It appears to be common, but by no means universal, for artists/publishers to include 之圖 in ukiyo-e title cartouches (sometimes ノ圖; written のづ in accompanying furigana; occasionally seen 圖 without the ‘no’). In terms of various print genres I am looking at, you might see 川中嶋大合戰之圖, a Picture of the Great Battle of Kawanakajima (Kawanakajima ō-kassen no zu), or 川中嶋大合戰, The Great Battle of Kawanakajima (Kawanakajima ō-kassen). Statistically I would hazard a guess that it’s 60:40 in favour of the ‘no zu’ in musha-e, but don’t quote me on that!

So, I’m interested in understanding why most institutional museums and auction houses would simply drop ‘View of’ or ‘Picture of’ from their English translations, as if 之圖 never existed in the title. You would think that there was a very specific, scholarly reason for doing this. Surely a historically arbitrary or idiosyncratic practice would not become a largely conventional, Western translation practice? For me, the omission is problematic, since I would always aspire to faithful character transcriptions, transliterations, and translations, but I might be ignorant here. Relevant to this language stack exchange (I trust), my question is whether it’s a reflection of the way the phrase is understood and regarded by a Japanese reader? For instance, using ‘no zu’ might well have been part of a cultural convention, but conceptually it is ‘redundant’ and therefore not translated. Some kind of anachronism? Something almost tautological in a visual/textual sense? Hence, irrelevant in an English translation. I’m not sure when ‘no zu’ found its way into visual art titles (at least mid-17th century), and if there is a correlative in fiction or other creative or performing arts.

For context:

  1. Most museums record the Japanese characters as well as rōmaji, albeit with the shinjitai 図 instead of the kyūjitai 圖, e.g. The Great Battle at Kawanakajima (Kawanakajima ôgassen no zu), 川中島大合戦之図, MFA Boston. However, they rarely write their titles beginning ‘Picture of ...’, as this example attests. This is especially so of the MFA Boston. Yes, there are exceptions: the MFA lists an artwork as Picture of a Hakutaku (Hakutaku no zu), 白澤之図. The Met lists in its collection: Views of Foreigners (Gaikokujin no zu), 外国人之図. Again, mentioning ‘Views’ is uncommon, unless it is a landscape with 景, けい, kei (view, scene) in the title, or 勝景, しょうけい, shōkei (scenic view), e.g. the Lavenberg collection’s View of Nihonbashi Bridge in the Eastern Capital (Tōto Nihonbashi no shōkei), 東都日本橋之勝景.

  2. The only ramification I can see for including ‘Picture of’, is that you need to occasionally change the active present participle, e.g. it sounds better to write Picture of the ‘Four Heavenly Kings’ Entering Ōeyama, instead of Picture of the ‘Four Heavenly Kings’ Enter Ōeyama (Shitennō Ōeyama iri no zu), 四天王江山入之圖.

  3. Would love to know if anyone has insights into this, since from a Western perspective, it would seem strange for a museum or a catalogue raisonné to omit ‘View of’ from a C19th artwork that has clearly been labelled ‘View of the River Thames’ by the artist him or herself. Or, change an C18th title ‘Map of Van Diemen's Land’ to ‘Map of Tasmania’, simply because no one refers to it as Van Diemen’s Land any longer!

Not quite sure how to tag this question... it might be an outlier.

  • 2
    Might want to ask on the English SE site. I believe it is a question regarding English usage of a term.
    – Jack Bosma
    Jul 28, 2018 at 17:37
  • 1
    JACK, my question isn't representative of the bulk of language questions here, but I was hoping it had its place: I am asking about a Japanese phrase. I'm perplexed why in translation 'no zu' is usually dropped: does this seem odd, and if a Japanese speaker was translating a ukiyo-e title, would they begin with 'Picture of', or drop it, because of a convention I am not aware of? I can't understand, otherwise, why Western institutions ignore it. You'd think it would be in cultural deference, otherwise, someone arbitrarily decided 'no zu' was redundant for an image title, and now it's the norm.
    – musha
    Jul 29, 2018 at 0:50
  • 3
    I think this is absolutely relevant to Japanese SE, because it is an interesting example about a specific translation issue. Jul 29, 2018 at 6:02

1 Answer 1


Because "translation", in the best sense, means replacing some writing in one language with writing in another language which gives, as far as possible, the same information, and much more, the same subjective impression as the original. If the original is pedantically straightforward, the translation should be pedantically straightforward. If the original gives a tinge of shock, so should the translation. (And so on.) Note that there is nothing here about what most people seem to think "translation" means, i.e. "Replace each source language word with its corresponding target language word, then reshuffle a bit, until it looks passable."

Now there is really no question to be answered: to the English reader a "Picture of ..." is (often) going to be surprisingly pedantic, in a way that the original was not to a reader of the time. (That is another interesting point: translation typically goes from a source of whatever period, to the target of the current day, making translations more immediately understandable than the original.) And as you point out, it is often grammatically inconvenient to stick "Picture of..." in front, since this forces the rest of the title to be a noun phrase, which may be a serious constraint on the translation of the rest of the title.

Although exceptions are extremely common, I think there is a general tendency for the referent of a Japanese title to be the document (the picture, the book in your hand, etc) whereas the referent of the English title is the subject of the document. Sorry, I can't immediately give a reasoned basis for this with lots of good examples; this is based on experience of translating many documents (mostly technical, so this is not a curiosity of the art world).

I don't really understand your point 3: obviously, if you are writing the original title, you don't change it. The problem is that translation ''means'' changing the title, and complaints about the translation being "different" almost always go back to the misunderstanding of translation as a "word-replacement" operation. As for the geographical name problem, if you are including and 18th century map of Tasmania, calling it that seems utterly appropriate, since this is a description of the document, rather than a "title" as such. Of course, if this is in an article, you would expect to mention somewhere what Tasmania was called in the 18th century.

  • Thanks for your reflections. Re: #3: I was trying to make a point that having 'scene of', 'view of', etc., is not uncommon in Western landscape artworks. You would think a researcher, if the title was written on the back of a canvas, would keep 'view of' as part of the official title of the work, not truncate it to 'The River Thames'; they wouldn't think it was redundant or 'pedantic', as you nicely phrase it. In this sense, the Japanese use of 'view/picture of' doesn't appear an alien cultural or cross-cultural concept, yet it is usually omitted from the title when translated into English.
    – musha
    Jul 29, 2018 at 9:27
  • I threw this question out to a ukiyo-e website, and the general response (from the few that responded, including one working on an online catalogue raisonné), was that it would be more scholarly to acknowledge the 'no zu' by titling the work 'Picture of...'. But there is no consistency in books, journals, online resources, before we even count the usual vagaries of 'variable' translations and what border on mistranslations (a work titled Battling on Horseback when the cartouche clearly reads Ōshū ō-kassen no zu).
    – musha
    Jul 29, 2018 at 9:44
  • I assume translation etiquette/practices change over time. I'm not sure if leaving out 'Picture of' is a C19th hangover or the like, and we have bobbed along like a gourd on the river ever since, not asking if it would be best practice or if it's at least legitimate practice to include it. Hence my question on SE. Re the Van Diemen's Land reference, that was just a broader point: personally, I would always translate Ōshū if it was written Ōshū (奥州) in a title, not translate it as Mutsu Province... and as you say, you would contextualise that by reference in a main text or footnotes. Thanks...
    – musha
    Jul 29, 2018 at 10:09
  • I would still be interested to see the response if the question and responses were posted on the English Language SE site. As far as I am concerned, the term is dropped when translating into English. I translated the term as a drawing. jisho.org/search/%E4%B9%8B%E5%9C%96
    – Jack Bosma
    Jul 29, 2018 at 11:10
  • Hi @JACK, it is usually but not always dropped in resources, but that aside, I am interested in the rationale for why it is dropped. You would drop it, but why? The On reading of 図 is "drawing, picture, diagram, figure, illustration, chart, graph, sight, scene" as the jisho reference indicates... I don't have hardcopy dictionaries/references at hand to delve deeper... but 圖/図 appears to be translated as 'Picture' or 'View' when it comes to woodblock prints from the 18th and 19th centuries (at least those I am looking at). Cheers.
    – musha
    Jul 29, 2018 at 13:53

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