Translating Salt: Miura Genzô’s Secrets of Salt Making (1816), and the Historian’s Mandate

25 juin 2021 par NR [TheChamp-Sharing]
What do Historians bring into their translations ?

Although historians are not translators, strictly speaking, the work they do in restoring the past is indeed a form of translation; historians cast events, dates, and lives into stories based on the available evidence. And because historians often pull evidence from primary sources, their comprehension of a source is the sine qua non of historian’s craft. When historians work in second languages, they must know their sources’ language deeply, understanding all the nuances of that language’s place and time. Indeed historians are not translators by profession, but many of them certainly do translate for a living, for translation sustains the more visible parts of their work.

Having come to history from a classical undergraduate philological training in the Japanese language, I tend to approach sources with attention to the nuance and detail of the text. Close reading was not only a starting point, but something to which I continually return in the research process to ensure that my analysis, or in other words my reading of the situation, holds. My hard drive is full of fragments of translation; more or less polished and more or less long. These translations were never meant to be neither finished nor presented to the world. They constitute my pool of evidence and a record of my evolving understanding of sources at hand over time. Each fragment is a “reality checkpoint.” I carry my hypothesis to the source-in-translation checkpoint. If a hypothesis wants to pass the checkpoint, it has to be clearly mirrored in the translation. Hence, the translation is the mirror against which I confirm and sometimes challenge my hypotheses on the way to an argument; If the argument does not pass smoothly the source-in-translation check-point, it’s back to the drawing board.



One of the joys of working with my ERC team is that, although we are all trained historians, we also share and value our common European philological training. Even if my training was in Serbia and that of my colleagues was in France, we tend to approach a text with careful attention towards the restoration of meaning. Several months ago, we were collectively scratching our heads about an obscure concept of “resting salt fields.” To resolve this puzzle we decided to engage a double-blind translation, one from Japanese into French and the other into English. We then met to compare notes, eventually coming to a better understanding of saltmaking processes particular to that time and place. In this way, the act of careful translation directly influenced our historical work.

For us, committing the meaning of a Japanese text into another language entails a commitment to collective reflection and collaboration. In our project on salt making, a task originally centred on the meaning of words evolved into a rich source for deeper thinking and reformulation of our research questions. What came out of this experience is a powerful reminder that the process of translation is also a process of thinking about the past, a sharpening of our understanding of what mattered at the time and why. Regardless of whether a translation is ever made public or completed, for historians, the process itself is just as important as any final product, if not more so.

At the upcoming ICAS in August 2021, Mathieu Fauré will present the insights of our ERC collective translation project and showcase how the insights and questions about Japan’s salt-making industry’s process brought to light. Using the case of a partial translation of a 1816 salt-making manual The Secrets of Salt Making 塩製秘録 by a little-known Japanese saliculturalist Miura Genzô 三浦源蔵 (?-1835), the presentation will bring forth several concrete examples of how the challenges of translation can drive historians to question old assumptions and formulate new perspectives on the past. Drawing on our experience we seek to highlight the extent to which translations are not only an invaluable component of a historian’s work but also indispensable for comparisons with other places.

Aleksandra Kobiljski

Source de l’image Nihon seihin zusetsu 『日本製品図説』, 1877, ministère de l’intérieur (内務省). Photo tirée des archives numériques (図書資料デジタルアーカイブ) de Japan Fisheries Research an Education Agency (水産研究・教育機構).