Many of my Japanese acquaintances know and like the Austrian softdrink Almdudler. It is often compared to ginger ale and contains herb extracts from the famous Austrian Alps. The bottle shows a design of a dancing couple, dressed in traditional Austrian costumes, fulfilling many cliches of Austrian tourism. One of the main herbal ingredients of the drink is the Elderflower, a common plant all over Austria.
Recently I joined a discussion on a social media page about the Elderberry, in German “Holunder,” translated/transcribed into Japanese as “Erudaa,” which belongs to the genus Niwatoko, or, in Latin, Sambucus. Since I am a translator of Japanese and there seemed to be great confusion about this plant and its various translations into Japanese, the subject naturally drew my interest.
Many explanations and ideas were brought up in the course of the discussion, but in the end, the Japanese participant, who had initiated the discussion, still was left with the question “why then is the German Holunder rendered into Japanese as senpai???” Senpai『先輩』means something like senior colleague.
The answer is simple: It lies in the word “elder,” which was translated in its literal meaning as a comparative form of “old,” or “elder brother,” etc. This term however, is frequently used by Japanese people to translate the intrinsic Japanese word of “Senpai.” A “Senpai” supercedes you in a certain aspect of life and is superior to you. For instance, he might be at least one college year ahead of you or be a senior colleague of yours in any given discipline. This term does not really exist in any other language known to me, and therefore I personally categorize it as a “not really translatable term.” Sometimes people refer to it as senior colleague, or “elder.”
This is the point where the Elder Plant comes back into the discussion. Of course, when you are a Japanese student of German and you encounter the German term “Holunder”, it is naturally difficult for you to trace the problem back to its roots.
So what does “elder” really mean, and where does the term come from?
During my research I came across the book Plants of Colonial Days by Raymond L. Taylor, who mentioned its Anglo Saxon origin in the word “ellen,” meaning “fire kindler” (火起こし, Hiokoshi, for my Japanese friends).
I therefore consulted the Bosworth-Toller Anglo Saxon Dictionary and it confirmed Taylor’s claim.
“The common name “ìelderî” is from the Anglo-Saxon “ìellen,î” meaning fire-kindler, the dry, pithy stems; blue from the fruit color.”
This again was confirmed by the official U.S. plant guide, stating: “The common name“elder” is from the Anglo-Saxon “ellen,” meaning fire-kindler, the dry, pithy stems; blue from the fruit color.” (see https://plants.usda.gov/plantguide/pdf/pg_sanic5.pdf)
The Elder Plant therefore has nothing to do with the term “elder brother,” the source of the Japanese translation error. “The elder-tree; sambūcus nigra, is a small tree whose branches are filled with a light spongy pith” that comes out easily. The dried hollow stems were not only made into flutes and blowgun by Native Americans, but also were perfect kindling for fire.
There is another interesting detail to the Japanese Elder. It is one of the over 2000 living plants categorized by the Dutch physician and scientist Philipp Franz von Siebold, and bears the scientific name “Sambucus sieboldiana,” On 28 June 1823, after only a few months in the Dutch East Indies, Siebold had been posted as resident physician and scientist to Dejima, a small artificial island and trading post at Nagasaki, and arrived there on 11 August 1823. During the course of his eight years in Japan, Siebold had researched the Japanese fauna and flora extensively.
The artificial island of Dejima, where Siebold lived during his work in Japan. In the above image Siebold most likely is standing on the top right corner of Dejima, viewing the Dutch boat entering the harbour of Nagasaki.
Title page of Siebold’s descriptions of Nippon, a beautiful atlas discovering a new land towards the end of nineteenth century.
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