Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Translating "Color and Light" into Japanese

Last summer, Japanese publisher Born Digital ordered the fifth reprint of Color and Light: A Guide for the Realist Painter. 

I am always fascinated by the way ideas about the visual world vary from culture to culture. Given that Western and Japanese traditions are so different, I wondered what was involved in translating the ideas in my book for Japanese readers. 

The translator of Color and Light, Sanae Hiraya, very generously offered to answer some questions.

1. What concepts in Color and Light were the most difficult to translate?

"Is Moonlight Blue?" was the most difficult topic to translate.

This topic explains a new and sensational fact. It is easily expected that this topic will draw readers' attention. We paid extra attention to this scientific topic on both readability and accuracy.

2. In Japan, do Western color names such as "red, blue, yellow, violet, and green" correspond to similar hues there?
In the Japanese education system, art education employs western style theory and method. So we have Japanese color names correspond to key color names such as red, blue, yellow, violet, and green.

However, in the old days, there were only four color names in Japanese.
They are red (AKA), black (KURO), blue (AO) and white (SHIRO).
Green was included in the range of blue.

3. Are Japanese children raised to recognize the same set of primary colors as American kids?
Yes. Children are taught the Munsell color system in elementary school along with the concept of primary and secondary colors.

4. Are there Japanese concepts of color and light that are completely foreign to most U.S. artists?
Traditionally, Japanese paint/draw subjects with lines (not with planes). It was 1876 that we started learning western style of art execution/theory. Until then, Japanese painters did not use light and shadow in their paintings nor express 3D forms in their artwork.

Let's see the example, a series of drawings called "Animal-person Caricatures," which are stored in the Kosanji-temple, drawn during 1053 to 1140 by an unknown painter (probably several monks). These drawings are still popular in Japan.

In the case of portraits, you can see a typical traditional Japanese style in the Hyakunin Isshu cards. On those cards are drawings of the poets and their poems. All of the poets are of high rank, including monks, emperors, princesses and so on. This kind of plainness was typical in the Japanese traditional painting style. There is no expression of light and shadow.

As for the color, Japanese regard violet as most noble color because of the cap system established in 603 (Cap system itself no longer exists). Please refer to Wikipedia on details.

5. In Japan or Asia in general, are there different cultural reactions or emotional reactions to soft edges or the illusion of depth?

I don't think there are different reactions to those effects. However, there is a classical style of painting called SUIBOKU-GA. SUI=water, BOKU=ink and GA=painting.

The painters of SUIBOKU-GA type of paintings intentionally utilize large negative spaces, strange subject placement, soft edges and so on. As we are used to seeing such techniques as a part of paintings, Japanese accept paintings depicting real objects or scenery that are far from reality.

6. Are there any feelings associated with the color green? (Here in the USA it is often conceptually associated with the environmental movement or the color of money, and painters have often debated the so-called "green problem," where high-chroma green colors in landscape paintings are often said to have a repellant effect on the viewer). 
Most of the feelings associated with green are positive: for example, nature, relaxation, peace of mind, new birth, youthfulness, safety, friendly to eye and so on. In elementary school, children are encouraged to look at greens (leaves, grasses) to rest their tired eyes between classes.

As old Japanese did not distinguish green (MIDORI) from blue (AO), there are many expressions that mix up these terms. For example, we say "blue mountain," "blue leaves," "blue woods," "blue chili," and so on. We Japanese ourselves sometimes feel these expressions strange.

In terms of art, Japanese artists usually start learning art from how to paint/draw Ka-Cho-Fu-Getsu. Literally, Ka=flower, Cho=birds, Fu=wind, Getsu=moon but Ka-Cho-Fu-Getsu means the distilled aspects of nature enjoyed by artists including poets (it does not mean the wilderness as is). Japanese people love to use the color green in paintings as we believe it relaxes our mind.

Painting by Kazuo Oga, background painter for Studio Ghibli
7. Are lightness and darkness, or light and shade regarded differently in Japan?
There isn't much difference, other than the fact that we sometimes do not care about light and shade. 

There was one thing I noticed during translation. Translating "dark + COLOR NAME" into Japanese is simple. As with the English expression, saying "dark + COLOR NAME" worked. However, in the case of "light + COLOR NAME," most of them were converted into the specific color name.

For example: dark red vs. light red. The expression "dark red" is acceptable. However, in the case of light red, we feel some unnaturalness and feel better to use the specific color name such as "pink," "salmon," "cherry blossom color," "peach color," and so on if appropriate. I don't know the exact reason why I felt that, but this is one thing we need to care about in translating the Color and Light book.

Thank you, Sanae Hiraya, for taking the time and effort to answer these questions,  and I'm grateful to you and the people at Born Digital for introducing my book to Japan.


Unknown said...

Congrats, James, on the 5th reprint of your amazing book, and thanx for this interesting post.

I can understand how green would be a sub-set of blue, but I wonder what purple would be a sob-set of, Blue also? Then ‘blue’ would run the full range of green-cyan-blue-violet and ‘red’ would be yellow-orange-red-magenta. If Violet were considered a red, then ‘red’ would be ‘yellow-orange-red-magenta-violet. Either way this seems very similar to Goethe’s two-primary color system of yellow-vs-blue.

“It was 1876 that we started learning western style of art execution/theory. Until then, Japanese painters did not use light and shadow in their paintings nor express 3D forms in their artwork.” – This is very interesting because this was about the time, (maybe a little later) that the west began being influenced by Japanese prints and really exploring alternate approaches to traditional painting that resulted in the ‘modern’ schools of impressionism, expressionism, and cubism.

“Given that Western and Japanese traditions are so different” – I wouldn’t argue w this, but I have also been impressed by the striking similarities between traditional ‘east and west.’ For instance: both islands of Japan and England evolved a strict hierarchical feudal system based on similar class and martial status, complete w mythologies of dragons, Knights(Samurai), and tea-ceremonies!

Thanx for the Journey, Mr. Gi! -RQ

Keith Parker said...

Wow that was really interesting. Thanks for sharing that. Roberto does pose a question that makes me curious as well, regarding the place violet falls in Japanese culture. Is it a red or a blue? My sister tells me that in medievil Europe blue and violet were clumped together. I suppose in many ways we still do this with hues like blue and cyan, or violets and magentas. It is really fascinating how our perception of color has evolved over the centuries.

Anonymous said...

Very informative and eye-opening – it would be interesting to hear about how other cultures approach similar artistic observations!

Unknown said...

I love this post James. It just so happened that I searched for my copy of 'Color and Light" today after reading a post in Marking a Mark saying it was the most clear statement on the subject. Kudos to you! So I figured I had to finally read it. I began today and I am excited to learn more about one of my favorite subjects.

Aerumnous said...

Thanks for sharing these notes!

By the way, the ink painting (under point 5) is Hasegawa Tohaku's 'Pine Trees' and is on display at the Tokyo National Museum until January 12th (the museum has its masterpieces on rotation). I was lucky enough to see it on the 2nd; if anyone happens to be in Tokyo now, please go have a look! It's really lovely.

The use of "ao" still trips me up now and then (I've been living in Japan since April 2014). For example, there are words like 青空 ("aozora") which means blue sky, but there's also 青森 ("aomori"), meaning green forest, which also happens to be the name prefecture and city. People also refer to the green traffic light as "ao", but sometimes it really does look more blue than green!

Speaking of green, there is (at least) one more word for it in Japanese - 緑 ("ryoku"). I don't know its etymology, but it's used in various compound words - greenery, green tea, early spring foliage, and many more (see for a longer list). I think this particular concept of green has a strong link to cultural notions of "nature" and the seasons (especially spring and summer). You can certainly see high-chroma green in many of Studio Ghibli's background paintings (which, from my point of view, show an incredible fondness for nature and/or invoke nostalgia for summer trips to the countryside etc). That said, I haven't seen many traditional (or "older") Japanese landscape paintings, outside of the monochromatic suiboku-ga.

I'm also interested in the cap and rank system. I wonder if the reason that violet and blue were assigned to the higher ranks is because the pigments were rare? There would be a parallel with the judicious use of lapis lazuli in western religious paintings, for example. Or does violet have a deeper cultural meaning here (despite the availability of the pigment)?