Recently, I finished reading the first volume of “Witch of the Library” (図書館の魔女) by Daisuke Takada (高田大介) which I reviewed in detail here. Put simply, it is a pretty interesting hard fantasy (think Tolkien) book which requires a pretty high level of Japanese vocabulary and grammar to get through.
Typically, I wait until I finish a novel before considering translating part of it, but in this case I liked the intro so much I started on this translation quite early on, finishing everything but the final editing before I completed the book. I think rather than the story itself, I was enamored with the descriptive style and attention paid to certain details that normally would have been ignored by the author. While I had read novels in English with a similar style, I think this is one of the first times I have experienced this style in Japanese.
The translation is one of the longer ones I’ve done, and took many rounds of editing to try and get the wording and flow right. Normally I would have preferred to do a shorter portion, but I wanted to go until there is a good stopping point, so I decided to do the entire first chapter.
A small part of the chapter discusses charcoal kilns which I was clueless about, so I actually did some research on how this process works, even watching a video or two. While I don’t think many people in the modern age will be making charcoal, the process of how it’s made is pretty amazing, and an interesting piece of history.
Just to be clear, this is a totally unofficial fan translation. If you enjoy this and know Japanese well enough, please consider buying the novel someplace like Booklive. Or buy the book for a friend who speaks Japanese. The Booklive link allows you to read a sample portion of the book as well, which you can use to match against my translation below.
At present I don’t have plans to translate any more of this work, but if you are interested in reading more please like this post and/or write a comment.
[Translation begins here]
(図書館の魔女 第一巻 高田大介)
The Witch of the Library: Volume 1 (de sortiaria bibliothecae)
Part 1: The village of mountain dwellers, Ichi No Tani, The Witch of the Library, and words within hand.
Chapter 1: The last day in the mountain village
His last day in the mountain village had begun.
In the dark room, the boy was already awake. As he slowly got out of bed, goosebumps formed on his arms and steam rose from around his neck. He rubbed his eyes and then let out a small, noiseless yawn. After stretching his body briefly, he tied his hair back in a knot.
Folding the thin bed cover and placing it at his feet, he made the bed and groped around for his sandals on the floor with his feet. Once his toes found their place within the sandal straps, the boy stood up silently and left the room, tying the belt on his two-legged hakama on the way out. The mountain hut was too crude to have anything like doors connecting the rooms.
In the next room, an old man penned a letter beneath the light of a candle. Sitting hunched over in the room’s built-in desk, his knotted fingers quivered around a well-worn quill as they methodically formed character after character upon thin, pliable paper of a kind rarely seen around these parts. His only reaction to the boy’s entrance was a brief “Good morning” without turning around. The boy acknowledged the greeting with a silent nod to the old man’s back, passing through the rear door on the way to the balcony. He spoke not a word, his footsteps equally silent.
The boy hung a pail from his arm and jumped off the balcony–rising nearly 10 feet high–down to the slope below, where the mountain underbrush was wet with dew and and the straps of his sandals dug into the soft sand. He wove through the pillars stuck deep in the ground that supported the hut and headed to the narrow trail out back. At the top of the trail was a small, narrow plot of land where a well rested beneath the shade of an oak tree.
The well’s pulley squeaked as the boy drew the day’s first water. After carefully pouring out the excess water from the pail, he released the well bucket, and it began to plummet down into the darkness from its own weight. The boy pressed the palm of his hand firmly against the pulley to slow the pail’s fall. Right before it reached the water’s surface he applied a little extra pressure and stopped the pulley completely. Finally, the boy loosened his grip to let the pulley spin one more revolution and the bucket descended further into the dark well, stopping quietly with its lower half submerged in water.
The boy returned to the mountain hut, traversing the narrow path at a careful pace to avoid rocking the bucket and spilling the water within. Midway up the stairs that led to the hut’s balcony, one of the steps creaked almost imperceptibly.
He placed the pail down gently near the wall next to the kiln. The moment it made contact with the ground, a faint circular ripple appeared in the water’s surface, converging inwards until it disappeared at a point in the center.
“Kirihito,” the old man called out. He had already inserted his completed letter into an envelope, dripped a few drops of candle wax upon it, and was in the middle of sealing the letter with the signet ring he had removed from his finger.
“Boy, no matter how hard you try, you always make noise on the steps on the way back from the well.”
The boy who had been called “Kirihitio” drooped his head every so slightly and mumbled an apologetic “Yes sir”. He didn’t think for even a second his master would have missed the sound, although today only a single step had creaked.
“Only a single step, though,” bluntly added the old man–the boy’s “master”–as he if could read Kirihito’s mind. Hearing this, the boy felt a little better.
The others in the village might have thought the master was too hard on the boy. In truth, Kirihito’s entire life was tightly controlled by a nearly incomprehensible number of strict rules of the like seen nowhere else.
But Kirihito had made up his mind long ago to honor these harsh demands. His master had never made a request to the boy that he couldn’t have handled himself. And the boy had a deep respect for his teacher, making it a point to conduct himself just as his teacher would, each and every day of his life.
The boy was to leave the village today at dusk. He had been told in advance of these arrangements, but that didn’t change the fact he had daily tasks to attend to. Before setting out on his journey, there was a few things he had to take care of. The boy had been given the responsibility for several charcoal kilns and had to properly seal the one he had most recently set fire to. The smoke rising from one of the ascending kilns below his hut had already begun to change to a transparent blue. The time to block its air intake was near at hand. Furthermore, he had promised to deliver today’s shipment of charcoal to the apprentice blacksmith.
Kirihito went to the crude shack below the kilns and took out a rack made from raw wood that was used for transporting heavy loads. He dragged some finished charcoal from under a straw mat and began loading it onto the rack.
The hard pieces of charcoal were all bent in different angles such that no two had the same shape. Packing them haphazardly was bound to cause problems. The bundle of packed charcoal would jut out from the top of the rack, making descending the mountain trails that much more difficult. The carelessly loaded charcoal would eventually start to shift, little by little, and settle in place. As a result, the once tightly-bound rope would become slack. Pieces of charcoal would undoubtedly fall to the ground and everything would have to be repacked and retied before moving on. Kirihito packed the charcoal swiftly, yet carefully, stick by stick. Each piece had its place. The pieces of the fully formed charcoal knocked into one another, making dull sounds as they were skillfully packed, and before long they formed a single, well-organized mass upon the rack.
Kirihito, with no time to dwell on a job well done, proceeded to tie the rope tightly around the rack before equipping it on his back, securely fastening the shoulder straps and heading towards the kilns. He picked up the long, narrow stone which had been set aside beforehand and jammed it into the ventilation hole of the kiln that was waiting to be sealed. Like the others, this kiln had begun to cool. It’s sealing process was now complete, executed with perfect timing. He had confidence in the charcoal it would produce. However, unfortunately for Kirihito, it would be another week until it fully cooled and the charcoal could be safely extracted. By the time the charcoal was ready, the boy would be long gone. He had supervised its production from the start and knew the final result would be of superb quality. Nevertheless, he would be leaving the fate of it in the hands of another charcoal burner. Today the boy would be departing the village.
Kirihito shouldered the charcoal-filled rack and went to deliver it to the blacksmith residing one mountain south of the kilns. This blacksmith was the most prominent on the mountain, having been employed to make farm tools for the northern outskirts of the city Ichi No Tani which lie across the mountain pass, and the boy had promised to make two more round trips to deliver equally sized bundles of charcoal by the end of today.
In the mountain village here, a group of people commonly known as “mountain-dwellers” have lived for many ages by working in harmony with the elements of iron, stone, and fire. Their livelihoods relied on the mountain and what it provided. Charcoal burners, quarry workers, even blacksmiths–none of these people could imagine leaving this mountain they called home. The workers of this village, who used the earth, rocks, iron, and fire to make tools and weapons required for farming, cooking, or military purposes, had no choice but to lead a life in close contact with this mountain. No matter how much they were ridiculed by the city people as lowly “mountain-dwellers” or “country folk from the mountain”, those from the mountain village took great pride in their work and instinctively understood that their lives could never be separated from the mountain.
On a mountain like this, hand-drawn carts or farm animals served no purpose and only got in the way. Ultimately, the only thing that could be relied upon here was the strength of the human body, so naturally the men and women of the village were strong, tough, and sturdy yet humble, to an extent unimaginable by those raised in the city. Even the most girlish of the wives in the mountain village could easily carry a hefty load which would make any city man stare in bewilderment. This was the sort of environment where the boy was raised.
“Good work. Now leave the charcoal in the usual place,” instructed the young blacksmith, bronze-colored skin oozing sweat while his well-built upper arms reflected the light from the raging furnace.
“Two bundles remaining this morning. I appreciate your help.”
The apprentice blacksmith “Blackrock”, well known in these parts despite his young age, was most likely a secret favorite of the village girls, but because of his tendency to openly tease them he was under the false impression they didn’t think very highly of him. It was blatantly obvious to a even a boy like Kirihito, who was terribly ignorant of the ways of the world, that the great majority of the girls speaking ill of the blacksmith were in fact terribly in love with him.
“You’re leaving today, right?”
“Yes,” Kirihito responded regretfully, to which Blackrock shook his head.
“Your master is quite strict.”
“I’m only doing as I promised.”
“Sure, but don’t you think that at least for your last day, especially considering the good weather, he should let you take it easy?”
Kirihito was caught off guard by the phrase “last day”. Apparently Blackrock was interpreting Kirihito’s departure of the village as his “last day” here.
“Without fail, I will return,” retorted Kirihito with a slight argumentative tone in his voice.
“No, you aren’t coming back.”
“But why would you… Yes, I am surely coming back.”
“To this village, you two are outsiders, both you and your master.”
Kirihito felt anger burn deep within his chest. And yet, he couldn’t help but admit to himself that Blackrock had hit upon something Kirihito had been concealing deep in his heart. Nonetheless, Kirihito stared up at Blackrock in defiance, some part of him refusing to accept things. Blackrock saw the conflicted expression on the boy’s face and quickly continued speaking, having realized the awkward position he was in. It was clear that his offhand remark hadn’t only confused the boy, but had hurt him deeply, leading the blacksmith to make an incoherent attempt to recover the situation.
“Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that you don’t fit in here. You know… you fit in here as well as anybody else. And for a shorty, you’re pretty strong too. You’re a honest worker who doesn’t complain. That’s right, I can really appreciate someone who can take whatever is given to them. Somebody like you. So I’m not trying to saying anything bad about you…” Kirihito continued to stare quietly up at the blacksmith. If the boy didn’t have such a hard shell, Kirihito might have already been on the verge of tears.
“It’s just that… you’re different. Different than the rest of us here.”
“What do you mean?” responded the boy, unconsciously raising his voice ever so slightly.
“You don’t belong here,” said Blackrock bluntly.
The blacksmith was surprisingly chatty considering his lack of tact. Blackrock was taken aback at how he, not known for his skill with words, had seemingly hit on some deep truth. Kirihito also froze for a brief moment, unable to speak. The boy had never even considered such a thing. And yet, the blacksmith’s words rang true in his heart. Blackrock continued on awkwardly.
“You can come back here whenever you want, and yeah, I think you should. You’re really a great help to all of us. Not just as a charcoal burner. I’d even like to take you in as my apprentice. I’m being serious here, no joke. That’d be the best thing for you. You’d be a great blacksmith, and that’s a job that only a real man can do. And I’d make you my apprentice.”
Blackrock continued on frantically despite Kirihito’s silence. The blacksmith crouched down next to the boy and spoke as if he was pleading desperately with him.
“I’m… I’m thinking of giving up my apprenticeship here to Inuo. After that, I plan to study under the swordsmith at the base of the cliff. I’m going to start afresh there. And then someday I’ll become a master swordsmith. You’ll see. Then once you come back, I’ll put you under my wing.”
“That’s not going to work. Becoming a blacksmith takes years of training.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll show you the ropes. I’ll train you. You deserve much better than the job of a lowly charcoal burner anyway,” Blackrock spoke even faster as if he was onto something.
Kirihito stared intently up at the blacksmith. Blackrock was at a loss for words, once again realizing he had spoken carelessly, this time insulting the entire profession of charcoal burning. He covered his mouth as if ashamed of his utterance, face set in a pitiful expression at odds with his sturdy build. But yet again, he quickly regained his composure and spoke whatever came to mind.
“Your master isn’t a typical charcoal burner either.”
“I know that.”
“You two are going down to Ichi No Tani, right?”
“My master is returning right away.”
“I’m also coming back someday too.”
Just then, a loud crackling sound came from the direction of the furnace. The bulky master blacksmith stood before an anvil, spitting on his hands. Another man, Blackrock’s teacher, crouched before the fire, awaiting his pupil. Blackrock turned away and headed for the furnace without another word. The conversation ended, Kitihito returned to the mountain trail from where he’d come. Blackrock lifted his hammer to shoulder height in front of the furnace and glanced briefly at the trail. As the boy walked away, Blackrock raised his hand in farewell, and Kirihito unexpectedly returned the gesture without looking back. But how could the boy have possibly seen Blackrock?
“I guess that kid lives with the master,” said Blackrock’s teacher.
“I heard he’s leaving the village,” spoke the well-built master blacksmith.
“Yeah. But the kid was saying he’ll be back,” Blackrock answered as he raised the hammer and prepared to strike.
“The boy won’t be back anytime soon. Nobody’s ever returned,” his teacher mumbled as if reproving Blackrock, all without taking his eyes off the furnace’s flame.
A large lump of wrought iron was dragged out of the furnace, stirring up a hot wind around its red glow. Without further conversation, the men began to strike their hammers together in close coordination. The time for talk was over. The rhythm of their hammers’ sounds echoed in the cold morning air of the mountain village, gradually picking up speed as they worked. Blackrock’s attention was already fully absorbed by the lump of iron sparking before his eyes.
Blackrock swung his hammer in silence. It pounded metal in perfect rhythm without the smallest hesitation, leaving no room for any stray thoughts. And yet, for one brief instant as he was raising the hammer to strike, a doubt popped into his mind: What did his teacher mean by “Nobody’s ever returned”?
After that, Kirihito made two round trips to the blacksmith to deliver charcoal. Sunlight had finally begun to reach the deepest parts of the valley. The air around his hut was laden with the smell of breakfast preparations. His master had added hot water to the pot used for last night’s dinner and was boiling soup for breakfast. The dinner stew had been made from fish his master picked up on a rare trip to the city to stock up goods for the village. Though far from extravagant, the feast was a special touch for the boy’s last supper in the village. His master, who had prepared the meal, hadn’t expressed his feelings verbally, but Kirihito knew how he felt.
The wind felt good against his skin, flushed from a total of three round trips today carrying charcoal on the mountain trails, but as he disliked cooling his body unnecessarily he removed his tunic and carefully wiped the sweat from his upper body. Then he walked on the forest path north of the kiln leading to an empty field and sat cross-legged in the grass there. He gently placed his hands on his knees, bowed his head, and closed his eyes, focusing on the stirrings of the mountain that gradually intensified as noon approached.
He tried to calm his mind and meditate, but pieces of the conversations he had with the villagers during his morning tasks swirled around his consciousness, making it difficult to focus. At every place he stopped, he was greeted with warm words of encouragement regarding his journey. Being wished well by so many people normally would have been assuring, but to Kirihito’s ears these sounded like parting words before his death, and each time he heard them he was overwhelmed by conflicting feelings. Deep within his heart, his determination to return to this village no matter what battled with the truth behind the phrase muttered unexpectedly by Blackrock: “You’re different than the rest of us here.”
After sitting in meditation for several hours, ultimately unable to calm his mind, Kirihito stood up and began the exercises that signified the end of his morning schedule. He extended both arms out straight out to his sides and slowly twisted his upper body. He stooped down low and planted his hands on the ground, repeating this except this time he bent his body backwards and touched the ground once again. These simple, ordinary movements were made so slow that a fly at rest on his skin would not be scared away, and were executed with a grace that made him appear to be standing still. The boy’s skin became slick with sweat, and his breathing slowed to match his movements. Unaware to him, his master had crept up silently and was now standing behind him, watching the boy perform his exercises.
Kirihito returned to a sitting position on the ground with legs folded beneath him, staying perfectly still as his breath returned to normal, until some time later when his master suddenly mumbled “breakfast time” to no one in particular. Without a word, the boy got to his feet and followed the old man back towards their hut. On the way, Kirihito put his tunic back on and wiped the sweat from his forehead with its sleeve.
His master served soup into two bowls that had been used since morning for drinking water, and Kirihito withdrew a chunk of bread from his pocket. He tore it into several pieces, one for his master and two for himself. They sat on the floor in front of the stove and gave a silent prayer before beginning their slow, deliberate meal. The bread was unlike the white, soft bread sold in the city, and was much heavier with darker grains that ripened as time passed. This bread was already three days old, giving each bite had a particular sourness, but the boy couldn’t imagine a more delicious meal. The soup, devoid of any actual fish, only had a subtle hint of fish flavor, but to Kirihito, who was accustomed to broth made from mountain vegetables, it was a special treat. He absorbed the last drop of soup remaining in the bowl with a piece of bread, savoring the flavor as he chewed the last bite in his mouth for a long, long time.