Translating Poetry, Translation as Poetry
On October 15 2021, the Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences of Waseda University hosted Translating Poetry, Translation as Poetry, an event which gathered renowned Japanese translator, editors, and poets to reflect and debate on the meaning of translation. The event took place in Ono Auditorium with Waseda students and faculty members in the audience, and the event was also streamed as a webinar to viewers around the world.
The first part of the event consisted of a symposium in which five panelists gave their views about translation, followed by a discussion among them and questions from the audience. The five panelists were Yotsumoto Yasuhiro (poet, translator), Kikuchi Rina (translator; professor, Shiga University), Fujii Kazuno (editor, Shichōsha), Shibata Motoyuki (translator; editor; professor emeritus, University of Tokyo), and Itō Hiromi (poet). The second part of the event consisted of readings by poets Arai Takako, Hachikai Mimi, Ōsaki Sayaka, Kawaguchi Harumi, and Nakamura Martha, accompanied by their translators, followed by a discussion among all of the participants about their creative processes. The first part was moderated by Nobuaki Tochigi, and the second part was moderated by Itō Hiromi.
The event commenced at 1 pm with an introduction by the organizers Matsunaga Miho (professor, Waseda University) and Yoshio Hitomi (associate professor, Waseda University). After presenting the program, they gave the stage to Tochigi Nobuaki (professor, Waseda University). He began by highlighting the duality in the title of the symposium which implied a two-way relationship between poetry and translation.
Tochigi then introduced the first speaker, Yotsumoto Yasuhiro, who published translated poetry anthologies like Selected Poems of Shinkawa Kazue (2021, in collaboration with Lento Takako), Kiddo (2008, an anthology of Simon Armitage in collaboration with Tochigi himself), and Homosapiensu shishū (Homo Sapiens Poetry Collection, 2020, Japanese translations of contemporary poets from all over the world). Yotsumoto began by bringing up the idea on which he focused the rest of his presentation: that consciousness is a constant process of translation. First, he explained how his experience in the United States, after moving there in 1986, served as a catalyst to rethink his writing in Japanese and to question his Self. By citing the postscript of his work Nihongo no ryoshū (Prisoner of Japanese, 2012), in which he wrote about his years in the United States, Yotsumoto stated that until then, reality and language had been inseparable for him. Only through translation did he begin to detect the gaps between the bonds of reality and perforating into the seemingly unbreakable relationship between them. Similarly, he recalled his early translations of English poetry into Japanese during his thirties to explain that, through poetry translation, one is able to transcend individual languages and see beyond the “skin” of language and into “the naked shape of poetry as language”. Such is, according to him, the ultimate expression of the Self.
Furthermore, by quoting philosopher Izutsu Toshihiko and religious historian Nakazawa Shin’ichi, Yotsumoto explained that reality exists only as chaos and that humans make sense of it through logic and symbolism, all of which are, he postulated, forms of translations. From this he concluded that all human consciousness and thinking are also translations. This process is particularly visible in poetry translation, as a whole is segmented into parts that are then reassembled through the power of new words without actually damaging what was once their totality. As a second conclusion following this, Yotsumoto stated that all poetry is meta-translation and super-translation. The original of a poem is actually beyond all language, even before language, which means that everything exceeding it is but translation. As a final remark, he said that he is currently interested in translating Chinese protest poems. He expanded this idea by making reference to the inclusion of Chinese poetry already in the Tosa Nikki (year 935) as an early example of the longstanding legacy of kanshi (Chinese style poetry) in native Japanese words (yamato kotoba) and Japanese poetry (waka).
Tochigi then introduced Kikuchi Rina, compilator of Poet to Poet: Contemporary Women Poets from Japan (2017, Canberra) and author of the doctoral dissertation, Living Voices from Dublin (2002, Chiba University). Kikuchi started by remembering a talk she had had with poet Kawaguchi Harumi (participant in the second part of the event) in which they discussed the idea that “being alive is already a form of translation”. She explained, however, that the way in which Kawaguchi would describe that talk would naturally be different from hers, which proves that there is a gap between two people having the same experience. That is the gap, according to her, what all translation tries to bridge. Kikuchi admitted that even though she translated many poems into English, she never thought of her translations as poetry. She attributed this to her mindset as an academic researcher. Confronted by this, she envisioned a “co-translation method for poetry translation”. She imagined a collaborative translation between a poet writing in Japanese, another poet writing in English and a translator of both languages. The translator would read the Japanese poem and transmit all thoughts and feelings to the English poet (everything, what he or she thought and felt from the title and through every word). Then, the poet writing in English would compose a poem out of that description. They would create seven to ten versions of this back-and-forth, comparing and rewriting many times. Each one of those creative versions would differ from one another, but they would all be translation. This fact made her feel secure about her translations as an academic researcher. Following that idea, she proposed a manyfold theory of reading. The many versions of translations have, according to her, different “colors” of meaning, generating multiple layers of understanding and interpretation. Then, by showing her bilingual Poet to Poet compilation to the audience, Kikuchi explained that having the original version of a poem on one page and the translated version of it on the other page makes readers actually think of the many other possible versions of translation that linger in between both texts.
Tochigi then introduced Fujii Kazuno, editor-in-chief of Shichōsha’s poetry journal Gendai shi techō (Notebook of contemporary poetry, 1959-present), where she was in charge of the special issues on Australian poetry, Yone Noguchi, Bob Dylan and American poetry, Emily Dickinson, among others. When given the word, Fujii first brought up the case of “real-time poetry” as a clear example that illustrates the difficulties of poetry translation. She explained that the evaluation of poetry translation is indeed difficult and actually treated as “minor” among many editors, but there still has been a boom in new translations and new translation prizes during the last 20 years, which makes it inaccurate to use the word “minor”. She wondered if translated poetry’s reduced share of the market is not a product of the reduced impact of poetry as a whole in Japan. Not long ago, she explained, poetry translation focused on highly impactful poets such as surrealists or the beatniks. More recently, however, there has been an ongoing tendency to echo the interests of academia and journalism, specifically publishing poets that transmit certain ideas in regards to creole, gender and new Asian connections, all from points of view that relativize the dominant West and male perspectives. Translation, she asserted, is susceptible to such situation of contemporary times and must follow with certain flows. Fujii explained that the growth of a global society, together with the raise in bilingual people and bilingual university programs (especially creative writing ones), can help visualize new poets and make them more appealing to editors. She mentioned other examples of transculturation from which poetry can nurture from: bilingual Japanese poets based overseas (such as Sekiguchi Ryōko, Tawada Yōko and Yamazaki Kayoko), poets residing in Japan whose native languages are not Japanese (such as Arthur Binard and Dengen) and the work of researchers and cultural agents in the form of international poetry festivals and poetry magazines.
Next, Tochigi introduced Shibata Motoyuki by mentioning his translations of Stuart Dybek, Allen Ginsberg, Roger Pulvers, and James Robertson, as well as his role as chief-editor of the literary magazine Monkey, which seeks to introduce Japanese literature in the English-speaking world. Shibata started off with a question that he admitted to always ask himself and others: “Is it possible to translate poetry?”. He explained that a valid answer to that question is: “it depends on the case”, something which mirrors those seeing a glass half full and others seeing it half empty. By bringing up works of his fellow presenters –Yotsumoto’s Homosapiensu shishū, Kikuchi’s Poet to Poet, Itō Hiromi and Jeffrey Angles’ translations, Shinchōsha’s anthologies, Arai Takako’s translations on Tōhoku poetry–, Shibata explained that he cannot say that translation is not possible. Still, he added that whenever he translates a poem, he still feels there is something that he is leaving behind.
He proceeded to talk about the time in which Patti Smith visited Japan and read a poem by Allen Ginsberg with subtitles in Japanese by Murakami Haruki. Smith was at that time an avid reader of Murakami’s novels and had written a review of one of them for the New York Times, for which reason they worked together on the subtitles of Ginsberg’s poem. Smith was skeptical as to whether the Japanese audience would grasp the essence of the original, but her impressive reading and powerful voice ended up captivating everyone, effectively making the subtitles a secondary element which added minimal information to the whole experience. According to Shibata, this example illustrates what Kikuchi had previously stated about the multiple versions and various colors in the process of translation, concluding that comparing different versions always enriches our readings. As a closing, Shibata commented a counter-example to that of Patti Smith: the short-story “The Inadequacy of Translation” of James Robertson. In it a poet tries to translate into English some poems he had originally written in Gaelic, only to find his own translations are once and again inadequate.
Tochigi introduced the last speaker of the first part of the event, Itō Hiromi, as well as some of her translations: Japanese classics into modern Japanese, such as Hannya Shingyō (Heart Sutra) or Tannishō (Lamentations of Divergences), as well her translation into Japanese of Dr. Seuss and Karen Hesse’s work. Itō recalled that several years ago she had wanted to get her work transated, but could not achieve that. She explained such a desire was born during the twenty years she spend living in the United States. Still, despite having many acquaintances that were poets and writers, she felt frustrated and asked herself, “Why am I here?”. Then, Jeffrey Angles translated her work and she suddenly found her place in the country.
Itō also developed on her relationship with ther contemporaries. She said that she does not really know much about contemporary poets and that even when meeting them, she feels that they really can’t get to understand one another. As a Japanese poet she was asked to read aloud the work of other Japanese poets, usually accompanied with English translations of those poems was handed to the audience to follow her reading in Japanese. However, she feels that she has never been able to convery what she wanted through that process. Itō evoked Ginsberg as one of her greatest influences, yet she never understood what she found so good about him. She added that Shibata’s translations of Ginsberg are indeed easy to read, but she also explained that there was something that she did not understand of the beatnik poet when she was young and she loved that lack of understanding.
She mentioned another of Shibata’s translations: Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, that impacted her much more than the original. In regards to her translations of sutras written in Chinese into colloquial Japenese speech, Itō said that she finds it fascinating to delve into the meaning of the original Chinese characters and that she feels moved when she reads a Chinese fragment that she doesn’t fully understand, even in the translation of a very old Chinese translator such as the Indian monk Kumārajīva. She added that she aims to make translations that naturally come to mind as the original sutra should. Itō concluded that it is 100% possible to translate poetry. For that, she expanded, it is important to see beyond the decorations of words and peer into the “bones” of language.
After each individual presentation, Tochigi asked the speakers to engage in supplementary remarks to one another. Fujii, Kikuchi, and Itō exchanged their views on poetry festivals and workshops, specifically on their social function in Europe to protect minority languages. Then, by using Itō’s poems as an example, Yotsumoto explained that it is more difficult to translate symbolic poetry than realistic poetry such as that composed by Itō. Shibata took this chance to quote Robert Frost’s aphorism that: “Poetry is what gets lost in translation”, highlighting a simultaneous process of loss and creativity. Drawing on a brief comment made before, Kikuchi added that poetry translation is similar to a deduction method, but one that always produces new results, even ones that were not in the original on which the deduction is perfomed.
Then, Itō asked editor Fujii if she could expand on why poetry translation was not published as much. Fujii answered that the main reason is economical, but that there is also the fact that poetry reception and interpretation varies a lot from country to country. Yotsumoto added that Japan is particularly closed when it comes to translated poetry and that it is hard to find an audience for it outside of university programs on foreign cultures and languages. Kikuchi brought yet another brief comment made before by Tochigi and Shibata: the idea that “translations have a shelf life”. The latter two replied to her that words indeed have an expiration date, but there is also recycling and appreciation of their antiquity.
Then came the Q&A section of the talk, in which Tochigi invited live participants to ask questions and read the inquiries left by online participants. One of the floor participants asked Yotsumoto to expand on what he said about symbolic poetry being harder to translate than realistic ones. Yotsumoto said that poetry that lacks everyday details is one composed of a pre-homo sapiens language, which required the translator to go back to a point in which nor Japanese nor English can be distinguished. To this, Itō replied that it is posible to make digital visual art by using a computer and still keep a primitive point of view. But when it comes to poetry, words are embedded with their modernity and it is difficult to find the primitiveness behind them. Another floor participant asked Tochigi to develop on the idea of “translating with one’s own words by using our own bodies”. Tochigi explained that “our own words” are the ones we learned throughout our life, starting when we were children, hence carrying our history and best suited to transmit our emotions. He claimed that the poem to be translated should pass through our bodies, making it our own. Shibata added that one should seek the words that come out from us without thinking; likewise, he proposed to read in a way that we try to understand without overthinking about the grammar. Kikuchi further commented that “using the body” means to literally eat the poem and digest it as we translate it.
A third floor participant inquired about translating poems that contain more than one language, to which Shibata answered that one language or many languages implies the same level of difficulty in searching for the poetic language beneath. As a final question from the audience, a participant commented that for her as a Chinese person, reading and translating Chinese poetry consists also of composing, dancing and playing music in her head, almost like a live perfomance. She then asked what instrument the guests thought about when translating English. Yotsumoto replied, castanets. Kikuchi said that she never thought about translation in that way and would try it next time. Shibata answered that for him English was like the sound of piano. Finally, Itō said that when translating or composing poetry, she always thinks of an orchesta conductor.
After a short break, the reading section of the event began. Itō served as moderator of this half of the event, being in charge of introducing the readers and their works. The pieces read by each poet of this section, and by accompanying translators and readers, were as follows. First, was the turn of Kojima Hiyori’s “My Father’s Movie”, translated into English by Hōzoji Kana and read in both languages by each of them. Then came the turn of Ōsaki Sayaka’s “Rice Steamer”, translated into English by Jeffrey Angles and into Spanish by Eiko Minami y Ximena Sánchez Echenique. It was read in Japanese and English by Ōsaki and in Spanish by Matías Chiappe Ippolito. Then came the turn of Hachikai Mimi’s “Tanazawa”, translated into Chinese by Dengen and into English by Kyoko Yoshida. It was read in the three languages by the poet herself. Then came Kawaguchi Harumi’s “My seat”, translated into English by Melinda Smith and Rina Kikuchi. It was read alternatively in English and Japanese by Kikuchi and Kawaguchi. Then came Arai Takako’s “Dollogy”, translated into English by Jen Crawford and again Kikuchi Rina. It was also read alternatively by the poet and Kikuchi. Finally, it was the turn of Nakamura Martha’s “New World”, translated into English by Shibata Motoyuki and Polly Barton and read by Nakamura and Shibata.
After the readings, all of the poets and translators were introduced by moderator Itō and were asked several questions left online by the audience about their studies, interests and current projects. First in turn was Hachikai Mimi, former Master student of Classical Japanese literature at Waseda University and current professor or creative writing at Rikkyo University. Then was the turn of Nakamura Martha, former student of the Creative Writing and Criticism of the School of Culture, Media and Society of Waseda and recipient of poetry prizes such as the 54th Gendaishi Techō Prize and the 2020 Hagiwara Sakutarō Prize. Asked by Itō, Hachikai and Nakamura took the opportunity to talk about their experiences as Waseda students.
Then, was the turn of Kawaguchi Harumi, who taught creative writing for several years and received the 10th Yamamoto Kenkichi Literary Prize and the 46th Takami Jun Poetry Prize. Itō asked her about her interest in contemporary Japanese popular culture, especially manga and anime. Then, Ōsaki Sayaka was introduced by Itō. She talked about a residency that she was supposed to do in the United Kingdom in 2021, but was moved to 2022 because the pandemic, and also about her studies of Spanish. In relation to this, Hachikai and Ōsaki shared their views on recitation and on the importance of being able to master pronunciation in order to “feel” what is written in the original language of a poem can indeed be transmitted. Then was the turn of Arai Takako. She talked about her debut in 1992, her journal Mite (Look!), which she started in 1998, and her travels and experiences in countries like Istanbul and Slovenia. Following, Kojima Hiyori and Hōzoji Kana talked about their experiences as current students and about their future plans for writing and translating poetry.
Itō then asked translators Shibata and Kikuchi about the hardships in translating the poems that they had just read with Kawaguchi, Arai and Nakamura, as well as the feelings and emotions of reciting them together. Shibata explained that he found it very interesting to do the reading, but he also explained that he cannot do it with the same level of skill as when he translastes. He further explained that it he finds it difficult to transmit the feelings, pace and momentum of the original, just as when one tries to spike a volleyball and pushes with too much strength. To this, Nakamura added that Shibata’s translation and reading actually made her think about her poem, just as Itō had explained during the symposium that Jeffrey Angels translations had done for her. She delved into the phonetics of Japanese language and into the ability of reading in a different language to make the poet think about his or her composition. The group kept on recalling on previous experiences of reading in several languages.
Finally, Itō asked the poets to choose a poem of their books they had at hand and do another round of readings. Arai was first in round and read “Nanatsu” (Seven years old), a poem of hers that mimics her own voice as a kid as an example of putting one’s native language to test. Hachikai then read a poem she had written after entering Waseda University, “Shin’nyūsei” (First-year student). Kawaguchi read, “Aimaina kangarū” (An ambiguous kangaroo), a poem also part of number 141 of Arai’s journal Mite. Following, Ōsaki read a piece of the first time that she had participated in a poetry festival, “Kikyū” (Balloon). Finally, Kojima read her poem “Kinyōbi” (Friday) and Nakamura, her poem “Koi ha fune ni note susumu” (A carp advances on a boat). All the readings finished, moderator Itō invited Tochigi, moderator of the symposium part of the event, to come on stage and close the event together.
With a total online attendance of almost three hundred participants from Japan, United States, United Kingdom, China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Korea, Mexico, Australia, France, Germany, Singapore, Finland, and Iceland, as well as a live attendance of around fifty participants who gathered in Waseda University’s Ono Auditorium, the event was a truly transnational and trans-linguistic experience that delved on the many facets of poetry and translation.
- Date and time: October 15, 2021, 13:00 – 17:30 (JST)
- Language: Japanese
- Panelists: Yasuhiro Yotsumoto, Kazuno Fujii, Motoyuki Shibata, Hiromi Ito, Rina Kikuchi, Takako Arai, Harumi Kawaguchi, Sayaka Osaki, Mimi Hachikai, Martha Nakamura
- Moderator: Nobuaki Tochigi, Hiromi Ito
- Participation Fee: Free of charge
- Venue: Online (Zoom Webinar)
- Free and open to the public
Please click below for the event movies.