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My Approach to Tanka Translation


About Tanka Poetry: Tanka are an unrhymed thirty-one syllable Japanese poem with a fixed syllabic structure which follows the pattern of units of five, seven, five, seven, and seven syllables and has its roots in the Heian Period (794-1185)...Read more

About the Poet: Suzukake Shin is a contemporary, openly gay tanka poet and author, and was born on February 28th, 1986… Read more

By: Venezio Terravoa

When considering how to translate tanka poetry, there are several important factors that must be considered. The first which I would like to address is line count. Tanka is traditionally written and published as a single line poem in Japanese; however, there is not an established standard convention for how many lines the English translations of tanka should have. This question is still debated by scholars. After reading some of Juliet Winter Carpenter’s (a well known Japanese to English translator) translations of Tawara Machi’s tanka from her anthology, Sarada Kinenbi (Salad Anniversary), I was inspired by how Carpenter decided to translate her poetry with three lines, which is something different from the typical representation of either five lines or a single line. As a result, I came to the conclusion that the line count itself does not matter so much, instead what is critical is that the sense of the poem is transferred into the target language and that it still sounds like a well-crafted poem in English.

As I began my first tanka translations, I kept in my mind this idea that the number of lines the English poem contains is not of great concern; rather, what is more important is that it sounds natural and suitable to the message of the poem. In other words, I was not so concerned with the overall form of the target text. I believe there are certain characteristics of the Japanese language that make creating a tanka in a single line viable in contrast to English. I felt that locking myself into one single mode of thinking, that there must be a specific line count, to be limiting to some degree. Despite keeping this idea in mind while translating, most of my translations ended up becoming five lines because I felt that it was best suited to the natural sound breaks in the original Japanese and best captured the sense of the original poem. My position on line count changed, however, after an interview with Suzukake where we had a conversation about line count. Suzukake takes the stance that he likes his poems to appear with five lines in English. After learning about his views, I decided it most appropriate to adopt Suzukake’s view on line count and went back and changed the few of my translations that were either four or three lines into five-line poems.

The next characteristic of translating tanka which I would like to discuss is the idea of syllable count. The idea of whether or not the same syllable count — five, seven, five, seven, seven — should be strived for in English translations of tanka is also undecided by scholars; however, it is more accepted that trying to match the same syllable count is unnecessary because Japanese and English language are simply too different. My view on syllable count is similar to my view on line count: whatever captures the sense of the original poem best is most suitable. This means that when I was translating, I decided to not pay attention to matching the Japanese syllable count unless it was found to be crucial to the meaning of that poem in some way. With that being said, I did not encounter any such tanka, so I went about my translation freely, doing my very best to transfer the sense of the original Japanese poem. What I did keep in mind was the idea of alternating shorter lines and longer lines. I found this idea to be helpful when trying to rewrite a new poem because it gave me a foundation to fall back on in regard to creating a rhythm for the poem.

The last characteristic of tanka translation I would like to discuss is punctuation and capitalization. While first translating I did not pay much attention to punctuation and capitalization until I had a discussion with Professor Stephen Miller. In our discussion, he brought to my attention the idea of being more intentional with my usage of punctuation and capitalization and pointed out that tanka written in Japanese do not use periods or capital letters (since there is no capitalization in Japanese). By ending a tanka in a period, it gives a sense of finality that never existed in the original Japanese poem which has more of an open sense to it. In terms of capitalization, I decided to only employ it as a unique feature of English — that is, when I wanted to emphasize something that I felt was already being emphasized in the original Japanese. Additionally, I hold the view that it is not necessary to capitalize the first letter of each individual line of the poem just for the sake of English writing conventions, and since poetry has room for creative liberties this idea works well. In fact, I find it more appropriate to not capitalize the first word of each line because it matches better with the overall sense of the original Japanese writing form.

Click here to read some excerpts of Suzukake Shin’s poetry from his tanka anthology, Ai wo utae (Sing Love), in Japanese, accompanied by English translations by Venezio Terranova.

This post was written by a student that worked with Just Words during the Spring 2022 semester.

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