I’ve put aside a date on my developing Syllabic Poetry Calendar to honor translators; specifically translators of poetry. And even more narrowly, those translators who have translated syllabic poetry from other cultures into English. And, finally, bringing this into sharper focus, those translators who have done their best to communicate the formal parameters of the original into English.
Translation is difficult and I feel that translators have not been given their due. It was, for example, translations of Italian Sonnets into English that introduced that form to the English speaking world. Many of these very early translations are fine works in themselves. And that, I think, is the great contribution that translators give to their native culture. If the translation itself is attractive and poetic, the translation serves as a sign to other poets that there is potential here, something to be looked at and developed.
One of my favorite examples of such a translator is Helen Craig McCullough and her translation of the Kokin Wakashu. It is the finest volume of translation from the Japanese that I have read. McCullough keeps close to the formal parameters of the Tanka, the 5-7-5-7-7 syllable form. This serves as a demonstration of the efficacy of that form in the English language. Her translations are often excellent poetry in themselves. And there are judicious notes which help the reader to understand cultural references.
I think of McCullough’s translation of this ancient collection of Tanka (known at the time of its publication, the 10th century, as ‘Waka’) as an exemplar of what translation should be like. In the ‘Translator’s Preface’ she writes, “Two basic options exist for the translator of classical Japanese poetry. A waka may be treated as a point of departure for a very different poem in another language, or an effort may be made to reproduce content, form, and tone as faithfully as possible. The second method, which seems the more conducive to an understanding of Japanese literature, has been the one adopted here.”
Most modern translations into English of East Asian poetry into English adopt the first method; that is to say the original poems are treated as a point of departure for a very different poem in English. My view of this approach is that what is occurring is not actually translation. It is closer to commentary. At its best the result is a kind of midrash on the original poem. But because the formal parameters are ignored I do not think that such a procedure yields what I think of as an actual translation.
Fortunately, there are translators such as McCullough, Cranston, Carter, Arntzen, and many others who comprehend that form is part of a poem’s meaning. This especially applies to poems that are part of a long formal tradition such as the Tanka/Waka and the Sonnet.
So let’s take a moment to express our appreciation for those translators who have opened doors that were previously closed and thereby enriching our own world of poetry.