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Manoa 12.1 (2000) 105-111

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Midwifing the Underpoem

Leza Lowitz

Translating Asian Poetry: A Symposium

I see translation as a kind of midwifery. I am responsible for the translation, but not for the original poem. How can this be? I did not create the child, yet I must ensure its safe passage into the world. In the Oxford English Dictionary, "to translate" means to "express the sense of (word, speech, book, etc.) in or into another language." Not the "meaning" of a word, but the "sense." What is a sense if not subjective? Translation is a presumption that one can deeply enter not only another language and culture, but also what Tony Barnstone calls the poem's "gestalt," the life force of the writer who created it. A translator must transcend her culture and step into the shoes of another person--sometimes one who has lived in another time--and enter the poet's "country." A translator is always in exile.

From a linguistic point of view, there are many difficulties in translating Japanese. One is what Edward Seidensticker calls "the rather tentative air" of Japanese, sometimes called ambiguity, vagueness, or even insubstantialness. In a language lacking subjects and prepositions, much is open to interpretation. On the other side of this ambiguity, Japanese can be rather wordy--ostensibly for clarity. When translated literally into English, this wordiness can appear as redundancy, or worse.

The following haiku by Nobuko Katsura (b. 1914) illustrates the potential for both ambiguity and wordiness:

Futokoro ni chibusa aru usa tsuyu nagaki

Literally translated, the haiku would be "on chest bothersome have breasts rainy season long." Futokoro ni can be translated as "on (my) chest" or "on (my) bosom." It is easy to understand why this location word is designated in Japanese, as futokoro is a part of the anatomy where the tightness of a kimono and the subsequent discomfort would naturally be felt. But these assumptions don't translate. Westerners don't wear kimono, and breasts are by nature "on the chest." Discomfort would be obvious from the word "usa" (annoyance, bother, nuisance), so for the sake of the compression essential to haiku, my cotranslator and fellow poet Miyuki Aoyama and I rendered the poem as:

The nuisance of breasts
a long
rainy season

Conversely, words that resonate with a multitude of deeply ingrained cultural associations abound in Japanese. To cite a common example, the word kokoro can mean "mind," "heart," "spirit," "mentality," "soul," [End Page 105] "thought," "essence," "the heart of things," "feeling," and so on. In fact, definitions of this word and phrases containing it take up three-fourths of a very large page in Kenkyusha's New Japanese-English Dictionary. Kokoro is also the title of a novel written by Natsume Soseki in 1914, two years after the Meiji emperor's death. In 1957, the novel's translator, Edwin McClellan, wisely chose to leave the title in its original language. (The title's meaning becomes clear after reading the book.) Another difficult word to translate is furusato, which means "native place," "spiritual homeland," "hometown," "birthplace," "country of one's birth," "home country," "home," even perhaps "heartland." Many Japanese left their villages to seek their fortunes in large cities, and typically looked back on their hometowns with longing, nostalgia, and sometimes even disdain or regret. Depending on the context, this attitude is embodied in the Japanese word but not the English synonyms.

When we translated Ainu poetry, Miyuki Aoyama and I chose to leave several words in the original language, explaining them in footnotes. Footnotes pose other problems, but are often the best option when it comes to "untranslatable" words. Think what a translator might have done with sushi (in the dictionary defined as "vinegared fish and rice") before this food became popular in the West as a cultural transplant.

Czeslaw Milosz has written that "The three major problems of translation are: Familiarity with the language of the original, the skill in the language into which we translate, and limitations imposed by our belonging to our time." The last is the most difficult problem to overcome. How to capture...


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