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There is a quote from Matsuo Basho:

古人の跡を求めず、古人の求めしところを求めよ

Nowadays, would a phrase 人の跡を求める be understood as "to follow someone"s footsteps". Would it be grammatically valid in contemporary Japanese?

Was it grammatically correct in the times of Basho? Or was it already a play on words, ie. it would be invalid without the latter part.

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Follow might be a slightly misleading verb here, because it is too narrow, and can sometimes have a negative connotation of passivity. There's a difference between seeking my mother's advice and following it.

I noticed how “seek to follow the footsteps” is the widely disseminated translation for this quote, but literally it is more like a simple “seek the traces”. (“Seek not the traces of your predecessors…”) In that sense, “Xの跡を求める” is still grammatically valid and used today, whether X is a person or thing.

Some examples:

  • 愛しい女性の跡を求めて旅立つ
    Set out on a journey seeking the traces of a beloved woman
  • 神社の跡を求めてジャングルの中を歩く
    Walk in the jungle seeking the traces of a shrine
  • 夢の跡を求めてパリにやってくる
    Come to Paris seeking the traces of a dream

To more closely match the English notion of “following someone's footsteps” or “following in someone's footsteps”, there are other suitable verbs with varying applications and nuances, e.g. 跡をたどる, 跡を追う, 跡を継ぐ. The 跡 part can also be altered to specify the kind of trace, like 足跡 (footsteps) or 軌跡 (path/track).

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  • 詩的な例文に、思わず+1です。 – l'électeur Oct 13 '15 at 9:48
  • literally it is more like a simple “seek the traces" -- I know it's hard to answer, but is this literal (and contemporary) meaning what Basho intended? If so, the English translation seems quite different to the original. It says something like "choose you own path to attain knowledge", but Japanese seems more in line with "do not focus on people, focus on what they wanted to attain", doesn't it? – macraf Oct 15 '15 at 21:25
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    @macraf That seems right, except maybe more like “Don't focus on what people have done” instead of just “people”. One source paraphrases it as “遺業の形骸を追い求める”, another says “表面的にまねする”. The Basho quote itself is a paraphrase of the great calligrapher Kukai, which means something like “Imitate the intent, not the brush strokes”. – mirka Oct 16 '15 at 9:10
  • To me, it also brings to mind a Henry Ford quote “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses” (= consumers were seeking the traces of an older time, and Ford sought what they really sought) – mirka Oct 16 '15 at 9:13

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