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  • Writer's pictureTokyo Poetry Journal

“I Bloom”: Translating Female Subjectivity and Gaze in Contemporary Japanese Poetry


Poet to Poet: Contemporary Women Poets From Japan

Edited by Rina Kikuchi & Jen Crawford (Canberra: Recent Work Press, 2017)

––––by Tanya Barnett

Poet to Poet, a poetry anthology edited by Rina Kikuchi and Jen Crawford, is a collection of

translated poems written by ten of Japan’s contemporary female poets. In the anthology, Kikuchi acts as a co-translator and a bridge between the featured poets and her other co-translators. Poet to Poet offers a platform for the voices of one of society’s largest marginalized groups: women. In the introduction to this volume, Kikuchi points out that women poets from Japan are vastly underrepresented as both subjects of study and translated writers, and when they have been translated, it has often been by male academics. Through her selection of poets and co-translators, Kikuchi’s anthology is a response to the issue of underrepresentation that also challenges the presumption of who has authority when it comes to the translation of Japanese texts.

While some may not agree that women are a marginalized group, the fact remains that the perspectives and opinions of women have been ignored and discounted across transnational borders throughout history, whether it be with respect to government policy and lawmaking, access to healthcare, the gender wage gap, sexual assault, religious discrimination, cultural practices, or even our own bodies. Kikuchi has assembled a collection of poets who are forcefully and unapologetically female. By this, I mean that they speak to the real-lived experiences of life as a woman. The poets are Arai Takako, Ishikawa Itsuko, Itō Hiromi, Hirata Toshiko, Kawaguchi Harumi, Kōno Satoko, Misaki Takako, Misumi Mizuki, Nakamura Sachiko, and Yamasaki Kayoko (of whom Kōno and Misumi were featured in ToPoJo volume 4).

Kikuchi and Crawford address intersectionality through their selection of poets from Japan who range in age, region, language (dialect), and profession. Their inclusion of both renowned and up-and-coming poets helps to combat the grip that literary canons have on the translation and dissemination of literary texts. As Kikuchi herself states, this collection does not seek to be a definitive and “comprehensive representation of Japanese women poets writing today.” Rather, it provides insight into the multi-layered facets of daily life that women experience through the lens of certain contemporary poets from Japan. These poems are raw, humorous, violent, painful, joyful, heart-breaking. They cover a breadth of issues, ranging from aging to illness, menstruation, rape, imperialism, systemic cultural oppression, loss, the diaspora experience, and grocery shopping.

Furthermore, this collection confronts the longstanding images of Japanese women as seen through a male gaze often rooted in orientalism and sexism. The editors combat this not only through their selection of poets, but also through their selection of translators, most of whom are women. I would like to note that the four male translators who contributed to this collection have produced fantastic translations that are well-worth reading. However, Japanese studies and the translation of Japanese literature are fields that have been historically dominated by men, who at times have produced problematic depictions of Japanese women that fail to grasp female interiority and contribute to stereotypes that are pervasive in Western culture. At times, writers who have been accepted into the canon and whose works have subsequently been selected for translation and academic study have featured women characters who are often problematic, either in terms of their description, their role in plot advancement or the development of the protagonist, and the protagonist’s treatment of them. When these texts then become the subject of academic inquiry, the role of these women characters are often overlooked or oversimplified. In Kikuchi and Crawford’s anthology, women are not merely tools which serve the male protagonist, they are the protagonist and they carry with them the most important agency that exists in literature: narrative voice.

In addition to the careful treatment of translating gender, this collection tackles issues regarding the methodology of poetry translation. As one can see by the title, each of the translators are poets in their own right. The act of translation always requires the translator to decide the goal, or the priority, of their translation, be it loyalty to the original text, poetic devices, contemporary/premodern language, or aesthetically appealing in the target language. Kikuchi’s decision to employ poets as translators is a reflection of her goal for the translation, which was to “re-create in English what one sees and feels when one reads the original poem in Japanese.”

Many exciting moments of translation occur in this volume, and they will resonate differently with each reader. A few moments that resonated with this reviewer in particular… In Ishikawa Itsuko’s poem “Stone Monument,” Carol Hayes brilliantly captures the biting sarcastic tone of the original poem by translating anata as “you Your Majesty” when the poet addresses the Showa Emperor. Subhash Jaireth aptly conveys the isolation experienced by members of the diaspora in Yamasaki Kayoko’s “Coming Home for a Brief Visit,” particularly with respect to the final lines: “I gaze / at the face / of my motherland / mine and yet / nevermore / mine.” Melinda Smith’s translation of Kawaguchi Harumi’s “Artificial” manages to be simultaneously surreal, concrete, and rich with the beautiful imagery that appears in the original poem. One power of the poet is their ability to convey and elicit emotion through a series of fragmentary and fleeting verbally constructed images. Each poet accomplishes this in their translations. These poems “live and breathe” (as the volume’s own promotional language justifiably claims) on their own in English, while maintaining the authenticity of the original texts. In a display of transparency, Kikuchi’s inclusion of the original Japanese text side-by-side with the English translation is a special gift that allows the reader some insight into each co-translator/poet’s individual process.

Poet to Poet: Contemporary Women Poets From Japan is an exemplary collection of outstanding works by talented women poets who have been faithfully and masterfully translated by other poets, and it is an invaluable contribution to the field of Japanese literature and translation studies. By carefully coupling each co-translator/poet to one of the featured poets based on their individual styles, Kikuchi and Crawford have not only gifted us access to ten of Japan’s most talented women poets, they have also introduced us to a handful of new poets whose work we can look forward to exploring—the translators.


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