Ibaragi Noriko

– translation by Peter Robinson & Andrew Houwen 

Word Chemistry

Rendering “philosophy”
as tetsugaku
was the Meiji era’s terrible translation.
Rendering “chemistry”
as kagaku
was the Meiji era’s brilliant one.
My major was chemistry
but how each element changes form,
that, and why, I never understood —
at a loss,
a change of direction,
from the poetry speech-radical to temple*
would lose my way
bypassing reality.
The changing forms of words, thirty years,
it’s not as if I’ve come that far
putting in palaver and shaking the flask,
measuring the weight, mistaking
what catalyst is best used to make speech-parts react and dance?

Mind absorbed for thirty years
and yet
still not able to show
a single equation for poetry...

 

from Sunshi (“With Thanks”), 1982

 

 

* The Chinese character used in Japanese for ‘poetry’, 詩,

consists of the radical 言 (‘speech’) and, on the right, 寺 (‘temple’).