Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Helen Craig McCullough -- Translator

Helen Craig McCullough (February 17, 1918 to April 6, 1998) was a great scholar and translator of ancient Japanese literature into English. Today is the twelfth anniversary of her death and I thought I would take a moment to express my appreciation.

I don’t know a lot about McCullough. I never met her and I haven’t been able to find a picture of her on the web. She taught for many years at Stanford. I found one story about her which, I think, says something about her personality. When she was told that she would be a grandmother she delayed the publication of one of her translations because she wanted to dedicate this latest work to this newest member of her family.

Of particular importance for the readers of this blog was her translation of the “Kokin Wakashu” and a commentary on the same called “Brocade by Night”. With these two works McCullough opened a door to the world of Japanese Tanka for us English speakers. Her translation of Kokin Wakashu (which I am using as the basis for my ongoing commentary) is one of the best translations of poetry I have ever come across; and I have read a large number of poetry translations from East Asian languages into English. The tendency among academics is to encumber their translations with a scholarly apparatus which can become so thick as to be, in extreme cases, impenetrable. Although impenetrability is an extreme, I have run into a few instances of such density. But even in cases that are less extreme, the tendency is to translate for an audience that is at least as learned as one’s self; this is only natural. But McCullough avoided that trap. Her translation is accessible to the non-specialist, interested reader. The unobtrusive footnotes refer people to sources that might expand on a point without overwhelming the primary text.

One way I think that McCullough achieved this delicate balancing act was to pack all the really dense scholarly material into the commentary on the Kokinshu, “Brocade by Night”. To give you an idea of how much commentarial material there is, ‘Brocade by Night’ is nearly 600 pages long, while the Kokin Wakashu itself is about 375 pages. In the ‘Brocade by Night’ one finds much of the referential material and historical information which places Kokin Wakashu into an overall context of East Asian poetry. By writing two books, one a primary translation, and the other a scholarly investigation, she was able to keep the primary translation of the poetry collection just that; a poetry collection the reader can enjoy.

McCullough chose to translate the Waka/Tanka in the Kokin Wakashu syllabically. That is to say her translations of the Tanka adhere to the 5-7-5-7-7 syllabic structure of the original Japanese. This was an unusual and, in my opinion, courageous decision. I’m sure that she had many people suggest that adhering to the Japanese syllabics would be difficult to impossible. And, indeed, lots of translators of Japanese Tanka into English abandon the traditional syllabics.

What McCullough has done is to definitively show that it is possible to translate from Japanese into English while adhering to the original syllabic structure. This is a significant achievement. I would say it is a singular achievement. McCullough’s translation went a long way to convincing me that a syllabic approach to Japanese poetry in English was not only possible, but would also yield efficacious and worthy results.

It is clear from McCullough’s approach to Japanese poetry that she regards the syllabic structure as a part of the meaning of the poem. What this means is that the form itself is meaningful. It is the syllabic form of Tanka that distinguishes it from other Japanese forms. It is the syllabic form which has remained consistent throughout 1400 years of written history; other aspects of Tanka, specific techniques, have come and gone, but the syllabic count has stayed the same. The syllabic structure is definitive of the meaning of Tanka as nothing else is.

But I believe that McCullough’s translation goes even further; I think that it shows the potential of English syllabic verse in general. In other words, I think her translation can also be viewed as a fine collection of English syllabic verse in itself. The care with which McCullough shapes her lines, the ease with which she presents these Japanese verses in an English that really sounds natural to English readers is a demonstration of the effectiveness of English syllabic verse.

I have learned a great deal from her and even though I never studied formally with her at Stanford, I think of her as one of my teachers. With many thanks for her numerous accomplishments I offer my sincere gratitude.

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