An interview with yours truly on the not-so-gentle art of translation. Click the cover of my latest to read on.
As some of you may know, I am a professional translator of Japanese fiction into English (a new translation project has, in fact, kept me from reviewing as of late…but stay tuned). My latest translation is of Yusaku Kitano’s science-fiction masterwork, Mr. Turtle, which has gained recent recognition in a write-up from The Japan Times (read here) and a Best Translated Book Award (see here). The book is available on Amazon by clicking the cover below.
In his 2013 monograph, The Wind from Vulture Peak: The Buddhification of Japanese Waka in the Heian Period, Stephen D. Miller takes readers on a cordial walk through a transition in Japan’s flourishing Heian period (794-1185), when poetry of the imperial court, known as waka, welcomed Buddhist concepts into its folds. Miller’s central argument—that, approaching and inclusive of the twelfth century, Japanese wordsmiths incorporated conspicuous Buddhist principles into the composition of their waka—may be easy to understand in theory, but requires just the sort of meticulous analysis Miller brings to his interpretations of said poetry, and the social cycles of which it came to be a part, to see with clarity.
While noble poet Fujiwara no Shunzei (1114-1204) is, in existing scholarship, upheld as a pioneer of this devotional sea change, Miller finds him representing a “culmination” of interdisciplinary motivations dating back as far as the Nara period (710-784). The uniqueness of waka as a venue for such a turn lies in the fact that it was (stereo)typically associated with love (or, more often, lack thereof), seasonal aesthetics, and nature, and that it seems as unlikely a conduit as any for the soteriological—that is, salvation-oriented—thrust of Buddhist doctrine. The eternity of enlightenment beckons in stark contrast to the fleeting secularism of orthodox waka. At the same time, Miller goes to great lengths to, in his words, “look carefully at the kinds of poems Japanese poets considered Buddhist—or compiled in such ways as to become Buddhist—as a means of elucidating how the Japanese came to regard the waka as holding salvific power” (p. 4). The em-dashed point is an important one, as it affirms the power of narrative infused into poetry by the very act of compilation, by which new interrelationships may be teased from the very suggestion of their correlation.
When continental Buddhism was introduced to Japan in 538, it existed apart from any sort of poetic tradition on the archipelago, and would not combine with it until five centuries later. It was only gradually that worlds of religious and courtly life expanded as two lungs in the same poetic chest. Yet religious poems, Miller avers, have spiritual and social origins, and as such must be taken in their wider contexts, whenever known. Even in absence of clear evidence, the sequencing of poems may reveal just as much about the intentions behind their creation. Poetry thus becomes something of a divine force in and of itself, at once ecumenical in its regard for earthly things and doctrinally specific to its intended audience. Indeed, if spiritual development can be a vehicle for poetry, so can poetry be a vehicle for spiritual development.
All of the above is easily grasped from Miller’s robust introduction, the meatiest of the book’s courses. What follows it is a deep reading of the Buddhist poems, translated in collaboration with poet Patrick Donnelly, from five major imperial anthologies. In chapter two, Miller explores the notion of what defines Buddhist poetry, and makes a clear distinction between that which can be called overtly Buddhist (shakkyō-ka) and that worthier of the euphemism “Buddhistic.” The last of his anthologies of interest is therefore most significant, for it is the first to contain a book dedicated entirely to shakkyō-ka. Miller cites a constellation of factors behind this evolution, notably the increasing overlap between certain Buddhist institutions and the imperial court itself, and in the use of poetry by monks and their acolytes as an active tool of devotion.
Chapter three holds a magnifying glass to the Shūishū of 1005-1007, in which Buddhist-inflected versification reads with less religiosity than later counterparts, even as it retains a salvific tinge. Still, what these poems may lack in contemplation they make up for in their combination of the social (read: material) and the unsocial (read: abstract), resulting in what Miller calls “religio-literary artifact[s]” (p. 119). One of my favorite exchanges (pp. 96-97), in fact, appears in the same Shūishū, wherein Ōnakatomi no Yoshinobu sends the following elegiac poem to an anonymous nun:
the “I” who grieves
thought I was the only one
to put on black—
but did you too
give your back
to a world of hurt?
Her reply switches out some of Yoshinobu’s spice for her own:
“to put on black”
may seem different—
but believe me:
we wear that color
Though the above exchange might seem vague in comparison to future developments in Buddhist poetry, Miller validates the foundational nature of their appearance in the Shūishū.
The Goshūishū is the subject of chapter 4, where the term shakkyō-ka warrants formal application, due to the nineteen poems’ sub-categorical designation as such in the 1086 anthology. Miller again sets the stage by connecting the collection to a number of social and political catalysts, not least of all the rising importance of mappō (the Latter Days of the Law), a period in which the teachings of the historical Buddha were seen to be under threat by human perversion. The Goshūishū further distinguishes itself by engaging sūtras, as opposed to the social gleanings prevalent in the Shūishū. Even these seem preparatory for the larger hit of Buddhist poetry in the Kin’yōshū of 1127 and subsequent drop in the Shikashū (ca. 1151), both the subjects of chapter 5. That the relevant poems in the Kin’yōshū are not explicitly tagged as Buddhist, relegated instead to a miscellany at the end, lends them a certain mystical quality.
All of these sentiments and more come to a head in the Senzaishū of 1187, the backdrop of which shimmers in all its turbulence and uncertainty in chapter 6 before yielding its poetic morsels in chapter 7, in which Miller unpacks the shakkyō-ka therefrom. In this case, blatantly scriptural examples are more prevalent, and play out in chronological order.
Historical rigor aside, Vulture Peak offers an inimitable reading experience in the form of its delectable translations. Miller and Donnelly, as they do in life, make a formidable team, and the combination of their forces allows an indulgence rarely attainable in the translation of classical Japanese poetry. Their efforts won them the 2015-2016 Japan-US Friendship Commission Prize, and deservedly so. (So enjoyable are their renderings that even those with little to no interest in the stratagems of academic writing would do well to have this book on their shelves if they should profess any interest in poetic form.) In light of their accomplishment, holding theirs against any number of other eminent translations feels like parsing diamonds from cubic zirconia: to most they are equally captivating, but upon further inspection by trained eyes reveal different balances of occlusion and preciousness. Take, for instance, the following poem by Sei Shōnagon (of Pillow Book fame) from the Senzaishū:
having come this far
to find the real
do you think I’d run
back to the sad world
and toss away the blessing
dew on this lotus
Compare this to R. Keller Kimbrough’s version, as it appears in his book Preachers, Poets, Women, and the Way: Izumi Shikibu and the Buddhist Literature of Medieval Japan:
Beckon as you may,
the dew has come to rest
upon the lotus.
So how could I return
to this world of sorrow?
It would not be fair to say that one is “better” than the other, as this would discount the mental energies expended in the creation of either, but the sheer embodiment of the former sets it apart. It is no longer just a translation, but a viable poetic entity in and of itself, circulating its own life force, beyond the constraints of time. And it’s not only the poems but Miller’s pacing of them, both visually and philosophically, throughout the book that reveals a compiler’s instinct in himself.
For these very reasons, one needn’t identify as Buddhist or even be interested in Buddhism as a way of life in order to appreciate the subtlety of his analytical timeline. For while his chosen waka might very well be read as embodying the Buddhist michi or “way,” they also are a path unto themselves, molecules that exist only to be digested through the mind and squeezed into single neutrons by the heart’s tender beating. Words are forgotten only so that they might be remembered, each a stepping-stone toward detachment, as best expressed in the following poem by Priest Kenshō:
when I ladled the valley water—
spent a thousand years
becoming my friends—
only my reflection?
And who are we if not Kenshō, scooping up the universe in a cup, only to watch it evaporate into the empty air like so much breath?
Originally released in 2001, Fisherman’s.com is Japanese free-jazz stalwart Akira Sakata’s ode to folksongs of the sea, reimagined and repurposed as seeds for avant distortions. Featuring Sakata on alto saxophone and vocals, Bill Laswell on bass, Pete Cosey on guitar, and Hamid Drake on drums, it’s an intensely personal statement on the fluidity of tradition.
“Kaigarabushi” opens with a fisherman’s song from the region of Tottori in western Japan. Sakata’s singing of it has a mineral quality that will taste familiar to admirers of Mikami Kan. Like a blind minstrel who feeds only the ears of ghosts longing to relive their exploits, he touches listeners from temporal distances. The band at his side sets up a row of large beakers, each filled to brimming with funk. Yet while Laswell and Drake are precisely measured, Cosey stirs up an amorphous mixture of colors through the flange of his talking guitar. His sound bleeds out the smallest facets of Sakata’s singing, and finds in their reimbursement an alluring style of damage. So, too, does the bandleader’s reed work pour on strange beauty.
“Ondo no funauta” sets out on more troubled waters before bass and drums drop an anchor of groove, while Cosey’s fins move in more mysterious ways below depths. By no coincidence, the song tells of boatmen handling a particularly treacherous strait in Hiroshima Prefecture, though one might never know those challenges for the skill with which the band navigates them. Neither does Sakata’s saxophone betray one wave of that treachery, as it emotes without fear, and blasts the surety of their experience beyond the ultimate fallibility of their technology.
“Saitarabushi” (incorrectly Romanized as “Saitarobushi”), another fishing song, also made an appearance on Sakata’s 1997 trio album, Dō deshō?! (How’s That?!). Here is the fruit of dangerous labors, the celebration a big catch with due ceremony. Sakata is soulful as ever over the band’s shoreline backdrop, even as Cosey portals in some modal ghost signatures of those who drowned long so. Laswell is thick and thin by turns, imprinting the sand but flying off with a harmonic in the same breath.
“Wakare no ippon sugi,” a ballad from the 1950s that clinched singer Hachirō Kasuga’s status as a pioneer of the Japanese enka form, is barely recognizable through Sakata’s filter—no small feat for such a famous tune. The forlorn lyrics tell of love lost under a cedar tree, a parting so sad that even the birds cry in the mountains. Not that a non-Japanese speaker would know this, given the upbeat presentation. All of which makes Sakata’s cries through the reed, and the guttural exhale with which he ends the album, that much more cathartic and emotionally relevant.
From this archival trove comes Bill Laswell’s remix of “Kaigarabushi,” which holds fast to its original drone but pencils in hues of Mongolian throat singing and faraway percussion. Cosey’s guitar is reborn as a long stare into the sun, while Sakata’s voice reaches for even farther stars, his saxophone strangling them until they gasp for darkness. The funk returns intermittently, only to fall into the earthly ooze from which it sprang.