The Translator’s Responsibility: Westernization and Appropriation in translations of Akiko Yosano’s Midaregami

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I do not speak Japanese, so I cannot say which translations best represent the Japanese language or the meaning of the original poems. All close reading in this project will be conducted in English on English translations of Yosano’s poems. Most discussions of form will be rudimentary, since I am not familiar enough with the Japanese language to make a nuanced argument about the tanka form.  The thesis of this project is therefore a theoretical exploration of translation, and meant to be engaging to many different users, rather than a persuasive argument about which translation is “best” or the most accurate. In addition, please note that I have used the Western style of naming (first name, last name) instead of the Japanese (last name, first name).


This project aims to raise questions about the ethics of different styles of translation through the scope of Akiko Yosano’s poetry. Translation is particularly sensitive for languages with great phonological and syntactical differences such as Japanese and English. My question is, if we ignore Japanese form and traditional content, do we not also run the risk of inadvertently Westernizing the poetry? I will attempt to answer this question using multiple translations of the same poems by translators who subscribe to different translative philosophies. This project is interactive, so I urge you, user, to please contribute to my work by adding your own thoughts and questions.

In his treatise on translating poetry, Burton Raffel quotes Stephen Owen,

“The distance that separates a modern English reader from an eighth-century Chinese poem can be crossed in only two ways–moving the reader or moving the poem…We may learn and assimilate a new poetics; or we may remake the Chinese poem to answer the established values of English readers,'” (qtd. in Raffel, 35).

Though Owens writes about Chinese, this statement applies to Japanese as well, given the “distance” between Japanese and English. Owens’ idea of  “learning and assimilating a new poetics,” seems to go too far–he underestimates the reader’s ability to understand new forms; a Western reader is not incapable of understanding the traditional tanka form or recognizing it once they’ve learned it. We can only bend the English language so far before it loses its beauty and integrity for the sake of translation, but translation must take the giving (that is, original) language into account, and let it take precedence. I recognize that at times there is no choice but to “move the poem;” all I ask is, how far is really necessary? And what good does it do to go beyond that? This essay will look into how far certain translations of Akiko Yosano’s poetry have “moved” the poems, and what those distances do to the portrait Western readers therefore receive of the revolutionary Japanese poet Akiko Yosano.


“Strolling past Gion
To Kiyomizu, I feel,
With cherry and moon,
That every person I meet
Is beautiful to gaze upon”
– Introduction to classical Japanese literature (Kokusai Bunka Shinkokai, 1948). p. 432.

“The cherries and the moon, how sweet!
So are the folks this night I meet,
As I to Kiyomizu go
Through Gion bright with lovely snow.”
– H.H. Honda. The Poetry of Yosano Akiko, (Hokuseido, 1957). p. 3.

“Across Gion
To Kiyomizu,
Cherry blossoms, brightened by the moon…
Each face I meet this night!”
– Sanford Goldstein and Seishi Shinoda. Midaregami, (Purdue University Studies, 1971). p.27.


From a phonological standpoint, it would be impossible to translate a Japanese poem into English sound-for-sound. The languages and the sounds they use, and make, are too different to maintain much of a sonic similarity. However, the length of vowels, meter, rhythm of speech (note: not meter), alliteration, and assonance can certainly be used to great effect in translation between Eastern and Western languages.

Along with making an effort to use appropriate language, the most responsible translations respect cultural contexts and literary histories. No matter what problems arise in phonological translation or syntactical translation, it is, in my opinion, always appropriate to include the original author’s allusions and references in the translated poem. If the reader does not immediately understand these allusions, it would behoove the translator to include a “Notes” section of the text, or to include footnotes to direct the reader toward further reading on the allusion, or for a succinct explanation. After all, the act of translation is not only aesthetic, but a way to communicate and give readers access to different cultures. By disregarding what the poet had to say, translators deem the words more important than their meanings, which is to appropriate the original “giving language.”

Rewriting the poems into Western form is like presenting an oil portrait of an original woodblock print–it is an adaptation, rather than a translation, because some of the fundamental meaning-making forms are changed. This is to be expected to some extent in every translation, but H.H. Honda’s translation of tanka 3 is an extreme example. The Goldstein and Shinoda translation of tanka 26 also shows how Westernization and too-acute attention to language can undermine the content of a poem, which should be rendered in the target language holistically for the best effect. Though the goal of this project is not meant to be a comparison of translations, it is meant to illuminate some of the differences between translation practices and their inherent ethics. If this project has done the same for you, or even (perhaps especially) if you disagree with my views, please annotate this page with your own thoughts–it will make the project more enriching for us all.

Works Cited

Goldstein, Sanford & Shinoda, Seishi. Tangled Hair. Selected Tanka from Midaregami by Akiko Yosano. Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Studies (1971). Print.

Goldstein, Sanford & Shinoda, Seishi. “3,” Tangled Hair. Selected Tanka from Midaregami by Akiko Yosano. Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Studies (1971). Print. 27.

Goldstein, Sanford & Shinoda, Seishi. “26,” Tangled Hair. Selected Tanka from Midaregami by Akiko Yosano. Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Studies (1971). Print. 41.

Goldstein, Sanford & Shinoda, Seishi. “Introduction,” Tangled Hair. Selected Tanka from Midaregami by Akiko Yosano. Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Studies (1971). Print. 1-25.

Ireland, Julie. “This Tangled, Tangled Translation: Akiko Yosano’s Midaregami,” Verso: an Undergraduate Journal of Literary Criticism 4. (2012). file:///Users/damortensen/Downloads/518-1715-1-SM%20(4).pdf.

Raffel, Burton. The Art of Translating Poetry. Penn State University Press (1988). Print.

Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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