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paraversing <vs> translating

hyakunin isshu


The Hyakunin-isshu, or hundred-men-one-head=poem (13c), has a single representative 5-7-5-7-7 syllabet* poem=waka (*:my transparent term for mora, a uniformly short syllable) for each poet.  It was usually found on a deck of cards with a poem and a picture on each.  Parlor games with these cards were very popular in the Edo era (~1600 -1850) but today  they are usually confined to pedagogical purposes (though some literature-loving young women still enjoy them).  Joshua Mostow compiled ten translations of each of these poems (PICTURES OF THE HEART: The Hyakunin Isshu. University of Hawaii Press: 1996).  The translations tend to be too similar to each other and the original to be called true paraverses, as we shall see.

Hiroaki Sato cited these five translations of a poem made by a woman (the Mother of Michitsuna) whose husband passed her by to visit another woman – noblemen in Japan remind me of Tom Cats making their rounds! – in a Japan Times review of Mostow’s book. The first two are by Dickins, the first to English the anthology (1866/1909), the third by Galt (Princeton:1982), the fourth Carter (Stanford:1991) and last Mostow himself.  Sato parses them. I won't bother; they aren't worth it.


1)      I have watched weeping through the night,/ Deserted, desolate, alone./ Till now hath broke the morning light / I almost deemed forever gone,/ So slowly by / The creeping hours seemed to hie.

2)      How think you, sir, / the lingering hours of night-time / I have slept, lonely, / from dusk to dawn deserted,/ in solitary sorrow.

3)      Sighing and weeping,/ Waiting for the light of dawn / As one lies alone, / Have you ever thought at all / About how long this can seem?

4)      When one lies alone / lamenting the whole night through / until the break of day, / how slowly the time goes by – / ah, but yes –  you wouldn't know.

5)      The span of time / that I sleep alone, sighing, / until night lightens – can you at all know / how long that is?


Style-wise, some poems are worse than others, but all are equally boring.  (On second reading, I take that back: Carter’s acerbic final line is clearly alive.)  Sato adds his own translation:

The night, aggrieved, you sleep alone, you know how long before the day breaks.

This is good for making good use of the marvelous English "you" (that can also mean "I" or anyone!) that preserves the ambiguity of the original (which might be transliterated lamenting-while, alone-sleep-night's-dawning-space how long a thing tis know!), which has no pronouns, and because it is so short that you have no time to realize how trite the poem is.  But, you might still wonder if so simple a thought prosaically expressed is a poem at all! 

To my mind, translation requires one to dig a bit deeper and present the reader who is unfamiliar with the background of the poem with everything needed to appreciate why it is interesting. See if these paraverses don’t make the original’s wit apparent in translation!


blue autumn


the night

you lie alone, love,

you know how long

a lover's short night

can be!






we always found it brief

passed by

i lie alone, and weep:

the night is long.





last night, no doubt

too short for you,

was very long for me:

you had little time for sleep

i had far too much!


True, the style of the original poem is not so cavalier or metaphysical as my paraverses.  But I dare say that to the Japanese reader of her time, her poem would rightly have been considered witty.  Otherwise, it would not have been selected for the anthology. (All this is very duh, but look at the translations!) Since Japanese lovers, including many husbands and  wives, always parted at dawn, there were many poems about the all-too-short night, so the unstated contrast between the stereotypical short night of the lovers and the long one of the complaint by Michitsuna’s mother--- fitting the season, for the night was indeed growing longer --- had to be the point of the poem.  Unless the reader can imagine that far, the poem in translation is dead.


Today, many Japanese readers would not get the point either. But not long ago, it would have been obvious. Even the father of modern haiku, Shiki (1866 – 1902), who is supposed to be upright to the point of being uptight (but seems to me quite the rascal) couldn't resist one poem about the shortest night of all:


mijikayo no makoto o shiru ya hitoyotsuma – shiki

(a short night's truth knowing: one-night-wife=husband)


short night


no room for doubt

what real noc brevis is about!

a one-night stand



nox brevis


you want to know

how short the dark can be?

try a one-night stand



first-hand trope


a one night-stand

i finally experience

the true noc brevis!



The length of nights is a far more salient topic for the Japanese than for us.  As is often the case with translated poetry, we lose the wit that lies between the lines unless the translator brings it to our attention.  Because this can be done in many ways, it is hard to settle on a single translation; but we need not go so far as Rostow who writes that no translator should be interested in producing the "definitive translation," for a "definitive translation is a murdering translation."  If a translator can do a poem good, so good that no one else will touch it in that language, kudos to him or her!  But, as a matter of fact, this hardly ever happens.  It is so rare that the Paraverse will not miss the loss. Rather, we should celebrate its apotheosis!

Please quote or reprint this without my permission, so long as you remember to credit me: © robin d. gill, no caps.)