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,
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?
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
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....
(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)

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
Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.
In support of the foregoing arguments, we offer these versions of the 35th of the Hyakunin poems, the famous waka by Ki no Tsurayuki.

Here is the transliteration with dictionary meanings:

Hito wa isa
people/ as for/ well now...

Kokoro mo shirazu
heart, spirit/ also/ is unknowable

Furusato wa
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
Is unknowable.
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