Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Kenji Miyazawa’s Poem “Ame ni mo makezu”--Interview with TOMO Translators David Sulz and Hart Larrabee

David Sulz
David Sulz (translator of the Tomo epigraph “Be Not Defeated by the Rain” Ame ni mo makezu) is a librarian at the University of Alberta. He spent four years in the nineties on the JET program in Miyagi (Sendai and Towa-cho) and tries to return often to visit the kindred spirits there who remain among his closest friends. Other translations include Jiro Nitta’s Phantom Immigrants (Mikkosen suian maru), Kenji Miyazawa’s “The Poison Powder Police Chief,” and lyrics from songs performed by Miyagi friends.
Hart Larrabee
Hart Larrabee (translator of the Tomo story “Anton and Kiyohime”) was born in New York State and majored in Japanese at Carleton College in Minnesota. He also earned postgraduate degrees from the University of Pennsylvania and University of Hawaii. A full-time freelance translator, he currently lives with his family in Nagano Prefecture.

Both David Sulz and Hart Larrabee have translated the famous Kenji Miyazawa poem Ame ni mo makezu. An excerpt of Sulz’s translation appears in Tomo as the anthology’s epigraph.

Below is the original poem in Japanese, followed by the Sulz and Larrabee translations, which are fascinating for their differences. Following the poems, each translator discusses his approach to the poem and the resulting translation.

Here is how the original poem would have looked if written horizontally. Miyazawa used katakana instead of kanji and hiragana writing for much of the poem.

雨ニモマケズ 風ニモマケズ
欲ハナク 決シテ瞋ラズ イツモシズカニワラッテイル
一日ニ玄米四合ト 味噌ト少シノ野菜ヲタベ
アラユルコトヲ ジブンヲカンジョニ入レズニ
ヨクミキキシワカリ ソシテワスレズ
野原ノ松ノ林ノ蔭ノ 小サナ萱ブキノ小屋ニイテ
東ニ病気ノコドモアレバ 行ッテ看病シテヤリ
西ニツカレタ母アレバ 行ッテソノ稲ノ束ヲ負イ
南ニ死ニソナ人アレバ 行ッテコワガラナクテモイイトイイ
ホメラレモセズ クニモサレズ
モノニ ワタシハナリタイ

This is how the poem was discovered written in Kenji Miyazawa’s notebook:

courtesy of the Daimaru Museum
Following is David Sulz’s translation of Kenji Miyazawa’s poem Ame ni mo makezu:

Be not defeated by the rain. Nor let the wind prove your better.
Succumb not to the snows of winter. Nor be bested by the heat of summer.

Be strong in body. Unfettered by desire. Not enticed to anger. Cultivate a quiet joy.
Count yourself last in everything. Put others before you.
Watch well and listen closely. Hold the learned lessons dear.

A thatch-roof house, in a meadow, nestled in a pine grove's shade.

A handful of rice, some miso, and a few vegetables to suffice for the day.

If, to the East, a child lies sick: Go forth and nurse him to health.
If, to the West, an old lady stands exhausted: Go forth, and relieve her of burden.
If, to the South, a man lies dying: Go forth with words of courage to dispel his fear.
If, to the North, an argument or fight ensues:
Go forth and beg them stop such a waste of effort and of spirit.

In times of drought, shed tears of sympathy.
In summers cold, walk in concern and empathy.

Stand aloof of the unknowing masses:
Better dismissed as useless than flattered as a "Great Man".

This is my goal, the person I strive to become.

Following is Hart’s Larrabee’s translation of Kenji Miyazawa’s poem Ame ni mo makezu :

Unbeaten by the rain
Unbeaten by the wind
Bested by neither snow nor summer heat
Strong of body
Free of desire
Never angry
Always smiling quietly
Dining daily on four cups of brown rice
Some miso and a few vegetables
Observing all things
With dispassion
But remembering well
Living in a small, thatched-roof house
In the meadow beneath a canopy of pines
Going east to nurse the sick child
Going west to bear sheaves of rice for the weary mother
Going south to tell the dying man there is no cause for fear
Going north to tell those who fight to put aside their trifles
Shedding tears in time of drought
Wandering at a loss during the cold summer
Called useless by all
Neither praised
Nor a bother
Such is the person
I wish to be

Translator Q & A

What inspired you to translate this poem?

David Sulz: I had a professor who once told us that after studying Chinese for four years at university, he had no idea what to do next. He sent $50 to a bookstore in Hong Kong and received many boxes of Chinese books. Overwhelmed, he chose the thinnest book and started translating it. Through various coincidental twist and turns, that serendipity led to his becoming a world expert on a particular Tang dynasty Chinese poet.

In general, anything I try to translate is a combination of serendipity and personal connections. For example, a historical novel based in places I lived and songs, nature art activities, and travel TV shows created by close friends with whom I could discuss the meaning. A good friend with whom I often had deep philosophical conversations happened to visit Kenji World in Iwate prefecture and brought me a copy as a souvenir. So this falls into both categories: serendipity and personal connection.

Hart Larrabee: I live in a little town called Obuse in northern Nagano Prefecture. A local sake brewery hosts a monthly lecture series, inviting accomplished people who are passionate about what they do to give a talk followed by an evening of conversation fuelled by the brewery’s delicious sake and seasonal cuisine. For a number of years I regularly translated or edited the English portions of the bilingual summaries of each session for publication by the brewery.

Designer Taku Satoh, perhaps best known for product and packaging designs, came to speak in August 2004. Satoh is also art director for Nihongo de asobo (Let’s Play in Japanese), a wonderful NHK educational program on which Ame ni mo makezu is a recurring theme, and he concluded his talk with a reading of the poem.

A bit of Googling quickly turned up a couple of existing versions, but I wanted to avoid infringing on anyone’s copyright and there was little time to arrange permissions. Since I was already reasonably familiar with the poem from the old Hibbett & Itasaka textbook I had used years before in college, I decided to retranslate the poem myself. The version here is a slightly edited version of the one I produced then.

Can you explain your approach to the poem and discuss your translation?

Hart Larrabee: Particularly given the poem’s posthumous discovery in a private notebook, I see it more as a meditation than a moralizing exhortation or socio-political commentary. I wanted to amplify by simplifying, and tried to draft something straightforward and direct without anything extraneous. The poem itself is pretty lean, and I wanted to resist the temptation to expand and explain in the translation.

David Sulz: I did this 15 long years ago, and I didn’t know much about translation ideas and expectations back then and I really just wanted to understand the poem and have interesting discussions about its meaning (I also remember being quite bored at work with lots of spare time). I had no concerns about translating it “correctly” or “appropriately” because I wasn’t doing it for marks or recognition. This was before the Internet became so widespread (believe it or not) so I had no expectation that anyone other than family and maybe some close friends would read it. I suppose I could have looked into publishing it in a journal or book or anthology somewhere but posting it on “the world of Kenji Miyazawa” website was as far as I got.

In another coincidence, I had just been given a thick book of Alexander Pope’s poetry and especially loved his “Essay on Man.” I think much of the wording, phrasing, language, and so much else in my translation was influenced by his 18th century, English style (well, maybe not the heroic couplets for which he was renowned). English poetry experts might not see anything of Pope in my translation and I’ve seen a few comments that it does not accurately reflect the style in which Miyazawa wrote in the context of his time. Miyazawa’s version is very simple for an educated man because, despite his education, he supposedly felt more in tune with the rural folk so wrote in a simple, unpretentious style. Someone commented that his style might be compared to e.e. cummings who wrote poems in English without capital letters.

Admittedly, my translation is anything but simple, straightforward, current English but this wasn’t an intellectual exercise. The style and words just happened and that probably was a result of many small influences at that particular time. I wonder what would happen if I was somehow able to forget my previous translation and try translating it again now.

What are some of the challenges in translating this particular poem? What were your problem/challenge spots?

David Sulz: Honestly, all of it was a challenge! I don’t want anyone to think I sat down and translated this in an afternoon all by myself. I had lots of advice and explanations from many people even if, unforgivably, I don’t remember exactly who anymore. I remember several passages that caused lively debate among my Japanese friends which, by the way, is something any good poem or idea should do. Specifically, I remember two parts taking a long time and that I probably took liberties with in translating.

One is the part about shedding tears during a drought and walking in concern in cold summers. The connection seems to be the anxiety one should feel for friends and neighbours, in this case farmers, who will have a lean winter because their harvest won’t be plentiful.

Another tricky part was why it would be “better dismissed as useless than flattered as a “great man.” It’s hard to come up with other ways to explain what I think it means but I’ll try. Flattery is insincere and manipulative so a “great man” doesn’t know what others really think of him and he might be talked into doing things that others don’t want to take responsibility for themselves. Conversely, it doesn’t really matter if some people think you are useless as long as you (and those closest to you) know your own worth – you are free to be yourself with less pressure. Perhaps it is so hard to grasp Miyazawa’s meaning because it is completely opposite to what we are normally led to believe – that it is better to be considered great than useless. 

After finally understanding the meaning, of course, the biggest challenge was finding words and phrases in English that preserved the Japanese meaning and character but allowed rhythms that sounded harmonious and lyrical in English.  In other words, making it sound right.

Sadly, my Japanese ability these days isn’t good enough to easily go back to the original poem and reconstruct the challenging points but I think those spots can be deduced by comparing where various English translations have different interpretations.

Hart Larrabee: I was always bothered by the use of the conditional “if” in translations of the section listing the four directions, even though it appears formally faithful to the areba in the original. To me it suggests a rigid logic, an image of a protagonist who, alerted somehow to the existence of a sick child or a weary mother somewhere, only then dashes into action. In the original, though, the conditional just seems part of a rhetorical structure designed to indicate that the protagonist would show compassion toward all wherever he might find them. So I was pleased to dispose of the “ifs.”

In reviewing my translation for this interview, I decided to take another stab at the third and fourth lines from the bottom, which I originally rendered as Unpraised / Unnoticed. This translation bothered me because the protagonist would certainly have to be noticed before he could be called useless, but I couldn’t come up with anything better at the time. I probably also originally misunderstood ku ni sarezu, which I now feel is more at “not seen as a pain in the neck” than “not paid attention to.”

What do you think of other translations of Ame ni mo Makezu?

David Sulz: I love reading various translations of this work, it is a great example of the complexity of translating between two languages whose grammar and style is so completely opposite and whose worldview is quite different. I don’t think there is any way to capture in English how the elegance of Miyazawa’s writing appeals to Japanese readers and, at the same time, make the profound meaning accessible in English. It seems a translator has a dilemma with this poem - accurate but choppy or rhythmic but sacrificing accuracy.

Hart Larrabee:
A poem is a puzzle with many solutions, and I like bits and pieces of all of them given their respective approaches. Some versions introduce a third-person “he” or reveal the first-person subject early, but I think the immediacy of the poem is lost in the former approach while the latter gives too much away. I’m sure I saw David Sulz’s version back in 2004, and remember also being influenced by Steven Venti’s (See: Another source, one I only discovered recently, (See: contains numerous treatments of the first section, which can then be used to track down full versions by translators such as Makoto Ueda, Donald Keene and Roger Pulvers. It’s amazing, really, how many ways even such a short poem can be rendered, and with such different results. Beyond the issue of explanatory additions I mentioned above, even little decisions like which article to use or whether a noun should be plural or singular can really change the sense of the translation.

What do you particularly like about this poem?

David Sulz: I love the human vs. nature struggle. It is not about defeating nature, or escaping into your basement/car/office/mall, or coming up with technology make yourself immune to nature. It’s about accepting nature, dealing with nature on its own turf,  and becoming mentally strong enough to not only endure but also enjoy it. Maybe this poem has influenced me embrace winter in one of the coldest winter cities on earth, Edmonton, where walking to work in -40 degrees or playing hockey outdoors or cross-country skiing is even more satisfying an achievement than in warmer climes.

I also like the idea that one can be both humble and strong at the same time. Humility isn’t weakness and strength isn’t aggression. A satisfied and good person doesn’t have to be ostentatious with big houses and fancy meals. Courage also comes from small acts that seem easy on paper but are difficult in real-life such as convincing people to stop quarrelling or helping someone with a heavy load when lots of other people are watching.

Finally, I appreciate the last line—“this is my goal, the person I strive to become.” Miyazawa is not telling anyone else how to act or be except by his own example—which is very Buddhist, I think. He is saying, here’s what I think it takes to be human, I’m going to try to achieve it, you can try too if you’d like but you don’t have to.

Hart Larrabee: On its own, I like it as a spare and deeply personal meditation on right living. As a phenomenon, I am fascinated by the way it has been employed post-3/11 to convey a kind of stoic resolve in the face of tragedy. I can’t help but wonder if Satoh’s use of the poem on Nihongo de asobo—recitations of the poem in regional dialects from around Japan are one of my favorite parts of the show—helped lay the groundwork for the poem’s resurgence.

And to conclude, here is actor Ken Watanabe reading the poem in Japanese.