MYS 0597-0600
An illustration for: Nine Maxims On Translation
E Bruce Brooks / University of Massachusetts / 5 Dec 2002

Much Nara poetry is love poetry. Much Nara love poetry use conventional phrases and conceits. And many of those phrases and conceits fit the 5-7-5-7-7- tanka ("short song") form better at some places than at others. The result is that many Nara poems have whole lines in common with other Nara poems, and sometimes those lines occupy the same position in the poems. This degree of overlap between different poems is not something that European readers are accustomed to. It is especially striking when such overlap occurs in poems by the same poet, and even within a compositional sequence of poems by that same poet. A poet writing in a different tradition might have felt the repetition as a flaw. Not so our Lady Kasa. But flaw or no, it is a highly visible feature of the poems, and as such, it asks to be treated with respect by the serious translator.

In Lady Kasa's group of twenty-four poems addressed to Yakamochi, no less than three poems end in the same last line: "koi-wataru ka mo," an exclamatory expression of love-longing. Together with MYS #598, which has already been discussed, they make a series of four. They are thus closely placed within the series, not scattered here and there. The recurrence was thus surely intended by the poet. Here they are.

[The common line is shown in red for convenience in structural comparison]

MYS 0597 (#11)
MYS 0598 (#12)
(lacks the otherwise common last line)
MYS 0599 (#13)
MYS 600 (#14)

And here are some samples of how this challenge has been met by translators:

Calligraphic Separator

Some readers may grow impatient with these variations on a fixed form, with their recurring themes of separation by water (bridge, river, mist, sea), and a common ending. If so, let them go to their pianos and open up Haydn's Variations in F. Do those variations, traversing similar ground, and ending on the same chord in the same key, attest the poverty of Haydn's musical imagination? Which of them, as Haydn's editors, would they excise? Which of them, as performers, would they omit?


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