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Autumn 2007, vol 5 no 3

Translating My Tanka Diary a tanka collection by Kawano Yūko
by Amelia Fielden

Oketani Shōgo once wrote this:

Translation is not merely the transferring of a work to a language with different words, grammatical structures, or features. It is the task of understanding and reconstructing the original in a different language system.1

Aware that there can be no perfect translation, only a provisional interpretation of meaning and feeling, but believing that fidelity to the text is essential, I endeavoured to transcribe as literally as possible in comprehensible English, the expressions and sentiments of Kawano Yūko's entire Diary. The classically prescribed, compressed form of tanka poetry makes it a special challenge.

Although I am myself a published poet in English, I consider that my function as a translator is to convey to the reader the closest possible sense of a tanka as it was composed, not to create in English a new poem suggested by the original. I know of various theories of translation, but I followed only my own instinct, which was to translate Kawano's tanka as accurately, sensitively, and coherently as I could. In the process, however, I inevitably focussed on one aspect of a given poem's meaning at the expense of other possible meanings.

Japanese tanka rely much on the power of subtlety and suggestion; a certain haziness or ambiguity is an intrinsic, indeed admired, characteristic of the form. This flows on from a language in which definite and indefinite articles do not exist, there is seldom distinction made between singular and plural, and personal pronouns are used very sparingly. Moreover in tanka, which by tradition are untitled, subjects are frequently not specified. This reflects not only Japanese grammar, but also a poetic culture in which the experience is felt to be as important as the subjective frame around it; a few lightly sketched phrases can evoke a situation in which the reader is an equal participant.

Therefore it is inevitable, and acceptable, that some tanka may be interpreted in more than one way, according to the reader. The vital thing is the communication of the poet's emotion.

On principle, then, I avoided elaboration or overly explanatory translations. In being as faithful as I could to Kawano's original Diary, I seldom subtracted or added in English, and then only where I thought it necessary for the transcribed tanka to be able to stand on its own and be understood. Such additions as I made were principally indicators of subjects, which although quite clear from the language, were not written on the Japanese page. As much as possible, I have left vagueness where Kawano was vague. My basic aims were to facilitate, and to let the original poems speak for themselves in English.

A Japanese tanka is customarily a one line, mostly unpunctuated, poem, which does not necessarily translate into a complete sentence. Moreover, to quote Ueda, paraphrasing Yosano Akiko:

it is a poem with a middle only; its beginning lies in the poet's actual experience, and its end, if any, has to be sought in the reader's mind. It is a piece of life captured verbally .2

To represent this essentially fragmentary nature, I neither began my English renderings with a capital letter, nor ended them with a full-stop.

Kawano's tanka in her Diary, as in all of her other publications, are presented in the traditional single vertical line format. In translation, waka or tanka are usually written in five lines to represent the Japanese rhythm pattern of five phrases or sound unit sets, though some translators use only four, three, or even a single line. I adhered to the generally accepted international convention by making my translations into five English lines.

In order to transmit the poet's writing patterns as she intended, I also tried to retain the original phrase order and the order of images, whenever possible, in the translations. If one image precedes another, it is because that is the way the poet wants it to be. However, as Japanese syntax is often in inverse order to that of English, I sometimes felt that the ideal mirroring would produce undesirable awkwardness, even confusion, in the translated tanka. Hence some of the English poems follow the order of the Japanese images, some do not.

Similarly there is some inconsistency in my translation of Kawano's verb tenses. Although all of her prose commentaries are in the plain present tense, I transcribed them as plain past, which is the traditional diary style in English. Within Kawano's tanka one quite often finds a blend of present and past tenses. For the most part I kept this style in my translations.

In addition, because English is a stressed language with consonant clusters, unlike Japanese which is syllabic, tanka translations replicating the thirty-one syllable count of the originals usually sound heavy and verbose, the antithesis of the lightness and concision which are hallmarks of Japanese tanka and haiku poetry. Therefore I did not adhere to thirty-one, or indeed to any fixed total of syllables; nor did I attempt a particular metrical beat.

I did, however, try to reproduce the effect of the 5/7/5/7/7 sound unit rhythm of the originals by shaping my translations into alternating short, long, short, then long, long, lines. The instances where this could not be done without artifice or distortion, I simply rendered into everyday speech rhythms and let the English rhythm parallel the Japanese sound if possible.

Firmly sited in the long tradition of tanka, Kawano's poems are a mixture of classical and modern, literary and colloquial language. Classical words, which evoke associations with pre-modern times, are juxtaposed with contemporary situations and feelings. Kawano's writing also marries modern words with classical verb and adjective endings, and with traditional tanka usages of certain expressions and particles. This multi-faceted style, typical of contemporary tanka, is not something which can be copied into natural English. But Kawano's content is that of everyday life, her voice direct, sometimes confessional, sometimes candidly conversational; and it is the universal tone of her poetry which I aimed to capture.

I tried to make the translations clear, and as transparent to the original as translations can be. My primary concern is always to balance accuracy with accessibility, and with natural flow in English.

The poet herself showed great kindness and patience in elucidating certain obscurities for me.

However, as our discussions and correspondence are always in Japanese, due to Kawano's limited facility in English, ultimately the interpretations and translations were my own.

Kawano Yūko stands in the forefront of contemporary Japanese tanka writers. Yet aside from twelve individual tanka from her earliest collections, which appeared in the haiku and tanka compilation A Long Rainy Season by Leza Lowitz et al, Kawano's poems had not been translated until I began working on them. In order to make Kawano's writing available in English, I have translated and published extensive selections from her sixth and seventh collections, Time Passes (1995), and Vital Forces (1998), the latter with Yuhki Aya. I also translated, with Uzawa Kozue, a selection of 100 tanka from Kawano's then ten collections, in a book entitled As Things Are (2005).

My intention in translating My Tanka Diary was to make its poems, which cover a year in the life of this acclaimed Japanese writer, more widely accessible outside her own country. I believed they would attract much interest in the English-speaking world as contemporary examples of a traditional form of poetry in which "the powers of compression, nuance, implication and understatement are orchestrated to evoke emotion or describe an image or experience."3

Note: the bilingual book My Tanka Diary (2006), with 400 of Kawano's tanka translated by Amelia Fielden, is available for purchase through:



1 Shōgo Oketani, "Some Thoughts on the Meaning of Translation" in The Poem Behind the Poem: Translating Asian Poetry, Frank Stewart (ed.), Port Townsend: Copper Canyon Press, 2004, p.163.

2 Ueda Makoto, Modern Japanese Poets and the Nature of Literature, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1983.

3 Michael McClintock, The Tanka Anthology, Winchester, USA: Red Moon Press, 2003, p.xxxix.


Amelia Fielden Amelia Fielden is an Australian living near Sydney. She is a professional Japanese translator and holds a Master of Arts degree in Japanese Literature. To date, working sometimes with native speaker co-translators, sometimes solo, Amelia has produced eight books of contemporary Japanese tanka in translation; currently she is working on a ninth, with Dr.Kozue Uzawa, editor of Gusts (journal of Tanka Canada). A poet in her own right, four volumes of Amelia's original English-language tanka are in print, and a fifth is underway.

photo: Mike Rehling