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art by Natsuo Ikegami :: pix by Glen Emil

Translation or Transformation: A Chat with Motoyuki Shibata

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A WorldCat view of Prof. Motoyuki Shibata's works

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Kawade Shobo

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The words, the libretto’s structure and syntax, step in and out gracefully in rhythm and rhyme. The first and and second lines pose a circumstance, and the third and fourth answer in outcome. These rhyming verse, built on each other, form into tidy character sketches. This works well because one, English speakers believe rhyme is clever, and two, the English syntax is very obliging, allowing the placement of nouns and verbs practically anywhere. Manipulating the tense enables rhyming. By the time we’ve reached the 12th and final verse, we’ve not only a wonderful story, we've got a neat picture of Ko-ko’s past and present circumstance.


So imagine translating The Mikado from Victorian English into modern Japanese, so that it fits not only story, but the music. If successfully done to the rhythm alone, it would be an amazing linguistic feat! But short of producing a whole new set of rules for Japanese language performances, or completely re-writing The Mikado's libretto, it would go to pieces. Let's look. One of the first stumbling blocks is that many sentences in Japanese end with a suffix, like -desu for nouns or -masu for verbs. As far as The Mikado is concerned, just changing a few verses to fit this syntax would kick the libretto right out of the score’s rhythmic grasp.

More elementary, Japanese words and sentences generally do not stress or accent syllable-sounds, or mora, as would syllables in English. Japanese syntax uses a change in tone, like from ‘do’ to ‘re’ and back in the ‘do-re-mi-fa-so’ lexicon, and are used to denote a question or differentiate homonyms, which there are a lot of. But even then, in normal rapid Japanese speech, these tones are usually evened out. To rhyme in the Western sense, making trances and dances in verses [6] and [8] rhyme in Ko-Ko's patter song for instance, English speakers accent, or emphasize the tran and dan chunks equally to force a rhyme. But it's an unnatural sound in Japanese, and may not have it's desired effect.

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2008 Illustrations by Natsuo Ikegami, Edward Gorey Charitable Trust and Goreyography+WZP. 著作権を所有します。