The difficulties with elegance

Regardless of whether translating texts on swords or sword fittings, it is often difficult to convey precisely what the author meant. The problem is not that you don´t understand what is written but to find „correct“ or most suitable equivalents of certain Japanese terms. The consequence is that some texts may sound awkward, clumsy or just monotonous, or – the other way round – too confusing by trying to explain as much as possible. One such example is translating words like „elegance“. Here the Japanese offers a variety of subtle differentiations on the basis of which a native speaker is able to grasp right away what the author is trying to say. As translator you usually have to use word combinations like „classical elegance“ or „unobtrusive elegance“ to stick as much as possible to the original text. However, often a term or a context is too complex to fit into a simple word combination and you have to use footnotes as an alternative.

At this point I would like to focus as indicated on the term „elegance“. A prime example can be found in Sasano Masayuki´s (笹野大行) 1993 ed. of his „Sukashi-tsuba“ (透鐔). Therein he writes: „Shodai Hikozô wa kôga, Matashichi wa seiga to iu naraba, shodai Kanshirô wa fûga de aru.“ (初代彦三は高雅、又七は清雅というならば、初代勘四郎は風雅である。). These three terms kôga, seiga and fûga are more or less just translated as „elegance“, depending on how sophisticated your dictionary is. Trying to convey what Masayuki´s says, this sentence might be best translated as: „When the works of the 1st generation Hikozô are of noble/refined elegance and those of Matashichi of pure/clear elegance, than those of the 1st generation Kanshirô might be described as being of tasteful elegance.“ As one can see, the fundamental part is here „miyabi/ga“ (雅), or as adjective „miyabiyaka“ (雅びやか), which means itself „elegant“, „gracious“, „graceful“ or „refined“. Starting with these three word combinations I would like to introduce some of the difficult to translate terms which have the part „miyabi/ga“ as basis.

kôga (高雅) – The emphasis here is on „noble“, „classy“, „refined“ or „grand“, that means the term can be translated as „noble elegance“ or „refined elegance“. The term kôga is often used to describe tachi-sugata of the mid or late Heian and subsequent Kamakura period for example as they are noble and classy but no longer of the ancient or archaic elegance of tachi prior to the early Heian period.

koga (古雅) – By using the prefix „ko“ (古, old), the emphasis is on „ancient“. That means the term koga describes an object or feature whose elegance is largely attributable to age. For example Heian-period or earlier swords or tôshô or katchûshi-tsuba are often described as having koga.

fûga (風雅) Fûga describes an elegance which is bit more deliberately achieved or individual, either through a surface treatment, lacquer finish, choice of clothes, or choice of words in a poem/text and so on. That means in this case terms like „fashion“ or „personal taste“ of the artist come into play.

bunga (文雅) – By the prefix „bun“ (文, literature), the term bunga might be translated best as „poetical elegance“ or „poetically elegant“. It is often used to describe a tsuba with a motif of poetical or lyrical background or which can be associated with classical poetical sujets.

tenga (典雅) – „Ten“ (典) means „ceremony“, „law“ or „rule“ so the term tenga describes, if you like, a „classical proper elegance“. That means tenga implies certain classy expectations towards a dance, dress or feature of an object.

yûga (優雅) and yûbi (優美) – These terms refer, in the sense of an object, much more to an elegance achieved by the artist or craftsman. For example an old, plain and simple ko-tôshô-tsuba would rather not be described as yûga or yûbi as much elegance caused by the charme of age comes here into play.

toga (都雅) – The prefix „to“ (都) refers to Kyôto (京都), that means the term toga describes the classy elegance which was preferred in the old capital. For example the well-known tsuba of Umetada Myôju (埋忠明寿) might be circumscribed by using terms like toga.

onga (温雅) – „On“ (温) means „warm“ and thus the essence of the meaning is towards a „gentle“, „unobtrusive“ or „peaceful“ but also towards a „familiar elegance“. That means a tsuba with flower motif for example is often described by using the term onga.

kanga (閑雅) – By the prefix „kan“ (閑) which means „leisure“ or „calm atmosphere/mood“, a „calm and unobtrusive elegance“ is described with this term. For example a blade in suguha by a shinshintô smith who worked mostly in a more flamboyant style might be described as kanga, but rather not a classical kotô Rai or Awataguchi-suguha for example as this was anyway the „default“ and basic style of these schools. Explained in an exaggerated manner, the Rai or Awataguchi smiths did not have to restrain themselves to achieve a calm suguha.

As you see it is rather difficult to explain these terms without context and I did not try to present here clear definitions. My intention was basically to make readers aware of a certain aspect of a translator´s problem but not to „create panic“. That means often terms like „elegant“ or „graceful“ are adequate and when you read of an „elegant sukashi design“, there is usually not a myriad of hidden meanings. In other words the design is just elegant, period.


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