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Translation and the Politics of Japanese Modernist Poetry: Conversation and Readings by Sawako Nakayasu

Translation and the Politics of Japanese Modernist Poetry:
Conversation and Readings by Sawako Nakayasu

Waseda welcomed award-winning poet and translator Sawako Nakayasu (Assistant Professor, Brown University) on July 12, 2019 for an event titled: “Translation and the Politics of Japanese Modernist Poetry: Conversation and Readings with Sawako Nakayasu.” Moderating the event were Jordan A. Y. Smith (Associate Professor, Josai International University) and Steven Karl (Visiting Researcher, Waseda University). Nakayasu’s talk was divided into two parts. In the first half, she introduced the works of two modernist poets, Sagawa Chika and Yi Sang. In the second, Nakayasu discussed how the acts of translating and writing intersect with one another in her own works of poetry. The room was packed with an attentive audience comprised of students and faculty members, translators, and the general public.

Nakayasu opened by explaining that while there is a tendency to interpret Japanese modernist poetry as a mere imitation or offshoot of western modernism, a close examination of the works of Sagawa Chika and Yi Sang reveals the complex web of cultural and linguistic influences on their poetry. To illustrate this point, Nakayasu introduced several illustrations by Kon Wajirо̄, known as the father of modernology (考現学, kо̄gengaku), or the study of urban living, fashion, and design. The illustrations depict such things as scenes on the train to the changing hemline of skirts, offering a visual texture to modernist poetry in which foreign words such as manteau and skirt are embedded.

Nakayasu explained Sagawa Chika’s immersion in the cultural context of her time, where new artistic concepts such as Surrealism, Futurism, and Dadaism were being introduced via translation. Nakayasu particularly stressed the importance of the short-lived, avant-garde art group MAVO, which was very active from 1905 to 1931 and had a great impact on the cultural community. Regarding the various movements Sagawa took interest in, Nakayasu focused on the “painterly” or visual elements in Sagawa’s poems and discussed, line by line, how the color and motif-based composition of the poems engendered the imagery of cubist painting techniques. She then demonstrated how alternative readings can be produced by breaking lines in different places. Nakayasu displayed three versions of the same poem, changing the syntax of each dependent upon her insertion of line breaks. Each rendering of the poem created subtle shifts in the poem’s interpretation, thus illustrating both the challenges and possibilities of translation.

Nakayasu then introduced Yi Sang, a Korean poet, novelist, and architect whose life fell entirely within the Japanese occupation of Korea. Using the work of Yi Sang, Nakayasu argued that while Japanese modernist poetry was certainly influenced by the West, there was also an interaction with Asia that cannot be ignored. Nakayasu highlighted the complex legacy of Japanese imperialism, as it was through his knowledge of Japanese that Yi Sang encountered new art forms and created something incredibly interesting, even while the devastating consequences of Japan’s colonial enterprise were undeniable.

Nakayasu emphasized the importance of translation in considering modernist poetry. Intentionally or not, poets utilized translation to invigorate their own writing. For Yi Sang, who both lived and worked in two languages, translation was occurring even before the actualization of his work. Nakayasu speculated that there were negotiations of language of which we have no way of knowing that haunt the language of his poetry. Yi Sang also mediated language and other forms of expression. Nakayasu performed a reading of his poem “Fragment Scenery,” which involves a collage of voices, using triangles and X’s as non-gendered and non-human subjects.

Nakayasu dwelled on the idea of what constitutes a “mistranslation,” highlighting Yi Sang’s use of the phrase “化石した” instead of the standard “化石化した.” She noted that while it is tempting to dismiss this as an error, it is also productive to explore the space between error and subversion. Another example is his subversive use of hiragana and katakana, using, for example, hiragana for foreign words where katakana should be used (e.g. すりっぱー).

In the second half, Nakayasu introduced her book Mouth Eats Color: Sagawa Chika Translations, Anti-Translations, & Originals (2011), a creative work inspired by the process of translation in her volume, The Collected Poems of Chika Sagawa (2015). While the conventional translation emphasized accuracy and readability and took ten years to complete, Mouth Eats Color was a much more spontaneous and creative project that approached translation as performance art, inspired by her own experience in music and dance improvisation. She also read several poems from her book Texture Notes (2010) and explained her inspiration for the book as “a translation of textures.”

Towards the end of the talk, Nakayasu introduced her newest book manuscript, Some Girls Walk into the Country They Are From, in which she invited people to choose and translate a poem into their chosen languages, even while the original poems in English were in draft form. The book celebrates the improvisational aspect of writing and translation, as well as the importance of dwelling in the “slippages” of what would otherwise be considered “errors.” Nakayasu concluded by saying that she feels a fondness for the bad and the messy because of its subversive potential as to the hierarchy of values, and that she advocates for a wider continuum of openness in what counts as translation.

The talk was bookended by insightful comments and questions by the two moderators, Jordan A. Y. Smith and Steven Karl. A lively conversation followed before the floor was opened to the audience. Questions were posed to Nakayasu by scholars, translators, and students, and the event came to a close a few minutes after the scheduled closing time. Nakayasu graciously stayed and enjoyed a casual conversation with the members of the audience following the event.


■Event Overview
Translation and the Politics of Japanese Modernist Poetry:  Conversation and Readings by Sawako Nakayasu

Event Date&Time: July 12, 2019, 1:00pm-2:30pm
Location: Conference Room 10, Building 33, 16th Floor, Toyama Campus, Waseda University
Speaker: Sawako Nakayasu (Assistant Professor/Brown University)
Jordan A. Y. Smith (Associate Professor/Josai International University)
Steven Karl (Visiting Researcher/Waseda University)
Audience: Students, Faculty Members, Researchers, Translators, the Public
Top Global University Global Japanese Studies Model Unit, Waseda University
Global Japanese Literary and Cultural Studies in Graduate School of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University (Global-J)
Research Institute for Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University, Ryusaku Tsunoda Center of Japanese Culture
Research Institute for Letters, Arts and Sciences, Transdisciplinary Research for Creative Writing and Translation

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