Taketsuru’s famous notebooks are now in English + Q&A with translator Dr. Ruth Herd

For the first time ever, Masataka Taketsuru’s On the Production Methods of Pot Still Whisky, better known as the famed “Taketsuru Notebooks,” have been translated into English. The notebooks, describing in detail all aspects of the creation of malt whisky in Campbeltown in the 1920s, were an indispensable reference when Taketsuru went on to help establish the Yamazaki Distillery, Japan’s first genuine whisky distillery. Dr. Ruth Herd of Imperial College London, the book’s translator, has also agreed to answer a few questions for nomunication.jp readers.

Readers of this site who have been with us for a few years may recall that back in 2018, I undertook a project to (semi-)translate the entirety of Masataka Taketsuru’s serialized autobiography into English. It ended up taking ten posts to finish. If you have the time, I encourage you to read through the series: to my knowledge it’s still the most detailed record of Masataka Taketsuru’s life story available in English online. If you don’t have the time to read through it all, I’ll instead point you to the narrated and interactive Japanese whisky history map, which hits all the major points.

From his time in Rothes, Taketsuru mentions recording any and all technical details about whiskymaking in his notebooks. Referring to building Yamazaki, Taketsuru himself says that it would have been “impossible to make a whisky distillery without those notebooks” in those days. The same notebooks would later help Kiichiro Iwai when he was called in to help build Mars Whisky’s first distillery in Yamanashi.

Needless to say, the actual notebooks are important historical artifacts both for Japanese whisky and for Scotch. They are at “home” today at Nikka’s Yoichi Distillery.

Up until now, the notebooks have only been in Japanese. Enter Campbeltown native Dr. Ruth Herd. She is the Co-ordinator of Mandarin Chinese at the Imperial College London, and she also holds a BA in Japanese from University of London. For On the Production Methods of Pot Still Whisky, she enlisted the services of industry veteran Professor Alan G. Wolstenholme as a technical editor. Per his own comment posted in the above biography series, Prof. Wolstenholme has a personal connection to the project as well: he is the grandson of Taketsuru’s mentor in Scotland, Dr. Peter Margach Innes. Nikka Whisky also proofread the translation.

Dr. Herd agreed to answer a few questions about the translation via email as well!

WR: What got you interested in the Taketsuru story in the first place?

I’m not exactly sure, but I think it was when I came across an article that said there were plans to dramatise his life for NHK. Little did I realise the phenomenon it would turn out to be. Of course my interest grew when I realised that he had learned how to make whisky in my home town of Campbeltown, and even more so when I discovered that his lodgings were located in the very same tenement building in which I grew up. It struck me as a strange coincidence that I had from an early age been interested in Japan and Japanese culture, and gone on to do a degree in Japanese, little realising that a Japanese had lived there before me. I have watched the whole of “Massan” several times and thought that it was, culturally-speaking, extremely interesting.

WR: What was your source for the translation? The original notebook is handwritten and probably difficult to read even for native Japanese speakers. Did you power through that or was it transcribed?

A Japanese friend who knew of my interest in Taketsuru (and also that I was a native of Campbeltown) made some enquiries on my behalf and was sent the facsimile notebooks by some kind person, which she duly passed on to me. At first I didn’t pay them much attention, as I am not a scientist, but it did occur to me that there might be some material in the notebooks that would be useful for my other book project. This turned out to be the case. I think you can certainly get a sense of the man through reading the notebooks.

As for the level of difficulty, that was mainly on the scientific/technical side, and so in that sense Professor Wolstenholme’s contribution was essential to the project. As far as the language is concerned however, in the course of my academic research on the early modern Japanese theatre (Shimpa), I have read countless documents published in the Meiji & Taisho periods, so the language did not seem difficult to understand at all. In those days they used far more Chinese characters, which, of course, is fine for me as I also know Chinese. As I indicated at the Springbank event, it is foreign loan words that normally present the greatest challenge to me (although there are of course dictionaries that can help), but in this case it was all fine.

The other point to note is that Taketsuru’s handwriting was so clear that it really was a joy to read and it made the task of translation so much easier than it might otherwise have been. There was absolutely no need to have it transcribed.

WR: Related to the above, all-told, how long did the translation take you and Professor Wolstenholme?

Well, I would say about two years off and on. I have a full-time job, and then there was Covid, so progress was slower than it might otherwise have been. I had my other book project and a textbook of Mandarin Chinese to work on as well (the latter now due out in October), so had to juggle the projects as best I could.

WR: Were there any particular aspects of the journal that stuck out, either because you found them interesting, or challenging to translate?

I think I was struck by the way in which Taketsuru expresses concern for the welfare of workers. He was not just learning how to make whisky, but also about the condition of labour and daily life for working people in the UK at that time. I remember that the part dealing with the Porteus Mill was difficult to translate at first, as its mode of operation seemed rather complex to me, but I got there eventually with Alan’s help. It left an impression on me and I am keen to learn more about the introduction of those mills to the distilling industry. In fact all the machinery, instruments and processes he describes are fascinating to learn about.

WR: Is there any target audience for the translation? Technicians, historians, Japanese whisky fans, academics, or otherwise? If so, why?

All of the above. I believe it is an important historical document but there is enough there to interest the average whisky enthusiast as well. Actually, there is also that point that, although Campbeltown has long been eclipsed by Speyside, this document highlights the importance of the town in the history of distilling.

WR: On the livecast you mentioned that you came across Prof. Wolstenholme’s post while doing background research for a separate book about Taketsuru. Can you share any details about that project?

Yes, I am writing a more general work on the Taketsurus that deals in part with his time in Campbeltown and in Scotland in general. I trace the history of the town and its growth as a centre for whisky distilling, give details of Campbeltown as it was in 1920, and analyse the way in which Rita in particular has caught the popular imagination (among other things). If I were to characterise it, I would say it falls into the genre of creative non-fiction. There is a huge amount of ongoing research associated with this project so I don’t expect that it will be completed for a while yet.

Thank you for your time, Dr. Herd! 

Google Books entry for On the Production Methods of Pot Still Whisky: Campbeltown, Scotland, May 1920

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