nonetheless, there was a rather noticeable surplus of the kinkans at the end of the day, so I guess the students weren't so impressed. I was very impressed, however, by this revelatory fruit, so I pilfered quite a few on my way out the door.

The English name, kumquat, my electronic dictionary tells me, comes from the Cantonese, kan kwat, which means 'little orange'. Wikipedia begs to differ, however, giving the meaning 'golden orange' which I am more inclined to believe from looking at the original Chinese characters, 金橘.

Silly electronic dictionary!

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Monday, 15 February 2010

限りなく透明に近いブルー Almost Transparent Blue (page 1)

[Limitlessly Almost Transparent Blue: Though the Japanese title begins 限りなく, it is beyond me as to how it should be skilfully interpreted. Infinitely, Nearly Transparent Blue; A Blue so Close to Being Transparent as to be Limitlessly so; Blue Verging on Transparent Without Limit... Were some of my half-hearted, clumsy attempts to introduce infinity to Ryū Murakami's wonderful first novella's title. In the end, however, I can only defer to Nancy Andrew's immutable solution of omitting the infinite.]


It was not the sound of an airplane; it was the buzzing of an insect flying behind my ear. Somewhat smaller than a common fly, for a short time it circled before my eyes, then disappeared into a dark corner of the room.


A ceiling light reflects from the round white table, upon which there is an ashtray made of glass. A long, thin cigarette with lipstick on the filter smoulders inside. Near the edge of the table is a pear-shaped bottle of wine, on whose label is depicted a blonde woman stuffing grapes into her mouth from a bunch in her hand. On the surface of some wine in a glass, the reflection of the red ceiling light wavers. The ends of the table legs are hidden, sunk beneath the thick weave of the carpet. Across from me is a large vanity table. A woman sits before it, her back soaked with sweat. She stretches one of her legs, rolls down a black stocking, and then pulls it off.




“Hey, gimme' that towel, will you? The pink one. You got it?”

So says Lilly, as she flings the rolled up stocking in my direction. She's just come back from work, she says, and with her fingers she lightly pats the lotion she's holding onto her sweat-drenched forehead.

“So what happened next?”

[Thus runs the first page of R. Murakami's Limitlessly Almost Transparent Buruu. When I did this, I made a point of not looking at Nancy Andrew's translation; as soon as I had finished, however, I checked mine against hers, and I found it quite exhilarating, comparing our similarities and differences. Some sentences were almost identical. The first, for example; the only difference being she had written "wasn't" instead of "was not" - not so surprising, given the terseness of the original Japanese. Other things, however, she did quite differently. Of note, from the second paragraph, she translates present simple Japanese into the past simple English, lending the story telling a more natural tone. Thus, her version runs, "On the round white tabletop reflecting the ceiling light was an ashtray made of glass. A long, thin, lipstick-smeared cigarette smoldered in it..." What compelled, or allowed her to change the tense like this, I can't really say. In my mind, at least, her version works better, even if it does differ grammatically from the original. I have a small hunch, almost a worry, that perhaps Nancy Andrew has understood something about the Japanese text, and hence the Japanese language, that I as yet have not.]