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Winter 2006, vol 4 no 4

Translation of Tanka – work of collaboration – in the case of As Things Are and Ferris Wheel
by Kozue Uzawa

Most Japanese people learn about haiku and tanka in their elementary, junior high, and high schools. Some people study more haiku or tanka while majoring in Japanese Literature in a university. I, myself, forgot about haiku and tanka for many years after graduating from high school. I studied English Literature during my university days before I came to Canada. After working some years at a university library in Vancouver, I became a graduate student. While studying language education, I was looking for some creative activities. Then I happened to attend a tanka study group's monthly meeting some time in the 1980s. The meeting was very enjoyable and inspirational. I was attracted to writing tanka. I became a member of this study group and also a member of a bigger tanka group (kessha) in Japan.

I like writing tanka. Of course, I like reading tanka as well. While reading tanka books and journals, I started jotting down my favorite tanka in a notebook, which I have kept more than ten years now. Sometime in the late 1990s, I thought it might be interesting to translate my favorite Japanese tanka into English. I could share my joy with people around the world! I began studying English tanka. I thought it necessary to write tanka in English before embarking on their translation. Through reading English tanka journals, I found poems by Anna Holley, Margaret Chula, and Marianne Bluger very interesting. Most of their English tanka were very close to Japanese tanka. They were short and concise.

When Marianne and I started e-mail exchanges, she was already very ill. However, she kindly checked some of my English tanka and encouraged me to publish English translations of contemporary tanka. She said that English tanka poets would like to read more contemporary tanka from Japan because translations are not much available right now. She also flattered me by saying "you are a fine poet." If it weren't for Marianne's encouragement, I don't think I would have published Ferris Wheel.

After selecting tanka from my notebook and translating them, I was looking for someone who could read tanka both in English and Japanese. Then I met (through e-mail) Amelia Fielden. What a lucky chance! We promised to cooperate for two translation projects: 100 best tanka of Kawano Yuko (Amelia's project) and 101 modern and contemporary tanka (my project). Amelia was the primary translator for her project, and I, for mine.

For Amelia's project, I checked her translations referring to the original tanka. My role was to check whether Amelia's translations were correct, and to provide some explanations when she could not understand the original Japanese tanka. Since Kawano uses lots of creative onomatopoeia in her tanka, Amelia had a hard time understanding Kawano's use of onomatopoeia. Of course, Kawano's onomatopoeic words are not listed in any dictionary. I explained normal onomatopoeia usually used in Japanese daily life, and how Kawano invented her own based on the normal use. Then I suggested some possible English translations.

hitting you
hitting the kids
my hand feels on fire –
frantically loosening my hair
I go to bed

In the above tanka, "frantically" was my suggestion. It is the translation of "zan zan barari to." This onomatopoeic expression is based on "zanbara-gami," which means untidy, loose hair. I chose "frantically" after reading this poem (in Japanese) many times, imagining the scene. I know Kawano has long hair and she usually puts her hair up. By using "frantically" I thought we could express Kawano's psychological state in this poem. It's not a direct translation, but it expresses fluently Kawano's emotional state. (Amelia asked the poet about the use of "frantically" in this translation when she met Kawano in Japan. I heard that the poet answered it's good.)

As for Ferris Wheel, Amelia checked my translations against the original Japanese. Her role in this project was to polish my English. In order to show how my translations were polished by Amelia, I will use some examples from my translations archived in Simply Haiku, July/August 2004. (I submitted those translations before I met Amelia.)

like a child
making fresh, crispy sounds
you crunch celery sticks
I don't need a reason
to adore you
                        -----Yukitsuna Sasaki

In this poem, the underlined word was "eat" in my original translation as you see in Simply Haiku. However, it was changed to "crunch", which, I think, corresponds to Japanese "kamu" more accurately and also the repetition of the 'k' and 's' sounds in this poem is more intensified. This sound repetition is what I strived for because in the original Japanese the 's' and 'k' sounds are intentionally repeated in order to produce a fresh and rhythmical tone: (saki saki to/ serori kami ite/ adokenaki/ nare o aisuru/ riyuu wa irazu)

looking at
the Noh mask of a young woman
I feel white arrows
silently flowing
under the faraway ocean
                                  ----- Kimihiko Takano

The image of this poem is surrealistic and very beautiful. The original Japanese has a repetition of the 's' sound in the last two lines: (shin shin to/ shiroki ya ga yuku). In order to capture this sound effect, I intentionally used the repetition of the 's' and 'f' sounds in my translation in the last 3 lines. Regarding the first line in the Japanese (magorijoo/ mitsutsu shi oreba/ harukanaru kaichuu o/ shin shin to/ shiroki ya ga yuku), I translated it as "the Noh mask of a young woman," because "Magojiro" (Noh mask maker; famous for making masks of young women) does not mean anything for many English-speakers if it is presented as it is. Amelia agreed with my translation.

mist enclosed your silhouette
a movement
from a symphony
leisurely came to my mind
                                      -----Yoshimi Kondo

In Kondo's poem, there is no intentional sound repetition in the Japanese original, although the 'k' sound is eminent (tachimachi ni/ kimi no sugata o/ kiri tozashi/ aru gakushoo o/ ware wa omoiki). So, I used the 's' sound repetitions (swiftly/ mist/ silhouette/ symphony) in the translation. The last line was "started to come to my mind" in my original translation, but Amelia changed it to "leisurely." To tell the truth, I'm not sure about this "leisurely" even after the publication of the book. It seems it does not represent the original Japanese (ware wa omoiki --- literally means "I thought," "I conceived"). There is no perfect translation. The translator has to compromise very often.

on rainy branches
apricot buds
swelling into bloom
as if waiting for love
                             -----Kazuhiko Ito

This poem became much better than my original translation (flower buds/ of apricot tree/ are about to open/ anxiously in the rain/ as if waiting for love) by Amelia's suggestion. She tries to maintain the phrase order of the original Japanese as much as possible. Ito's Japanese original is: (ame no eda ni/ koi o matsu goto/ doki doki to/ fukuramite iru/ anzu no tsubomi). The first line, "ame no eda ni," is translated into "on rainy branches." This means that both Japanese and English readers can get the same first image from this poem. I translated the onomatopoeic expression in the Japanese original (doki doki to) as "anxiously." I think this word selection was successful in this tanka in order to express the double image of apricot buds and young girls.

Amelia and I have just started our 3rd translation project: translation of some tanka from Tawara Machi's latest collection. Translation of tanka is interesting. I like the process of selecting words and expressions. It is like creating your own tanka using an image expressed in the original. Amelia and I usually exchange suggestions for improvement of a tanka at least 2 or 3 times before we feel it is close to the original. Since there are not many translations of contemporary tanka, I would like to produce more translations for the western world in the very near future.


UZAWA, Kozue (1942). Born in Tokyo. Immigrated to Canada in 1971. University instructor. Published her first tanka collection in 1998. Member of Kokoro no Hana Tanka Group, Japan Tanka Poets’ Society, Tanka Society of America.