Actually, Abe was born in Tokyo and has worked as a proofreader since graduating from high school. Her first book won the Rekitei New Face Prize. Her second, Tenga-na Ikidōri (Elegant Fury), appeared in 1994, and her third, Umiyōbi no Onna-tachi (Women on Seaday), in 2001, won the Takami Jun Prize. On the occasion of receiving the second prize, she wrote: “At the time of The Topography of a Colonial City, which was an attempt to create my own receptacles for poetry, I asked myself, with each piece, ‘Is this a poem, is this not a poem?’ In Elegant Fury which followed, my task was to fill the receptacles for poetry with criticism, and I dreamed of ‘criticism that is poetry, poetry that is criticism.’ And this time, in Women on Seaday, I think I poured all my strength into presenting a record of a soul as poetry.” So what was the soul like? “It was a soul trying to step out of suffering to go somewhere, a soul trying to find a way out of the dead-end of love.”
The poems translated here will be part of Abe’s next book, which will focus on “childlikeness” that the poet continues to feel in herself.
Hiroaki Sato is a prize-winning translator of Japanese poetry who, in the words of poet Forrest Gander, “for the last 40 years has been a kind of National Treasure in translating Japanese poetry into English”. His next book, to be published this fall, is a biography of Mishima Yukio with Inose Naoki, Persona.
Translating Three Poems of Abe Hinako: In Lieu of an Interview
I translated Abe Hinako for the first time at her request, then, some years later, for my anthology that covers poets from the whole span of Japanese history, Japanese Women Poets (M. E. Sharpe, 2008). I no longer remember what I or she did the first time round, but when I worked on three of her lengthy poems for Japanese Women Poets I was impressed by her detailed comments on my translations. She evidently had a firm grasp of English. Also, as I learned, she sometimes translates her own poems into English with a “native” user of the language.
This time, too, I asked her for comments on my translations of three of the several of her recent poems she sent me. What follows is a summary of my questions and her responses to them, along with her comments.
Ptolemaic Dance (天動舞踏): With this poem I first wondered what Abe means by the word マンション, “mansion,” where the speaker is said to live with her mother and younger brother. I know the word doesn’t mean what it normally does in the United States, for example: “a large stately house.” My teacher of poetry at Doshisha University, in Kyoto, Lindley Williams Hubbell, a descendant of the founder of Connecticut and Hartford, used to twit the Japanese use of the word by spelling it manshon in his letters to me.
But before I left Japan toward the end of the 1960s, I had never seen one, let alone live in one. I checked the Internet and found the Japanese Wikipedia entry on the term says that Japanese developers started using it to mean a relatively large apartment toward the end of the 1950s, to give it “a classy touch,” and that it is an example of “Japanese English.”
But then another question arose: Abe’s speaker says she was lying about naked (裸でごろごろして) when a labor official came to visit. Does that mean she and her family live in a Japanese-style manshon with tatami and all? This wonderment occurred because, before I started living in New York, I had always lived in tatami rooms and “lying about (ごろごろして)” immediately conjured up the image of tatami.
Asked about these things, Abe responded that her own family has lived in a “mansion” in a building built in the year of the Tokyo Olympics, 1964, and the leading-edge firm at the time, Kume Sekkei, designed it completely Western-style, including central heating—a rare thing in Japan in those days. So assume, she said, that the speaker of the poem is lying idly on a couch or something, not on tatami. When I asked if the “mansion” here may be comparable to what is called in New York a condo(minium) or a co-op(erative), Abe said it may come somewhere in between.
What I give as “cool and clear in eight aspects” is a more or less literal translation of 八面玲瓏—a phrase that comes, any dictionary, online or otherwise, will tell you, from a poem of the Chinese poet Ma Xi (馬煕), “Opening the Window and Looking at the Rain” (開窗看雨), with the Chinese (Taiwanese) site giving the reading: bā miàn líng lóng. My translation doesn’t sit well in the context, I knew and my professorial wife pointed out, and, sure enough, Abe proposed that I replace it with “impeccable looks” and explain its source in the footnote. But doing so would go against my approach to translation, so I have kept it.
In the parenthetical remark or observation toward the end of the middle stanza, Abe suggested “her evil deeds” for “my evil deeds.” In Japanese, a language that can do without pronouns, sexual specificity can be left vague, as in this poem. I don’t know if switching first person to third will change the meaning, but I have accepted her suggestion.
Abe also proposed “some excuse” for “possible rebuttals” (“I thought of possible rebuttals that wouldn’t sound too strained” for力みすぎない反論を考える). Abe’s reaction makes perfect sense in the context, but this is a case where the author’s choice of the original word wasn’t quite right: If it’s “excuse” that she had in mind, she could have used 言い訳. Should a translator guess what the writer might have had in mind?
Lessons on “Fashionable Songs” (今様のレッスン): With this poem, the first thing I found on the Internet was that there is a film made by a team of Japanese titled Avec mon mari—with no French actors or actresses, as the list of main characters tells us!
Then there was the word that flummoxed me: What does ドールハウスmean? It may refer to Ibsen’s play, but the standard English translation of the title is A Doll’s House, and the Japanese translation corresponds more or less to the English one which comes with a possessive, 人形の家. Also, I hadn’t noticed the Japanese transliteration of “doll” could be ドール, with the long vowel, but if it is “dollhouse,” what does it refer to? I checked the Internet and found there is a “Dollhouse” used as a brand name.
Abe’s response: She naturally had in mind Ibsen’s play as well as a dollhouse. She pointed out that Ibsen’s original title is close to “dollhouse.”
Lady of the Field (野の夫人): This poem fascinated me, the translator, the most. It has the overt quality of what the Japanese have chosen to call Märchen, no doubt because in the early 20th century the Brothers Grimm’s collection of folklore had a great influence on Japanese writers and scholars.
But what about the name Abe gives asグリュンヒルデ? Casting for a possible spelling on the Internet, I at once came upon, Götterdämmerung, Wagner’s opera that has the character Brünnhilde.
Yet, since Abe uses “g” rather than “b,” I asked a German friend how Grünnhilde might sound to the German ear? Too unlikely, too weird? My academic friend responded: “It does not seem right, but then I am not a specialist. There may be an explanation, although I can't imagine what that would be.” I passed this to Abe. Abe said she would stick to the name she made, though with a single “n,” not two. Grünhilde is the result.
What about the Märchen air of the poem? Does the poem allude to a story or is it based on one? Abe’s answer: No.
She made other points (one through a translation she worked out with an American friend). Among them:
To me, a male, 手提げcan only mean “handbag,” but her translation with a friend says “a shopping bag,” and I took it; after all, few women would think of putting a trowel in a regular handbag.
The plant name 水芭蕉 sounds more or less poetic in Japanese. But its English name, “skunk cabbage,” doesn’t. Shall I replace it with something else, say, “hyacinth,” for example? I asked Abe. She said, no, skunk cabbage is all right. So it has stayed.
I thought 一輪草, “single-flower grass,” was a generic name. That was my ignorance. Abe pointed out that it meant “anemones.” I gladly dropped the clumsy, erroneous “single-flower plants” in favor of the true name.
In the last stanza, Abe asked that “she” be replaced with “I.” The original, as often happens, doesn’t have any pronouns that in English clarify who is doing what or at least gender specificity. But I think it would be odd to say “I” just after naming Grünhilde as the person described in the stanza. Also, I’d rather think that the context makes the overall story clear. So I have kept “she.”
As to the Märchen quality of this poem, and the two others, Abe told me that these pieces will be in her next book, whose motif will be the “childlikeness” she still finds in herself.
Hiroaki Sato, Spring 2012
Lady of the Field
I throw a trowel into a shopping bag
and set out on a morning walk.
The idea is pay attention to the undergrowth in the woods
and dig up lilies of the valley when I find them.
But skunk cabbage that blooms in the wet woods—
I’ll just look at them lovingly
and leave them alone along the stream.
I’ll pick and collect starry anemones in my net bag,
thinking to make tempura of them tonight.
The moonlight is illuminating the night clouds brilliantly.
“May I ask for your hand?”
“No, you can’t. You cannot ask for my hand.”
“Oh my, why is that,
“Well, that’s because, Hans,”
Grünhilde leaned against a white birch, looked deeply into his eyes;
“Hans, I’ll soon be the bride of the King of the Field.”
I started translating The Lady of the Field last night.
Improving my translation in my head
I walk the path in the woods.
Grünhilde becomes Queen,
but, out of the King’s eyesight,
keeps having trysts with Hans the smith.
In the end Hans will set the field on fire,
trying to kill the grass and trees, and yet. . . .
Wedged between two husbands
Grünhilde with green hair
can’t abandon Hans,
can’t choose the King of the Field.
She thinks to reach a final decision
in the one month she confines herself in a mountain hut.
Yet the human world, infatuated with plants, grows distant,
the city life grows vague,
the amorous heart peels away,
both husbands evaporate.
Lessons on “Fashionable Songs”
John (“Happy”) Love’s paramour diary,
His secret notebook’s stolen,
Throwing belles and ladies into a quandary.
Get it back with a bounty!
The lesson today was on making “fashionable songs.”
Everyone counted syllables on fingers to turn out ditties
yet all of them so damned immoral
the teacher made a sour face.
La vie en rose has faded,
Avec mon mari is a nuisance.
The Dollhouse too confining
Petite the Flirt has run away
The teacher says:
You all have much more lust than greed, I can tell.
You grow up, you can’t bother with lust and love,
you end up trotting to the bank snorting.
A husband-killer turned millionaire,
She squanders money as she likes,
Knows she’ll get burnt but plays with fire,
a hetaera of love, she scorches herself.
Me, distracted by R’s eyes,
I wrote, erased, wrote, erased,
until I couldn’t submit my stuff,
as if I had R peeking into my brain.
Scandals crisscross the Internet,
I fake “It’s all alright,” and let them pass.
But because you are the originator,
My heart freezes, a fatal wound.
The recitative reading out my crimes
streams out of the amaryllis speaker in all directions.
Rising from the flowerbed, going beyond the schoolhouse roof tiles,
the unshakeable voice crosses the sky above town.
Though amplified by the amplifier
it is R’s voice, I can tell.
A young man with the face of a “cool and clear in eight aspects” air came to visit
the condo where mother, kid brother, and I live on a bereaved family pension.
I was idly lying nude, all the curtains closed,
but, unflustered, got up and put on a shirt,
only panties for my lower body.
Slowly I walked past the man waiting, seated on a couch, and, leaning against a desk,
boldly crossed my well-trained legs.
Yet he, who looked like a student, didn’t seem upset,
and in a quiet tone urged me to seek employment.
Because my brother, in high school, and my mother, still very young, were in the next room,
their ears pricked up to hear us converse,
we decided to go out to talk.
Feigning to choose something appropriate to wear in front of my closet
I thought of possible rebuttals that wouldn’t sound too strained
to the fake Myshkin sent from the Bureau of Labor:
“I can’t get up in the morning,” “I’m not good as a wage earner,”
or “Thou shalt not seek a stable mind from someone without a stable asset.”
Walking the path to the park, I told him:
“The most important thing for me
is to be in love with someone, and to dance with him.”
The moment I put it that way
that certainly began to seem to be my unmistakable attribute
that separates me from everyone else—
me, who once stumbled in the steps of love
and had my nose smashed.
(More and more of her evil deeds are getting out in detail.
Is it all right to allow such an evil-natured, wicked woman
to remain standing up front on the stage?)
I was kicked out of the People’s Theater on an anonymous letter
but I have no remorse, I haven’t learned any lesson.
What in the world is learning a lesson anyway?
Walking side by side with me,
Myshkin, younger than I, asked:
“Do you have someone you love?”
I paused, looked him in the eyes,
and tried this: “Yes, always, forever, anytime,
and right now, too.”
His arm came around my hips,
my hand went up to his cheek.
Always, forever, anytime, right now, right here:
What came to us from way beyond the autumn sky
was a utopia in which we could make a living by just looking into each other’s eyes.
That moment the Ptolemaic theory revived
and the zelkova trees that lined the street became a circle and began to turn.