Seminar: Issues in the Translation of Japanese Poetry

This week, I was invited to contribute to the School of Languages and Cultures Applied Languages Seminar series, which I did with a short talk entitled ‘Issues in the Translation of Japanese poetry’ (you can find a PDF of my PowerPoint here, if you’re interested). It was one of two papers dealing with constraints on translation, but from very different angles – the other looked at constraints on representing repetition in film dialogue in subtitles.

It’s always difficult to know what to say when you have limited time to talk about something complex, to an audience which won’t necessarily know the background, which was why I started by trying to get people to think about what made a good poem in English, and then pointing out how most of the things they came up with were either irrelevant, or actual faults in the type of poetry I was talking about. That allowed a bit of discussion of how to approach the translation of works which are constrained by linguistic, cultural and literary codes for an audience which lacks awareness of any of them.

To make the point accessible, I drew upon my knowledge as a lifelong Star Trek fan to mention the Star Trek The Next Generation episode ‘Darmok‘, where the Enterprise crew encounter a race of people whose language is entirely based on cultural references, making communication – even with the Universal Translator – all but impossible. It’s a similar situation to the frequent use of intertextual references in many premodern Japanese poems: you might understand the words on the surface, but not know why they are being used, or they could be completely opaque – if the poem is referring to a place you know nothing about for instance.

I didn’t come up with any brilliant solutions to the issues, of course, but I hope I gave my audience pause-for-thought. In the Q&A afterwards, I did get asked, ‘Was there any point to them writing these poems, other than to be beautiful?’, though, so at least one person admired the quality!

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