Simply Haiku: A Quarterly Journal of Japanese Short Form Poetry
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Autumn 2006, vol 4 no 3

An Interview With Mariko Kitakubo*
By Robert D. Wilson

RW: You've said that "tanka, because it is lyric poetry, and so difficult to translate, has had a rather limited and halfhearted acceptance outside of Japan." Why is this so?

MK: The lack of translations, or poor translations, in particular of contemporary Japanese tanka, have hindered its globalization somewhat.


RW: Mariko, why are the views regarding the translation of tanka poetry from the Japanese language into other languages polarized in contemporary Japanese tanka society?

MK: Regretfully, many contemporary Japanese tanka poets are either indifferent, or negative, about the introduction of tanka in translation to the other cultures. As I explain in the Foreword for my book On This Same Star, "Myself, I would probably have baulked at the idea of having my work handled by a different translator. But Amelia Fielden is a poet with a deep understanding of Japanese culture, and a linguistic expertise based on many years study of Japanese language and literature. Moreover, from our discussions, which have included such technical aspects of tanka as the importance of the final phrase, and the frequent use of problematic onomatopoeia, I have become convinced of her ability to translate in a way which is both totally faithful to the original tanka, and also poetic in English." There are very few translators working at Amelia's level of excellence.


RW: The Australian translator and poet, Amelia Fielden, has translated your book of tanka into the English language. The two of you worked closely, bringing to life what I feel is an extraordinary book of poetry. How hard was it to collaborate, to come to an agreement on the final version of a poem, to ensure its faithfulness to the original?

MK: As I said earlier, Amelia is exceptionally well-equipped to translate tanka, because she is both a professional Japanese translator of many years experience, and a respected poet. Before working on my collection, Amelia had already published six critically acclaimed books of contemporary Japanese women's tanka in translation. Moreover, Amelia and I are very good friends.

I can confide in her because I trust her on a personal, as well as a professional level. The experience of having her translate On This Same Star was a very enjoyable one for me. We found we could work together harmoniously. The method we adopted suited us both. Perhaps it would be interesting for you if I summarized this:

Initially, Amelia read through my whole collection by herself, making rough, first-draft translations and noting down things which she did not fully understand, or had questions about. Then I sat down with her for many hours and we read all the tanka again, together. I discussed with her, in Japanese, the intended meanings and nuances of each poem, and we compared these interpretations with her draft translations. Amelia's particular queries, we talked over in even more detail.

On the basis of this first set of discussions, Amelia prepared a second draft of the translations with some revisions. Subsequently we repeated our collaborative efforts until we were thoroughly satisfied that we had accomplished a book of translations worthy of publication.

Our collaboration was, I believe, a pleasure for us both. The translation of some tanka of course took more time, and more discussion, than others. But we never had any disagreements about final versions, even of particularly "difficult" poems. Amelia is dedicated to ensuring that the translation is faithful to the original, and I have absolute confidence in her work.


RW: In the book's Foreword you state: "The translation of tanka not only involves the accurate transmission of a poem's 'story,' but must also show cognisance of that which lies behind the written word." Please explain.

MK: When I compose my tanka, I do not write down on paper everything I would like the reader to feel and understand. I cannot spell out my 'message' in detail, or in its entirety, in such a concise form of poetry. So, much meaning is often hidden within the words or expressions of tanka.


RW: You write tanka with a voice that is completely your own. They are lyrical, sometimes surreal, and have the rare ability to share with the reader the essence of how you feel. Take for example the following two tanka:

when I contemplate
the copious blood-flow
of our world's peoples,
an avalanche begins its slide
in a part of myself

(translated by Amelia Fielden)


an accident
of birth ---
on this same star
trees, wild beasts,
fish, people

(translated by Amelia Fielden)

What inspired you to write these two poems? What was your state of mind?

MK: The first expresses my anti-war sentiments. Everyday we hear awful news of fighting and tragedies somewhere or other, "an avalanche begins its slide / in a part of myself," is the way I feel inside when I contemplate the disasters and turmoil which are so sadly prevalent in our world.

About the second tanka: if I had been born a hundred years ago, I wouldn't have encountered you. Although I can't possibly see and touch all the animate beings which co-exist with me, I treasure our co-existence.


RW: How long have you been writing tanka and who has been your primary influence?

MK: I have been writing tanka now for 14 years. Two poets in particular, Mr. Shuji Terayama and Mr. Kan Kasugai, have had a great influence on me.


RW: As a follow-up, why tanka? Why not some other genre of poetry?

MK: Because I love the traditional 5/7/5/7/7 sound-unit rhythm of Japanese tanka.


RW: What advice do you offer for English-speaking poets who write tanka?

MK: Please observe short / long / short / long / long rhythm, because that rhythm is the basis of all tanka. Also, please take care that the ending of your poem is not "weak," or too short. The last two lines are very important, and no other line should be longer - in terms of syllable count - than the final line.

And then enjoy expressing yourself in tanka!


*Translated by Amelia Fielden


Mariko Kitakubo Mariko Kitakubo is a poet who lives in Tokyo. A member of the Association of Contemporary Tanka Poets, and the Sakujitu Tanka Society, Kitakubo is active in writing and performing. To date she has published the following tanka collections:

I Want to Tell You in the Words of Waves (1999, Artland)
When the Music Stops (2002, Nagarami Shobo)
Will (2005, Kadokawa Shoten)