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Translators’ Note: Three Poems by Shuzo Takiguchi

For us, the process of cotranslating feels more intuitive than procedural, probably because we both feel an affinity for the modernist poets we are translating. We admire their imaginative reach and want our translations to match their inventive use of craft and language. While each poem has its own set of riddling difficulties, we always begin the same way: Yuki Tanaka first translates the poem into English. His familiarity with American and British modernist poetry, and his own strong poetic instincts, allow him to produce not just a literal translation, but something much more nuanced. When he’s satisfied with a draft, he gives it to Mary Jo Bang. She then raises questions about the degree of flexibility allowed by the Japanese, usually in terms of grammar and syntax, but also in terms of word choice. She will then make suggestions, often based on sound or on the poem’s overall tone. We maintain, over the course of several face-to-face meetings and countless emails, an ongoing conversation about the poem and its translation problems. Over time, we become clearer about what the poet might have had in mind. A word or phrase will begin to make sense in a new way, or it will make a new kind of sense. That new understanding will sometimes result in a cascade of other changes.

Since Japanese rarely differentiates between singular and plural, doesn’t use articles, and often omits pronouns, there is a level of ambiguity in the original that ultimately gives the two of us some latitude in our goal to stay true to the text but to carry the original poem over into contemporary English. Our aim is for English-speaking readers to experience the poem as Japanese readers might have experienced it at the time it was published. Sometimes English requires that we move away from a literal translation. To take an example from “Joan Miró,” the original reads “You paint within a blinking mole,” meaning inside a pigmented congenital lesion on the skin. Because the English word “mole” also refers to a small subterranean animal, we translated “a blinking mole” as “a blinking birthmark.”

With Takiguchi, the surrealist estrangement has to be maintained in today’s poetic world where defamiliarization is not as surprising as it once was. To that end, we have had to be careful not to normalize the poems or alter their dialogic relationship to French surrealism. Takiguchi was actively involved in that literary movement. He corresponded with André Breton and translated his 1928 Surrealism and Painting into Japanese two years after it was published in France. An Abridged Dictionary of Surrealism, compiled by Breton and Paul Éluard for the International Surrealism Exhibition in 1938, recognized Takiguchi as a “poète et écrivain surréaliste.” The present poems were first published in 1936 in L’échange surréaliste, a collection of writings and drawings by European Surrealists in Japanese translation, designed to foster international exchange. Takiguchi also helped revive the avant-garde scene in postwar Japan by spearheading an interdisciplinary art group called Jikken Kobo (Experimental Workshop), which was active from 1951 to 1957. The experimental fervor of French surrealism can be felt in the radical texture of Takiguchi’s poems and his decision to call them “poetic experiments.”

Originally Published: November 3rd, 2014

Mary Jo Bang was born in 1946 in Missouri and grew up in Cool Valley, outside of St. Louis. She originally studied sociology, earning both her BA and MA in the subject from Northwestern University. She earned a BA in photography from the Polytechnic of Central London, and an MFA...

Yuki Tanaka was born and raised in Yamaguchi, Japan. He is an MFA student at the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas, Austin.

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  1. November 7, 2014

    thank you. useful comment on this poem. did you find several hidden poems before ending up with this one ?