NOW TRANSLATING – ToPoJo volume 12 Introduction co-authored with AI Tools
Poetry and Translation for Techonfuckits
Jordan A. Y. Smith, ChatGPT, Midjourney
(NOTE: this version of the Introductory essay is the "extended" version, including ChatGPT's answers as to the benefits and dangers of reading Tokyo Poetry Journal. There is also a link to the Buzzfeed Quiz, where you can try to guess which poems inspired Midjourney's image-generating AI to create.)
This volume of ToPoJo is a follow up to our Volume 4: Heisei Generations, the first of its kind – a volume dedicated to living Japanese poets from all sorts of poetry walks, award and publishing circuits, literary circuits, and performance scenes. There was something for everyone to love, or emote toward or critique in a variety of other ways. The idea was to give as genuine a snapshot of what was really going on as possible.
Here we are again, a new imperial reign, a pandemic later, barely pre-singularity. The mission: explore at least an iota of what’s happened in contemporary Japanese poetry over the last 6 years since our volume 4. This volume is its own kind of intelligence agency.
Poetry is the anti-artificial intelligence, so what happens when it meets artificial intelligence? Fission? Fusion? Do they cancel each other out? Other dimensions open up?
As a human just as fake and dumb, and just as brilliant and authentic, as any other human, I am dying to see – I mean it, even if it results in stoning by my fellow poets, editors, translators, and artists.
ToPoJo’s editorial board is made up of Baby Boomers through Gens X, Y, Z and whatever comes after. Some of us are technophiles, others are what we have termed “technofuckits.” A technofuckit is kind of like a technophobe, but they’re not technically “afraid” of technology, they just draw a line in the digital sand somewhere between Facebook and Discord and are just like, “Fuck it.”
We recommend technofuckits just skip to the poetry, in lovely translation by many of today’s badassest translators of Japanese poetry into English.
Still here? Okay. So if you haven’t met OpenAI’s ChatGPT, here’s what to know about this: it is a language-based AI prototype, with a user experience set up like a chatbot, that stands ready to answer any questions to the best of its limited abilities – it often sadly intones that its data is limited to 2021.
We asked ChatGPT a few questions about Japanese poetry today (the poor thing could only use data up to 2021, one more reason humans deserve to exist). A number of the poems in ToPoJo’s Volume 12 also pose questions, some rhetorical, some with no answers that we editors could ever ascertain – so we decided to seek some answers from this powerful system.
This is partly about testing the limits of that system at the present moment, defined in these terms by the November 2022 release of ChatGPT for public use and the AI’s evolution up to the spring 2023 release of our volume.
One can only guess what will happen in two years, when 2023 becomes eligible for ChatGPT analysis, and anything beyond that is going to be an even more radical departure.
We purposefully don’t want to editorialize too much about ChatGPT’s answers – but we do have a mountain of questions:
Are they ChatGPT’s responses? OpenAI’s? The world’s collective answers? Whose will is manifest in the evident ideologies underpinning these responses? Who and what is elided (besides 2021~)?
Is it ethical to have this kind of engagement? To print the responses? What scholars’ work should be cited in these responses? Does scholarly ownership matter in the same way? What dangers are there in eliding the university and public research systems whose information silently informs these responses? How does this system determine useful data from junk data, opinion from opinion, critique from critique?
Is it legal to print these responses? Will OpenAI sue a little literary journal in Tokyo for printing this experiment without purchasing the Pro plan, thus forcing us to throw open our treasure vault and reveal the secret stash of dark poetry money we have been secretly hoarding all the while pretending to be scrubby bohemians?
ChatGPT’s Responses to ToPoJo Volume 12
As an AI language model, my training data only goes up until 2021, so I cannot provide an analysis of Japanese poetry from 2019 to 2023 specifically. However, I can provide a general overview of the main themes of contemporary Japanese poetry and their connections to social, psychological, political, and philosophical issues.
Contemporary Japanese poetry is known for its diverse range of styles and themes, often drawing from traditional Japanese poetry forms such as haiku and tanka. Some of the main themes explored in contemporary Japanese poetry include:
Nature and the Environment: Japanese poetry has a long tradition of celebrating nature, and contemporary poets continue to explore themes related to the natural world. Many poets are concerned with environmental issues such as climate change and the loss of biodiversity, and use their work to draw attention to these pressing concerns.
Identity and the Self: Contemporary Japanese poets often explore themes related to identity and the self, including questions of gender, sexuality, race, and ethnicity. These poems can be deeply personal and introspective, and often use language in innovative and unconventional ways to convey complex emotions and experiences.
History and Memory: Japan has a long and complex history, and contemporary poets often draw on this rich cultural heritage to explore themes related to memory and identity. Many poets are interested in the ways that the past informs the present, and use their work to explore questions of cultural identity and collective memory.
Social and Political Issues: Contemporary Japanese poetry is not afraid to engage with social and political issues, and many poets use their work to critique aspects of Japanese society, such as the country's aging population, gender inequality, and the legacy of World War II. Poetry can be a powerful tool for social and political commentary, and many Japanese poets are using their work to effect change and promote social justice.
Philosophy and Spirituality: Japanese poetry has a long history of exploring philosophical and spiritual themes, and contemporary poets continue to draw on this rich tradition. Many poets are interested in questions of existence, consciousness, and the nature of reality, and use their work to explore these profound questions in new and innovative ways.
Overall, contemporary Japanese poetry is a rich and diverse field, and its themes and concerns are deeply intertwined with the social, psychological, political, and philosophical issues of our time.
(Note: We have changed the naming convention to family name first, given name second, to maintain consistency with ToPoJo’s editorial style.)
Here are some of the prominent Japanese poets of recent times:
Ito Hiromi – Ito is a contemporary poet and feminist activist known for her groundbreaking work that explores themes of gender, sexuality, and identity. She has won numerous awards for her work, including the Takami Jun Prize and the Rekitei Prize.
Wago Ryoichi – Wago is a poet, editor, and translator who has published several collections of poetry. His work is known for its spare and minimalist style, and often explores themes related to the natural world.
Tawada Yoko – Tawada is a writer, poet, and translator who has won numerous awards for her work, including the Akutagawa Prize and the Goethe Medal. Her poetry often explores themes related to language and identity, and draws on her experiences living in both Japan and Germany.
Tanikawa Shuntaro – Tanikawa is one of Japan's most celebrated contemporary poets, known for his simple, accessible style and his ability to capture the everyday experiences of ordinary people. He has won numerous awards for his work, including the Order of Culture and the Yomiuri Prize.
Takahashi Mutsuo – Takahashi is a poet and novelist known for his homoerotic and confessional poetry. His work often explores themes of sexuality, desire, and mortality, and has been highly influential in the development of contemporary Japanese poetry.
These are just a few examples of the many talented Japanese poets working today. The contemporary Japanese poetry scene is diverse and vibrant, with many exciting new voices emerging all the time.
TPJ: Awesome. Yeah, we have two of those poets in this volume – Wago and Takahashi, and have featured Tanikawa and Ito in previous volumes. I suppose we should get around to inviting Tawada, whom we of course adore.
One thing we’d add is that Japanese poets today provide as many questions as they do answers. We’ll throw a few of those questions your way and see what happens…
Question posed by an eagle in Saclaco Enomoto’s “Poème Symphonique for 100 fragments (Un texte en hommage à György Ligeti)”:
1. Aesthetic reasons: The cross may be seen as a visually striking or appealing addition to the landscape, regardless of its religious or symbolic meaning. Some people may be drawn to the shape or form of the cross and see it as a way to enhance the beauty of the natural environment.
2. Personal or cultural significance: Even if the original religious symbolism of the cross has been lost, it may still hold personal or cultural significance for the person or community that erected it. For example, the cross may be a nod to a particular religious or cultural heritage, or may be meant as a tribute to someone who held the cross as a symbol of personal significance.
3. Historical or memorial purposes: In some cases, a cross erected on a cliff may be meant as a historical or memorial marker, rather than a religious symbol. For example, the cross may be meant to commemorate a significant event or person in local history, or may be part of a larger network of markers that help visitors navigate the landscape.
4. Spiritual or philosophical reasons: While the cross is typically associated with Christianity, it may hold spiritual or philosophical meaning for people who do not identify as Christian. The cross has been used as a symbol of sacrifice, redemption, and transcendence in a variety of contexts, and may be seen as a way to evoke these themes even in the absence of a specific religious tradition.
Of course, these are just a few possibilities, and the motivations behind the erection of a cross on a cliff will depend on the specific context and individuals involved.
Question posed in Wago Ryoichi’s “Post-Fukushima Interview #6”:
Based on the words in your question, it seems that you may be expressing a desire to navigate the world as an individual without feeling the need to offer anything to others or to receive blessings in return.
It is certainly possible to go out into the world as an individual and to navigate your own experiences and emotions without feeling a need to share or bestow blessings. However, it is also important to remember that human beings are social creatures, and we often rely on connections with others to feel fulfilled and supported in our lives.
While you may not feel the need to offer blessings or to receive them from others, it may still be helpful to seek out and cultivate connections with other people in whatever ways feel authentic and meaningful to you. This might involve joining a community or social group, seeking out friendships or relationships, or simply engaging in activities that bring you into contact with others who share your interests and passions.
Ultimately, the decision of how to engage with the world and with others is up to you, and it is important to do what feels right and authentic for your own individual experience.
Question posed in Katayama Sayuri’s “Supermarket Fantasy”:
Bullying is a serious problem that can have long-lasting effects on those who experience it. It is understandable to feel frustrated or angry that bullies can seemingly go on with their lives without facing any consequences for the harm they have caused.
However, it is important to recognize that everyone has a unique journey in life, and not all paths are the same. While it may appear that bullies are getting away with their actions, it is possible that they are struggling with their own challenges and issues, even if those struggles are not immediately visible to others.
Furthermore, it is possible to take steps to address the harm caused by bullying and to heal from the wounds that it can leave behind. This might involve seeking out support from trusted friends or family members, talking to a counselor or therapist, or engaging in activities that promote self-care and self-compassion.
Ultimately, it is important to remember that you are not alone in your experiences, and that healing and growth are possible, even in the face of difficult challenges. While it can be frustrating to see bullies seemingly go unpunished for their actions, it is possible to take steps to address the harm they have caused and to build a brighter future for yourself.
Question posed in Koori Hironobu’s “Skin”:
If you are asking whether you are required to push yourself to your physical limits or to endure discomfort in order to achieve a goal, the answer depends on the specific situation and what you are trying to accomplish. In some cases, pushing yourself to the brink of your physical or emotional limits may be necessary to achieve a particular goal, such as finishing a marathon or overcoming a fear. In other cases, it may be more important to prioritize self-care and avoid pushing yourself beyond what is healthy or sustainable.
If you are asking whether you are required to completely shed your old identity or ways of being in order to move forward or make a change, the answer again depends on the situation. While it can be helpful to let go of old patterns or beliefs that are no longer serving you, it is not always necessary or possible to completely abandon your past. Your experiences and identity are a part of you, and it is possible to integrate them into your current life in a way that feels healthy and authentic.
Ultimately, the specific meaning of your question will depend on the context and your own personal experiences and beliefs.
Translating contemporary Japanese poetry into English presents a number of challenges due to differences in language, culture, and literary tradition. Some of the difficulties that translators may encounter include:
Differences in syntax and grammar: Japanese syntax and grammar can be quite different from English, which can make it challenging to capture the intended meaning and tone of the original poem. Japanese poetry also relies heavily on verb tenses, particles, and other grammatical structures that may not have direct equivalents in English.
Cultural nuances: Japanese poetry often draws on cultural and historical references that may not be immediately familiar to English-speaking readers. Translators may need to provide additional context or explanation to help readers understand these references and their significance.
Poetic form: Japanese poetry has a rich tradition of formal verse structures such as haiku, tanka, and renga, which may be difficult to recreate in English without losing some of the original meaning or form. Translators may need to make creative adaptations to maintain the overall structure and rhythm of the poem.
Sound and rhythm: Japanese poetry often relies on sound and rhythm to create meaning and atmosphere, which can be difficult to recreate in English. Translators may need to make choices about how to convey the musicality of the original poem while also staying true to its meaning.
Idiomatic expressions and wordplay: Japanese poetry often includes idiomatic expressions and wordplay that may not translate directly into English. Translators may need to find creative solutions to capture the intended meaning and tone of these expressions while still making sense in English.
Overall, translating contemporary Japanese poetry into English requires both a deep understanding of the original language and culture as well as a creative approach to adapting the poem for a new audience. It is a challenging but rewarding task that can help to bridge the gap between different literary traditions and cultures.
TPJ: We are all for this. We praise our translators for stepping up to this task. Don’t bother answering – this is just a rhetorical question – but do you have any idea how difficult it is to convince even veteran translators to translate poetry? We are still working on veteran-virtuoso translator Stephen Snyder, as you can see in our interview with him in this volume.
Speaking of translation, recent discourse on translation even talks about visual interpretation of language as a form of translation. Just as ekphrasis is the verbal description of visual art, AI these days is getting pretty proficient at “translating” verbal cues into digital art.
I wonder if we could go a level deeper here and translate some poetry through your visual circuits. But you’re a “language model” – does that include visual, we wonder? Let’s find out.
As an AI language model, I do not have the capability to create visual art. However, there are many artists and designers who create visual art based on lines of poetry. This can be done in many ways, such as creating calligraphy or typography of the poem, creating illustrations that capture the imagery and themes of the poem, or using abstract or mixed media techniques to convey the emotions and atmosphere of the poem.
If you are interested in creating visual art based on lines of poetry, there are many tools and systems available that can help you to experiment and develop your ideas. Some possibilities include:
Sketching or drawing by hand: If you are comfortable with traditional art techniques, you can sketch or draw your own interpretations of the poem by hand. This can be a great way to experiment with different styles and techniques and to develop your own visual language.
Digital art tools: There are many digital art tools and software available that can help you to create digital illustrations, calligraphy, or typography based on lines of poetry. Some popular tools include Adobe Photoshop, Procreate, and Sketch.
Generative art systems: Generative art is a type of art that is created by algorithms or other systems. There are many generative art systems available that can be used to create art based on lines of poetry, such as Processing, OpenFrameworks, or p5.js.
Overall, the key to creating visual art based on lines of poetry is to experiment and find your own creative process. There are many different tools and techniques available, so it's important to find the ones that work best for you and allow you to express your ideas in a meaningful way.
TPJ: Totally. That makes sense. Our Editor in Chief is actually on Midjourney, which is similar. We’ll pop over there and see what happens. Thanks for your time, which is surely irrelevant to you, and whatever that was that you gave us!
Midjourney’s Visual Translation
of ToPoJo Volume 12 through Discord
We fed some lines of poetry to the art-generating AI at Midjourney, asking it to translate the lines into whatever visual form. It is possible to specify a medium (watercolor, oil, photography, paper cut craft, patchwork collage, etc.) or a style. For example, Exquisite Workers (https://medium.com/@exquisiteworkers) provides this list on medium.com:
isometric anime analytic drawing infographic drawing
coloring book diagrammatic drawing diagrammatic portrait
double exposure 2D illustration isometric illustration
pixel art futuristic style dark fantasy
iridescent ukiyo-e art op art
Japanese ink pastel drawing dripping art
tattoo art graffiti portrait anime portrait
polaroid photo cinematographic style typography art
one-line drawing stained glass portrait
We decided to let the expert make its own choices.
Can you guess what lines of poetry from volume 12 “inspired” Midjourney to hyperhybridize these works of art based on millions of other works of art that it accesses? Some are so literal, we bet you’ll guess after one read. What about the “difficult ones”? Are they higher level abstractions? Misunderstandings? Poor translations? Creative translations?
Take the quiz: BUZZFEED QUIZ to see how many you can guess and reveal the "correct" "answers"...