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Manoa 12.1 (2000) 97-104

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from The World Is Large and Full of Noises: Thoughts on Translation

Jane Hirshfield

Translating Asian Poetry: A Symposium

My own experience as a translator dates from 1985, when during a year as a Guggenheim fellow I started collaborating with Mariko Aratani on a translation of the poetry of Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikibu, the two foremost women poets of Japan's classical period. I had first encountered a handful of their tanka in English as an undergraduate taking courses in Japanese literature in translation. The Japanese women's concerns--love and transience--paralleled my own, and despite the passage of a millennium [End Page 97] since its composition, their poetry held for me an immediacy and power that was life-altering. Not only did it affect my own writing, it led me three years later to undertake the study of Buddhism; in 1979 I was lay-ordained in the lineage of Soto Zen.

I first realized the need for a larger selection of Komachi's work in 1971, and I waited almost fifteen years for someone to make it possible for me to read more. Then a fortunate introduction to Mariko--a weaver, jazz pianist, and native speaker of Japanese who also loved the classical-period poets --led to our translating a dozen poems together for a journal. We quickly decided to continue working toward a book-length selection of the two poets' work, eventually titled The Ink Dark Moon. Although in this account I will say "I" in describing the way a few poems from that book traveled from literal to final versions, Mariko Aratani's contribution at every stage was indispensable to the finished work. Her expertise went far beyond skills of language.

The poems appear here first as they did on the worksheet Mariko and I devised. During weekly meetings over the course of a year, we created such a sheet for each poem we considered for the book. Along with the original and rough translations were Mariko's comments covering background information, grammatical uncertainties, the nuances of certain words, and so on. I wrote down each Japanese poem in r omaji (the Roman-alphabet transliteration of spoken Japanese). The core English meaning (or meanings, if more than one were possible) appeared below each corresponding word, and the metrical line-units of the Japanese were separated by a slash mark. Through this system, Mariko could give me access to both the sound of the original poem and its original syntax, something that even the most literal rough translation cannot do. I would then take the sheets away and work toward finished translations, returning them always to her for rechecking.

Here is a first poem, relatively straightforward to translate, by Izumi Shikibu, the greatest of Japan's women poets:

Nadote kimi / munashiki sora ni / kienikemu /
why    you empty      sky    in disappear did(?)

awayuki dani mo / fureba furu yo ni
frail snow even ! when falling falling world in

A prose headnote--not uncommon in Japanese poetry--offers more information about the poem's background: "Around the time Naishi [Shikibu's daughter] died, snow fell, then melted away."

Why did you vanish
into empty sky? [End Page 98]
Even the fragile snow
when it falls,
falls in this world.

The finished translation is quite close to the literal, with only minor adjustments of word order and a few changes in word choice: "vanish" for "disappear," "fragile" for "frail." Japanese does not use articles before nouns, and so in bringing the poem into English, I might have also chosen to say, "Why did you vanish/into the empty sky?" Why didn't I? One reason was rhythmic--the extra syllable seemed to my ear to clutter the poem. But more important, there was the difference in meaning. Without the article, Shikibu's daughter not only rises amid her cremation smoke into the sky, she also becomes that emptiness and absence--an effect that the inclusion of the article the would have diluted.

The five-line free-verse translation reflects but...


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