This week’s selection is one of my favorites:
弘法にも筆の誤り (Koubou ni mo fude no ayamari; “Even Kuukai’s brush slips”)
It means, essentially, “everyone makes mistakes” or “we’re all only human.” The translation given above may seem odd, since I changed the name (see the Notes section below for a more thorough explanation) but in simple terms, Kuukai a.k.a. Koubou was a master calligrapher. If even his writing-brush could produce a mistake, well, ordinary folks, non-specialists, like you or I shouldn’t feel too bad about it if we make mistakes from time to time as well. It’s great for daily life when someone expresses disappointment or upset over some error they’ve made.
A pretty close English equivalent actually exists: “Even Homer nods,” i.e. “Even [ancient Greek poet] Homer becomes sleepy at times,” from Dryden’s translation of the Ars Poetica. The sense of even a great master being only human is there, as in the Japanese. The main problem with using this phrase as a translation today would be its inaccessibility to most people: Homer Simpson will come to mind for most Americans, at least, far more readily than the author of the Iliad and Odyssey.
This phrase is pithy in a way that makes it difficult to translate closely: it has three nouns, three particles, and zero verbs. Our nouns are the proper noun 弘法, 筆 (fude, a writing-brush), and 誤り (ayamari, “error”), a nominalized form of the verb 誤る (ayamaru, to err / to make a mistake). The particles are に (ni), meaning “to” or “for” among other uses, も (mo), “also,” “too,” and の (no), the possessive marker. Rendered literally, the phrase becomes “Even for Koubou, brush’s mistake.”
It turns out that Kuukai (空海) was a really big deal in his day. Like most upper-class Japanese men of his day, he studied Chinese language and script as a major component of his education. Unlike most, he went to China, where he learned Sanskrit and studied Buddhism. After returning to Japan he worked for the emperors Saga, Junna, and Ninmyou – including overseeing several public-works projects! – and introduced court society to esoteric Buddhist practices, founding the Shingon sect. It is said that he never died, but simply went into meditation to await the Maitreya Buddha. Nevertheless, he is known posthumously as 弘法大師, (Koubou Daishi, the “Buddhism-Spreading Great Master”), whence the saying.
Japanese Wikipedia tells me that this kotowaza comes from a time when Kuukai was asked to make a framed placard for the 応天門 (Outenmon, a gate within the Imperial Palace in the Heian Capital) but forgot the dot on top of 応. Realizing the error only after it had been hung, instead of having it taken down again he threw his brush to correct the mistake. As a result the saying originally included not only the meaning that remains with us today, but also a nuance of praise – “As expected, a master doesn’t even correct their mistakes in the same way a normal person would.” Make of it what you will.
This expression can be replaced with 猿も木から落ちる (saru mo ki kara ochiru, “Even monkeys fall from trees”). While being compared to a monkey is perhaps more insulting than being compared to a legendary Buddhist master, the meaning and nuance are largely identical (in the sense that “even a specialist can slip up”) and the reference is more accessible to a modern listener or reader. Just for kicks they can even be combined to get 弘法も木から落ちる, “Even Kuukai falls from trees,” which tickles me more than it probably should. [grin]
(“Sensei no essei no soukou wo yondara, ikutsuka taipo ga atte bikkuri shita.” “’Koubou ni mo fude no ayamari‘ da ne.”)
[“I read the professor’s draft and there were a bunch of typos – I was surprised!” “Well, ‘Nobody’s perfect.’”]