- Ise, poétesse et dame de cour by Renée Garde
With twenty-two poems selected, Lady Ise (ca. 874–ca. 939) is the female poet best represented in Kokin wakashū—the first imperial collection of Japanese poetry compiled by order of Emperor Daigo in 905—and unquestionably one of the major figures of Japanese court poetry. Thus it is fitting to see, finally, a book in French dedicated to her works. Ise, Poétesse et dame de cour presents a selection of about two hundred waka, mostly by Ise, translated and with commentary by Renée Garde, a freelance translator who has previously published three translations of classical Japanese literature: Songe d’une nuit de Printemps: Poèmes d’amour des dames de Heian [End Page 127] (Arles: Éditions Philippe Picquier, 1998), Contes du conseiller de la digue (Arles: Éditions Philippe Picquier, 2001), and Si on les échangeait: Le Genji travesti (Paris: Editions des Belles Lettres, 2009). For this last book Garde received the Konishi Foundation prize for the translation of Japanese literature in 2011. She does not claim to produce academic work, and her book is mainly intended for general readers. Garde relies on Katagiri Yōichi’s Ise: Koi ni iki uta ni iki (Shitensha, 1985) as the main source for this book. She appears not to have consulted any of the very good annotated editions of Ise’s personal collection that have been published since 1985, particularly Sekine Yoshiko and Yamashita Michiyo’s Ise shū zenshaku (Kazama Shobō, 1996). In addition, she presents only the French translations of the poems; neither transliterations nor the Japanese original texts are provided. The only information Garde gives as an aid to finding the original poems is their numbers as designated in the Katagiri volume. Thus, it is almost impossible to find the original Japanese without using Katagiri’s study (and sometimes rather difficult even then). These two points, which will irritate Japanese literature specialists, will probably not be of concern to most of the readers for whom Garde intends her work. Garde’s French is elegant, and she translates waka respecting as much as possible the original 5/7/5/7/7 syllabic meter.
The book begins with an introduction in which Garde describes the historical and social background of Ise’s life. Unfortunately, there are a few errors that could easily have been avoided through more careful proofreading (notably, on page 24, “Ōe no Mitsune” for “Ōshikōchi no Mitsune”). Garde writes, “It is thus in the autochthonous language and with the phonetic script elaborated toward the end of the eighth century that Ise’s talent expressed itself ” (p. 10; this and all other translations from the book under review are mine). Here she is suggesting that the kana that Ise used to write her poetry already existed in the eighth century, which is false: they were gradually developed from the ninth century. Furthermore, her presentation sometimes resembles caricature rather than proper characterization. For instance, she writes that “the poems written on these occasions [that is to say, during court celebrations] were always waka, written in hiragana, the syllabary used by women, whereas kanshi [poems in Chinese] were written with Chinese characters and reserved for men. So a literary discipline at which women excelled supplanted the kanshi, and a private mode of expression intended for love exchanges between men and women was rendered official by imperial order, thereby gaining prestige” (p. 18).
These remarks are problematic, for several reasons. First, they suggest that waka were written exclusively with kana, which is wrong. Most waka were, and are, written with kana and kanji, otherwise a poem would be too ambiguous. Second, some court celebrations—for instance the Chōyō no Sechie, the Chrysanthemum Festival held on the ninth day of the ninth month—required the composition of poems in Chinese, and it is inexact to say that waka supplanted kanshi. These two poetic genres were produced in different circumstances, and the diffusion of waka never undermined the prestige of kanshi. Third, while...