By Kirsten M. Snipp
It was the second week since April first, the official start date of my new job at the Takasaki University of Commerce. I was just beginning to settle down in my unfamiliar and very barren office when Professor Takuo Maeda, head of the Community Partnership Center (CPC), rapped upon my door, early on a Wednesday afternoon. He dove headlong into a discussion about Takasaki City’s treasured Kozukesanpi (上野三碑) (The Three Cherished Stelae of Ancient Kozuke).
These large and historic stones, erected some 1300 years ago, had just recently been inscribed as a UNESCO Memory of the World (2017). The stelae are 3 of the 18 still-standing monuments created and erected in the 7th to 11th centuries and are the oldest of these. The Yamanoue Stela, erected in 681, is the oldest of them all. The Tago Stela was erected in 711; the Kanaizawa Stela in 726. Considered as a whole, the inscriptions on the stelae offer evidence of Korean immigrants settling in the region and are considered to be important sources of information regarding cultural interaction and exchange happening in East Asia at the time. For example, the language used on the Yamanoue Stela is the oldest existing example of the Chinese writing system used with Japanese grammar. The sum of the contents of the three demonstrate the emulation of a Chinese-like political system and an acceptance of Buddhism in the eastern areas of Japan. They form an invaluable resource for understanding the ancient history of the region, as well as that of the whole country.
Research group formation
In celebration of the stelae’s inscription to the UNESCO Memory of the World, the university, by way of the CPC, sought to draw attention and interest in the three stelae. Professor Maeda then told me about the Ishibumi no Michi (石碑の路), a series of inscribed stone tablets placed along mountain trails very near the stelae and also near the university. He explained that the university was convening a team to work on a project to promote these monuments by creating English versions of their inscriptions. The team was to be called the Takasaki University of Commerce Ishibumi no Michi research group.
At the time, I listened with only half an ear, as I already had so much on my mind with my new position. I also worried about the idea of contributing to a translation. In the past when asked to participate in such endeavors, I had found that the only reason for my membership was to provide my “gaijin seal of approval.” On occasion, I had agreed to provide my assistance as a native speaker, putting in a great deal of time and effort. After this, I would discover that my input was ignored or over-written, sometimes with errors so glaring that I was embarrassed to have my name on the outcome. I was distressed by the possibility that I was yet again stepping into such a trap. This time, having just started my new role under a three-year tenure probation period, I was not in a position to refuse.
Memorializing nature’s beauty
I soon learned that the Ishibumi no Michi stone tablets were commissioned, created and erected in the early 1970’s by Nobusawa Tatsumi. Nobusawa, known as a doyen in the area for his homebuilding and furnishings company, was born and raised in the Nekoya area of Takasaki. He was fond of the Takasaki Shizen Hodou (高崎自然法道), a 22-kilometer path in Takasaki that runs from Yoshii to Kannon Yama, and wanted to protect the beautiful vistas in their natural state. This area is also home to the Kozukesanpi stelae.
In creating the Ishibumi no Michi, Nobusawa looked to the Man’yōshū (万葉集), a collection of poems written during the Nara Period, roughly 1300 years ago. The bulk of these poems refer to various places in the area of Kyoto and Nara. Nobusawa chose a number of poems from the Man’yōshū to reflect the beauty and resonance of the Takasaki Shizen Hodou. He commissioned these poems to be engraved onto stones and then placed at various locations along the path.
The mission of the Ishibumi no Michi research group was to create modern Japanese versions of the ancient texts, write music to set the poems to and provide English versions that above all captured the feeling and nuance of the original text. The university engaged a classical Japanese scholar to help in the creation of the modern Japanese texts, along with a musical artist and lyricist to create musical scores for the poetry and to record the musical and vocal tracks. A bilingual Japanese colleague and I were tasked with creating the English translations.
The team met once a month on a Tuesday evening and generally followed the same procedure. First, the Japanese language scholar would discuss an individual poem with a rich and nuanced understanding. The rest of us would take copious notes and ask clarifying questions. My colleague and I would meet at a later date to discuss the poem and try to create a credible English version. I am not a translator; I have never even formally studied Japanese. However, I have lived in Japan for more than 30 years. My colleague and I managed somehow to create the English versions — and had a great time doing it. The challenges were legion, of course. The grammatical austerity of Japanese often left us struggling to work without an obvious subject. Deducing the subtle distinctions such as who is speaking to whom, and what is the speakers’ mood or intent were also stimulating tasks. Many of the pieces were love poems filled with innuendo and ambiguity, which created a very narrow path between saying too much and conveying too little in English. Oftentimes, we opted for rather difficult English vocabulary in order to capture a brief whiff of nuance. It would often take us more than an hour to translate what would become about 20 words in English. At the next meeting, my colleague and I would present our translations and explain them in detail. These were often tense moments as the scholar would frequently pick apart our work and, just as often as not, send us back to the drawing board. Sometimes, we misunderstood the initial discussion, which would send us in the wrong direction from the beginning. At other times, the scholar didn’t feel that our word choices accurately captured the overall thrust of the original. Occasionally, we would get it just right.
Teasing out a few of the remarkable poem translating experiences, I recall the classical Japanese scholar explaining that one of the poems in question was comprised of the exhortations of one member of a pair of lovers, frustrated with his or her partner’s seeming unwillingness to commit to the relationship. The sense was that everyone around the couple thought it was a foregone conclusion that the two would marry. However, the frustrated partner recognized that the reticent partner was perhaps unreliable and likened that partner’s heart to a cloud bumping against a mountaintop. As always, while we digested the interpretations of the scholar, I would try to create a mental picture of the metaphors as a way of having more to work with when my colleague and I would actually sit down to hammer out the English version. I imagined a cloud, bumping into a mountain. Was this a floaty bit of cirrus mist? A heavy-with-rain nimbostratus, threatening deluge? A thunderhead with lightning in its heart? I asked about the physical attributes of the cloud. After a long pause, during which I began to suspect that the other members of the team were coming to the same sort of cloud-as-phallus allusions that I was, the scholar answered: “Just a regular-sized cloud. Regular.” I managed to reserve my laughter until later. Ultimately, the accepted English translation of that poem reads as follows: “While everyone is saying ‘those two are bound together,’ your capricious heart is like a cloud, adrift, nestled near the peak of a mountain.” I wanted the last phrase to read; “…nestled near the peak of a distantmountain,” but the scholar disagreed.
Another of the poems mentioned the 鶯 (uguisu), a Japanese bush warbler. One of the difficulties in translating that particular poem was the shared cultural experience of what that bird is: a harbinger of spring. The bird itself, largely heard and rarely seen, creates a haunting and beautiful song that is a familiar poetic trope to the Japanese. However, outside of a few enthusiastic bird watchers, the name “Japanese bush warbler” simply does not engender any significant shared cultural understanding among non-Japanese. We had to manipulate the following with a great deal of finesse in order to communicate to the bush warbler novice the significance of the reference without being didactic. “Yearning from the shadows in the fields of spring, a song bird warbles a mating call to you.” This poem is one of my favorites from the project.
Aside from the translation challenges, the work also caused me to reflect upon my own experiences. A number of the poems chosen by Tatsumi Nobusawa reflect a sense of undertaking a journey from which one is just as likely as not to return. Relating to the feeling of the ancient traveler is challenging for us in the world we live in now, with modern modes of travel available. Yet, after having lived here as an expatriate for such an extended period of time, I find myself reflecting on the nature of my own journey; a journey with which I believe many of my fellow educators in Japan can well relate. There is a profundity to the choices I have made, and some of the poems recall the distinct melancholy of the traveler. There is the ineffability of not being able to exist in two places at one time, or embracing that which is in front of you to the exclusion of that which has been left behind. The following poem, my favorite from that theme, captures the feeling deftly; “As each step of my journey takes me farther from my hearthside, my soul grows ever colder. If only I could meet a return traveler to carry my heart back home…No man crosses my path.”
Never having been much of a poetry reader, one of the most striking aspects of these poems was the portrayal of the universality of human emotion. It was revelatory to me to think about how the loves, fears, frustrations and desires written over a millennium ago are the same ones we all still encounter today.
A common theme is love gone wrong. “Being ghosted” might be a 21st-century term, but the sentiment is timeless: “Is your absence a message to me? I’m waiting for you; you won’t come.” It seems the anguish experienced at love’s end is nothing new: “Immersed in despair of her prolonged absence, I cannot decipher: is the susurration of the bamboo leaves a subtle whisper or a banshee’s shriek?” Or feelings of regret: “We believed our embrace free and endless, until the river stopped flowing. If only we had known…”
Difficulties with other people make appearances, too. Here is a problem with the potential in-laws: “I came to see her only for a moment and yet I was dashed out like vermin.” Consider the troublesome chin-waggers: “It doesn’t matter if we continue our assignations in some distant place or not at all: our affairs are the subject of others’ gossip.”
Another common theme is simply the wonder and glory (and humor) of love. Love at first sight, for example: “With only a glimpse of your face in the moonlight, I fell for you in that instant. You came to me in my dreams.” The beauty of a long-term relationship: “The grass of Inara marsh in Kozuke, when cut, dried and woven, becomes works of art. Our yearning, once requited, becomes exquisite.” Even a miniature lover’s spat, with irritation expressed and a snappy, sexually nuanced response. She: “So long did I wait for you to come along that night, I became soaked in the mountain mist.” He: “While you waited for me, you got soaked? Would that I were that mountain mist …”
During our translating sessions, we engaged in lengthy, philosophical discussions about the nature of love and relationships in Japan versus those in Western countries. I joked that while I found the poems were elegant, they felt too austere and indirect to my Western way of thinking. I often suggested to my colleague that I wished the poet would just tell her what he really wanted to say! We discussed in detail the immensely popular 1991 serial television drama Tokyo Love Story, prompting my colleague to go back and re-watch the entire series. I found it interesting that the fact that the two star-crossed lovers of the television drama did not end up together was somehow a happy ending to a Japanese way of thinking. This would have been interpreted as a tragedy to a Western mind. Indeed, it was for me when I saw it all those years ago.
The project was a painstaking task and it took us two and-a-half years. In the end, we created English versions of 22 poems. My bilingual colleague and I had a fun and informative experience. In the end, I think I gained a more nuanced understanding of both languages and the challenges of molding one into the shape of the other.
I need not have worried about my work being merely a “gaijin seal of approval.” The team was a cooperative, inclusive organization, dedicated to creating quality work. I am proud of what we accomplished on the project. And I am honored to be a productive and international part of Gunma.
Kirsten M. Snipp is a 30+ year veteran of university teaching in Japan and a recent transplant to Gunma, currently teaching at Takasaki University of Commerce. She is especially interested in working with lower-level students to help them gain confidence, especially by coaching them on how to employ logic and analysis to improve their overall communicative ability and comprehension.
All data regarding the stelae were taken from the site, The Three Stelae of Kozuke(https://www.city.takasaki.gunma.jp/info/sanpi/en/). There is a great deal of other information about Takasaki’s stelae. Readers are encouraged to visit the site to learn more about them and their historical significance.