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Teika mentions in his diary, the Meigetsu-ki , being requested by his son Tameie to choose one hundred poems that, when transcribed onto rectangular strips of paper known as shikishi , could be used to decorate the door panels in the villa owned by Tameie's father-in-law Utsunomiya Yoritsuna near Mount Ogura on the outskirts of Kyoto an alternative interpretation holds that the father-in-law made the selection, which was then transcribed by Teika. First known as the Hyakunin isshu , the collection became the model for a variety of other similar anthologies, so the place name "Ogura" was subsequently added to distinguish it from the others.

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Yet such was the prestige of this particular collection that it eventually acquired definitive status, so that even now whenever one speaks of "the" Hyakunin isshu , it is the Ogura hyakunin isshu that is meant. That is a perspicacious way in which to describe the lyrical five-line, syllable verses of waka aka tanka , many of which directly address either another person, the moon, trees or the season.

The historical details are also mind-boggling. Himself a distinguished poet and editor, Fujiwara no Teika, who assembled the great work around , did so not long after the signing of Magna Carta , years before the birth of Chaucer — and more than years before the birth of Shakespeare This was followed by a brighter early summer piece by his daughter, Empress Jito. And so we have a distinguished bunch of 79 poets including 15 monks and 21 poetesses, mainly aristocrats, with not a few fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, cousins, grandparents — and plenty of Fujiwaras, including Teika himself.

Some of the waka were written for poetry contests rather than from the heart, others referred to a particular incident. Nonetheless, all human life is most certainly not there, because of the limited social range of the poets and the narrow range of topics — love, the seasons, travel, parting and grief. Humor, however, is in short supply, and what there is comes mostly from the poetesses. So there seems to be something for everyone Japanese — but what chance do English-only speakers have of savoring what native speakers can?

This of course leads directly into the supremely thorny thicket of translation. The renowned English scholar Arthur Waley , who scaled tremendous linguistic heights in Japanese and Chinese without ever visiting Asia, said that Japanese poems are perhaps the hardest in any of world literature to translate — in fact, almost impossible.


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However, translators faced with the awesome task have one thing in their favor: Opinions differ greatly regarding the meaning of ancient waka. For centuries, Japanese and foreign scholars have been scrutinizing every word and coming up with all kinds of possible nuances which may or may not have been intended by the glorious dead poets.

Another major stumbling-block is the prevalence of homonyms and complex wordplay — just like Shakespeare, in fact. In contrast, in his contribution to the oeuvre, U. That was something of a tour de force.

Ogura Hyakunin-isshu no.33

Such translations as the foregoing have a certain formality and validity as English poems, but many eminent academics object strongly to those kinds of approaches, and the pendulum swung their way as the 20th century progressed. Steadily, translations free of any rhyme or particular meter became the norm, as they were supposedly more faithful to the Japanese ambience.

In fact some were just written as long sentences.

However, waka have a distinctly Japanese rhythm and have always been recited. Coming to them as an actor, narrator and writer, I felt translations should have an English rhythm and be easy and pleasant to recite. Going even further back to basics, a distinguished reciter once explained to me that to say waka have 31 syllables is misleading.

But back to my thorny thicket: Because waka poets wrote under severe restrictions of length and the number of beats per line, I decided a strict format was also required in English and chose that quintessential poetic form also favored by rap singers — the rhyming couplet. Before mass printing, when his poems were also intended to be read aloud, Chaucer was another who found the rhyming couplet a perfect tool for that.


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Dave Bull says:. June 8, at am. Recent Posts The Harmony of Languages. Elborg Forster on Translation. Solving Linear A. Lost Old English Words. Relics of the Old Regime.

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