Trials of Translating Old Texts

Today I present a topic concerning translating old Japanese text. For those who can read Japanese or have a knack for historical information may find this blog especially useful, for there will be a good amount of notes and references. I will be using a famous transcript concerning ninjutsu and military affairs known by the title “Bansenshukai”1, originally compiled by Fujibayashi Samuji Yasutake in 1676.

Bearing a title meaning “many rivers that join together expand into an ocean”, the Bansenshukai is a collection of many secrets and trades from multiple families of the Iga and Koga regions involved in shinobi2 activities during times of conflict & war, ranging from philosophy, astrology, tools & weapons, medicine & poisons, and rations. A work done before the modernization of Japan, it is written in an archaic style filled with many specialized terms not used today.

There have been few versions in Japan of the Bansenshukai that where attempts to give modernized commentary to help the general public understand the contents. The version in my possession is the latest one entitled “Kanpon Bansenshukai”3, which was produced by Nakajima Atsumi. A historian on koryu bujutsu (traditional martial arts) and ninjutsu, Mr. Nakajima’s book is an example of years of pure dedication, for he not only has scans of the original text, but also has the same text typed for easier reading, as well as a “modernized” interpretation of the original text with notes to make it more comprehensive for today’s generation.

Pics of “Kanpon Bansenshukai”. Click on each one for descriptions.

To produce an English translation of such an old text on the same caliber would be a tremendous task, for not only does the translator need to be proficient in reading the text (the original writing + a modernized interpretation would be essential), but countless of hours of research to understand the culture and way of life of Mid-century Japan. On top of that, many resources would be needed in deciphering outdated and coded terminologies–many which can be foreign to the Japanese language itself. Using Mr. Nakajima’s version makes the task easier, but not entirely stress-free.

While I’m not attempting to produce a full translation of the Bansenshukai (I will leave it in the hands of those far more capable with full resources at hand), I do want to share some of the work needed in order to attempt translating old text into your native language, from the viewpoint of a translator myself. Let’s take a small snippet about horses from one of the chapters in Bansenshukai called “Gunyo Hiki”, a section that instructs on conduct, activities, preparation, and other activities while serving in the military. Below is the original text from the Bansenshukai, which is written in Kanji4 and Katakana5:

一 馬芝維ノ事


Next is an easier-to-read version of the original text from Mr. Nakajima’s book. It is still written in a kind of old Japanese fashion, but with Hiragana6 in places where one gets a better idea about how the words should be read.



Now, here it is written, phonetically, in the English alphabet:

Uma Shibai no Koto

Shushu ari to iedomo, kougake (w)o mae (h)e hikkake okaba, ugokazaru mono no nari. Mata shisoku tomo ni ryu no ke (w)o ue (h)e nade ni age, ichi mojiri mojirite, koyori nite sotto musubi okaba ugokazaru mono nari.

Before doing a thorough translation, let’s focus on the actual text. Giving a very rough and literal description, this text talks about tying a horse in place using a rope or cord by “something”, and then brushing up and twisting repeatedly the “dragon’s hair” of a four-legged creature, and tying it to also keep a horse from moving. Certain points are vague in description, while others use words that make it very difficult to know what is being reference. To fill in the gaps, it is important to learn the nuances and contents of what’s being discussed. Research on the topic of cavalry during the history of Japan, for example, is essential so to understand the topic at hand and get an idea of what’s missing in those gaps. Having access to books when looking up archaic words not in use is also a must, such as a specialized Japanese dictionary. The internet is also a good resource, as there is a vast amount of information at one’s fingertips, especially if you research in the native language, in this case being Japanese. However, you need to know how to narrow your searches down to queries most close to what you’re researching on, as well as decipher true information from false. When you have an idea of specific sources, libraries (both physical locations and online) can be a translators’ best friend.


An example of basou, or riding equipment for a horse. Photo taken by Alun Salt. From Wikipedia.

Here are some areas of interest from the text above that need to be addressed:

- Uma Shibai: The kanji used for this is unconventional. It is a combination of 芝(shiba; grass, or turf) +維(i; rope or cord). It may very well be a play on words to indicate its true meanings, such as 芝居 (shibai, to tie) and 仕場 (shiba, activities done on the battlefield). Since the information in the original text is geared towards those working in the military, we get an understanding that the horse will be tied and secured outside in the field.

– Kougake:  In the text the word “something” is written as こう掛. Pronounced as “kougake”, “kou” is written in Kana7. Since the topic deals with tying a rope or cord to the horse, we can deduce that “gake” refers to something that is worn or hung on the horse. But where? Kou, as it is written, is vague and tells us nothing we can work with. If one studies the basou(riding equipment used on horses) used in times of war in Japan, you’ll find that in the head gear called omogai9, there is a leather strap that wraps from the top of the horse’s neck down across the horse’s face. This leather strap, which happens to be called “kougake”, is written as “首掛”. The kanji  for kou should be “首”, which stands for neck. Nowadays it is pronounced as “kubikake”, and is used not only for horses, but for various accessories people use that can be slung from the neck, such as a pouch or guitar strap. Getting back on topic, we have clarification that kougake in the Japanese text refers to a leather neck strap.

– Shisoku: when one first reads it, it’s easy to assume this is in reference to the four legs of a horse. It sorta does, but not in the literal sense. Short for “shisoku dobutsu”10, shisoku basically stands for a four-legged animal. Thus, a shorthand for horse in the text. Simple as that.

– Ryu no ke: This translates to “dragon’s hair”. What does that have to do with a horse? Well, one thing to understand is that there are many types of labeling in reference to dragons in Asia since dragons are seen as wise and calm, full of wisdom, and good fortune. Originating in China, the concepts of dragons, as well as many references to them, also trickled down into Japanese culture. For example, “dragon’s beard”11 is a common word used in Chinese society for things that resembled the whiskers of dragons depicted in artworks, such as a type of snack12, and a flexible weapon with 2 hooked blades13. The same “dragon’s beard”14 is also used in Japan, for it is a nickname for a type of plant15, as well as when a long silver strand(s) of hair grows on the back of one’s neck16. Hair that is let down to flow wildly is also described to be like a dragon. This is where a horse comes into the picture. Horses in Chinese history have been compared and associated with dragons, from being called a dragon based on Chinese measurements17, to being combined with one another18.  Furthermore, a horse’s mane, as well as other animals with long fur, are compared to that of the hairs of a dragon. Thus, “ryu no ke” is a reference to a horse’s mane.

– Ichi mojiri mojirite: There is no kanji in the text for “mojiri mojirite”, but there is a reason. Not a conventional use, this is a case of a verb being repeated twice, which is “mojiru”. The kanji normally associated with this is 捩. The verb has several meanings based how it is used, such as to twist something, to make a parody of something, or to make something excruciating. So which meaning is the correct one? When it is written in Kana form, the sound of the word indicates a physical action, which is a twisting motion. Since it is repeated twice, this motion is emphasized even more. So, in the case of the horse’s hair, we understand it is being twisted, or braided, together.


A picture of the original text of the Bansenshukai, scanned in the back of Nakajima Atsumi’s book. The text featured in this blog is the middle on the top row.

With those areas now made clear, below is a proper translation by me of the text from the Bansenshukai:

Matters Concerning the Tying of Horses on the (Battle)field

There are numerous ways to do this. One way is to bring the “kougake” (leather neck strap part of its head gear) forward and tether from there so to keep the horse in place. Another way is to brush up the horse’s mane, twist it into a braid, tie it with a koyori (a type of paper string), and tether from there to secure the horse so that it will not move.

This here concludes this topic on translating old documents in Japanese. I aim to do more entries like this on other Japanese documents and manuals in the near future. Possibly a few more entries from the Bansenshukai will make their way on my blog again.


1) 万川集海, also written as 萬川集海 in earlier times. While most commonly pronounced as Bansenshukai, it is also read as “Mansenshukai”.  To which is the proper pronunciation has not been agreed on, and tends to be debated by linguists and ninjutsu historians. For example, Nakajima Atsumi primarily uses “Mansenshukai”. For the sake of consistancy, however, I will use “Bansenshukai” when addressing this work.

2) Shinobi (忍び) is one of older titles used in reference to those who took part in covert activities and specialized in unconventional tactics. More specifically, a specialist in this field would be called a shinobi no mono (忍びの者), while the skills they used was called shinobi no jutsu (忍びの術).

3) “Bansenshukai – The Complete Edition”.

4) Chinese-originated characters used for writing, adopted by Japan. One of the main writing systems. A little over 10,000 kanji are in use today, but the total count of Kanji used throughout Japan’s history is around 50,000.

5) A type of phonetic script made up of 48 characters derived from Kanji in Japan, it is one half of the Kana system that is a major component of Japan’s writing system. In modern times, some of its uses include representing foreign-based words, accented speech (different from Japanese), emphasizing movements and actions, and scientific words.

6) The other half of the Kana system, Hiragana is a type phonetic script made up of 46 characters. Primarily used, alongside with Kanji, to write Japanese native words, as well as a substitute for Kanji in specific cases.

7) The phonetic writing system made up of both Hiragana and Katakana.

8) 馬装. This is regular gear for the horse. This is different from uma yoroi (馬鎧), where the horse gains a layer of light armor.

9) 面繋. The omogai is one of the three major components of a horse’s equipment, the other two being the munagai (胸繋, chest gear), and shirigai (尻繋, rear gear).

10) 四足動物

11) Written as 龍鬚 (lóng xū) in Chinese (Mandarin).

12) 龍鬚糖 (lóng xū táng)

13) 龍鬚鉤 (lóng xū gou)

14) 龍の髭 (ryu no hige)

15) Dwarf Lily turf (Ophiopogon japonicus) in English. Along with Dragon’s Beard, it is also referred to as Snake’s beard (蛇の髭, ja no hige).

16) Superstitiously believed to be a sign of good luck and fortune. Generally called Takara ke (宝毛)  or Fuku ke (福毛).

17) Found in an old bureaucratic writing on duties and organization of officers called “Rites of Zhou” (周禮, Zhouli) dating back as far as 2nd Century BC in China. Broken into 6 parts, the measurements are located in line 126 the 4th part called  “Offices of Summer” (夏官司馬, Xiaguan Sima). This can be found in the “Chinese Text Project” under “The Rites of Zhou” here.

18) 龍馬 (longma)

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