There is a quiet renaissance of sorts taking place in the translation and publication of contemporary Japanese poets, especially women poets, and Jeffrey Angles has had a major hand in this development. Though over the years Japan’s modern poetry has probably fared better than other Asian poetries in gaining some attention, it has always been difficult to convince publishers to take on volumes by a single poet. When these books do appear, they tend to go out of print quickly. As of this writing there are at least three poets I can think of offhand, considered to be of great importance to Japan’s postwar literature, whose books are out of print or otherwise difficult to obtain. Hence the arrival of a substantial selection of poems by Tada Chimako, accompanied by a knowledgeable introduction by the translator, is cause for celebration.
Though working on the margins, away from Japan’s cultural and literary center in Tokyo, Tada established herself as a major voice during the tumultuous yet frenetically creative years following the end of Japan’s occupation by the U.S. in 1952. Tada represents the continuance of a feminine high modernism in a postwar climate which overall had rejected the poetic developments of the 1930s, preferring to focus on existential questions and the exploration of the personal and political. In contrast to these tendencies, Tada remains somewhat distant from contemporary realities, cultivating instead an interest in classical antiquity and later developing her own system of complex symbolism and allegory. She was also a skilled translator of French.
Angles’s introduction provides useful background knowledge for the reader. There is much important biographical and literary information here without which approaching these poems might be more difficult. There are also translator’s notes at the back of the book, which are very helpful for understanding the poems. Often one feels as if even more explanation is required in order to understand fully Tada’s elaborate allegories, but perhaps that is best left to a more complete scholarly study. The decision regarding how much information to provide in the form of notes is always a delicate one. Angles attempts to keep things balanced by providing just enough so that readers can go on to think for themselves, and has placed the notes at the back of the book so as to avoid making the poems themselves appear overly cluttered.
Stylistically, Tada’s poetry is highly poised and controlled. A certain distance and reserve allow the intricate narrative of myth and symbol to speak in place of the persona of the poet. When Tada refers to her own experience and feelings, she does so only obliquely. Hence the first challenge for the translator is to find the appropriate voice in English to convey Tada’s tone, avoiding both the pitfalls of “translatese” on the one hand, and the opposite tendency to render the source language with the naturalness and ease of colloquial speech (and lose the formality of these works). This is precisely where Angles’s translation succeeds over most past attempts.
Consider the first lines of the second poem in this selection, “Ancient Love” (Kodai no Koi):
羊であったか Hitsuji de atta ka
海豚であったか Iruka de atta ka
金色の背にまたがって Kin-iro no se ni matagatte
少年はオーボエを吹いた Shōnen wa ōboe o fuita (12)
(All Japanese quotes are taken from Gendaishi Bunko #50; Tada Chimako Shishū, (Shichōsha, 1972; 10th edition 2001))
Was it a sheep
Or a dolphin he rode?
Astride its golden back
The youth played his oboe (13)
Composed of deceptively simple verses, the poem plays with Greek mythical themes, but the real heart of the piece is its sound. Highly poised, subtly lyrical, Tada uses assonance, ending many of the key lines with the open vowel “a.” The delicate play of vowel sounds and the balance of line lengths produce a kind of “ringing” or reverberation—even the title is pleasurable with the repetition of the “ko” sound and the echoing of the final vowel “i” in both words. It is, of course, extremely difficult to translate the lyricism of a language with a sound system so different from English, but Angles manages to do this beautifully by retaining just the right balance of rhythms, preserving the poem’s classic tone by using the archaic form in the second line (“a dolphin he rode” rather than “he rode a dolphin”). Notice that Angles has added the verb here. Doing so not only allows him to adduce this classic sense, but avoids the overly simple repetition of the question (literally “was it a sheep? / was it a dolphin?” in Japanese), which would cause the poem to fall flat on the English ear. In the third line Angles chooses to translate the verb “matagaru” as “astride” rather than the more literal “straddle.” He no longer needs a verb describing the action of riding, and “astride” has a greater classic feel while creating reverberations with other words in the poem.
In the prose poems, such as “From a Woman of a Distant Land” (Tōi Kuni no Onna Kara), the problems are less acute in that the poem depends more on its system of allegory than on lyric form. However, there is still a subtle balance in sentence structure and tone that must be retained in order to bring across its effect. In this poem, the speaker feigns objective distance in describing the customs of her (imaginary) country, changing tenor only in the final lines where subtle emotion finally appears. Though written in a descriptive prose, Tada’s sentences exude a certain lyric poise, as well as care and restraint. To translate them merely for their literal meanings or to have them take on an overly colloquial tone would therefore destroy the poem’s force. Here are the opening lines:
Kono kuni dewa shinin o hōmurimasen. Oningyō no yō ni garasu kē
su ni osame, ie no naka ni kazatte-oku no desu. (39)
And in Angles’s rendering:
In this country, we do not bury the dead. We enclose them like dolls in
glass cases and decorate our houses with them. (23)
Even here in her prose, Tada occasionally uses the vowel echo effect as in “Oningyō no yō ni” (“like dolls”), so we are definitely dealing with a lyric prose, although most of its effects are subtle. The honorific “o” placed before the word “ningyō” (doll) indicates that this is a woman speaking, but besides a few subtle points like these, the voice remains fairly neutral throughout. There are several approaches a translator might take to these lines, including the choice of reversing the order of the first phrase so as to produce a more standard sentence. Doing so, however, would produce almost too much naturalness and ease, and keeping Tada’s control and reserve is important. Angles has reproduced Tada’s tone by retaining the Japanese syntax and using a certain level of formality. It may not be possible to reproduce the lyric impact of the vowel echoing, but by keeping sentences well-sculpted and under control, Angles has been able to produce a subtly lyrical rhythm in the English. The success of a translation of this kind of poem definitely depends on the translator’s own sensitivity and ear for the target language. A word such as “kazatte-oku,” which literally means “display for some purpose” or “keep on display,” is translated here as “decorate.” With this choice, Angles avoids interrupting the natural flow of the sentence with phrases that could be overly long or clumsy while keeping well within the fundamental meaning of the term.
Then, there is the question of how to handle words that have no immediate semantic equivalent in English. These meanings can be explained by adding lines or phrases, but explicitation can be clumsy. Angles tends to lean toward weaving in the various meanings and finding words with the right balance, one that will work in the rest of the poem, where the poem is understood as an environment rather than a list of dictionary meanings of the original words. The second stanza of the same poem reads in its entirety:
Watashitachi wa gasshō shimasen. Yonin atsumaru to yotsu no betsubetsu no
senritsu ga karamiaimasu. Watashitachi wa kore o kankei to yobimasu.
Sore wa tsune ni isshu no “motsure” desu. Motsure ga hodokeru to
watashitachi wa shihō e chitte-yukimasu. Aru toki wa hotto shite,
aru toki wa tōwaku shite. (39)
We do not sing in chorus. When four people gather, we weave
together four different melodies. This is what we call a relationship. Such
encounters are always a sort of entanglement. When these entanglements
come loose, we scatter in four directions, sometimes with relief, sometimes
at wit’s end. (24)
Here, Tada continues her strategy of understatement, except for one word which is the key to understanding that something is very wrong beneath the outward calm of this imaginary society. The word is “motsure,” which means “tangled,” “twisted,” “knotted” or “complicated.” It also means “trouble.” Angles translates it as “entanglement,” which conveys the sense of an involvement and the complexity of relationship, but sounds softer and carries with it less of the nuance of conflict. One can, of course, search around and find a word that will bring out more of the sense of tension here, but then one risks losing the delicate balance which Tada has set up or breaking the tone by introducing non-standard English. What Angles does, then, is to place the nuance of tension on a different phrase, the final “at wit’s end.” The word in Japanese is “tōwaku,” which means “perplexity,” “embarrassment,” “doubt” or “confusion”; the translation exaggerates the weight of this last word in order to make up for what was lost from the earlier “motsure.” Thus, a closely approximate effect can be produced by understanding the entire stanza as a synthetic whole rather than a collection of separate lines or words. This is where the true art of translation becomes apparent: the translator grasps and reproduces poetic function rather than merely providing the dictionary meanings of words.
Finally, I should note that the selection of tanka here is choice. Not only was Tada herself a master of the form, but Angles has special expertise in this area both as a scholar and translator. All in all this book provides a well-rounded look at an important modern Japanese poet; gives readers a clearer sense of what it means to be a Japanese poet living under conditions described as “modern” or perhaps “postmodern,” and illustrates how the often ambiguous term “modernity” has inscribed itself into the literature of Japan.
Forthcoming in Translation Review 80