By Avi Landau
In the summer months, you cannot help but notice clusters of tachi-aoi (hollyhock) growing wild on the sides of country roads or beside vegetable patches. You can’t miss them because of their height. As tall as sunflowers but not as heavy looking, they are graceful yet imposing and come in red, white and pink blossoms which bloom up and down their long, lean stems.
It is my interest in these very common, uncelebrated flowers that led me to the discovery of a curious state of affairs in the world of Japanese-English translation — especially in regard to the names of certain plants and birds.
Knowing these roadside flowers to be tachi-aoi (立葵) and confirming that the same flowers were called hollyhock in English, I tried to learn more about their history and cultural associations. At first I was surprised that the ancient Aoi Matsuri Festival (葵祭), one of the most famous in all of Japan, was often referred to in English language guidebooks and textbooks as the HOLLYHOCK FESTIVAL.
I also discovered that the J-League 2 soccer club, which represents the capital of Ibaraki Prefecture, was called The Mito Hollyhock. This name was chosen because the crest of the great Tokugawa Family which ruled the Mito Domain for centuries consisted of 3 futaba-aoi leaves. This crest has been made extremely famous by the classic TV series Mito Komon. The Wikipedia article on hollyhock also said that that flower ( the hollyhock) was the symbol of the Mito Clan.
At first I was excited. These flowers that I ALONE seemed to be interested in, appeared to have highly distinguished historical and cultural associations. I wanted to write about this.
Luckily , before I commited anything to paper, I started to dig further.
I did this because I still had lingering doubts about the connection between aoi ( of the ancient festival and of the Mito Clan) and tachi-aoi ( the common roadside flower). I had been to the Aoi Matsuri and seen that the Aoi associated with that festival was a leaf of some sort. I had even taken one as a souvenir and kept it in my wallet., Also the seal of the Mito Clan consisted of 3 leaves (representing the 3 branches of the Tokugawa Family).
After comparing them, I found that the leaves on the Mito Crest and the aoi leaf in my wallet looked NOTHING like the leaves of the hollyhock (tachi-aoi).Photos in field guides also showed me that tachi-aoi was the roadside flower, but I could find no pictures of aoi in any bookstore flower guide.
To make a long story short, I became slightly obsessed with getting to the bottom of this mystery. At the library I was able to confirm that the scientific name of tachi-aoi(hollyhock) was Althaae rosea , and that the symbol of the Mito Tokugawa and of the Aoi Matsuri was a plant with NO COMMON ENGLISH NAME but known as Asarum caulescens among botanists, and as futaba-aoi among the Japanese (see photo). These two plants have NO CONNECTION other than being PLANTS and having the character aoi (葵)in their names.
Finally, I went to the Tsukuba Botanical Garden to consult with Dr. Tadamu Matsumoto. He was also astonished that the Mito Soccer team had been called Hollyhock, as there was no botanical connection between futaba-aoi (the highly esteemed leaves on Mito Komon’s emblem) and the common roadside tachi-aoi (hollyhock).
There is obviously a big problem with translation when dealing with the names of plants which are not familiar to the translators. These types of errors occur not only in Wikipedia and blogs but also in respected journals, dictionaries and encyclopedias. I fell victim to such a mistaken translation when writing about the Boy’s Day (Tango No Sekku) traditions in Japan: http://blog.alientimes.org/2010/04/the-fascinating-evolution-of-childrens-day-kodomo-no-hi-in-a-year-2010-in-which-the-rain-has-kept-ibarakis-awesome-carp-streamers-koi-nobori-mostly-out-of-sight/
In my article I mistakenly wrote that the Japanese put irises(the Japanese term is shobu 菖蒲） in their baths and on their roofs on that day. I had gotten this translation from very respectable source books. However, I later realized that the shobu used is NOT an iris (hana-shobu) at all but a completely unrelated plant called CALAMUS (related to taro) by botanists and which was believed by the ancient Chinese and Japanese to have the power to expel evil and bad luck.
For me hollyhocks are amazing flowers and are worthy of having a soccer team named after them. But I’m sure that the citizens of Mito would not be pleased to learn that their team is named after the TACHI-AOI and NOT the revered FUTABA-AOI.
It’s like calling the Seibu Baseball club The Azarashi (sea lions) instead of The Lions. Why not? They are both mammals!
The day after I wrote and posted this piece, I chanced upon what might be the actual source (or very near it) of the misuse of the English flower name hollyhock as used to represent futaba-aoi leaves used in the Aoi Matsuri Festival and in the crest of the Mito Tokugawa. I had a few minutes to spare before heading out for the day and I settled in a chair and browsed the books nearest to me.
There was Ivan Morris’ translation of the Makura no soshi (枕草子) in the Columbia University edition. Leafing through the text, I found Chapter 17, with the heading “Things That Arouse A Fine Memory Of the Past” on page 51. The first item listed was dried hollyhock. There it was. But could anyone understand this translation? I hurriedly looked for my Japanese version and found that the original text read “kareta aoi”, something quite different, even if the aoi referred to were hollyhock.
Morris’ translation implies something purposely dried, for medicine, or as an ingredient for food. What Sei Shonagon is referring to however is the discovery of the aoi leaves of some past festival which had been stashed away in somewhere as a keepsake and are discovered all dried out and withered bringing back memories of festivals past.
Morris actually made a footnote for his hollyhock translation on page 284 which reads from the sixth line: I am grateful to professor Cranston for pointing out (Harvard Journal Of Asiatic Studies vol.xxix p. 260) that the aoi used in the Kamo Festival is not althea rosa (hollyhock) but asarum caulescens, which is a form of snake weed or bistort with paired, flesh-colored flowers. A more accurate translation of Aoi Matsuri would therefore be the “Bistort Festival”, BUT I TRUST BOTANISTS WILL NOT BE OFFENDED IF I CALL IT THE HOLLYHOCK FESTIVAL (emphasis mine)!
One of the legends of Japanese-English translation, can thus be found guilty in my opinion of being flippant about the simple naming of things. I guess he felt that hollyhock sounded nice. But since that actual flower (tachi aoi) is so common Morris’ legacy in this case can lead to embarrassing mistakes, such as hearing that the roadside flowers are hollyhock and then saying “Oh,those are the flowers used in the Aoi Matsuri”, or “That is the symbol of the Tokugawa Family!”
I am a great admirer of Morris’ work, but in this case I think he was WRONG. Let’s be more careful all you translators out here, and verify the names of the plants and animals, etc. before we put them to print (or to our lips)!