Interview with Judy Halebsky on Japanese Poetry and Translation

Judy Halebsky2Judy Halebsky’s book of poems, Sky=Empty (New Issues, 2010) was chosen by Marvin Bell as the winner of the New Issues Prize, a first book award, and was also a finalist for the California Book Award. With a collective of Tokyo poets, she edits and translates the bilingual poetry journal Eki Mae. She lives at Ocean Beach in the outer edges of San Francisco and teaches at Dominican University of California.


Who do you consider to be some of the best contemporary Japanese poets currently living today?

The biggest struggle for an English speaking readership is the tiny portion of new writing that makes it into translation. Yuka Tsukagoshi, whose work I greatly admire and translate, is doing exciting work influenced by multiple strands of modern and contemporary poetry including surrealism. Jeffery Angles has done excellent translations of poetry by Takako Arai and Hiromi Ito. Sawako Nakayasu and Eric Selland are compiling an anthology of modern Japanese poetry in translation. Poet, Alan Botsford does a wonderful job at the editor of the bilingual poetry journal, Poetry Kanto. These are just a few places to get started with contemporary Japanese poetry.

You’re originally from Canada and lived in Japan for five years. What brought you to Japan? Can you give us an overview of the poetry that you studied in Tokyo?

I had moved to California for graduate school and was reading Jane Hirshfield and Robert Hass. I wanted to learn more of the poetry forms and aesthetics that shape their work. Jane Hirshfield’s Ink Dark Moon offers translations of court poetry or waka. These are short poems with syllable count phrases of 5-7-5, 7-7 generally about refined subject matter. Many of the poems are about longing and waiting for a lover to visit.

Renga or linked verse extended the waka form into a collaborative poetry activity. Poets would take turns writing the 5-7-5 or 7-7 links. The poem could go on for hundreds of verses. The first verse is called the hokku and it is in 5-7-5. This hokku developed into a poetry form on its own, and is now called haiku. Early haiku poked fun at the court class and court poetry by using vernacular language and common images. Basho elevated haiku and brought a poetic sophistication to the form while maintaining the colloquial language and everyday images. Hass’ translated volume, The Essential Haiku has haiku by Basho, Buson, and Issa. These translations inspired me to study Japanese literature.

Of course, once I was living in Tokyo, I became involved in contemporary poetry as well. I attended a reading series where poets would read their entire poetry book in one night. I also went to haiku events and participated in a group gallery show where we composed a ren-shi (free verse version of renga) together. I met Tokyo poets and we started a bilingual journal called Eki Mae (or In Front of the Station).

You also translate Japanese poetry. How do you choose which poets or poems to translate?

I’m drawn to translation because I want to access the poems. I translate the work of two contemporary poets, Yuka and Akutsu Ayumi. I also translate some haiku within my own writing. Mostly, I have come to translation through some connection to the poems in Japanese that I can’t find in English either because the poems are not translated or because my experience of the poem in Japanese is different from existing translations.

Is there a certain challenge to translating Japanese poetry that may not exist in translating texts in other languages?

Translation is always hard. There’s the written language and the cultural knowledge that shapes how we assign meaning to words. What is assumed knowledge for some audiences is different for other audiences. In terms of the challenges of translating from Japanese as compared to other languages, I do think there are different distances among languages. The distance between two languages lessens if they share some linguistic commonality (such as Latin or Germanic roots) or aspects of a shared cultural knowledge (such as a Judeo-Christian heritage). I struggle not only with understanding the poem in Japanese but in re-creating it in English within its own frame. For example, a repeated image in Yuka’s work is a rice field and, in particular, reflections on the water in a rice field. When I write ‘rice field’ does the reader in North America get an image of a field with standing water that on a bright day can reflect the sky? I don’t know. It wasn’t an immediate image for me.

Do you ever collaborate with others?

Yuka and I work together in a collaborative process. We bring different points of view and have spent hours at a diner called Jonathan’s (with a free drink bar) going over a thousand possibilities in a translation. It’s also a process of trust almost like spinning while holding hands. We both need to lean out and give weight to create the new poem without falling.

What’s your process of translation like? 

For translating Yuka’s poems, I start with reading the poems and seeing what poems might work well in translation. While I work closely with Yuka, I start by reading the poem on my own and developing my own relationship with it. I’ll then make a gloss of the poem by translating phrases and parts of lines literally. I use various dictionaries to come up with the gloss. Then, I’ll start to write lines of the translation from a sensory understanding of the poem.

One of the struggles in translating from Japanese is trying to preserve the order of the lines and phrases. To re-create the order of the source poem risks the English translation having a disrupted grammatical flow. I weight this with the importance of sequence and the location of images within the poem.

After I have a working draft of the translation, I’ll share it with Yuka and we’ll begin a long collaborative process of going back and forth about lines break, word choice, and punctuation. She usually favors a more literal translation than I do. I often stress creating the effect of the original poem in English over preserving specific literal meaning.

Has translating the works of other poets affected how you write your own poetry?

Poetry writing and learning a language are entwined in my work. There’s the continual making of meaning, the disruption of meaning, and the searching for failed equivalences. For my translation of haiku, my process is generative and often results in multiple possible translations of a particular haiku embedded into a larger poem. There’s a point in translation where I’ve internalized the poem that I am trying to translate. From there, I can write a translation into the form of the source poem. Sometimes, I want to write that poem into a new shape and that’s what I can do in my own work. Most often, I do this with Basho’s haiku. My poem, A Breaking Word, translates Basho’s frog pond haiku. I quote from three different translations of the haiku (by Robert Hass, Alan Watts, and Allen Ginsburg.) Lines in the poem describe some of the ways that it is difficult to translate the haiku. So, in a way, my newly generated poem opens up Basho’s haiku and reveals some of the intricacies of translation for an English speaking readership.


Interview conducted by Masashi Musha

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