The Compassionate Imagination – Sally Ito on Translating Misuzu Kaneko

May GLLI Blog Series:  Japan in Translation, No. 14

Editor’s note:  When I approached Canadian poet/translator Sally Ito about acting as translator for Are You an Echo? The Lost Poetry of Misuzu Kaneko, she and her aunt Michiko Tsuboi, her co-translator, had already translated at least a dozen of Misuzu’s poems on their own.  The two did not stop after Echo was published in September 2016, and have since translated dozens more, contributing eight new translations to the Manhattan Review for its fall/winter 2017-18 issue. They continue translating Misuzu’s work and hope all her poems will be available in English one day.

Misuzu Kaneko was barely twenty when she published her first children’s poems in 1923. The era in which she published – Taisho (1912–1926) – was a time of cultural flowering in Japan.  There was a great deal of receptivity and curiosity about new modes of thought and expression in the arts.  Children’s literature became a focus for some artists of the time who felt that works for children should not be pedagogical but rather expressive of a child’s mind, thoughts, and emotions.

Misuzu Kaneko’s poetry struck a chord with editors and readers of the time. She had a gentle and yet probing mind, was deeply compassionate but also curious and imaginative.  Her voice was distinctly feminine and child-like which predisposed readers to her words and made them hear, as one sometimes does, the voices of other living things.  Some might view this as a particularly Japanese projection – their view of the natural world is often considered a distinctive marker of their aesthetic – but in Misuzu’s case, her compassion and extension of sympathy to living things was extraordinary even among Japanese, and moreover, highly imaginative. Take this poem, for example:

Two Grasses

The tiny seeds were friends,
Always making promises.
“We’ll surely be together
Once we come out of the ground into the world.”

Yet when one poked out and looked around,
It could not find even the shadow of the other.
And when the other came out later,
The first had already grown very tall.

Oh, tall swallow grass!
When autumn winds blow, how you sway
Left and right looking for your friend
Without knowing how the little shrine grass
Has flowered by your feet.

translation by Sally Ito and Michiko Tsuboi, 2018

My co-translator Michiko Tsuboi picked this poem to illustrate how uniquely Misuzu perceived the elements of the natural world, for who but a poet of considerable gifts would look at grasses in such a relational way as people? Such imaginative compassion extended to all living things is what has endeared Misuzu Kaneko to the Japanese, both children and adult alike.

Come back again tomorrow for Frederik L. Schodt on The Four Immigrants Manga!

SallyCover copy 2Sally Ito is a writer and translator living in Winnipeg, Manitoba.  She has published three books of poetry and an award-winning collection of short fiction.  She was a former Mombusho research scholar in Japan in 1988, and worked at the time, on the translation of poetry by contemporary Japanese poet, Kazuko Shiraishi, some of whose translated poetry she published in literary journals in the UK and Canada.  Ito was a judge for several years for the former Kiriyama Pacific Rim Book prizes, as well as a blog contributor to the multicultural childrens’ book website and blog, PaperTigers.

10339360_10203703467893736_1000817698243960595_oDavid 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.

And in case you missed it…

May 1:    Roger Pulvers on Ishikawa Takuboku (Japan-in-Translation, No. 1)
May 2:    Kathryn Hemmann on outsider stories in contemporary literature (Japan-in-Translation, No. 2)
May 3:    Deborah Iwabuchi on memorable translations (Japan-in-Translation, No. 3)
May 4:    Eve Kushner on kanji’s punning potential, part 1 (Japan-in-Translation, No. 4)
May 5:    Eve Kushner on kanji’s punning potential, part 2 (Japan-in-Translation, No. 5)
May 7:    Translator roundtable on Shiba Ryōtarō’s Ryōma!, part 1 (Japan-in-Translation, No. 6)
May 8:   Translator roundtable on Shiba Ryōtarō’s Ryōma!, part 2 (Japan-in-Translation, No. 7)
May 9:   Librarian Ash Brown on manga in translation (Japan-in-Translation, No. 8)
May 10: Excerpt from Mori Eto’s Dive!! (Japan-in-Translation, No. 9)
May 11: Tony Malone on translations of Natsume Sōseki (Japan-in-Translation, No. 10)
May 12: Poet Michael Dylan Welch on translating haiku (Japan-in-Translation, No. 11)
May 14: Smithsonian BookDragon’s Favorites, part 1 (Japan-in-Translation, No. 12)
May 15: Smithsonian BookDragon’s Favorites, part 2 (Japan-in-Translation, No. 13)

18 thoughts on “The Compassionate Imagination – Sally Ito on Translating Misuzu Kaneko

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s