Shaky bridges across the language gap


POESIE YAPONESIA: A Bilingual Anthology, edited by Taylor Mignon and Hillel Wright. Printed Matter Press, 2000, pp. 200, $20 (paper)

For some reason, I had expected “Poesie Yaponesia” to be a collection of poems by longtime, English-speaking residents of Japan, each given in two versions, Japanese and English, both penned by the same poet. As it turned out, “Poesie Yaponesia” is not exactly that. An assemblage of pieces read in the “Power of the Spoken Word” series held in Tokyo from 1999 to 2000, most of the works are indeed poems, but the translations vary in ways that raise some interesting questions.

To begin with, Arthur Binard, the one poet who does what I thought the contributors would do, represents himself in that fashion with just one poem, “Tag.” The discrepancies between the Japanese original and the English translation are sufficient enough to make the reader wonder which language came first. Did he write out his thoughts in Japanese and then add details in “translating” that composition into English? Or did he translate thoughts that originated in English into Japanese, then re-create them in his original language?

Binard translates two works by other poets, and one of them, “December in Sazu,” by Katsumi Sugawara, suggests that he tends to add words in English, but the samples are too small to make any judgment.

Binard, in any case, must be one of the very few English-speaking poets with a book of poems in Japanese published by a reputable poetry house. The book is called “Tsuriagete wa,” and Shichosha released it last year. (I am tempted to call him “the only English-speaking poet” who has done that, but Japan, though notorious for its “exclusionary” customs and habits, has had its fair share of foreign residents who have performed things that are very Japanese, so I had better leave it imprecise.)

Roger Pulvers, my editor for four years during the 1980s, is the one person who might be able to enlighten us on the process of writing in a foreign language and then “translating” the result into his own. Someone who taught himself Japanese by reading the poet and storyteller Kenji Miyazawa, he has mastered the language to such an extent that he puns in it. But here Pulvers is represented as the translator of a single poem by Kazuko Shiraishi, “Dedicated to the Whales.”

“Poesie Yaponesia,” on the other hand, includes several Japanese who translate their poems into English. Among them the most accomplished may be another friend of mine, Hajime Kijima, who compiled “The Poetry of Postwar Japan” (University of Iowa Press, 1975). Here he gives only one translation of his own poem. The original, called “Shin,” is too short and cryptic to make much sense. Still, when the poet translates its last line, “hanzai ga yomigaeru,” as “crime repeats itself,” the reader is left wondering, “So is that what he meant?”

In translating his own poems, Kijima often works with English-language speakers. For this collection he collaborated with Larry Levis on two poems. Looking at the two translations, especially the one titled “Bharat Where Mahatma Lived,” I notice he allows considerable veering off from the original. Is that because he thinks translations can say what the originals don’t, as long as they read, let’s say, smoothly?

I wonder if Czeslaw Milosz does, too. Originally a Polish diplomat who has lived in America since 1960, Milosz continues to have an English collaborator in translating his poems into English. I can’t tell because I can’t read Polish.

In the case of Yuriya Kumagai, the discrepancies between the English and Japanese versions are so great that one feels somewhat lost. Why is one presented as a translation of the other?

Nanao Sakaki is a different case. Gary Snyder’s longtime consort and apparently writing in English often enough, Sasaki calls his translations of his own Japanese poems “revisions.” As well he might. With one of the two poems “revisioned” here, a third-party translator may have worked out a version closer to the original and, I dare say, better.

Yasuo Fujimori and John Solt, by translating each other, raise yet another question. The two, especially Fujimori working on Solt, commit what are apparent mistranslations. Did this come about because neither had the time to look at what the other did, or because they had a gentleman’s agreement not to comment on each other’s work?

William Elliott and Kazuo Kawamura are famous cotranslators of Shuntaro Tanikawa’s work. To reciprocate their efforts, perhaps, Tanikawa aids Kawamura in the latter’s translation of one of Elliott’s poems. The result is pretty good, but because the original poem is made up of a single sentence and the translators try to retain the original line order, the translation seems to falter in the middle.

From my perspective as a translator, indeed, I find another translation worth scrutinizing. It is Kijima’s translation of Taylor Mignon’s poem, “Expatriate Essence.” In dealing with a poem which has wordplay (“a maze you craze”) and plays with sounds (“stray . . . ashtrays”), Kijima acquits himself well.

Suzanne Kamata, who edited “The Broken Bridge: Fiction from Expatriates in Literary Japan” (Stone Bridge Press, 1997), a collection of stories about lives lived in Japan, has the only piece characterized as fiction in “Poesie Yaponesia.” Titled “Mandala,” it describes the dissolution of a marriage between a Japanese and an American who had turned “a mutual penchant for Toyotas and ‘natto’ into a grand passion.” A quiet piece, it comes with no translation. Let us hope it will one day find an able, careful translator.