Timelessness & translating: poetry from the morning of the world

“…once, I had grasped the effect of the Japenese original on a wide range of Japanese readers, I scrapped all my preliminary work and endeavoured to write a poem-in-English that would have the equivalent effect on a similar range of English readers. At the risk of making a mere phrase, I was in fact seeking to translate, from Japanese to English, not so much the poem as the poetry.” 

From The Morning of the World. Poems from the Manyoshu – The First Anthology of Poetry in Japanese. Translated by Graeme Wilson (page xxviii)

It’s been awhile. But I’m back because this week, after years looking for it, I finally have in my hands a copy of Graeme Wilson’s Manyoshu translations including Pearl Diver – the inspiration for this blog. I came across the poem in ‘Lifelines 2’ nd it’s been a favourite since then.

I’m none the wiser about our eighth-century, Lady Nakatomi (Lady N). I do know more about the other hidden voice which I love in this particular poem –  the translator, Graeme Wilson. Actually, in truth, I know as much about him as I know about Lady Nakatomi, but in the introduction he gives a fascinating insight into how he went about translating the poems.

I love the thought of him selecting ten Japenese readers from all walks of life in order to ascertain the feeling that a particular poem produced in them; then throwing out his translation of the original text and reworking something in English that would produce the same effect on the same number of English readers. It seems a bit mad – but madly enthusiastic too in the belief that these 6/7/8th century poems would hit the spot today as they had so many centuries ago.

I’m not sure in the end whether I’m sure that rhyme was always the right choice. I’d come across another poem in the anthology differently translated and like the other translation more but, that said, they are both beyond doubt drawn from the same poem and it’s what’s said that I liked. It’s just a picked that up quicker in the non-rhyming translation.

But the rhyme in Pearl Diver is definitely its strength – and it certainly has the ‘memorability’, the ‘tight coherence’ and the ‘clinching finality’ that he attributes to the Japanese syllabic rhythm.

And nothing is known, it says, of Lady Nakatomi (fl.c.740) – except that her five poems are addressed to the key figure and collector Otomo no Yakamochi and as he appeared to have had quite a reputation with the ladies, it is supposed that she was one of the court ladies to whom he was connected as a young buck.

When she woke up that morning, an early morning in the world of writing, with the inspiration to write her poems, I wonder whether she imagined the time and distance that her words would carry.

From the Morning of the World (poems from the Manyoshu The First Anthology of Poetry in Japanese) translated by Graeme Wilson, published by Harvill an imprint of HarperCollins, 1991

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