Poet to Poet: An Interview with Yuki Tanaka
I met Yuki Tanaka at the Community of Writers workshop in Squaw Valley, California, a few years ago. When he mentioned a translation project he was working on with Mary Jo Bang, my ears pricked and demanded that he tell me everything. Following his work since, both his translations work and his own poetry written in English, has been great. The co-translations with Mary Jo Bang of Shuzo Takiguchi can be found in Boston Review, New Republic, and Paris Review, among other journals. His chapbook Seance in Daylight was the winner of the 2018 Frost Place Chapbook Competition, poem of which can be found here.
Emily Wolahan: I’ve remained intrigued by your collaborative translations with Mary Jo Bang of Shuzo Takiguchi’s work since I first saw some of them in 2015. Can you describe the scope of this project and what drew you to it?
Yuki Tanaka: We are translating a book of poems called The Poetic Experiments of Shuzo Takiguchi 1927–37. I was first drawn to Takiguchi’s surrealist poetry because of its strange lyricism. The first batch of poems we translated were Takiguchi’s lineanted poems (Seven Poems and Fairy Distance, both from the 1930s). Later, I became more and more interested in his prose poems. Takiguchi’s language and associative logic are even more extreme in these earlier poems.
One of the pressing questions behind our translations is:
How do we convey the kind of experimental spirit
Takiguchiand his readers must have felt back then?
We started translating him four years ago, and since then, our translations have changed a lot. Earlier, our translations were more conventional in that they stuck to the literal meaning of Takiguchi’s language. But at some point, we started to take the fact Takiguchi called these poems “poetic experiments” more seriously. These poems were indeed experimental back in the 1920s and 30s when surrealism was still new, but it’s hard to convey the same kind of excitement in the twenty-first century.
One of the pressing questions behind our translations is: How do we convey the kind of experimental spirit Takiguchi and his readers must have felt back then? How can we make surrealism fresh for contemporary readers? We feel that if we translate Takiguchi word for word, the result will be accurate but not true to the shape of Takiguchi’s imagination—his playfulness, intellect, and the experimental nature of his work. One way of making Takiguchi’s experimentation fresh for today’s readers is to use poetic techniques that are available in our times. One is intertextuality. Takiguchi himself quotes a number of literary texts in his work, but in our translations, we amplified this aspect of his work to match the experimental spirit of the original.
EW: Conveying the spirit of the original is so important to any good translation. There’s the forever debate, however, of how far a translator is willing or “allowed” to stray. What parameters did you need to set for yourself to not go too far off piste?
YT: It really depends on the poem or even a line or sentence we are translating at a given moment. We constantly use multiple dictionaries and thesauruses in English and Japanese. Mary Jo would suggest alternatives for a certain word and ask me if any of these alternatives are permitted by the original.We look up everything, down to parts that constitute the Chinese characters, just to see any liberties can be taken. (There is a very interesting book of translations called Shi: Radical Translation by Yunte Huang. He translates classical Chinese poems not based on the actual words but radicals that make up these words).
Translation makes me suspect
that naturalness and pay more attention
to how artificial and slippery
my native tongue is.
EW: I’m also interested in the collaborative aspect of your translations. Japanese is your first language and you are also fluent in English; you have a Ph.D. in English Literature and are currently completing an MFA in poetry at the Michener Center. How does translation change your relationship to each of those languages?
YT: I grew up speaking Japanese, so it comes to me naturally. Translation makes me suspect that naturalness and pay more attention to how artificial and slippery my native tongue is.I always feel this way about English, and it took me a while to realize it’s not necessarily a bad thing. Poet and novelist Yoko Tawada, who writes both in Japanese and German (her adopted language), once said that rather than mastering multiple languages, she’d rather fall into the valley between two languages. I will never feel at home with Japanese or English, but I love that shakiness, so I might be tipped over into words and syntax I have never thought of.
I will never feel at home with Japanese or English,
but I love that shakiness, so I might be tipped
over into words and syntax I have never thought of.
EW: The sense of “suspicion” you mention touchs on what first brought me to poetry, as if a curtain was being drawn from what I knew. Poetry capitalizes on the artificiality of language—spreading an awareness of that artificialiy in every aspect of our lives. For me it was a lens that, once looked through, never disappeared. Visual art can offer this insight, too, and Takiguchi was an art critic, as well as poet. The poems of his that appeared in Asymptoteare all ekphrastic. Do you also have an interest in visual art? Have Takiguchi’s ekphrastic poems prompted you to draw on artworks for your poems?
YT: The poems published in Asymptote are part of a series called Seven Poems, each poem named after a surrealist painter (e.g. Max Ernst, Salvador Dalí). Even when he’s not directly drawing on artwork, his language is always visual. I often think of his sentences as a revved-up film reel where one scene gets replaced by another so quickly we have to pause and piece together what we have just seen.
Surrealist paintings…give you disparate images
with a mysterious title,
and you have to interpret them
by making up a story or persona.
It’s like solving a puzzle.
“Seven Poems” was the first group of poems Mary Jo and I translated, so Takiguchi’s knowledge of the visual arts has been a constant inspiration for me. I often start a poem by looking at an artwork. I’m shy, so engaging with an external source helps me overcome my reserve. Surrealist paintings are my go-to sources because they are so open-ended: they give you disparate images with a mysterious title, and you have to interpret them by making up a story or persona. It’s like solving a puzzle.
EW: That question leads me to ask how this translation project has overlapped with your own writing? Do you feel the act of translation feeds your poetry or keeps you from it?
YT: For me, translating Takiguchi and working with Mary Jo are inseparable. It’s been such a privilege to be able to translate Takiguchi with a master poet. Both poets have shown me how far one can go in one’s art. In my own writing I lean toward lyric, but seeing this kind of artistic extremity (e.g. associative logic, multiplicity of meaning) makes me want to push myself a little further. I also learned a lot about poetry and what it means to be an artist from seeing Mary Jo at work. She would tirelessly examine every word to get it right, not just to capture its meaning but to fully realize a poem.
EW: I’ve come across the issue of pronouns in Japanese before in A Voice in the Road by Natsuko Kuroda, tr. Angus Turvill, in Two Lines 28. Here, the translator told me he played with different points of view but ultimately had to choose (for this story, he chose the second person because Kuroda had purposefully not let gender be identified even through context). In your own writing in English have you ever been tempted to try out your own experiments of denying pronouns, for example, or some other restriction à la Perec’s La Disparition? (If not, why not?)
I prefer my “I” to be present in a poem
without being assertive. I want it to be unstable,
vulnerable, its outline so blurred
that the world around me can enter the poem.
YT: Your question made me realize I haven’t consciously denied pronouns in any of my writing. That kind of elision happens to me naturally because pronouns are less frequent in Japanese than in English. For example, haikus and tankas are often translated with “I,” but if you look at the original, “I” is not usually stated but implied. That doesn’t mean the poet is experimenting with pronouns—it’s just the way the Japanese language works.
I don’t consciously experiment with pronouns, but I am self-conscious about using them. For me, the hardest pronoun to use is “I.” In Japanese, we don’t say “I” all the time. For example, in Japanese, it’s awkward to say “I like cats.” We just say “Like cats,” which is grammatically correct and more natural. I prefer my “I” to be present in a poem without being assertive. I want it to be unstable, vulnerable, its outline so blurred that the world around me can enter the poem.
EW: Are there things inherent in the Japanese language that make translating from it into English particularly challenging? And are there other things that make it especially satisfying?
YT: One difficulty in translating Japanese is syntax. A typical Japanese sentence starts with a subject and ends with a verb. The end of a sentence is always emphasized, so when you translate from Japanese to English, the emphasis of the sentence might fall on the wrong word. Singular versus plural is another problem. Japanese doesn’t have articles, and we don’t specify whether nouns are singular or plural as often as you do in English. For example, “frog” can be “a frog” or “frogs” depending on the context. Same with pronouns. In Japanese, you can omit “he,” “she,” or “they” if the context makes it clear. When translating Takiguchi, we often puzzle over the antecedents of his already complicated sentences.
Japanese kanji characters consist of radicals,
and each radical has a distinct meaning.
The word for poetry 詩 is made up of
言 (word) and 寺 (temple).
Takiguchi also plays on words in the original, and much of it is lost in translation. The word “waterfall” comes up very often in his poems partly because the first character of his last name is 瀧 (taki), which means waterfall. Japanese kanji characters consist of radicals, and each radical has a distinct meaning. For example, the word for poetry 詩 is made up of 言 (word) and 寺 (temple). I think this is why Takiguchi says in one of his poems, “I write a poem as old as a Tibetan temple.” In translation you lose such multi-layered meanings, but we tried to compensate for it by coming up with wordplay of our own. In many ways, Mary Jo is a perfect person to work with on Takiguchi because her own poetry attests to the same kind of verbal genius and as a poet, she’s always alive to the possibility of multiple meanings in the English language.
EW: In your own life, where you play many different roles, where do you draw the line between “translator” and “poet”?
YT: I came to translation first, then writing later. Crossing the line between translation and poetry made me appreciate the total freedom of the latter. Whenever I find myself falling into the same compositional habits (the same words, same form, same sentence structure), I go back to translation, then back to writing, and I feel a renewed appreciation of this magical space where anything is possible. Even when I’m not actively translating, I feel like I’m still translating because I write in my second language. I don’t literally write a poem in Japanese and translate it into English, but I try to bring the poetic resources of the Japanese language and literature into my English poems (e.g. concrete imagery, folktales).