- Paperback: 112 pages
- Publisher: Kessinger Publishing (September 10, 2010)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1165413558
- ISBN-13: 978-1165413553
- Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.2 x 9 inches
- Shipping Weight: 181 g
- Customer reviews: Be the first to review this item
Japanese Poetry: The Uta (1919) Paperback – 10 September 2010
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About the Author
Arthur Waley was a distinguished authority on Chinese and Japanese language and literature. He translated many poems and novels from these languages. He was honoured many times for his work by the Chinese and received the Queen's medal for poetry in 1953. His work includes Chinese Poems, Japanese Poetry, The Tale of Genji and Monkey, the translation of a sixteenth-century Chinese novel, which was turned into a major BBC television series.
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Originally published in 1919, and reprinted without change at long intervals, "Japanese Poetry: The 'Uta'" is one of the earliest examples of Arthur Waley's translations from the literatures of China and Japan (and, on a much smaller scale, from other languages). His translation of selected *No* plays would appear in 1921, and his version of the staggering novel, "The Tale of Genji," in six volumes, would begin publication in the mid-1920s; sudden demonstrations to the English-reading world that Japan had an astonishing literature. He does not seem to have published later translations of Japanese poetry, although he prepared some for a BBC broadcast in the early 1950s, which were printed posthumously. (See the memorial volume edited by Ivan Morris, "Madly Singing in the Mountains.")
I mention how early the work is in Waley's career in part to make potential readers aware that the scholarship is essentially early twentieth century, and so to be treated with respect, but not complete confidence. (Even the text editions Waley worked from are mostly historical documents in themselves.) Also, however, to emphasize Waley's boldness. He had already annoyed established Sinologists by translating Chinese poems into daringly "modern" English forms, instead of Victorian rhyming stanzas. (As Waley pointed out, the Chinese poems did rhyme, but in tones, which could hardly be imitated anyway.)
Now, a complete amateur in this field as well as in Chinese studies, he was insisting on treating a genre of early Japanese poems (the five-line "uta" of the title) as little works of art, not linguistic and cultural data. Not the "done thing" -- even for some Japanese scholars, who preferred to scold their ancestors for poems showing excessive reverence for Chinese learning, and awarded extra points if they could read a text as "pure" Japanese.
(To judge from accounts by Robert Graves and others, many late- and post-Victorian English academics and other scholars seem to have been vulgar Kantians; saying they were studying something only out of Duty, and never admitting to enjoying it, especially not if it was something as trivial as Literature.)
Waley took the added step -- still not standard, I am sorry to say -- of providing each translation with a parallel romanized (transliterated) Japanese text, in order to call attention to the syllabic structure, and the word-plays and other sounds and devices of the poems. In his words: "The translations in this book are chiefly intended to facilitate the study of the Japanese text; for Japanese poetry can only be rightly enjoyed in the original."
(This practice is found in, for example, some sections of the recent Columbia anthology of "Early Modern Japanese Literature," edited by Haruo Shirane. Understandably, it is most often used with short forms, especially Haiku.)
This was undoubtedly an excellent idea. Although his translations are in many cases quite charming, they soon seem repetitious, for reasons beyond Waley's control. It helps to see how different poets actually expressed much the same thought in different ways -- and in similar ones, but with ingenious variations.
The body of poetry he had to work with came, overwhelmingly, from official anthologies (identified for each poem, with its number in the edition used). These collections were sponsored by Emperors (at least in name), and the contents represented approved examples of court poetry. (Waley does include some possible folk songs.) With the romanizations, the reader can have some inkling of sound patterns, and how they relate to the meaning -- an inkling, because (a) a transliteration is no substitute for the written, let alone the spoken language, and (b) the "classical" Japanese he offers is in any case the merest approximation of the tenth century court language (or the eighth or eleventh century, and so forth).
The poems had identifiable functions in an aristocratic milieu, and those found worthy of such preservation used a small variety of forms, and addressed a larger, but still limited, number of standard themes. They were offered at regularly occurring events (such as spring and autumn festivals), or in response to predictable passages of life. Readers of "Genji," in Waley's translation or the two more recent ones, will remember the poetry contests, often on set subjects; those who have read translations of the diaries of Heian ladies of the court have encountered the seeming obsession with whose poems met with approval, and from whom. For the whole court, this was an important way of demonstrating sophistication, and acquiring prestige; for women, one of the few ways. In some instances, poetry and art contests were ways of redistributing wealth, keeping the participants dependent on the court. (In a similar environment, Louis XIV encouraged conspicuous consumption by the nobility, and left contests of wit to unofficial gatherings. The Japanese approach seems better -- but, in the end, the warriors came down from the provinces to sweep the courtiers aside, just as the Paris mob descended on Versailles, making way for a successful general.)
Waley's choice was further restricted by elimination from consideration of a substantial body of verse composed by courtiers in Chinese. Under the influences of the Confucian classics, Chinese Buddhism, and the T'ang Dynasty, it had the combined functions of a classical language, a sacred tongue, and a power-prestige speech, like Latin and / or Greek and French in eighteenth-century Europe. Thomas Lamarre has recently (2000) argued that the two linguistic options existed in productive contrast (see "Uncovering Heian Japan: An Archaeology of Sensation and Inscription"), and that Japanese verse should no longer be regarded as emerging from cultural repression. Another shift in approach after another century of scholarship, and not something Waley set out to explore.
As Lamarre has also emphasized, modern Japanese editions, like Waley's English version, obscure, with their typographic conventions and clear paper (as well as reduction to a theoretical linguistic norm), the calligraphic and decorative details of the original manuscript versions; but that, too is another issue.