Translations of Classic Japanese Poetry-Part 2


                                     By  ALEXANDER  DOLIN        


      Whereas English, French and German translators tried mostly to adapt Japanese prosody to the regular Western meters and rhymes, Russian poets chose another way. They were translating by that time mostly from the German and French versions being not so much restrained by the Western conventions and aspired to find more appropriate approach to tanka. G.A.Rachinsky, editor and translator of a large tanka anthology (1914) drew an interesting conclusion from his experiments:

      Tanka can always be taken as a two-line poem with a constant number of syllables in the so called dactylic duel verse, which makes a combination of hexameter and pentameter:

      If I just hear / the Old age to knock on my door, / locking from inside / “Nobody’s in!” – shall I cry / driving the age away.                                    

      It was a valuable observation but unfortunately nobody followed Rachinsky’s advice.



      The best poets of Russian Silver Age like V. Bryusov, K.Balmont, A. Belii and many others in the beginning of the 20th c. paid tribute to the translation of tanka. None of them was in command of Japanese but they were great masters who strived to enhance their poetic horizons turning to the Oriental traditions. Their aim was to find a universal clue, which would open for the Russian and European readers the treasury of Asian poetry.

      Thus V. Bryusov in his experimental collection “The Dreams of Mankind” brought among others several examples of classical tanka using various rhythmic patterns. Not only the rhythm of the poems varied in the translation but also their graphic patterns. Bryusov also widely used euphonic effects and means of syntax like exclamatory marks, columns, commas and  capitalizing of the first letters in the line.  In some poems of that sequence we see instead of 5-line tanka quite different forms like quatrain or verse blanc in 6 lines. However Bryusov’s sophisticated models  remained nothing but pretentious pastoral pictures:

        Viju lik luni,

      Vidish lunnii lik i ti,

        I tomyat mechti:

      Esli b tak iz zerkala

      Ti vzglyanula s visoti.

        Tsvetiki vishni,

      Obraduite, padaite!

        V gorode lishnii,

      Vetrom, kak vi, ya gonim

      K volnam Ikuto sedim.

        I see the face of the moon

      And you see it too,

         My dreams are torturing:

      Oh, if you only looked at me

      From that mirror in the sky!

        Oh you, cherry blossom,

      Bring me joy, fall and scatter!

        A stranger in the city,

      I am chased like you by the wind

      To the gray waves of Ikuto.

      Another pillar of Russian symbolism K. Balmont was a great admirer of Japanese culture. He traveled to Japan and was enchanted by the beauty of the country as well as by the eloquence of its poetry and arts. Naturally he tried to “translate” classical tanka  (from French and German) in his own ornamental manner sacrificing semantic ambiguity and other peculiarities of the original text.

         This stylization seems rather clumsy and bleach, leaving not so much from the sad charm and refined techniques of the masterpiece, which depends on the melody of the verse and interplay of three pivot words (kakekotoba)

      Hana no iro wa

      Utsuri ni keri na

      Itazura ni

      Waga mi yo ni furu

      Nagame seshi ma ni

            (Kokinshu, #113)


      Vsya kraska tsvetka,

      Potusknev, poblednela,

      Poka ya glyadela,

      Kak lik moy prohodit

      Mej likov zemnih

      The colorful glamour of the blossoms

      Faded like the passions bygone  while idly

      I have been watching in this world

      All these endless rains

      Seeing how my body is growing old…

      All the color of the flower

      Bleached, getting pale

      While I was looking

      How my face is passing

                Among other earthly faces




      From the last decade of the 19th c. there were many attempts to adjust the stubborn Japanese dwarf poetic forms to the European standards. Some of the poets and professional translators chose typical Western forms like a rhymed quatrain and started rendering tanka in a boring conventional manner. This approach made the best masterpieces by the ancient and medieval authors look like poor amateur stanza with a trivial rhythm and primitive rhime.

      There were many examples of the kind in Britain, France and Germany. The trend reached its climax in Russia when Anna Gluskina applied this method to the translation of a huge ancient anthology The Manyoshu (8 c.). She had been working on it for decades but its final “poetic” version published in 1972 never gained any reader’s appreciation.

      The same approach was typical of the renowned Japanese translator and enlightener Myamori Asataro in his anthologies of classical tanka and haiku introduced in English.


      Another trend in the translations of Japanese classics was marked by specifically academic approach containing no poetic element in it. The trend reached its climax in the English translations of some classical masterpieces  which follow almost mechanically the word order and syntax of the original. No need to say that this accurate translation is absolutely unreadable. Still it remains a serious scientific achievement.

      The Russian version of The Shinkokinshu (13 c.) by  I. Boronina was much worse because there was a pretence to some “poetry” in it – very clumsy but supported by academic commentary. Later there were more translations by Russian academics made in this “quasi-poetic” vein, which became a serious challenge to the refined test of Russian readers.


      Some poets and professional translators of poetry in Europe and America, including those in command of Japanese, made numerous attempts to break the “tanka code” and make it reveal the magic hidden deep inside the original verse. There were even some successful samples but at large all of them failed as they could never find the “universal clue” crucial for breaking the code.

      Eventually the translators in the Western countries came to a kind of consensus . Since the early 60-s their translations of classical Japanese poetry look like accurate, reliable word for word translations – sometimes with a touch of individual taste but without any real resemblance of the beautifully pitched melodic and poetic original.

      Only in Russia three or four academics still kept on rendering tanka in various awkward ways.   


      Over a century numerous translators in Europe and America kept on trying to face the challenge of traditional Japanese verse. Superb translations of Shakespeare, Byron, Shelley, Petrarch or Dante proved to be an easy task in comparison with miniature Japanese tanka that, being translated into any Western language, would never sound like real poetry compatible with original.

      We skip the details as it was mostly a history of failures in terms of poetry – even though a large part of Japanese classics was translated quite accurately. Eventually academics and poets had to quit their quest switching to the standard word for word translations which can convey the meaning but not the real beauty and mystic charm of tanka.


      Summarizing the endeavors of Arthur Waley, Reginald Blyth, Kenneth Rexroth, Earl Miner, Harold Henderson, Donald Keene, Laurel R. Rodd, Steven D. Carter, Edwin Cranston, and many other professional translators we inevitably come to a frustrating conclusion: although philological translations of classical tanka prosper, no one could ever suggest a  metric form, which would allow serial translations of tanka (and also haiku) as poetry quite relevant to the original. It means that we are reading libretto of the opera but don’t hear the voices of the great singers.

      There was only one Japanologist and poet in France who managed to create efficient recipes for the European translators of tanka and supported them with his own highly successful poetic versions of the classics.


      In 1935 George Bonneau articulated some useful rules that we should always follow:

–         Convey precise meaning of the poem;

–         Try to keep closer to the word order of the original text;

–         Try to keep the number of syllables of the original but, if it is impossible producing an awkward meter,  just keep appropriate proportion of syllables in the lines;

–         Do not neglect any opportunity to render the euphony, the melodic structure of tanka by the means of alliterations and assonances.

  These simple rules guarantee a certain authenticity to the translation and  we can accept them – but with some reservations.

  Besides we should always keep in mind that real poetry is not a dish and can not be cooked by recipe only. It needs also some talent and inspiration.


      Having issued more than a dozen of anthologies of Japanese classical poetry in Russian and having read much more in English, French and German, I made a discovery. Basically it is very easy to write tanka or haiku  in any language – if you do it the same way the Japanese authors did.

      Medieval Japanese authors regarded tanka as an auxiliary language, a  perfect means of communication in case of a love affair and a valuable part of the court manners. They would study the composition of tanka since childhood and by the age of adolescence would be very well versed in classics. As a result  virtually anyone of the Heian aristocrats as well as of high-ranking samurai could write tanka and later also haiku. It was an easy task for those who could apply standard rules to the standard imagery and lexicon given that they are in fluent command of the language. Professional poets, dilettantes and their audience shared the same poetic values.

      It  means that a translator should share these values too. He has to  elaborate an adequate metric pattern and adequate imagery palette within the framework of his native language. Very soon it will allow him to think, if necessary, in the tanka rhythm and images – exactly like the ancient authors did. And it should be a piece of poetry – not a libretto – conveying “the bitter charm of existence” (aware) and “the truthful vision” (makoto) of the original.


      In French with its syllabic poetic meter, more relevant patterns may be found but in the syllabo-tonic verse regular Japanese meter 5-7-5-7-7 syllables is not the optimal solution for tanka. I recommend instead some analog meters like 6-8-6-8-8, or 6-8-6-9-9. There might be even two, three or four metric patterns that vary slightly but, put together, make a visual effect of a universal rhythm – like it was in the original.

      This rhythm will suggest the selection of  lexicon, the wording, the intonation, the inversion and specific poetic techniques, which will be used repeatedly – as it was in the original.

      Some images can be explained by the means of relevant translation but some require a commentary.

      Practice should inevitably improve your skills in operating canonic imagery.

      However the overall task is to reproduce the sensual texture of the original – and it will depend on the talent, not on the technical skills.

      Anyway Japanese poetry is  just Poetry – not a bunch of exotic flowers with thorns, and it definitely can be translated as Poetry.


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