a web resource for the study of Gene Wolfe

Japanese Lexicon for The Book of the New Sun

by Michael Andre-Driussi

In the fall of 1987 I found myself with a new job in a rural town, where one Sunday I visited the local shopping mall, and there in a dump of used paperback books I found a copy of The Shadow of the Torturer. It was auspicious, I thought, to find an old friend in a new place, especially since it was a Japanese edition. But then again, I was living in Japan at the time.

To be clear, I couldn’t read Japanese very much at all, but I could spot the “Sci Fi” symbol on the book’s spine (a planet Saturn), and I could read the phonetic writing they use for foreign words and names, such that “Jiin Urufu” is Gene Wolfe.

I opened the book at random. (I should mention that Japanese books are “reverse” to Western standards–their front cover is where our back cover is. In addition to this, the text runs vertically, from top to bottom, from right to left.) So anyway, I opened the book and my eye alighted upon bits of phonetic writing contained within brackets–in other words, a parenthetical note on the text. I believe it was a gloss on “amschaspand.” (You were guessing it would be “graven.” That would have been neat, but no.) I flipped through the book and saw a few others, probably “Nilammon” among them.

“Ah-ha,” I thought to myself. “How clever! They have taken notes from Wolfe’s article ‘Words Weird and Wonderful’ in The Castle of the Otter and incorporated them as footnotes. I’ll bet they don’t have any such notes in later volumes.”

I bought the book (for 250 yen, about $2 then and now) but didn’t search out the others during my two years living there. I brought the book back with me to the States and it remained a curio as I embarked on writing my Lexicon.

Nineteen years later, I returned to Japan for a summer job, and it seemed like an opportunity to fill out my set of the Japanese edition of The Book of the New Sun, so I did. Contrary to my earlier theory, the other volumes did in fact have word glosses. This meant that it wasn’t the easy thing I had thought it was, and that the Japanese translators had, in effect, worked up their own lexicon!

This long-winded and self-aggrandizing introduction is just a prelude to the real thing, the wordlist of the Japanese lexicon for The Book of the New Sun. One strategy would be to spread the “Words Weird and Wonderful” glosses out among all four volumes, but that does not seem to be the case here–it seems like the translator did most of the work himself, only asking Wolfe directly about two chapters in the fourth volume.

In annotating the words, I trace some to the words defined in the appendix to volume II (marked *), many to “Words Weird and Wonderful” (marked †), and a few to words defined in other articles in The Castle of the Otter (marked ‡).

Volume I (68 notes)

  1. League (measurement) *
  2. Exultant †
  3. Amschaspand †
  4. Arctother †
  5. Erebus ‡
  6. Matachin tower †
  7. Cubit (measurement) *
  8. Saros (“period of 6,600 days,” i.e., the modern sense of the word. Here the translator made an error, since I believe the ancient sense of the word is required at this spot.)
  9. Urth †
  10. Cacogen †
  11. Chain (measurement) *
  12. Minim (measurement) †
  13. Half-boot (torture)
  14. Ophicleide †
  15. Diatryma †
  16. Thylacodon †
  17. Triskele †
  18. Glyptodon †
  19. Smilodon †
  20. Nilammon
  21. Megatherians
  22. Graven
  23. Drachma
  24. Ell (measurement) †
  25. Saffron
  26. Pantocrator †
  27. Hypostases †
  28. Quadrille (card game)
  29. Urticate †
  30. Salpinx †
  31. Bordereau †
  32. Cabochon emerald †
  33. Omophagist †
  34. Span (measurement) *
  35. Moira †
  36. Stride (measurement) *
  37. Externs †
  38. Ophicleide †
  39. Ascians †
  40. Baldy
  41. Paduasoy †
  42. Balmacaan †
  43. Surtouts †
  44. Dolman †
  45. Jerkin †
  46. Jelab †
  47. Capote †
  48. Smock
  49. Cymar †
  50. Onager †
  51. Dulcimer †
  52. Lamia †
  53. Hesperorn †
  54. Oreodont †
  55. Cloisonné
  56. Fearnought
  57. Simar †
  58. Succubus †
  59. Abacination †
  60. Defenestration †
  61. Estrapade †
  62. Burginot †
  63. Verthandi †
  64. Coal Sack Nebula
  65. Alzabo †
  66. Merychip †
  67. Teratornis †
  68. Pandour †

The article “Words Weird and Wonderful” has around 230 entries for unusual words found in The Shadow of the Torturer. The Japanese edition of The Shadow of the Torturer gives 68 glosses, so there are less than a third of those given in “Words Weird and Wonderful.”

Volume II (23 notes)

  1. Scylla
  2. Demiurge
  3. Baluchither
  4. Kestrel
  5. Phorusrhacos
  6. Tribade
  7. Hierodule
  8. Notule
  9. Jennet
  10. (A note to explain that the White Knight bit mentioned by Jonas in the antechamber is a quote from Lewis Carroll’s Through The Looking Glass.)
  11. Faille (fabric)
  12. Naviscaput
  13. The three fates
  14. Khaibit †
  15. Megatherian
  16. Capote †
  17. Ushas
  18. Petasos
  19. Tyrian purple
  20. Water moccasin (snake)
  21. Eclectics (people who fold other cultures into their own–“this refers to Americans”!)
  22. Glamour
  23. Spelaeae

Volume III (25 notes)

  1. Rosolio (wine)
  2. Coronas lucis
  3. Remontado
  4. Sangria (wine)
  5. Sanbenito
  6. Sikinnis
  7. Cuvee (wine)
  8. Saros (“18 years,” which is about equal to the previous definition of 6,600 days.)
  9. Barghest
  10. Caloyer
  11. (Re: old man in Casdoe’s cabin, Palaemon wears glasses.)
  12. Notule (“message from Notus, God of South Winds”!)
  13. Galleass
  14. Gegenschein
  15. Squanto
  16. Verthandi
  17. Amschaspand
  18. Xebec
  19. (Complication over English word “toadstool,” to explain the poisonous, loathsome aspect of something that looks like a yummy shitake mushroom.)
  20. Pele tower
  21. Hellebore
  22. Skuld
  23. Catamite
  24. Logos
  25. Estoc

Volume IV (31 notes)

  1. Caitanya
  2. Bowspirit
  3. Narthex
  4. Arsinoither
  5. Apeiron
  6. Schiavoni
  7. Bushmaster (snake)
  8. Anpiel
  9. Merychip
  10. Cherkaji
  11. Coryphaeus
  12. Cuir boli
  13. Onager †
  14. Phenocod
  15. Ophicleide †
  16. Ziggurat
  17. Calotte (cap)
  18. Ransieur
  19. Uintathier
  20. Platybelodon
  21. Acarya (science)
  22. Samru (King of Birds)
  23. Jupe (female clothing)
  24. Aquastor
  25. Mandragora
  26. Piquenaires
  27. Pilani
  28. Capote (cape, hood) †
  29. Chechia
  30. Lugsails
  31. Pandour †

A summary of the numbers is in order, which calls for a table. The first column shows the total number of notes per volume, while the second column gives the number of those notes that appear to be from original research rather than being simply copied from The Castle of the Otter.

68          13
23          21
25          24
31          27

Volume I has the lion’s share of notes, nearly half of the 149 that is the total, and it also has the lowest percentage of original notes (18%). But in subsequent volumes the percentage of original notes is quite high, so that in the end there are 85 original notes, which amounts to 57% of the 149 total.

In fact I have no certain knowledge that the translator used The Castle of the Otter at all, it is just my long-held hunch. He might very well have done all the research on his own.

At the end of Volume IV, the Japanese translator gives three endnotes about a single sentence in chapter 38, specifically about the mysterious séance at the stone town. I’ll give the English sentence he is footnoting:

I know now the identity of the man called Head of Day[1], and why Hildegrin, who was too near, perished when we met[2], and why the witches fled[3].

Here are his endnotes:

  1. “Head of Day” is one of Severian’s future shapes.
  2. Hildegrin’s disappearance was caused by the energy released at the union of old and new Severians.
  3. The witch was a member of the temple slaves, and realizing that she had interfered with a very important matter, she withdrew.

In addition, the translator writes that he got help from Gene Wolfe on chapters 37 and 38, and thanks him for that.


What is the moral of this story? “Every curio you collect has a deeper meaning that will come to you in the fullness of time”? Maybe.

It is funny, nearly haunting, that I thought the annotations to the Japanese edition of volume I were a simple work of cribbing notes from “Words Weird and Wonderful,” when in fact it is not. I have no doubt that its presence in my collection, or my awareness of its existence, was another obscure milestone on my path to creating a Lexicon. Which is to say, years before Lexicon Urthus was even a twinkle in my eye, months before I had even laid eyes upon The Urth of the New Sun, my investigative gaze fell upon a narrow spine whose alien, angular letters proclaimed Jiin Urufu, so that I caught my breath, smiled, and said, “What have we here?”


“The Lupine Scholar” – an interview with Michael Andre-Driussi


The Wizard Knight Companion


  1. “Which is to say, years before Lexicon Urthus was even a twinkle in my eye, months before I had even laid eyes upon The Urth of the New Sun, my investigative gaze fell upon a narrow spine whose alien, angular letters proclaimed Jiin Urufu, so that I caught my breath, smiled, and said, “What have we here?””

    Are you saying, then, that you may have had some presentiment of your destiny?

  2. Michael Andre-Driussi

    LOL, Dan’l!

    Actually I was thinking more of the difference between the coins given to Severian by Vodalus and Reechy–I had thought that the Japanese edition was, well, not “fake,” but certainly easy. I didn’t guess how much work it really was, the truth that it really represented.

    Thanks for reading, and commenting!

  3. Scott Wowra

    Hi Michael,

    Interesting work.

    I am curious on a few points.

    First, did you notice any larger patterns of interpretation that differ between your own lexicon and that of your Japanese counterpart?

    Second, and perhaps less interesting, do you know if the Japanese version (or any non-English version of TBotNS) has ever been back translated? These deviations may simply tell us more about cultural differences in language than anything else.

    Certainly they are not revealing anything “new or hidden” given Mr. Wolfe’s reliance upon English… but one never knows what non-native English speakers may glean from a text that native English speakers take for granted.

  4. Michael Andre-Driussi

    Hello there Scott,

    I cannot speak to the many words (the vast majority!) that were translated without parenthetical glosses, since all I focused on were such glosses.

    Just thinking of translating TBOTNS into a non-European language is croggling! The translator by definition had to have made his own equivalent of Lexicon Urthus, right? (Even if he just has a native English reader who can say, “that’s a sword of some kind,” “that’s a helmet,” etc.) And following that logic, he only resorts to glosses when he cannot find the right word in suitably archaic Japanese.

    As for patterns, I don’t know. The one error I suspect is the first use of “saros.” I get a kick out of “notules” as “messages from the God of South Winds”! I’ve never seen anything like that. And the “eclectics” thing is a roller coaster all of its own, since from our perspective the Japanese themselves are rather masters at borrowing from others.

    No, I’ve never seen anything back-translated.

    Thank you for reading and commenting!

  5. Scott Wowra

    Hi Michael,

    Thank you for your reply. A few reactions to your post:

    The “eclectic” comment may suggest an anti-Western bias, but he may simply imply that America is the cultural “melting pot” nonpareil. (probably both)

    I can sort of see why he went with “messages from the God of the South Winds,” as Wiki tells us:

    “Notus (Greek ?????, Nótos) was the Greek god of the south wind. He was associated with the desiccating hot wind of the rise of Sirius after midsummer, was thought to bring the storms of late summer and autumn, and was feared as a destroyer of crops.”

    Notus is the personification of the modern-term “sirocco,” which are hot winds that originate in the Sahara and become hurricane-speed gusts over the Mediterranean, dumping sand in Greece, Italy, and various other points in Southern Europe.

    Given the links to heat, speedy movement through the air, and the similarity between “notus” and “notule,” the translation appears reasonable and pulls in a a fun bit of Greek mythology!

    Facinating stuff.

  6. Michael Andre-Driussi

    Hello there Scott,

    Right, there are all sorts of interpretations to the linkage of “Americans” to “eclectics.” The least flattering would be to say that Americans are mongrels or hybrids between the pure civilized peoples and the pure non-civilized peoples (since the eclectics borrow from both the civilization of the Commonwealth and the folkways of the autochthons). Or, as you say, a more flattering approach would see that while the Americans borrow everything, they keep the original culture tags on each borrowing, rather than trying to pass it off as something original.

    Still, for me it strikes a funny bone. IIRC, in genre, the Japanese tendency to imitate gave rise to the humorous aliens the Hoka (by Poul Anderson and Gordon Dickson), a species of cute teddy bears that get into all sorts of mischief when they appropriate Earth customs willy nilly. Maybe I’m wrong in thinking that those aliens are based at least in part on the Japanese, but that’s how I’ve always taken it.

    As for the Notus of notules, yes, that’s right. The heat they seek and express when torn, the wind they ride or cause. The message part is even carried by French “notule” meaning brief note or “an abstract.” Pretty neat.

    One thing that could come of all this, the Japanese translator himself might find us here and tell us the real story of his labor. That would be something!


  7. Tony

    ?? ?? (Hironori Okabe) is the translator – he is quite prolific, doing translation for a wide selection of sci-fi, including George R. R. Martin. I’ll see if I can’t track down and email address so we can ask him to comment here!

    Cheers – Tony

  8. Zenslinger


    Thanks for this article. Having lived in Japan, I was impressed by the variety of translations available there.

    Were all the terms you list written out in katakana (for the non-Japanese speaker, this is the form of writing used, among other things, to signify that a word is a loan word from another language)? Or were some of them somehow translated into native Japanese words?

    The Japanese are, of course, great borrowers and synthesizers of culture. I lived there for three years and finally began to see what at first seem like cultural thefts — such as loan words — as phenomena unto themselves. Especially in learning the language, the student has to understand that the loan word has its own meaning in Japanese instead of clucking his tongue over how the word has been mispronounced, or, worse, misappropriated, its “true” range of meanings elided or lost. The loan word is embedded in the culture, and becomes Japanese, and recognition of the word’s origin in the Japanese learner’s native language shouldn’t deceive him — he has to learn it as a Japanese word.

    All this is to say that there is typically a judgmental aspect on the learner’s side that sees Japanese cultural borrowing as sad, or childish, or the product of something lacking in Japanese culture. But that judgment hopefully recedes as the Japanese learner settles in.

  9. Michael Andre-Driussi

    Hello Zenslinger,

    I apologize for the long delay in responding–I only just saw the note you posted months ago!

    You asked if the terms are all in katakana, or if some are translated. I believe that some, or maybe many, are translated.

    Here, I’ve gotten the books out again. “League” is in katakana (p. 15), but then we get “exultant” (p. 17). This is written in kanji, three characters “high,” (something), “person,” and the furigana (“how to pronounce the kanji” subtitle) in katakana reads “eguzarutanto.” That seems complicated to me, but there it is.

    The next two, angel (18) and bear (19), are both katakana. As is Erebus (19).

    Well anyway, there’s a quick look from the beginning of the text!

  10. Michael Andre-Driussi

    Early in the year (2010) I wrote a letter to Gene Wolfe. Among other things I told him about some books I’d been reading about China and Japan. One of them was “The Coming War with Japan” (1991) — IIRC, Gene Wolfe mentioned it when it was new and I was just back from living in Japan, but at the time I was sick of that sort of thing. Anyway, in response to my book report he asked if I’d read Kipling’s “From Sea to Sea,” and wrote that Kipling “loved Japan and was terrified by China.”

    I resolved to look into it.

    I got the wrong volume from interlibrary loan.

    Then I got the right volume.

    Then I found it as an e-book on Amazon, and I bought that.

    Anyway, I found it very interesting. Even though Kipling traveled the area in 1889, about 100 years before I did, still, there is a great deal of similarity in experience. Kipling complains about the Westernization of Japan, just as many do today. The funny thing is, he is there in the year Meiji 22! They already had a railroad. The changes in those two dozen years croggles the imagination.

    And yet, he and we missed the intervening part of history where Japan showed a much darker side.

    Back up a bit. Kipling visits China first. He doesn’t like it. It is a boom town. There are lots of Westerners there making tons of money. The Chinese are working far too hard — Kipling fears for India, sensing that India cannot possibly match this sort of production.

    Then Kipling goes to Japan. He is charmed by the place — very tidy, very polite. He does worry a bit that the place seems to be a living museum. He grows concerned that the Japanese people may soon die out (just as many do today).

    He complains about the Western dress among the citizens. Fair enough. He ridicules the Japanese soldiery. He imagines Indian troops going up against Japanese troops. This is very interesting, again from the history that follows, and the cycle that returns things for us.

    Where Kipling is surprisingly “different” is, naturally, his deep grounding in India. He admires the temples of Kyoto greatly, without a peep of Christian or Indian interpretation — in this he is the perfect “anthropologist” or art appreciator. (For context, understand that temples in Japan are mainly Buddhist, the “other” main religion being native Shinto, which usually celebrates shrines.) And yet, when Kipling sees a “torii,” that symbolic gate that we all associate automatically, instinctively, with Japan, Kipling notes without malice nor condescension that it comes from Southern India. I had no idea! Likewise, whenever he comes across a Shinto shrine, he openly declares it Hindu and looks around for the red paint that should adorn every Hindu shrine. This is pretty boggling stuff! Because while there is no question of a connection to India through Buddhism, the earlier religion of Shinto presents itself, or at least seems to be, entirely autochthonous.

    So there you have it: Wolfe recommends Kipling.

    And this amounts to a mini-essay, hidden where no one will find it.

  11. Jonathan

    I like it. It’s our equivalent of a dvd easter egg, or the hidden track in the groove of the LP. Dear readers, we will have a full new essay from Michael in the very near future.

  12. Zenslinger

    Well, I dug it, Michael. I was reading Kim some years ago and never realized Kipling had such in-depth knowledge of Buddhism.

    My newish copy of the latest edit of Lexicon Urthus was blasted by a fire hose as it lay on the floor of my bedroom. Apartment building next door here in San Francisco burned and they fought the fire from our window. So, another copy care of the insurance company at some point — when we get things worked out.

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