Counterpointed Sonic Progressions: On Translating Gozo Yoshimasu
Sayuri Okamoto is the recipient of a 2014 PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant for her translation of Dear Monster: The Naked Poetry of Gozo Yoshimasu. Read an excerpt of the translation here.
No one would probably dispute that Gozo Yoshimasu is the most untranslatable major Japanese poet. Especially in his poems of the last ten years, Gozo breaks down the Japanese language into phonemes, into counterpointed sonic progressions and rhymes. He includes fragments of English, French, Chinese, Okinawan, and Korean, and he uses multiple scripts—romaji, Korean hangul, ruby annotations, and invented man’yo-gana and pictographs such as and , along with normal Japanese kanji, hiragana, and katakana. His poems have a Talmudic density. His focus on the letters and characters that make up words and his penchant for elaborate visual and aural rhymes, literary references, and narrative sketches might even seem, to the Western reader, cabbalic.
All of this technique might be simply exotic—difficulty isn’t a merit in itself—if it weren’t for the fact that the poems are incredibly powerful and, in performance, even magisterial; the difficulties fade away and the force of the poems—chanted, sung, whispered—transcends many linguistic and cultural barriers. The influence of his work on younger Japanese poets is enormous. But how is it possible to translate the text of the poems into English? What kind of translation would allow Gozo’s poems to “speak” to English readers as they speak to Japanese readers? In 2013, Gozo was both awarded the National Order of the Rising Sun Prize as well as designated a Person of Cultural Merit (which perhaps sounds generic in English, but is a major appointment in Japan), and yet he remains virtually unknown in Anglophone culture.
Since the 3.11 disaster in Japan, when the complex catastrophes of earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear radiation caused twenty thousand deaths and forced the evacuation of two hundred and eighty thousand people in 2011, Gozo has been groping for a way to respond genuinely. He has felt called into living as a poet; not simply taking poetry as a vocation, but accepting it as an ethical mode of being, a form of responsibility. He has returned over and over to the sites of the disasters—and to the fundamental question yet to be answered: What is poetry?
He has devotedly been writing a massive series of “listening” poems.
As a Japanese writer and translator who has lived between countries, I felt a strong aesthetic and ethical response to Gozo’s ongoing project. It led me to commit the time and energy and imaginative resources to translating it for the English-speaking world. My translation makes his otherwise ‘‘inaudible whistle’’—his poetry—audible to English speakers.
I have assembled, edited, and translated Gozo’s recent poetry, this poetry of responsiveness. The collection is titled Kaibutsu-kun, or Dear Monster, which is what Gozo calls his recent series. In manuscript, Kaibutsu-kun is over 500 pages long so far and keeps expanding relentlessly. The selected volume that I have edited aims to bring this work into English even before it is published in Japanese.
This piece is part of PEN’s 2014 translation series, which features essays and excerpts from the recipients of this year’s PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grants.