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The Henna Artist, Translated (Part 1 of X)

Posted on:June 21, 2022

I recently started translating English content into Japanese as part of my lessons. My teacher and I are starting with a novel called “The Henna Artist”, by Alka Joshi. I think it may be useful to share an annotated version of my working through this homework. It includes some of my translation notes, as well as both the original and corrected versions of the translation. Expect to see plenty of rudimentary mistakes, particularly around grammar, implied subjects, and just plain wrong choices of words. Along the way I’ll also note places where I’ve taken stylistic liberties.

Also there’s no way I’m actually translating the whole book — it’s just way too time consuming. Each paragraph takes me 15-20 minutes on a good day, and that’s not including editing it in this format for sharing purposes. I’ll post more as time permits, and as it remains helpful for at least one person, namely me.

Her feet step lightly on the hard earth, calloused soles insensible to the tiny pebbles and caked mud along the riverbank. On her head she balances a mutki, the same earthenware jug she uses to carry water from the well every day. Today, instead of water, the girl is carrying everything she owns: a second petticoat and blouse, her mother’s wedding sari, The Tales of Krishna her father used to read to her—the pages fabric-soft from years of handling—and the letter that arrived from Jaipur earlier this morning.


少女の足が石畳みのでこぼこを気が付かずに(1)川岸を沿えながら、毎日ムットキという水を運ぶための土製の瓶を頭上で釣り合っている(2)。今日こそ、水の代わりにありったけをはこんでいる: 予備のペチコートとブラウス、母親の結婚式のサリー、クリシュナの伝説という父親が以前よく読みかせたの小説(3)ー数年の扱いでぺージがぺらぺらになったーそして、今朝ジャイプルから届いた手紙だ。


少女の足が石畳みのでこぼこを気にせずに川岸を沿えながら、毎日ムットキという水を運ぶための土製の瓶を頭上でバランスを取っている。今日こそ、水の代わりにありったけをはこんでいる: 予備のペチコートとブラウス、母親の結婚式のサリー、クリシュナの伝説という父親が以前よく読みかせた小説ー数年の扱いでぺージがぺらぺらになったーそして、今朝ジャイプルから届いた手紙だ。

  1. 気が付かずに to 気がせずに. The nuance here is that 気が付く means to notice something (and its negation: without noticing) and 気にする is to mind something. Here, the girl probably feels the ground under her feet, so she notices it, but pays it no heed. Therefore, 気にせずに is more appropriate.
  2. Instead of 釣り合う, we use バランスを取る to describe balancing a single thing, instead of balancing multiple things (literally or metaphorically. Balancing the budget, for example, is 収支が釣り合う.
  3. The の in 読みかせたの小説 is unnecessary.

When she hears the voices of the village women in the distance, the girl hesitates. The gossip-eaters are chatting, telling stories, laughing, as they wash saris, vests, petticoats and dhotis. But when they spot her, she knows they will stop to stare or spit at the ground, imploring God to protect them from the Bad Luck Girl. She reminds herself of the letter, safe inside the mutki, and thinks, Let them. It will be the last time.





  1. ゴスップ喰い is a phrase I made up to translate “gossip-eater”. Another possible translation is 噂好き, or “gossip-phile”.
  2. I’ve traditionally had problems with transitivity, especially with longer, more complicated sentences. Here, I confused the subjects and tried to continue using the village women as the subject, in もし彼女に逢ったら、必ず彼女を睨む。 and the next sentence, which ends with 知っている. This is wrong because, the subject who “knows” this is the girl, not the village women. To remedy this, it may be better to explicitly indicate the subjects at each juncture. Firstly, with 女たちはもし彼女に遭ったら, the subject is the village women (if the women meets/spots the girl), and then switching the subject to the girl by re-using は, as in 彼女は必ず睨まれて. Because the subject is the girl in the second part of the sentence, all the described actions need to be changed to their passive form, to describe the actions being performed by the women onto the girl, such as 睨まれて (to be stared at), 唾を吐かれて (to be spit at, I took a little bit of a liberty here to omit the fact that the village women was spitting at the ground in response to seeing her, intead of actually spitting AT her).
  3. The trickiest bit here might be 疫病神の彼女を防ぐよう神様を祈られる. Let’s break this phrase down a bit. The phrase in English is “imploring God to protect them from the Bad Luck Girl”. There’s a sub-phrase here: 疫病神の彼女を防ぐ. Here, The subject is God, and the object is 疫病神の彼女, which literally means “jinx girl” — that is, “God, protect us against Bad Luck Girl”. This sub-phrase is in turn the wish, demarcated with よう, that is made to God, as in 神を祈られる. Why is 祈る used in its passive form here? This is a nuanced usage of the Japanese passive form to indicate displeasure with somebody else’s actions. Read more about it. Here, the subject (the girl) is assumed to be less than happy that the village women are praying in this manner, and thus the action of praying is conjugated to its passive form to indicate this displeasure.
  4. The last one is a change of particle from ムットキのなかに安全である手紙 to ムットキのなかの安全である手紙. ムットキのなか is a noun, and so の is required.

Yesterday, the women were haranguing the headman: Why is the Bad Luck Girl still living in the schoolteacher’s hut when we need it for the new schoolmaster? Afraid to make a sound for fear they would come inside and pull her out by her hair, the girl had remained perfectly still within the four mud walls. There was no one to protect her now. Last week, her mother’s body had been burned along with the bones of other dead animals, the funeral pyre of the poor. Her father, the former schoolteacher, had abandoned them six months ago, and shortly after, he drowned in a shallow pool of water along the riverbank, so drunk he likely hadn’t felt the sting of death.


昨日、村の女達は村長を非難した。「何で彼女はまだ校長の家にすんでいるの(8)?新校長で(9)必要なんじゃないか?」家の中にはいて髪を掴んで外に引っかかられない(10)ように彼女がそこのままでじっとした(11)。守られる人(12)もういないんだから。先週、母親の死体が獣骨と一緒に燃えられた(13)。それが貧民の火葬だった。元先生の父親は 6ヶ月前妻子を廃置(14)して、すぐ後に死の棘を感じられないほど酔っていて、川沿の水たまりで溺れた。


昨日、村の女達は村長を非難した。「何で彼女はまだ校長の家にすんでいるの?新校長のために必要なんじゃないか?」家の中にはいて髪を掴んで外に引っ張られないように彼女がそこにじっとした彼女を守る人はもういないんだから。先週、母親の死体が獣骨と一緒に燃やされた。それが貧民の火葬だった。元先生の父親は 6 ヶ月前妻子を放置して、すぐ後に死の棘を感じられないほど酔っていて、川沿の水たまりで溺れた。

  1. Ending the women’s dialogue with の in 何で彼女はまだ校長の家にすんでいるの? is typical of feminine speech.
  2. で as used after 新校長 to mean “For the reason of”. However in this case, if the reason is itself a person, ために is more natural.
  3. 引っ掛かるis the completely wrong verb to use here — it means “to latch onto something/get hooked onto something”. A more appropriate verb would be “引っ張る”: “to pull, with the nuance of doing so forcibly/against the subject’s will”.
  4. そこのままで is incorrect, as まま can only be appended onto a verb, so either change it to そこにいるままでじっとした or remove it completely, as in そこにじっとした.
  5. The next sentence is also changed from the passive usage of 守られる人 to indicating the subject explicitly as the girl 彼女を守る人. The subject in the previous two sentences is the village women, and not changing the subject explicitly here would make readers assume that that subject in this sentence is also the village women, which is not the case here.
  6. Another incorrect usage of transitivity: 燃やす(transitive) vs 燃える(intransitive).
  7. Matter of nuance here: 配置 is usually used more for physical objects, whereas 放置 is more generally used (to refer to placing someone or something somewhere and leaving it).