Over the years and with the growth of knowledge among collectors, the translation of signatures on swords has considerably improved. However, there are some citations of mei going round whose translation is correct but whose grammar of the quoted Japanese inscription is not. Some might call me nitpicking but my intention is to draw up an article which serves as a guideline for others who have to translate sword signatures. First of all it has to be mentioned that the vast majority of all signatures on swords are inscribed in the kanbun syntax (漢文), the Classical Chinese notation. But one has to know that they were read in the Japanese way, that means the reader reproduced the signature in his mind or in words in the proper Japanese grammer. As a basic introduction, the Wikipedia article on kanbun provides a decent overview.
Well, let us begin with the most common cases, namely the mention of „made by“ or „forged by“. In a signature, this is inscribed as (国広作之), (国広造之) or (国広鍛之) for example. Now in earlier years, such signatures were translated character by character, i.e. as „Kunihiro saku kore“, „Kunihiro tsukuru kore“ and „Kunihiro kitau kore“ respectively. It would be harsh to say the citations are incorrect but at least they are from the point of view of grammar. The correct reading is namely „Kunihiro kore o tsukuru“, „Kunihiro kore o tsukuru“ (yes, the same tsukuru reading) and „Kunihiro kore o kitaeru“ respectively, whereas in the latter case, also „Kunihiro kore o kitau“ is possible.
Also often found are inscriptions which mention where a blade was made, for example (於南紀重国造之). Frequently, such a mei of Shigekuni is translated as „Oite Nanki Shigekuni tsukuru kore“ but correct is „Nanki ni oite Shigekuni kore o tsukuru“. The character oite (於) marks that what follows refers to a place where something took or takes place. In Japanese, the term oite stands at the end and is marked with the particle ni (に), i.e. „… ni oite“, „at …“. So the reader has to be familiar with Japanese grammer to put the characters quoted in kanbun in the correct order. In texts, sometimes hints are given in the form of so-called kaeri-ten (返り点), little marks at the side of characters which lead the reader to the order of characters as they would be written when noted in Japanese. This is not the case at sword signatures and the reader/translator of a mei has to become familiar with the correct syntax. But it is not as difficult as it seems because mostly always the same phrases were used. That means when you see the character oite (於), try to figure out what place name follows (which can consist of one or more characters). Also oite does not necessarily have to be at the beginning of a signature. For example Hinin-Kiyomitsu from Kaga often signed with „Kashû-jû Fujiwara Kiyomitsu Kasamai ni oite kore o tsukuru“ (加州住藤原清光於笠舞作之), „made by Fujiwara Kiyomitsu from Kaga province in Kasamai.“
Another frequently found term in sword signatures is motte (以) which means „with, by, by means of“. It is used with the particle o (を) and comes like ni oite at the end of the word it refers to. For example (以南蛮鉄). This translates as nanban-tetsu o motte, i.e. „[made by] using/processing nanban-tetsu“. Or for example (以南川砂鉄鍛之), „Minamigawa no satetsu o motte kore o kitaeru“, „forged by using satetsu from the Minamigawa [a river in Kumamoto Prefecture, former Higo province]“.
Now it´s getting harder. A bit tricky are namely inscriptions where the swordsmith mentions his customer. For example (応山田太郎需造之). Here the two characters (応) and (需) intereact, where the former means „to respond to“ (kotae[ru]) and the latter „demand, request“ (motome[ru]). Fully translated the inscription reads „Yamada Tarô no motome ni kotae kore o tsukuru“, „made by request of Yamada Tarô“ or „made according to an order of Yamada Tarô“. [Note: The character (応) is often signed in the old variant (應).] The character (需) could also be replaced by (好). The latter reads „konomi“ and means „wish, liking“. Thus a signature (応山田太郎好造之) is translated as „Yamada Tarô no konomi ni kotae kore o tsukuru“. Well, it is left to the translator or reader to decide how literally such an inscription is translated. Strictly it would mean „made according to the liking/wish/preference of Yamada Tarô“ but which is in effect equal to an order as the smith mostly did not forge a blade (for free) just because the customer likes it (although sword presents and donations by smiths are of course also known). [Note: Apart from „kotae(ru), the character (応) can also read „ôjite, that means the signatures quoted above can also be translated as „Yamada Tarô no motome ni ôjite kore o tsukuru“ or „Yamada Tarô no konomi ni ôjite kore o tsukuru“.]
Picture 1: mei “Nanki ni oite Shigekuni kore o tsukuru” (於南紀重国造之)
Picture 2: mei “Miyajima Minamoto Nagatada no motome ni kotae/ōjite Fujiwara Unju Korekazu (応宮島源長忠需藤原運寿是一, „made for Miyajima Minamoto Nagatada“), “gyōnen 45-sai Azabu-tei ni oite kore o seitan” (行年四十五歳於麻生邸精鍛之, „carefully forged at the age of 45 in the Azabu residence“)