Chika Sagawa is an anomaly in the history of Japanese poetry. Born in Hokkaido as Aiko Kawasaki in 1911, she became one of Japan’s first modernist poets, refusing to use the traditional poetic forms of tanka and haiku. The nation was changing in the early 20th century — Westernizing, nationalizing, militarizing — and she built new poetic forms to express this shifting landscape. The world she created was one where horses go mad and women turn blue; where “the sky has countless scars” and “eyes are covered by clouds.”

The Collected Poems of Chika Sagawa, by Chika Sagawa, Translated by Sawako Nakayasu.
184 pages
Canarium Books, Poetry.

Sagawa also translated European writers such as James Joyce and Virginia Woolf. Her voice is truly modern: one that defies conventional categories. But it’s also a voice that went silent before its time — she died from stomach cancer in Tokyo as a 24-year-old in 1936. Her poetry was quietly forgotten as her champions, such as novelist and translator Sei Ito, passed away.

“She’s the least well-known Japanese modernist poet,” says Sawako Nakayasu, who translated the 2015 compendium “The Collected Poems of Chika Sagawa,” which won the 2016 PEN Translation Award and the prestigious 2016 Lucien Stryk Asian Translation Prize.

Sagawa’s forgotten works languished for six decades before Nakayasu discovered them.

The poems only appeared occasionally over the years, republished in anthologies — the path of many forgotten poets. Perhaps she has been left out of the canon of Japanese women’s writing because she didn’t follow the typical themes — domesticity, sexual desire, female lived experience — explored by other Japanese women poets. Perhaps, ironically, she has also been left out of the canon of Japanese modernist writing, dominated by male writers, because she is a women.

Nakayasu, an award-winning experimental poet and translator, says it was love at first sight when she first encountered Sagawa’s work nearly a decade ago while working on a article for the U.S. literary journal Aufgabe. Finding Sagawa’s rare collection of poems edited by Sei Ito and published posthumously — of which only 350 copies were printed — confirmed she was on to something.

It took Nakayasu 10 years to complete the translations. A decade is a long time, but it’s understandable; translating isn’t easy. A translator can fall in love with a book — or, in this case, a Japanese poet — but that doesn’t mean that they’re a perfect match. The translator must possess an empathic ear as well as poetic skills in make the original come true to life. Nakayasu and Sagawa are that rare pairing: both formidable poets, both translators and both working with experimental forms. Sagawa’s poetry comes alive — relevant, necessary, urgent — in Nakayasu’s English translation.

During that decade with Sagawa, Nakayasu completed “Mouth: Eats Color — Sagawa Chika Translations, Anti-Translations and Originals,” in which 10 poems by Sagawa were translated into English, Japanese, French, Spanish and Chinese. It is a book of translations, but also a criticism of translation itself.

Nakayasu fell into translating by accident. Her father was a chuzai-in (overseas employee) and the family followed his move to New York when she was 6. Nakayasu attended school on the East and West Coasts, and kept up with Japanese studies at a Saturday school.

“I talked my parents into letting me drop out at the end of junior high school,” she says, adding that she only “hung out with kids who had stayed long in America.”

Nakayasu never thought she would make a career out of translating. But that changed in 2002 when she spent six months in Japan as a Japan-U.S. Friendship Foundation fellow working on a translation of modern and contemporary Japanese women poetry.

“Interest in translation has exploded in recent years, but back then it was still a small niche thing,” she says, explaining that it was mostly done by non-Japanese academics in the context of literary criticism and history. She reclaimed her love for the Japanese language during the six months she spent in the country in 2002, embracing its complexities and nuances, as she honed her translation skills.

Nakayasu is a rarity among Japanese-to-English translators: Japanese and a woman. This is a world dominated by non-Japanese men.

“I’ve been thinking about my own position as a translator,” she says. “There’s an inclination to create binaries wherever you go: Is it going to be white-guy colonialism versus Japanese — ‘authentic’ — me? It’s more complicated and nuanced and individual than that.”

Nakayasu says she is wary of the assumptions people make about authenticity in translations — the idea of exclusivity or having ownership over a text.

“I’m starting to feel tired of the writer and translator binary. There’s the binary between the original and target texts, and there’s the binary between the writers,” she says. “What I want to do is to demolish these paradigms and see what happens.”

To Nakayasu, translation is an act of inclusivity, a way of bringing texts and worlds together and breaking down old categories. Sagawa doesn’t belong to her only, and she encourages other translators to interpret her poems.

Nearly 90 years ago, Sagawa helped introduce European modernism to Japan by translating Woolf, Joyce and other writers. She also created a new poetic language to engage with a Japan that was shifting and transforming — much like the nation today.

Now Nakayasu is doing something similar, but in reverse: introducing Japanese modernism to the world.

Mariko Nagai is the director of research at Temple University Japan.

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