The act​ of making a poem – and it is a made thing, like an Assyrian brooch or Bolognese sauce (thus the word makar for ‘poet’ in old Scots) – requires a large set of decisions, at least dozens, more likely hundreds, even in the shortest of poems. The translation of a poem from one language to another requires a large and not dissimilar range of decisions or, slender as the distinction may be, choices, in order to deliver the poem, still breathing, into a different language, culture and often era. There is a large and fascinating literature about the act and art of translation, often described metaphorically, as by Christopher Middleton: ‘The translator has to imagine his way on the tentacles of language through to the bedrock sea bottom of the imagination of his author.’ Some translators, like Middleton, are poets, most are not, but the capabilities needed to render a first-rate translation overlap with those required in the making of the original. A translator’s decisions involve overall tone, diction, syntactical arrangement, punctuation, rhythm, lexical intent, assorted phonic elements, organisation (shape, development), formal considerations like syllabic count, lineation and rhyme and other intangibles that rely on poetic intuition or instinct. There’s more than a touch of making one’s way in the dark, no guidebook to hand. A misstep or poor decision can be ruinous. Most translations, like most poems, fail.

The pre-eminent translator of Japanese poetry in our time, especially of modern Japanese poetry, Hiroaki Sato, has published three versions over four decades of the work of the dark proto-modernist Sakutaro Hagiwara (1886-1942), most recently Cat Town (NYRB, £8.99), and a small collection called The Iceland (New Directions, £6.99). Every poet presents a distinct set of challenges to the translator. In the face of these Sato turns to Nabokov: ‘I can find salvation only in [his] dictum … “The clumsiest literal translation is a thousand times more useful than the prettiest paraphrase.”’ Introducing his notorious version of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, Nabokov sketched three basic types of translation: the paraphrastic, a free rendering; the lexical, ‘rendering the basic meaning of words (and their order)’; and the literal, ‘rendering, as closely as the associative and syntactical capacities of another language allow, the exact contextual meaning of the original. Only this is true translation.’ In a recent interview Sato directs the reader to Nabokov’s savage demolition of Robert Lowell’s ‘adaptation’ of a Mandelstam poem: ‘“Adapted” to what? To the needs of an idiot audience? To the demands of good taste? To the level of one’s own genius?’

Although Sato’s translations have occasionally been criticised as ‘slavish to the original’, they are not only faithful but work exceptionally well as poems. Here – as it appears in Cat Town – is the first stanza of ‘Sensuous Cemetery’, a poem from Hagiwara’s 1923 collection Blue Cat:

A wind is blowing a willow
where is such a twilighty graveyard landscape.
A slug crawls up the fence
and from the overlook’s direction comes the smell of lukewarm brine.
Why did you come here
shadow so gentle    pale   mysterious as grass
you are neither a clam   nor a pheasant   nor a cat
and lonesome-looking wraith
from the shadow of your wandering body
in a back alley of a poor fishing village   comes
the rotten smell of a fish
its intestines melted in the sun gooey and raw-smelling
it’s the smell of a sad   poignant   truly unbearable pathos.

Sato’s earlier version of this poem, from Howling at the Moon, published in 1978, is entitled ‘Erotic Cemetery’. It’s not significantly different: a handful of words have been changed (the earlier version, for instance, had ‘dusky’ instead of ‘twilighty’), and the extra spacing between some words is new. Sato’s intention is to move ever closer to the original, even if only by altering particles, joining words, adding a subordinate conjunction here and there.

What does a less good translation look like? This version of the same poem, by Graeme Wilson, is entitled ‘Enchanted Graveyard’:

From the direction of the viewing stand
Come faintly tepid, stanked saltwater smells.
The willows shimmy in the wind. Where else,
As slugs crawl up, black gland on glistening gland,
The moon-sharp hedge, could such a dumping ground,
So gloom-engorged a cemetery be found?

O strange girl-shadow, green and delicate,
Pale green, a mouldering of the atmosphere,
For what wan purpose are you wandered here,
Who are not shellfish, pheasant, even cat,
The common kindred of this sullen coast,
But a mere lonely, a most lonely, ghost?

Attempts to make a poem fit a conventional English style, with forced rhyme and antique poeticism, will almost inevitably have a calamitous result.

One of the reasons Sato’s translations into English are superior may be that, though not primarily a poet himself (there is a small, and very good, collection published in 1988, That First Time: Six Renga on Love, and Other Poems), he has always sought out poets. He enjoys hanging out with them, drinking with them, picking their brains. The man himself, as I recall from meeting him many years ago, is possessed of an unfiltered enthusiasm and spontaneity. One significant early mentor was Lindley Williams Hubbell, a fascinating, little-known American poet and early champion of Gertrude Stein who moved to Japan in the 1950s. Another Kyoto-based American expatriate poet and translator who steered him towards translation was Edith Marcombe Shiffert, who herself co-compiled and translated a 1972 Anthology of Modern Japanese Poetry that includes five poems by Hagiwara. Howling at the Moon was dedicated to the brilliant poet Michael O’Brien, a New Yorker, as Sato has now been for many years, whose own poetry reflects the influence of the Japanese sensibility, especially in its delicacy and attention to small detail. Sato sees himself as a translator, not a poet, even though not a few translators who’ve never published their own work like to think of themselves as having created, or co-created, the poem they’ve translated. It’s quite enough, I think, to serve as the agency by which the genius of one culture is successfully brought across to another, as Hiroaki Sato has, time and time again over the course of forty years.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences