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Autumn 2006, vol 4 no 3

An Interview with Amelia Fielden
By Michael McClintock

MMcC: You are fast becoming a powerhouse translator of Japanese tanka, producing book after book. What drives you?

AF: Certainly not money! Seriously, though, I am very excited about the rise of interest in writing tanka in English. But because tanka was “invented” by the Japanese, 1300 years ago, and remains a real force in Japanese literature today, I think it is extremely important that practicing, and aspiring, writers of tanka in English, know what the contemporary Japanese are doing with this form. I don’t mean that one has to slavishly imitate Japanese contemporary tanka, but one should know what it is really like, in terms of structure, rhythm, poetics, linguistic strategies, etc as well as themes (which are enormously wide-ranging in Japan these days). Even if a writer of tanka in English decides to do it very differently from the Japanese, I feel he/she should understand WHAT is different. And there is so little contemporary Japanese tanka available in English. Missionary zeal, maybe, on my part? Plus I’d like to make a contribution to general knowledge of international literature as well as enabling English speakers to share in the richness which I am able to enjoy in Japanese tanka.


MMcC: It seems to me that you have brought into fruition over a few short years what most translators and scholars would take a career to produce.

AF: Actually Michael, since we began preparing this interview, three more of my books of translations have been published: in April this year (2006), Kadokawa Shoten in Tokyo published On This Same Star, my translations of a collection by Kitakubo Mariko which had appeared in print twelve months earlier; in May, Cheng & Tsui (Boston) released Ferris Wheel:101 Modern and Contemporary Tanka, which I had translated as a collaborative project with Uzawa Kozue; and in July another bilingual volume, My Tanka Diary, 384 of the 643 tanka written over the period 1999 – 2000, by Kawano Yuko, was launched here in Australia.


MMcC: The core of widely published translators of Japanese poetry in the West is quite small, considering this activity has been going on for over five decades, accelerating after World War Two. Among them, whose work do you feel closest to? Who has done the best job with tanka and why do you think so?

AF: I don’t feel qualified to talk about the whole field of Japanese poetry translation, but the outstanding translators of modern and contemporary Japanese tanka, in my opinion (and in no particular order) are Donald Keene, Makoto Ueda, Amy Heinrich, Janine Beichman, and Sanford Goldstein. Of them, I think I feel closest in working style to Amy Heinrich, though I have never met her. All are genuine, and meticulous scholars, who like me, TRANSLATE, not remake the Japanese original as a (new English) poem. Some other, native English translators are difficult to assess as they rely very heavily on Japanese collaborators. Not that there is anything particularly wrong with that, but one doesn’t know whom to call the translator.


MMcC: How do you go about translating a poem? Do you look for those that may be most “accessible” (whatever that means) to English-language readers? Do you find that there are many wonderful tanka in Japanese that simply cannot be translated satisfactorily, due to fundamental differences between the two languages? Are there also cultural differences that enter into this?

AF: Obviously I do not eliminate tanka from my translation collections simply because they show a foreign culture; only if the cultural difference is so marked or strange that it could muddy understanding of the poem, and/or detract from appreciation of the tanka as poetry, might I decide to omit a certain tanka. Linguistic factors also play a part; puns, for example, are generally untranslatable.


MMcC: What qualities do you look for in finding a Japanese collaborator in the translation process?

AF: The answer has to be ‘good communicative skills’, in Japanese. I have certainly enjoyed fruitful and successful collaborations with six female Japanese native speakers, including three of the poet-authors of collections which I have translated, to produce a total of eight books. But where I have found the greatest satisfaction, though the most difficulties, was in translating the 643 tanka in My Tanka Diary for my Masters dissertation, by myself… I was not allowed a collaborator, but I was permitted to consult others. The final product was the result of my own original work, taking into account (a relatively small amount of) advice/suggestions/corrections from some seven or eight experts in the field (all Japanese native speakers, bar one).


MMcC: I have the impression that your own interest in translating tanka is focused on the tanka poets of the modern era---is that correct? What do you hope to accomplish by bringing these poets to readers in English?

AF: I am actually focusing on, and intend to continue, translating contemporary, i.e., living, poets, though I am very familiar with, and often consult, the works of modern, no longer living poets. Contemporary work is where the shortage of translations lies. There has been much excellent scholarly work done in translating classical tanka, e.g. by Laurel Rodd Rasplica (Kokinshu), Earl Miner, Steven Carter, various Manyoshu scholars, et cetera (though there are also some pretty atrocious translations of classical tanka around too).


MMcC: Among all your hundreds of translations, are there two or three that for you best represent your goals as a translator, that for you best represent in English, the genius of Japanese tanka?

AF: Here are three tanka which are very special to me as a reader and translator.

The first two are by Kawano Yūko. This tanka, from The Cherry Blossom Forest (1980), has 32 syllables (onji) in Japanese, rather than the conventional 31.

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

I love the honesty, the forthrightness, of this tanka. Note that, as so often happens, it was not possible to shape the translation into the ideal short/long/short/long/long line form, and still have it “look right” in English. I have however, been able to present the five translated phrases in the same order as the original.

The second is from To Walk (2001):

simmering azuki beans
to nourish my sick body
bubble bubble, bubble bubble
I come closer
to the human heart

Kawano is both an intensely personal writer, and one who is highly skilled in the use of poetic techniques. In Japanese, this poem has a proliferation of “K” sounds, and amazing “ko” alliteration. Does this not remind you of the witches’ scene in Macbeth?

My third example would be this tanka by Kuriki Kyōko, a younger, but now very distinguished, member of Kawano’s “Tower” tanka society. Her writing is very different from Kawano’s. She is much more of a social critic and commentator. Many of her tanka have very topical or controversial themes, such as organ transplants, brain-death, the Iraqi War, and so on. This is her most famous poem, however:

turn, ferris-wheel
turn –
for you one day
for me a lifetime

It is a beautiful sonorous poem in Japanese. Critics have acclaimed ‘ferris-wheel’ as having a dynamic, youthful freshness in conception and expression.

Of course, there are many more wonderful Japanese tanka which it is a privilege to translate.


MMcC: Who are some of the Japanese poets you have set your sights on translating? Can you tell us why these in particular and how these poets are perceived in Japan---as “traditionalists”, avant-garde, or---?

AF: I began by translating a lot of Kawano Yūko’s work. She is a high profile poet in Japan, and has a huge following there, but was an unknown outside Japan. She is the leader of the Tower Tanka Society, based in Kyoto. Kawano has taken traditional tanka poetry and made it thoroughly contemporary, in terms of her frank depictions of modern family and working life…and yet her themes are essentially universal in terms of the human emotions they reveal. She is also a consummate poet, employing all the resources of the Japanese language to brilliant effect. Her language strategies, e.g. onomatopoeia, are very innovative. And I feel an affinity with her, as a woman only four years younger than myself, who has had quite a few parallel major life experiences, albeit in an entirely different society. Kawano could not be described as avant-garde; she is a truly contemporary traditionalist.

Then in 2001, Kawamura Hatsue, editor of the multi-lingual Tanka Journal, asked me to translate her latest collection, having seen my (then unpublished) manuscript of Kawano’s Time Passes and been impressed by it. After reading Kawamura’s book, and loving it for the clarity and integrity of her expression, for what it told me about the poet and about her marvellous relationship with her husband, I agreed.

We worked very harmoniously together, entirely by correspondence. I translated the whole book (which became On Tsukuba Peak), and Kawamura, who had good comprehension of written English, suggested changes to the translations where desirable. Then SHE decided which ones to omit from publication, because it was to be a bilingual book, which increases bulk, and publishers of poetry usually don’t want more than 200 pages or so.


MMcC: What criteria did she apply to cut down the final selection?

AF: Kawamura selected out:

a)    Tanka which are untranslatable because of Japanese word play, and/or because they depend on subtle use of the three forms of Japanese script;

b)    Those with cultural, geographical, literary, Japanese current affairs, or botanical references, which were likely to be obscure to foreigners.

c)    Those which reference other (mostly famous) Japanese tanka, and/or which rely on a detailed knowledge of Japanese literature. In creating Japanese tanka, it is considered valid, indeed admirable, for example, to transfer whole phrases from another poet’s work into one’s own. This is a practice called “honkadōri”, or “as in the original poem”, which displays technical skill and knowledge of the tanka canon.

d)    Tanka which she personally labelled “not very good tanka”.


MMcC: And are you generally in agreement with that set of tools?

AF: When choosing which tanka to omit from publication, I do apply the A,B,C criteria; but I would NEVER presume to use D myself. However, my native speaker collaborator sometimes says, “This is not a very good tanka; we can leave it out.” Even so, I ask for an explanation before agreeing to do that. In any case, I always translate, at least roughly, an entire collection prior to making publication selection. Selection is more on negative criteria, as above, than judgemental.


MMcC: And other poets of interest to you, who are now writing in Japan?

AF: Another such poet is Kuriki Kyōko. It was Yuhki Aya, my then collaborator, who suggested we might translate Kuriki’s Natsu no Ushiro (Behind Summer) as a change from Kawano’s work.

Kuriki’s collection is very much oriented towards global issues and Japanese current affairs, as well as inclusive of deeply personal tanka. Moreover, it won THE most important prize for a contemporary collection, the Yomiuri Prize for Literature, in February 2004. Therefore, it is a key work for English readers to be able to access. The original contains 450 tanka, and our book published in April 2005 contains some 325 of them.

I am also very interested in Kitakubo Mariko, a younger, and as yet not as well-known, writer. Kitakubo is a noted performance poet; her tanka are vibrant and emotive. As I mentioned earlier, my translations of her work have recently been published under the title of On This Same Star.

In addition, I am frequently asked to do work for members of the Japan Poets’ Club, or to correct the English translations they have attempted of their own tanka. Such translations are usually then published in Tokyo in the Tanka Journal.

I am often asked to translate the work of members of the Japan Poets' Club, or to correct translations they have made of their own tanka, e. g., Mari Kono, Aya Yuhki; such translations are usually then published in the Tanka Journal. I have translated quite a number of Aya's, at her request, but none have yet appeared in a book.


MMcC: Is the world of Japanese tanka very divided by “schools” and rival groups? Are there groups who eschew the modern “tanka” in favor of the traditional “waka” and all its rituals of composition?

AF: There are indeed various schools/tanka societies, one or two with 1,000 plus members, some with several hundred members, some with only a handful, and all with leaders espousing different styles, but, as far as I can see, there is complementarity rather than rivalry. Some are more traditional, some more avant-garde. Whatever the leadership, there still appears to be considerable variety in the writing by individual members of any one school---they are not cloning; e.g., Kawano leads the Tower group, but her work is not mimicked by her followers. Some of the “stars” of Tower are Kuriki and Nagata, (Kawano’s husband), but they write rather differently to Yūko herself. This whole schools’ thing goes right through Japanese culture: tea ceremony, flower arranging, haiku…virtually everyone belongs to a school and has a sensei, or leader. This does not limit artistic freedom in the way Westerners might think.


MMcC: Any male tanka poets on the horizon for translation?

AF: When translating, I do try to get into the poet’s head. Which is why I prefer to work with women’s tanka. There are obviously fundamental similarities in the life experiences of members of one’s own sex, even if these poets have been raised in a “foreign” country.


MMcC: You are also a poet, writing original tanka in English. How do you manage to keep your own voice separate from that of the poet whose work you happen to be translating? I’m assuming that to translate a poet up to your own standards, you need to “get into their head” and live there---is that actually so? How do you create emotional “space” for your own poetry?

AF: Emotional space for my own poetry is definitely tight when I am absorbed in work on a body of translation.

My most recent collection of original English tanka, Still Swimming, which comprises 385 tanka written between 2003 – 2005, was published in September 2005.

Currently I am writing an English tanka diary, which I intend to complete by March 2007. This will be modelled on Kawano Yūko’s My Tanka Diary, which was the subject of my Masters’ translation and dissertation. Kawano’s is a book of dated tanka, at least one for every day of the year, with short prose commentaries accompanying them.

The two forms of tanka which I am especially interested in creating myself, at this stage, are diary tanka, and tanka sequences.


MMcC: The history of waka and tanka in Japan is very long, and often very convoluted. As English-language poets work more and more in tanka, what areas of Japanese tradition and practice do you think will take root in English-language tanka, and in what areas do the English-language poets appear to be taking another course?

AF: I have recently been having fascinating discussions with Japanese poets about the “rules” for contemporary tanka. They have told me that great importance is placed on the final phrase. In Japanese it is occasionally okay if this 5th phrase is 6, or 8 syllables (i.e., not necessarily the orthodox 7 syllables)--- but it must be the longest, or equal to the longest, phrase; no other should be longer than the 5th phrase (or the 5th line in English).

It is considered crucial in Japan, that not only the final phrase/line be long, but it should also be “strong”. Some of my informants read and understand English, and have criticised some of the English tanka published in Ribbons: Tanka Society of America Journal, specifically those which have only one or two syllables for a last line, as being “weak”. I agree with them: reading tanka in English which end with only 1 or 2 words, I get the feeling that these are four-line free-verse poems which have been artificially extended to five lines, in order to qualify as “tanka”.


MMcC: That is enormously interesting to me. Off hand, it seems to me that all this depends on the poem and how it uses that particular structure---which to my mind is a form of “fall-back” (found in cinquain, and in much English-language poetry, reflecting English speaking rhythms) that can in fact be very effective; it’s a matter of how the poet uses these things, and the language of the poem, its sound and meaning. In any case, using Japanese-derived principles to come to conclusions about how best to mold and form English seems foolhardy---for many reasons, both linguistic and cultural. This is a real sticky wicket issue, or could be.

In English, this can have a very pleasing effect. It all depends on the skill of the poet, and the subject matter and language of the poem. Such a fall-back line can, in fact, be very powerful in the way it modulates the expression and/or voice. I have also read powerful English-language tanka with the two long lines being 1 and 2 in position---at the front of the poem . . . Again, depends on what is being said and the poet’s skill, language used, where the accents fall.

AF: Perhaps I have expressed myself unclearly. What I and my informant Japanese poets are doing is NOT “using Japanese-derived principles to come to conclusions about how best to mold and form English“ or criticising 5-line English free-verse poems as such. We are simply querying how some (and only some) of these poems, those which ignore the most fundamental and important principles of the time-honoured tanka form (e.g., by being ‘top-heavy’ and/or not observing the S/L/S/L/L rhythm pattern), can be called “tanka”. The point we are making, is to do with how such free-lance poems (in our view wrongly) define themselves. We are not saying that they are not fine and/or powerful poems, just that they do not fall within the set parameters for “tanka”. After all, Japanese poets do not ignore the rules of the sonnet form and then call some free-verse Japanese poem or other a “sonnet”!


MMcC: To be sure, these issues will be with us a long, long time. Tell us about your upcoming projects and what the next two or three years look like for you. And be careful here! --- I can understand that some of this you may wish to keep to yourself right now!

AF: With Uzawa Kozue I have recently embarked on the translation of Tawara Machi’s latest tanka collection Winnie the Pooh’s Nose, which is themed on her experiences as a single mother. (Our book will have another title when it is published, hopefully in 2007 or 2008). And, as I have mentioned, I am hoping to have my own "Tanka Diary" finished and ready for publication next year. These are my two main projects for 2006 – 2007.


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.