Translations – Japanese Poetry

AKA, the post where I spill my feelings on Japanese poetry in translation. You’ve been warned. 🙂

I’ve been thinking a lot about translations recently, probably because I’m once again working on a long-term translation project I started a couple years ago.

My language skills are definitely not amazing, especially since I’ve graduated and stopped practicing as much as I should be, and I don’t know enough kanji to make reading in Japanese possible without keeping a dictionary or two close at hand, but there’s still something about the beauty of the original language that makes me want to read in the original language.

Now, I realize that’s not possible for most people, and I can’t do it for any languages other than English and Japanese (again, with a dictionary or two), which is why I’ve been once again looking closely at translation in a general sort of way, and I’ve been realizing that I’m actually pretty picky about translations, at least when it comes to poetry.

For prose, at least, I’ve decided that what’s important is the meaning. And if you have to go, ah, ‘far afield’ to find words that properly convey the sentiment the author is invoking, than I’m okay with that. I’d rather have the feeling than an exact word-for-word translation. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any actual examples, and I don’t feel terribly strongly about it, honestly, so long as the meaning is conveyed.

Poetry, on the other hand. I love Japanese poetry, in the original language, at least, where I find it beautiful, poignant, and often touching. In translation, however, I tend to find it drags or is overly verbose – because Japanese words typically have more syllables than English words and translators seem, for the most part, to try and match the syllable count.

On the one hand, I can understand that tendency: the syllable count is the form rather than a rhyme scheme, and for poetry the form is rather important. On the other hand, when you try to match syllables, you have to throw more words into a language that likes to cut words out.

To me, the form isn’t what’s important for translations. In the original, yes, of course, but I think that what’s important in translating poetry – especially Japanese poetry such as haiku and tanka – is capturing the meaning, the emotion, and the feeling, and I just don’t feel that you can do that when you throw in extra words.

If anyone has any strong emotions on the topic, feel free to say something. If not, *shrug*. I’m just doing this to hopefully get it out of my system before I go back to juggling my translation project with my other writing.

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