Sugō Jinja is in Okazaki, in Aichi Prefecture, and is in the grounds of the castle where Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate, was born. Its chief priest contacted Jinja Honchō about preparing an English leaflet, and we recently finished the job; the leaflet should have been printed by now.
This task was a good illustration of the difficulties with these kinds of translations. First, the original Japanese history of the jinja was based on texts that were decades old, at least, and hard even for most contemporary Japanese to understand. Second, there were many points at which the Japanese just assumed that you knew who Tokugawa Ieyasu was, and how he was related to other historical figures. These problems needed different solutions.
We tackled the first one by talking through the history with the jinja, and asking them to prepare a new version that focused on the interesting points. They did, and the new version could be translated without much modification. For example, while the original version told you which Tennō was reigning when Yamato Takeru founded the jinja, the revised version told you that the foundation legend involves a butterfly that turns into a person and makes hundreds of arrows for Yamato Takeru’s army. This is the story that the new version leads with — a major improvement.
The second problem required adaptation. In some cases, it was just a matter of adding brief descriptions of what Tokugawa Ieyasu had done. In one case, however, I had to cut most of the explanation of an event (the rebuilding of Okazaki Castle), because the explanation assumed that you knew the relationship between the various people mentioned. Anyone educated in Japan would; it’s like assuming that Americans know who Abraham Lincoln was. However, people reading an English leaflet might well not, and there was no way to explain the background within the space available, so the only option was to mention the event, and simply not explain it. Castles do get rebuilt, and you do not need to understand why that happens to understand the impact on a jinja in the grounds.
The final result is, I think, a good leaflet. There is a possibility that Sugō Jinja will want to do more in the future, including revising their website to have an English version, but they were in a hurry to get the leaflet finished because this year’s Taiga Drama is about Tokugawa Ieyasu. Some bits of cultural background are hard to explain… Suffice to say that this is a good reason for preparing generally for more visitors, but I am not sure how much effect it will have on demand for English-language material. Still, better to have it.
Finally, an interesting coincidence. Okazaki is the city I lived in when I first came to Japan, because that is where my Japanese language school was. The chief priest was surprised to hear that I knew the city. I think I’ve even been to the jinja, but I was only just getting interested in Shinto at that point, and it was about twenty years ago, so I do not remember clearly. We haven’t needed to visit Sugō Jinja yet, but if we do, I may get to see how much the city has changed.