A Note on the English Translation
The English translations included in this World Wide Web edition of Hyakunin Isshu
are revised versions of MacCauley's translations. We are aware that higgledy-piggledy revision runs the
risk of losing essential nuances in the totality of MacCauley's offering. But, as we argue below,
whatever claim the translation may have to a poetic unity, it almost certainly obstructs an
understanding by English-speaking readers of the Hyakunin Isshu poems in the 21st century.
MacCauley's translation is written in a pre-modern mode fashionable at the end of the nineteenth
and beginning of the twentieth centuries. It was the same mode in which Greek drama was translated
at that time. Two decades before MacCauley, A.E. Housman had already parodied the mode
in his "Fragment of a Greek Tragedy," which begins,
Several years after MacCauley's translation T.S. Eliot still needed to take Murray to task for transforming Euripides into the fluid Swinburnian haze of such lines as
Chorus: O suitably-attired-in-leather-boots|
Head of a traveller, wherefore seeking whom
Whence by what way how purposed art thou come
To this well-nightingaled vicinity?
(upon which Eliot remarks, "it is [Murray] who has sapped our soul and shattered the cup
of all life for Euripides." (Selected Essays [London: Faber, 1951], p. 61)
This thing undreamed of, sudden from on high,|
Hath sapped my soul: I dazzle where I stand,
The cup of all life shattered in my hand....
MacCauley is a native of the same old poetic village as Murray. And he makes matters worse
for himself by retaining for his English translations the rigorous scheme of 5-7-5-7-7 syllables
per line. As a result, his vocabulary--already filled with "thee" and "thy" and "lo!" and "'tis"--
is padded to make up the right number of syllables with "e'en" for "even" and "e'er" for "ever"
and "o'er" and so on. And his syntax can accommodate lines like "Gaze I at the moon" (for "if
or when I gaze at the moon").
None of this is very likely to convey to English readers the being of the Hyakunin poems.
Rexroth (One Hundred Poems, p. x) comments that "A poetry of sensibility no longer
seems as strange as it did to the first translators [like MacCauley]. Mallarme, the early Rilke,
Emily Dickinson, various others deal with experience in similar terms." Another perceptive poet and translator suggests that a useful model for a translator of Japanese poetry is the Wallace Stevens of "Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Blackbird, " as in
In support of the foregoing arguments, we offer these versions of the 35th of the Hyakunin poems, the
famous waka by Ki no Tsurayuki.
Among twenty snowy mountains,|
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.
Here is the transliteration with dictionary meanings:
Hito wa isa|
people/ as for/ well now...
Kokoro mo shirazu
heart, spirit/ also/ is unknowable
birthplace/ as for
Hana zo mukashi no
flowers/ [emphatic]/ bygone days/ of
Ka ni nioi keru
fragrance/ with/ emit a scent
Well...as for people|
their hearts are unknowable.
As for [my] birthplace,
the flowers do
emit the fragrance of bygone days.
Here is what MacCauley makes of this:
No! no! As for man,|
How his heart is none can tell,
But the plum's sweet flower
In my birthplace, as of yore,
Still emits the same perfume.
MacCauley, p. 71
Here is our revision of MacCauley:
The depths of the hearts|
Of humankind cannot be known.
But in my birthplace
The plum blossoms smell the same
As in the years gone by
And here are some recent translations:
No, the human heart|
But in my birthplace
The flowers still smell
The same as always.
Rexroth, One Hundred Poems, p. 87
[see Sources for full citation]
Now I cannot tell|
What my old friend is thinking:
But the petals of the plum
In this place I used to know
Keep their old fragrance.
Bownas and Thwaite, The Penguin Book of
Japanese Verse (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1964), p. 82
As for people--well,|
I don't know how they feel,
but in my old home
these flowers still bloom
with the same scent as before
Sato and Watson, From the Country of
Eight Islands (New York: Columbia University
Press, 1986), p. 130
I cannot well know|
What human feelings may do,
But in this village
The plum blossoms anyway
Still have the fragrance of old.
Galt, p. 35
About the people|
living on in this old place
I cannot be sure--
but the plum blossoms at least
have the scent of long ago.
Carter, p. 216
We should not leave the impression that the only reason to employ MacCauley's translation
here is that the 1917 Yokohama edition is out of copyright and thus able to be reproduced on the
Web. MacCauley does offer fairly literal translations that capture basic meanings of the poems.
For those who want to read a transcript of the 1917 edition, without any editorial revisions, we
have provided the Appendix.
Return to Ogura Hyakunin Isshu contents.
Last revised February 28, 2001