“100 poems by 100 poets”: compiled in the 13th century by the famed poet, Fujiwara no Teika, (1162–1241) the Hyakunin-isshu (百人一首) is the most widely-read poetry anthology in Japan. Long celebrated in the arts, including in a famous woodblock series by Hokusai, the anthology is part of the curriculum of all Japanese school children, much as students in England might study Shakespeare. With so many people able to recite the poems by heart, there is even a traditional card game played at New Year based on the poems, called utagaruta. The anthology was also, according to Peter MacMillan (more on whom below), the first work of Japanese literature to be translated into English—by Frederick Victor Dickens in 1866.
The poems, which include the work of emperors and empresses, courtiers and high priests, ladies-in- waiting and soldier-calligraphers, range in dates from the 800s down to Fujiwara no Teika’s day in the 13th century. In this way, it has come to function as a kind of primer of classical Japanese poetry. And by classical Japanese poetry, what is meant is waka, poems written in the classical 5-7-5-7-7. This is also known as tanka. Also noteworthy is that one-fifth of the poems were written by women, among them, such greats as Ono-no-Kamachi, Izumi Shikibu, and Murasaki Shikibu, author of the Tale of Genji.
Its importance cannot be overstated, which is why every new translation of the classic is something to be celebrated. The major more recent translations are those by Joshua Mostow, Peter MacMillan and the pair of Emiko Miyashita and Michael Dylan Welch.
Gap in the Clouds, by James Hadley and Nell Regan is the latest translation. In a similar way to that of Miyashita and Welch, it is a collaboration. Hadley, Professor in Literary Translation at Trinity College Dublin, would sit down once every other week for a year with the wonderfully talented Irish poet and writer Nell Regan to talk about the poems. This led them to all kinds of exploring: how does one extract salt from seaweed? What is the significance of wet kimono sleeves? And what is the exact white of snow falling on Mount Fuji? Aiming to capture both the brevity and elegance of the original, and the significance of the cultural context, they aimed to “get under the skin of the poems”.
As the famous expression goes, traduttore, traditore—the translator is a traitor. Any translation, especially in language pairs as distant as Japanese and English, will inevitably lose something. Here is Poem 5, written in the mid-eighth century by Minister Sarumaru:
When I hear the voice
Of the stag crying for his mate
Stepping through the fallen leaves
Deep in the mountains—then is the time
That autumn is saddest
In the deep mountains
making a path
through the fallen leaves
the plaintive belling of the stag
how forlorn the autumn feels
Miyashita & Welch:
Deep in the mountains
stepping through the fallen crimson leaves
a deer cries for his mate—
when I hear the voice
autumn melancholy deepens
Hadley and Regan:
Deep in the hills,
red leaves, I hear
a deer cry out.
O the sorrow of autumn!
The first translation was written by a scholar of classical Japanese, whose book on the subject, Pictures of the Heart is the text to turn to for everything you would ever want to know about the Hyakunin Isshu. Likewise, Macmillan’s book, published by Penguin, is not just a solid translation, but contains detailed notes with a focus on literary history and art. MacMillan is also a well-known translator. His translation has it all. The two collaborations are focused mainly on the quality of the English poetry with less in the way of explanatory content and notes.
Hadley has provided a minimal introduction with succinct notes in the back. But where this volume shines is in the punch and liveliness of the poems. For example, in this poem above, they managed to place the deer’s cry at the pivotal moment when hearing the deer cry out—right then—the poet feels the pathos of the season. At first, I wasn’t sure about the choice of “scuffing” since I prefer traipsing or clearing a path, but reading aloud, it created a wonderful effect of the sound of crunching through the fallen leaves.
All the poems read in a fresh and lively way. Except for one distracting typo in Poem 16, the pocket size edition is lovely—from the cover to the title—and is a welcome addition to the wonders of the world of Japanese classical poetry.