Lost In Translation

So we have a bunch of Ukiyo-e prints collected over the years (mostly via auctions) that are hanging on the walls and making the place look great. But we have a slight problem in that we only have the information about them that was provided to us when we acquired them because we can’t currently read the text (especially the kanji). And honestly, knowing the back story is a large part of the fun and it certainly serves to compliment their beauty… at least from a collectors point of view.

We know that among the various marks, seals and writings present on them, there are usually the the title, the artists signature and/or seal, the printer/publishers seal, carvers seal, and various “official” seals like the dated censure seal from the government, etc. Unfortunately, in more than few cases, we have no idea which one is what on some of them or if we have the correct translation, or even if we even have a translation of it at all. (Sometimes their material just stated that it’s the publishers mark, but failed to gave the translation so we could research the publisher further.)

Granted, we could have rudely imposed on our Japanese guest when she was state-side and stayed over with us last month, but that would have spoiled the fun of discovery in a way not too dissimilar from someone telling you the ending of a book before you’ve read it. (By the way, Snape kills Dumbledore.) Not to mention, it would have likely garnered us a -1 in the friends category.

So I’ve decided to venture on a project to read these things for myself. To truly see and grok them. I don’t plan on being as obsessive as Adam Savage (from Mythbusters fame) was in his TED talk [see below], but he summarizes the gist of it very nicely in the last sentence of his talk.

My initial foray into this and sort of what sparked the whole idea to do this in the first place, was when I successfully translated つちや梅川 to mean Tsuchiya Umekawa from our Imayo oshi-kagami by the artist Utagawa Kunisada. This translation immediately led to a wealth of additional information on the piece that we hadn’t been aware of, including this entry from the British Museum’s collection database!

I’m sure if we dug around enough we might have eventually stumbled upon this information, but having the name Tsuchiya Umekawa on hand certainly narrowed it down quite a bit, since there are a prolific number of entries out there for Kunisada, but only a handful pop up for Tsuchiya Umekawa.

Of all the prints we have up, this has been the one we’ve had the least information on because it wasn’t bought at auction, but at a store in Boston. (In fact, it was actually the first acquisition, meaning seeking information and provenance beforehand wasn’t on the radar yet.) However, we already knew that the artist was Utagawa Kunisada, we also knew that the actor portrayed was Onoe Kikugoro IV and that he was being depicted as if he were reflected in a mirror. What we have now learned is that the scribble like handwriting script at the top of the print is a poem written by the actor himself and we also now know that the name of the person that his role called upon him to play was Tsuchiya Umekawa (つちや梅川).

It may not seem all that exciting, but these things are like my own personal Myst puzzle and those are the types of challenges that I cherish.

Oh, and here’s that TED Talk by Adam Savage I referenced earlier. Perhaps he’s not aware that they have medication for this now:

Adam Savage: My quest for the dodo bird, and other obsessions


~ by ghendar on April 19, 2009.