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Autumn 2009, vol 7 no 3

A Wisp of Snipes: Translating Medieval Japanese Poetry
by Paul S. Atkins

In this essay I will attempt to illustrate some aspects of the theory and practice of translation by presenting and examining multiple examples of English translations of a single poem by the medieval Japanese monk and poet Saigyō (1118-90). I think the process will illuminate some things that remain more or less constant, such as the differences between the classical Japanese and modern English languages, and some things that have varied over time, such as translators’ attitudes toward their own role between the poet and the reader.

To a great extent my project is inspired by the title essay of Hiroaki Sato’s book One Hundred Frogs (Weatherhill, 1983). Sato collected as many versions as he and others could find of Bashō’s well-known haiku, furuike ya / kawazu tobikomu / mizu no oto 古池や蛙とびこむ水の音 (An old pond! / a frog jumps in / the sound of water). Another similar effort is Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei by Eliot Weinberger (Moyer Bell, 1987). Weinberger collected and critiqued nineteen translations of a Chinese poem from the eighth century.

Exegesis of the poem

Here is the poem, in the original Japanese and a romanized transcription:


kokoro naki
mi ni mo aware wa
shigi tatsu sawa no
aki no yugure

Before we even begin to address its content we can remark on the formal characteristics. The form is called variously waka, uta, or tanka, and designates a sequence of thirty-one syllables arranged in five units of 5,7,5,7, and 7 syllables. It is conventional not to indicate these units in modern Japanese typography, and to render the poem in a single, uninterrupted burst of text; even premodern calligraphed versions ignore them:

By following the permanent link above to the Seattle Art Museum and clicking on the "Press to Begin" button, the reader may view a magnificent image of a 17th century calligraphed version of this poem, brushed by the famous calligrapher Hon'ami Kōetsu (1558-1637). Other buttons, such as that marked "Poems," provide further information. (This remarkable online exhibit, curated by Dr. Yukiko Shirahara, reconstructs an object known as the Deer Scroll, with underpaintings by Tawaraya Sōtatsu and calligraphy by Kōetsu.) This image shows that premodern calligraphers did not necessarily slavishly follow the syllabic structure when transcribing poems; they broke the lines as appropriate.

Nonetheless, in a waka poem, words (however one wishes to define a "word" in the Japanese context) cannot be divided across syllabic units. Although the syllabic units of 5-7-5-7-7 may not be indicated by the typography or calligraphy, if you understand the language and count the syllables you will see that words are not broken, nor are postpositions separated from the words they modify, by the syllabic units. It is customary in romanized transcription to divide the poem into its five constituent units, which are called ku in Japanese and usually referred to as lines in English. A disagreement about whether waka are actually composed of five "lines," or are actually unitary utterances, led to what was memorably titled the "waka wars" of the 1980s and '90s. We will see this difference of opinion reflected in the translations below.

This poem is composed of what we would call in English grammar a sentence, which occupies the first three lines (if you will pardon the use of that term), and a sentence fragment, which takes up the remaining two. That is to say, there is a hard caesura between lines three and four. The sentence fragment results from the poem ending on a noun. Both of these formal characteristics—the caesura in the middle (J. sanku-gire), and the ending on a noun (taigen-dome)—are considered typical of poetry composed around the turn of the thirteenth century. A third distinguishing characteristic, allusive variation (honka-dori), or allusion to a specific poem of an earlier era that involves some change of the material, is absent.

What does the poem say? Here are English approximations of each word and line:

kokoro: mind or heart (noun)
naki: absent (adjective in attributive form)
mi: self, body, social status (noun)
ni: to (particle); by (particle used to indicate passive)
mo: also, even (particle)

[Even by a self/body that lacks a mind or heart]

aware: pathos, sadness (noun)
wa: [indicates topic] (particle)
shira: know (verb in imperfect form)
re: [indicates potential or passive] (auxiliary verb)
keri: [indicates past action, sudden realization, or poetic exclamation] (auxiliary verb)

[pathos is known!]

shigi: [a type of water bird] (noun)
tatsu: depart, take off (verb in attributive form)
sawa: marsh, swamp (noun)
no: [possessive particle]
aki: autumn (noun)
no: [possessive particle]
yugure: twilight, dusk (noun)

[twilight in autumn at a marsh where a snipe is taking off]
or, since classical Japanese rarely indicates number,
[. . . where snipes are taking off].

The first part of the poem presents an abstract statement: even if there is a body that lacks a heart or mind, the ineffable emotional quality called aware is known by it. (The word aware is derived from the exclamation appare!, meaning "Ah!" or "Ah..." and denotes deep emotion or feeling, tinged with melancholy.) This "body" or "self" without a heart is often read as referring to a Buddhist monk (or nun, theoretically), who has abandoned all attachments, including emotional ones, to this world.

Since the author was himself a monk, this poem is often interpreted in autobiographical terms to refer to the poet's own experience. Indeed, in the poet's collected works, this poem is introduced with a preface saying it was composed in autumn, on the road.

Is it a body? Is it a self? Is it a mind? Is it a heart? What is aware? Does the poem say that this body can know aware, or that aware is known by the body? These are choices that the translator will have to make in the first half of the poem, and this is not a puffed-up list; it's a real list.

In the second half of the poem, the abstract statement is illustrated by a concrete image. The season is autumn, the time of day is dusk, and the speaker observes one or more birds called shigi taking off in flight from a marsh. This experience occurred first, and convinced the speaker, who was nominally no longer capable of experiencing emotion, that he could still feel this sadness or pathos called aware.

In the second part of the poem, the questions that the English translator must answer are: What kind of bird is this, exactly? (As you can tell by the title of this essay, it's usually considered a snipe.) And how many of them are there? (My title doesn't answer that question. "Wisp" is the term for a group of snipes, like a pride of lions or a murder of crows; it can also be called a "walk" of snipes. In my title it refers to the snipes that collectively inhabit the translations I collected, with a few other birds mixed in). You will have to decide for yourself how many should be in the poem.

"Early" Translations

I managed to find fifty translations, including one each in French and German; they are given in an appendix at the end of this essay. It would be tedious to discuss each one, so instead I chose representative works that seemed to illustrate what might be called three phases of attitude toward the original: early, middle, and late.

Let's begin at the beginning, with the first translation of the poem into English that I could find:

Autumn Evening Twilight
I am from passions quite immune,
Yet something cheerless strikes my heart
In autumn evening twilight, where
The snipe up from the marshes start.

This appeared in a bilingual edition by Miyamori Asataro published in 1936. It is typical of translations of the time in attempting to conform to English poetic conventions. Miyamori gives the poem a title (by pulling a phrase out of the poem), and rhymes "start" with "heart." The lines are also metered in iambic tetrameter.

The translator remains fairly close to the original, but tinkers with it as he sees fit. He does not try to define aware as a concept, rather calling it "something cheerless."

The best thing Miyamori's translation has to recommend it is an accompanying reproduction of a painting of this scene by the eighteenth century artist Ukita Ikkei. Although Ikkei seems to have painted just one snipe, Miyamori seems to regard it as multiple snipe; otherwise, he would have written "starts" for "start." The plural of "snipe" is "snipes"; but the Oxford English Dictionary allows "snipe" to indicate the plural without the definite article.

There are a couple of other similar attempts, published even much later than 1936, with archaisms like "eve" for evening, or exclamation points, or other eccentricities. To be fair, they all seem to have been done by non-native speakers of the English language. I put them all in the category of "early," regardless of the year of first publication, in that they seem intent on making a translation that conforms to prevailing ideas of what an English poem should look like, with little concern for illustrating the formal characteristics of the original.

"Middle" Translations

In my admittedly arbitrary chronological divisions, I would also propose a middle period, translations by people who have both a good understanding of both the source and target languages. They do not attempt to replicate English verse conventions, but rather assume some understanding on the part of the reader about Japanese poetic forms.

This translation by Donald Keene appeared in his Anthology of Japanese Literature, which did more than perhaps any other single book to expose classical Japanese literature to a wide international audience:

Even to someone
Free of passions this sadness
Would be apparent:
Evening in autumn over
A marsh where a snipe rises.

Keene attempts to replicate some formal aspects of the original. The sentence structure is preserved, as is the strong caesura in the middle of the poem, represented by the colon. Most notably, his English version is presented in five lines, each of the same number of syllables as the original, 5-7-5-7-7. It assumes a more flexible attitude on the part of the reader regarding the question of what is and is not poetry. Poetry doesn't have to rhyme and it doesn't have to follow Western meter.

Keene's version rather closely reflects the meaning of the original. He doesn't overinterpret. But there is one matter on which one cannot really have it both ways. Japanese is a left-branching language. That is to say, when phrases are used to modify a noun, they appear before the noun. English is, for the most part, a right-branching language; we modify a noun by adding phrases after it. Thus when a Japanese phrase like Tōkyō de tabeta sushi gets translated into English, it becomes "the sushi I ate in Tokyo," and the order of the words gets reversed.

Ordinarily this is of little significance but, as mentioned earlier, ending poems on a noun was a characteristic feature of the poetry written by Saigyō and his contemporaries. We surmise that one of the reasons they did it was to leave a feeling of incompletion (because Japanese utterances usually end in a verb or copula, a sentence ending in a noun is almost always what we would call a "fragment"). That sense of incompletion leaves the reader with the final image lingering in the mind. In Saigyō's original, that image is the sad and tranquil autumn twilight. In Keene's translation, the final image is of the snipe taking off from the marsh. It focuses the final moment of our attention on the action, not what remains after the action is completed. Thus we see that in order to preserve the syntax, one must tamper with the image order. The reverse is also true.

Another translation that I will put alongside Keene's as representative of this middle era is by Robert H. Brower and Earl Miner, and comes from their study Japanese Court Poetry, published in 1961. For many years this was the authoritative study in English on Japanese poetry, and still there is no work in English that rivals it in scope. It did much to build recognition of Japanese poetry as an established and deep poetic tradition.

While denying his heart,
Even a priest must feel his body know
The depths of a sad beauty;
From a marsh at autumn twilight,
Snipe that rise to wing away.

This is the first translation I could find that takes the autobiographical approach to its logical extreme. It's not really much of a stretch to assume that the phrase "even someone without feelings" refers to the speaker, and the preface to the original permits us to associate that speaker with the poet himself. But Brower and Miner go even further. They don't merely make a judgment call that implies a certain interpretation; they push interpretation into the translation itself. There is no word in the original that corresponds to the English word "priest" or "monk." In fact, the only words in Japanese that denote a Buddhist priest are of Chinese origin and therefore traditionally forbidden for use in waka poetry. A euphemism would have to be used. The priest emerges only from their reading of the poem. The editors of the version I used (Tanaka Yutaka and Akase Shingo, Shin kokin wakashū, Iwanami, 1992) specifically say that "someone without feelings" is not necessarily limited to Buddhist monks. Regarding that "someone" as a monk is certainly a legitimate interpretation, but it is indicative of an attitude toward translation in which the translator explains the poem while the poem is still in play. While the translators are confident that the reader will recognize this text as verse, they do not yet have the confidence that the reader will be able to interpret the translation "properly." (For my part, I prefer a translation that does not close off the possibilities embraced by the original. Saigyō's observation could apply to anyone, to any of us; one need not be a monk to experience his feeling and insight.)

"Late" Translations

What I will call late translations are written with the full confidence that classical Japanese poetry has been recognized in its own right as a poetic tradition. I think that many of these translations are written consciously or unconsciously under the influence of the translations by Keene or Brower and Miner. Thus, they often attempt to add something new. In attempting to innovate it is clear that some of the translators are going back to the original and working through it word by word.

One obvious but perhaps minor innovation is getting rid of the snipe. Is it really a snipe? Miner (1968) retranslates the poem himself and calls it a longbill. William LaFleur (1983) calls it a woodcock. Paul Schalow (1990) sees sandpipers. Meredith McKinney (1998) calls it a curlew.

It turns out that the word used in the original, shigi, is itself rather broad. If you look it up in a Japanese-English dictionary you will probably see it translated as "snipe." But of course that alone is not an adequate basis for the serious translator.

The first question is, what might the word shigi have meant in the time the poem was written? Again, the annotators of my edition note that the term is quite broad; there are many kinds of shigi. It suggests the ta-shigi, or "rice-paddy" shigi. That is called in English the common snipe. Other types of shigi are called this or that sandpiper, including the iso-shigi, literally "coastal" shigi, or common sandpiper. The family of birds described as shigi seems equivalent to that called sandpiper in English. So that appears valid as well, but perhaps the word summons images of a beach rather than a marsh. The daishaku-shigi is the Eurasian curlew, which is what is typically meant in English by a curlew, so that seems valid, too. The yama-shigi, or mountain shigi, is the Eurasian woodcock, but, as both names indicate it's not a water bird, so perhaps it should be disqualified. I wasn't able to find a Japanese bird called a longbill, although I know that birds by that name exist.

When do translators stop consistently capitalizing the first word of every line? In the mid-1980s. There are earlier examples by non-native speakers, but it's hard to say if the translators are making conscious choices. And with all the changes I observed, there is backsliding. An innovation is made, and other translators keep doing what they are doing. Change occurs in stages.

Earlier I mentioned the "waka wars" and the claim that scholar Mark Morris wrote in an article that waka (that is, tanka, the 31-syllable form) are not five-line poems, which are an Anglophone invention; they are one-unit poems, just as they appear in modern typeset editions. Morris is not a prolific translator, but he was articulating something that Hiroaki Sato, who is, has been doing for decades—translating waka in a single burst of text. Thus:

Even to me, an uncultivated soul, sadness is felt when snipes fly up from a marsh in the autumn evening.

Sato is not only innovating with form; his translation is part of that broader trend in which translators reinterpret the poem phrase by phrase. Earlier commentaries said that the person without a heart was a monk; but a dictionary of classical Japanese will also tell you that the adjective kokoronashi (literally, heartless or mindless) means lacking in sensitivity or sensibility. So Sato and others reinterpret and translate the phrase as a rhetorical gesture of modesty.

Another part of the poem that gets reexamined is the word shirarekeri. The auxiliary verb -ru, which is conjugated here as -re, has four functions: passive, potential, honorific, and spontaneous. We can rule out honorifics because, by convention, they are almost completely absent in waka poetry. In most early translations, we see the passive, the potential, or both: Someone can know the pathos; the pathos is known by someone; the pathos can be known by someone. Only in later translations do we see evidence that the translator has gone word for word through the poem and wondered whether -ru indicates spontaneity in this instance. This is used typically to represent emotional states in which one feels a certain way or thinks something, or looks at someone, without conscious effort. Regarding -ru as indicating spontaneity leads to translations like this one, by Philip Harries:

Even one
Who has denied emotion
Cannot but feel this tragic beauty—
Snipe rise from the marshes
Through the autumn dusk.

This interpretation appears as early as 1968, but it seems to take a while to gain traction.

I think it's only fair to include my own version, not because I'm proud of it—I had already collected a few dozen translations of the poem when I remembered I had translated it myself—but since I've implicitly criticized other translations, I think it's my responsibility to expose my own version to criticism.

This version appears on the Seattle Art Museum's online exhibition of the Deer Scroll mentioned above, for which I served as translator and adviser:

Even someone
without a heart
may be deeply moved—
snipe taking flight from a marsh
in the autumn twilight

Out of the fifty translations I collected, only six, including this one, use a dash in addition to a line break to represent the caesura between the two halves of the poem. The most common device is a colon, although others use a comma, or an exclamation point, others ignore it, and others, as we have seen, don't even use a line break.

I also omitted the period at the end of the poem. This was intended partly to communicate the sense of incompletion one gets at the end of the poem because of the sentence fragment, the ending with a noun. But I think I might be inclined to try this even with poems that end in the usual way. Classical Japanese poetry has no punctuation, partly because the metrical requirements help one parse it. Also, I was influenced by one of my teachers, Makoto Ueda, who is well known as a scholar and translator of haiku. Here is his version:

even a person
without feelings would be moved
to this sadness
when a snipe takes wing from the marsh
on the autumn nightfall

When I was in graduate school I was reading Professor Ueda's translations of haiku, and I noticed that the earlier ones often didn't end in punctuation. That made sense, since haiku originate out of the hokku, the initial verse of a linked verse session, and are intrinsically intended to leave something unsaid so that the next person has room to add something. But his later translations abandoned even the initial capital letter. I asked Professor Ueda about this and I recall that he told me that when he first started translating he felt that haiku didn't have an end, so he left off the period. And over the years he began to feel that they didn't have a beginning either, so he stopped capitalizing the first word. I don't really feel that waka lack a beginning; perhaps I will in time. But the sense of waka trailing off seems to be a quite accurate replication of the experience of reading it in the original. It leaves room for overtones, for what remains unsaid.


Fifty translations of "kokoro naki…," a poem in classical Japanese by Saigyō

Date of publication & Translator

1936 Miyamori

  Autumn Evening Twilight
I am from passions quite immune,
Yet something cheerless strikes my heart
In autumn evening twilight, where
The snipe up from the marshes start.

1948 Kokusai Bunka Shinkokai

   Here beside this swamp
Where snipe dart up and take wing,
   On an autumn eve,
Touched, would feel sad
Even the dullest of souls!

1955 Keene

Even to someone
Free of passions this sadness
Would be apparent:
Evening in autumn over
A marsh where a snipe rises.

1955 Matsumoto

Insensible as I am, I share
the loneliness of the autumn dusk
at the Swamp of the Solitary-snipe.

1959 Petit

Du sommet d'une montagne

Même à quelqu'un
Libére de passions (c'est-à-dire un moine), cette tristesse
Serait apparente:
Soir d'automne sur un marécage
D'où s'envole une bècassine.

1960 Blyth

  Even the mind
Of the mindless one,
  Feels grief,
When the snipe wings up from the marsh
In the autumn evening.

1961 Brower & Miner

  While denying his heart,
Even a priest must feel his body know
  The depths of a sad beauty;
From a marsh at autumn twilight,
Snipe that rise to wing away.

1964 Bownas & Thwaite

A man without feelings,
Even, would know sadness
When snipe start from the marshes
On an autumn evening.

1965 Yamagiwa

Even for someone
Free of passions, such sadness
Can be known—
Evening in autumn
Where a snipe rises out of the marsh.

1968 Miner

  While denying his heart,
Even a priest cannot but know
  The depths of a sad beauty:
From the marsh a longbill
Flies off in the autumn dusk.

1970 Honda

Hermit though I am,
deep pathos comes o'er me,
as at the autumn dusk I see a snipe
starting from the swamp.

1971 Honda

Hermit though I be,
deep pathos comes o'er me,
as at the autumn nightfall
I behold a lone snipe starting from the swamp.

1974 Matsunaga

Even a priest who does not have a self
Can understand the sadness of things

From the snipe's flight
on an autumn eve.

1976 Keene

This sadness would be
Apparent even to the man
Devoid of feelings;
Night in autumn over
A marsh where a snipe rises.

1976 Rexroth

My heart emptied,
All pity quiet,
Still I am moved, as
A snipe rises and flies away
In the autumn dusk.

1981 Watson

Even a person free of passion
would understand
this sadness:
autumn evening
in a marsh where snipes fly up.

1983 Miner?

While denying my heart,
Even I cannot but feel
  This sad beauty:
A longbill rising up in flight
From a marsh at autumn dusk.

1983 LaFleur

Thought I was free
of passions, so this melancholy
comes as surprise:
a woodcock shoots up from marsh
where autumn's twilight falls.

1985 Miner

   While denying his heart,
Even a priest cannot but know
   The depths of sad beauty:
From the marsh a longbill
Flies off in the autumn dusk.

1985 Morrell

   A sense of wonder
Touches even one whose heart
   Has renounced the world:
From a marsh in autumn twilight
Sandpipers take to the sky.

1986 Miner

Even a priest
who has schooled away desire
knows deep feeling:
from the marsh a longbill
flies off in the autumn dusk.

1987 Carter

Even one who claims
to no longer have a heart
feels this sad beauty:
snipes flying up from a marsh
on an autumn evening.

1989 Yasuda

Even for the one
who has given up the world,
loneliness is known,
when the snipe dart from the marsh
in the deepening autumn eve.

1990 Schalow

Even the heartless soul feels moved; sandpipers rise from a marsh one early evening in autumn.

1991 Carter

Even one who claims
   to no longer have a heart
feels this sad beauty:
snipes flying up from a marsh
   on an evening in autumn.

1991 Harries

Even one
Who has denied emotion
Cannot but feel this tragic beauty—
Snipe rise from the marshes
Through the autumn dusk.

1992 Markus

Even this man beyond feelings
now realizes
the sadness of things—
dusk in autumn, when
the snipe stands still in a marsh.

1992 Watson

Even a person free of passion
would be moved
to sadness:
autumn evening
in a marsh where snipes fly up.

1993 Pörtner

Ich dachte mein Sinn
sei frei und doch und doch
wie rührt es mich wenn
an einem Abend im Herbst
aus dem Moor eine Schnepfe steigt

1994 Ramirez-Christensen

   Even to a self
empty at heart is disclosed
   a moving power—
From the marsh a snipe rising
in the autumn twilight.

1997 Heine

A heart subdued,
Yet poignant sadness
Is so deeply felt:
A snipe flies over the marsh
As autumn dusk descends.

1997 Heldt

With a heart dead to the world, even so one can be moved, I now realize.
A snipe rising from a marsh, in autumn dusk.

1997 Tyler

One without feelings,
yes, even he,
knows melancholy:
snipe rising from a marsh
at dusk in fall.

1998 McKinney

A curlew lifts from the marsh
in autumn twilight—
and even my heart,
which should no longer feel,
feels the moment touch it.

2000 Heldt

Even this self
without a sensitive heart
now understands pathos!
A snipe rises from the marsh
in the autumn dusk.

2000 Sato

Even to me, an uncultivated soul, sadness is felt when snipes fly up from a marsh in the autumn evening.

2002 McCabe and Iwasaki

Even to me who have no special appreciation of nature, a touch of pathos is felt when I see a snipe flying away from a marsh in the autumn evening.

2003 LaFleur

I thought I was free
of passions, so this melancholy
comes as surprise:
a woodcock shoots up from marsh
where autumn's twilight falls.

2003 Ueda

even a person
without feelings would be moved
to this sadness
when a snipe takes wing from the marsh
on the autumn nightfall

2003 Viswanathan

Having renounced the heart, still I cannot but feel
the pangs of beauty
a marsh snipe soars aloft
in the autumn gloaming.

2004 Barnhill

Even one who is
free of passions
feels such sorrow:
a marsh where a snipe rises
into autumn evening

2005 Hamill

With an empty heart
I left society. How
deeply moved I am
when a snipe burst from the field
in the autumn evening.

2006 Bundy

The heart relinquished,
And still I cannot but know
The pathos of things:
Snipe take flight over a marsh
On an autumn evening.

2006 Morrell

Even one detached
from all worldly concerns
is moved to wistful wonder
as from a marsh sandpipers
rise into the autumn evening.

2007 Atkins

Even someone
without a heart
may be deeply moved—
snipe taking flight from a marsh
in the autumn twilight

2007 Carter

Even those of us who claim to be
beyond feeling sense this sad beauty:
snipes rising up from marsheson an evening
in autumn.

2007 Marra

   Even a person such as myself,
Without sensitivity,
   Knows aware:
Autumn dusk
On a marsh where a snipe rises.

2007 Marra (a)

   Even one like myself,
Who has no heart,
Knows the moving power of things (aware):
Autumn dusk,
A snipe taking off from the swamp.

2007 Stoneman

Even one
with no heart could not help
but know pathos:
a snipe takes flight in a marsh
this autumn evening.


Even to a self empty at heart is revealed a moving power

From the marsh a snipe rising in the dimming autumn dusk


Paul Atkins Paul S. Atkins is an associate professor at the University of Washington in Seattle, where his research and teaching fields are classical and premodern Japanese language, literature, drama, and culture. He received an AB in English (1990), and an MA and PhD in Japanese (1999) at Stanford University. In addition to articles in professional journals, he is the author of Revealed Identity: The Noh Plays of Komparu Zenchiku (University of Michigan Center for Japanese Studies, 2006).