When translating and localizing any work or product involving spoken or written language, a variety of factors must be taken into consideration; when forging an accurate approximation of the original creation, a wordsmith’s choices must always take into consideration the nuances of meaning, geo-political implications, and inadvertent double-entendres, just to name a few.
But what about translating the natural world? It would seem that references to nature might be exempt, somehow, from cultural-linguistic interpretation. All human beings, regardless of cultural or linguistic background, breathe air, and depend on water and sunlight to live. All of us walk on the earth and eat things that grow from it. Fire burns, wind blows, water flows.
Take the concept expressed by the words “clean water”, for example. On some primordial level, the words “clean water” in any language or cultural context surely evoke the same kinds of feelings for people all over the globe, don’t they? Essential to survival in the most contrasting of climates, from the desert sands of the Sahara to the tropical rainforests of Brazil, “clean water” is an element of nature; specifics may differ but the words conjure up something thirst quenching, something plants and animals need to grow.
As we wander further afield than earth, fire, wind and water, though, differences in the symbolic meanings in the natural world proliferate.
Flowers are a case in point. Let’s look at the chrysanthemum.
Historical painting of Chrysanthemums from the New International Encyclopedia 1902.
Cultural interpretations abound…
In the USA, the chrysanthemum can evoke memories of homecoming, the “mum” being the corsage flower of choice. And often the bigger the better. Americans tend to have positive and cheerful associations with the flower and Australians give chrysanthemums as Mother’s Day gifts. In fact, Mother’s day falls on the 2nd Sunday of the month of May in Australia as it does in the U.S., and since May falls in autumn in the Southern hemisphere, chrysanthemums are in bloom.
In Korea, chrysanthemums mark the arrival of fall and the changing of seasons; families stop along the roadside to take pictures of Cosmos, a type of chrysanthemum.
Other varieties of chrysanthemums, though, are associated with death in Korea as they are in many European countries as well as China and Japan.
In France, for example, chrysanthemums [chrysanthèmes [kreez ohn TEM] are readily available for purchase in the fall, and can planted in private gardens for decoration. But they are not an appropriate flower to offer as a gift; on “la Toussaint”, All Saints’ Day, November 1, it is traditional for French Christians to place chrysanthemums on the tombs of deceased family members.
Some homogeneous mixture, anyone?
If you want to avoid the cultural faux-pas of offering the chrysanthemum flower as a gift, other than in the U.S. or to an Australian mother on Mother’s Day, you may want to explore an alternative gift idea that still includes the beautiful flower: chrysanthemum tea. Typically enjoyed in East Asian countries, and restaurants of the same all over the world, chrysanthemum tea is said to have many health benefits, from treating acne to helping cleanse the liver.
Health benefits aside, it has delicious, mild, fragrant taste, in my opinion. But, be careful; the Shogun’s mother did manage, however courteously, to slowly poison his chrysanthemum tea in the musical “Pacific Overtures”…
Speaking of Japan and the chrysanthemum, besides the obvious reference in the title of this article to anthropologist’s Ruth Benedict’s 1946 influential – albeit controversial – work “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword”, did you know that the chrysanthemum flower is the imperial seal of Japan and decorates Japanese passports?
The Imperial Seal inscribed on the front cover of a Japanese passport
The Imperial Seal of Japan, also called the Chrysanthemum Seal (菊紋kikumon?) or Chrysanthemum Flower Seal (菊花紋, 菊花紋章 kikukamon, kikukamonshō?), is a mon or crest used by members of the Japanese Imperial family. [from its Wikipedia entry]
With currently over 5,000 named varieties, I suspect that diverse uses for the chrysanthemum will continue to increase in number all over the globe; to avoid making a floral cultural faux-pas, though, best to check possible international plant-gift choices with someone in the know.
Another cup of tea?