May GLLI Blog Series: Japan in Translation, No. 1
Editor’s note: Today begins a month-long series of posts about Japanese literature in translation. Here in the United States it is Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month, and in Japan (through this weekend, anyway), it is Golden Week, the longest vacation period of the year for many Japanese workers. The posts will be published daily (except most Sundays) and range from lists of favorite translations, to discourses on war in Japanese children’s literature, an evaluation of different translations of classic novelist Sōseki Natsume to a discussion of Japanese “light novels” (aka “ranobe”, a contraction of “raito noberu”). The contributors will include prominent translators, reviewers, publishers, bloggers and poets. Let us know your comments and questions… and your own favorites. Enjoy!
No modern Japanese poet had put himself under such intense scrutiny as Ishikawa Takuboku (1886-1912). He chose the tanka – poems of 31 syllables’ length – to distil the elements of his life into the most potent and concentrated form.
Takuboku’s tanka have a very concrete message. They are masterful because they are so crystal clear, like perfectly cut little diamonds. Needless to say, this does not mean that they are not often vague, ambiguous and beautifully suggestive. They are packed with nuanced connotations of a linguistic and emotive nature. Any translation would have to capture these two seemingly contradictory qualities: concreteness and suggestiveness. This is a big ask for any translator.
It would be wonderful to see young translators of Japanese literature taking on the work of this amazing poet, who wrote …
I lose the plot
When I encounter sycophancy in others.
Sadly I know myself only too well.
… and …
There is a cliff inside my head.
And day by day a fragment of earth
Seems to crumble off it.
It occurs to me that anguish is a train
Coursing at times through my heart
As if crossing a wilderness.
One of the reasons why Japanese value his tanka so highly today is that they recognize his honesty and openness as genuine. As with an actor so it is with a poet. An insincere “performance” may fool people for some time if it appears to be truthful. But in the long run, audiences and readers see through insincerity and recognize it for what it is: a bluff for a lack of candor. Takuboku is not bluffing. He puts every aspect of his character on the line for us to judge.
Japan today craves writers who have the integrity of self-expression and the clarity of vision on their society that Takuboku expresses to us. In the mirror of his works, we are compelled to see our own face in a clear and honest light.
Come back tomorrow for Contemporary Japanese Literature blogger and George Mason University Professor Kathryn Hemmann on outsider stories.
Editor’s update: Roger has been asked to give the keynote address, June 9, at the Takuboku Festival, celebrating Ishikawa Takuboku’s legacy, in Morioka, Japan. An announcement, containing additional translations plus another essay Roger wrote on Takuboku, appears at Red Circle Authors, a publishing and communications company which represents Roger.
Roger Pulvers is an author, playwright, film director, theater director, and translator. He has published more than forty-five books in English and Japanese, including novels, essays, plays, and poetry. He also translates works from Japanese, Russian, and Polish. Pulvers is the recipient of several literary prizes, including the Kenji Miyazawa Prize (2008) and the Noma Award for the Translation of Japanese Literature (2013).
David Jacobson organized this series on Japanese literature in translation. He is the author of Are You an Echo? The Lost Poetry of Misuzu Kaneko, a 2017 NCTE notable poetry book. A longtime journalist, David has written news articles and TV scripts that have appeared in the Associated Press, The Washington Post, The Seattle Times and on CNN and Japan’s NHK. Since 2008, he has worked with Seattle book publisher Chin Music Press. An experienced Japanese translator, he is on the board of the Global Literature in Libraries Initiative.