Translating Japanese poetry, translating Dogen

What can we learn about translating Dogen from the problem of translating medieval Japanese poetry? Carl Kay (website , pictured), Harvard-trained Japan scholar, entrepreneur, and author, recently shared with me his senior thesis from nearly 30 years ago, entitled “The Translation of Classical Japanese Poetry.”

Kay lavishes praise on Kenneth Rexroth (Wikipedia entry ), a critic, essayist, and translator of poetry. Says Kay, “…a reader of Rexroth’s translations experiences the freshness and intensity of the work…[Rexroth] concentrates on conveying the poetic experience.” Compared to scholars who are “concerned exclusively…with the meanings of the words [and whose translations] are as limited in their own way as translations that focus on other levels of the poetry”, Rexroth’s versions “capture the ‘meaning’ as clearly as the scholars but preserves the poetic intensity, the glow of the language, the force of syntax and rhythm that scholars often fail to bring over.”

Although poetry is clearly a different genre than Dogen’s writings, the two have more in common than you might think. Dogen brought a strong poem-like sensibility to his essays, in diction, cadence, word choice, and sentence structure. I would assert that the aspects of Rexroth’s translations praised by Kay are every bit as relevant when it comes to Dogen.

Kay takes issue with the translations of Brower and Miner, who were active in translating classical Japanese poetry in the mid 20th century, accusing them of “using” translation of Japanese poetry as a “vehicle” for their own analysis—for answering the question of what the poems “say”. “Considerations of the poetic experience are subordinated to an understanding of what the poem refers to outside of itself. The emphasis is not on the poem, but on cultural information. [Their] translations often blur into analysis…Their translation seems to be written to be appreciated by other scholars.”

Carl’s entire analysis applies as is to nearly all current translations of Dogen. The translators are not conveying the Dogen experience to us, but rather seem almost to be preaching at us, using Dogen as a weapon.

I will present more of Carl’s insights about translation in future posts.

One Response to “Translating Japanese poetry, translating Dogen”

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