Global Japanese StudiesWaseda University


Online Workshop Report: “Waka Poetry around the World: Viewing Reception and Transformation of Japanese Culture through Multilingual Translation”

Online Workshop “Waka Poetry around the World: Viewing Reception and Transformation of Japanese Culture through Multilingual Translation”

  • Date and time: September 3, 2021, 10:00 – 17:00 (JST)
  • Language: Japanese, English, Italian, Ukrainian, Korean, Slovak, Thai, Czech, Chinese, German, Hungarian, French, Russian
  • Speakers: BORRACCI Dafne・WATSON Michael・MIDORIKAWA Machiko・LIM Chan Soo・YEEBOON Minako・TOMšů Adam・HUANG Mengge・FITTLER Áron・KÁROLYI Orsolya・IIZUKA Hiromi・TSUCHIDA Kumiko
  • Venue: Online

Planning for this online academic conference/workshop began in the 2021 academic year, led by Áron Fittler of the Waseda Institute for Advanced Studies and Kumiko Tsuchida of Aoyama Gakuin University. The Japanese Classical Literature Multilingual Translation Research Group, which is run by the two, already held the first of these online academic conferences and workshops in September 2020 to some acclaim. This time, the Waseda Institute for Advanced Studies and the Waseda University Global Japanese Studies Model Unit of the MEXT Top Global University Project joined with the Research Group to help organize the event. There were in total over 50 participants who attended the online event in real time on the day.

When translating Japanese classical waka poetry into other languages, it is essential to consider factors such as differences in terms of the relevant linguistic characteristics and cultural backgrounds. At the same time, it is also crucial to elucidate how factors such as the methods of expression, poetic forms, and motifs of classical waka have been reproduced or modified in translations of Japanese poetry into different languages.

This academic conference and workshop began with opening remarks by Áron Fittler. Next, during the first half (morning session), presenters read aloud translations of a waka work that had (mostly) yet to have been translated into a foreign language in an attempt to open new prospects concerning the translation of such poems. The work was the 319th poem of the second “Autumn” volume (the fifth volume overall) of the 12th-century collection Senzai Wakashū. This poem, composed by Hōin Jien, bears the kotobagaki (an explanatory note) “To be read as a poem about stag.” The poem itself goes “yamazato no / akatsukigata no / shika no ne wa / yowa no aware no / kagiri narikeri”. Within this poem can be found cultural elements particular to Japanese classical waka, including expressions for time used during that era and the bellowing of the stag.

The presenters together provided translations of the poem into 10 languages. Touching upon as needed how they understood the parts of the poem where their interpretations diverged, the presenters discussed their versions of the poem at length. Among other considerations, they noted how they made use of poetic forms and figures of speech that were suited to the target languages of their translations, how they took in and transformed the five-line, 31-syllable five-seven-five-seven-seven structure of waka (specifically tanka), and how much attention they paid to the ways in which existing translations of other waka were written. Some presenters provided examples of multiple translations in the same language.

After the presentations, there was a general discussion, during which there was lively consideration of questions posed by both fellow presenters and members of the audience, which included people actively engaged in Japan and abroad with studies of waka, translations of classical Japanese literature, and other pursuits. To give some examples, there was in-depth deliberation over where the main point of the poem of the lay (a consideration that involved the interpretation of the “kagiri narikeri” line), as well as discussion concerning the issue of the choice of word used to translate the term for “stag” (understood from the context of the poem to be in its mating season), the issue of the ambiguity concerning how to interpret the term “yamazato,” and the diverse meanings of the Japanese word “aware.”

In contrast to the first half of the event, the second half (afternoon session) was devoted to a very well-known poem within the canon of classical Japanese waka that has already been translated into numerous languages. Each of the presenters analyzed previous translations. The work explored was the untitled, anonymously composed 933rd poem of the second volume of miscellaneous verse (the 18th volume overall) of Kokin Wakashū: “yo no naka wa / nani ka tsune naru / Asuka-gawa / kinō no fuchi zo / kyō wa se ni naru”. The poem employs the Asuka River as both an utamakura (a term, often a place name, used for allusory or intertextual purposes) and a kakekotoba (a device where a word has a literal meaning and also suggests other meanings through homophony). Another important aspect of the poem when translating it is that it was composed to express the Buddhist concept of impermanence.

Among the 10 languages considered during this part of the event, some—such as English, Chinese, and Russian—have multiple existing translations. For these languages, all versions of the poem were subject to analysis. The presentation of these different versions of the same work readily demonstrated how each translator devised his or her adaptation into another tongue: Some translations were literal, but others transformed the work into standard poetic forms in the target language for more euphonious results, and yet others took pains to preserve the five-seven-five-seven-seven syllabic structure of the original. Another presentation focused on a translation that made extensive use of translator’s notes.

Afterward, there was a general discussion that lasted about two hours. First, the discussion scrutinized how each line from poem 933 from Kokin Wakashū—“yo no naka wa,” “nani ka tsune naru,” “Asuka-gawa,” and so forth—was translated. To give particular examples, there was discussion about whether the term “yo no naka” [“the world”] included within it the sense of “within nature” and about the possibility of translating the Buddhist view of impermanence.

The discussion became quite heated when it came to subjects such as the imagery evoked in the poem, issues concerning combinations of vowel sounds, issues of syllables and stress, the presence of rhyming and alliteration, the handling of periods, colons, and other punctuation marks equivalent to the punctuation marks used in Japanese (but not present in the poem as conventionally presented natively), persons and choices of grammatical person in the context of waka, and whether opaqueness of meaning should be received positively in regard to poetry in general.

Afterward, Fittler and Tetsuya Itō (Osaka University of Tourism, Osaka University) guided those in attendance to visit the website “Heian Literature Overseas,” (Japanese only) which provides a wealth of information about relevant research. Ito is the principal researcher who operates the website. Finally, one of the leading figures behind this unique workshop, Kumiko Tsuchida, concluded the event with some remarks.

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