A Life in Verse: An Interview with Hiroaki Sato on Poetry, Translation, and Singing for Supper in Two Languages


/ by Jeffrey Angles

Hiroaki Sato (佐藤紘彰) is the foremost translator of modern Japanese verse into English. He started translating while working for the Japanese government's overseas trade promotion office in New York, and since the early 1970s has published dozens of anthologies of poetry that have introduced the Western world to contemporary Japanese verse. Sato is also the author of the long-selling book Legends of the Samurai and a regular columnist for The Japan Times. His most recent translations are Miyazawa Kenji: Selections, published by University of California Press, and The Modern Fable by Nishiwaki Junzaburō (西脇順三郎), published by Green Integer. His most recent project is Japanese Women Poets, a monumental collection of women's poetry from ancient times to the modern day. He lives in New York, his home for almost four decades.

For years, I have been amazed at how incredibly prolific you are. How on earth are you able to get so much work done?
I remember my teacher of poetry Lindley Williams Hubbell (1901-94) quoting Gertrude Stein saying something to the effect that if you write a few lines every day, you end up with a great many over the years. I've been at it since before you were born.

I notice that some of your first translations were museum catalogues and art books, such as the Feudal Architecture of Japan volume you did for Weatherhill.
How the work came to me I don't remember, though probably through Rand and Sondra Castile, who brought me to this country in 1968. The main thing about the book published by Weatherhill, in those days a Tokyo-based publisher of fancy, coffee-table books mainly about Japan, was that there was some payment for the translation work. Because my salary at the New York office of a trade agency of the Japanese government that had employed me in 1969 (and which still keeps me on) was so inadequate, I started doing translation to earn some extra money.

Was that the first thing you translated for money?
No, the first paying work I did, in fact, was translating handwritten letters from a Japanese fishing company which had invested in the Peruvian fishing industry. They had hoped to make a lot of money in anchovies but there was a catastrophic drop in the catch that year. The letters were mournful, even desperate, every time predicting the light at the end of the tunnel, to use the Nixon administration's favored phrase for the worsening war in Vietnam. I don't suppose the effects of El Niño were widely known then. Another paying work was translating Alvin Toffler's Future Shock. I was one of several translators subcontracted by someone else whose name subsequently appeared as the translator or “supervising editor.”

And how did you start translating modern Japanese poetry?
When you get down to it, it was largely a matter of luck—lucky circumstances. When I started translating modern Japanese poetry, there was so little available in English in this country that even Ms., then a brand-new magazine, took my translations!

Your collection Ten Japanese Poets, which you published back in 1973, was a landmark in introducing modern Japanese poetry to North American readers. What was the reaction to this in Japan?
The Japanese daily newspaper Yomiuri gave a large space to that anthology and to the special issue of Chicago Review devoted to modern Japanese poets, also in my translation, which came out about the same time. But I've never received any such attention from the Japanese press since—not even for From the Country of Eight Islands, which I did with Burton Watson in 1981.

Tell me about the Chicago Review issue.
The Chicago Review special led to better results. Its editor and poetry editor, Sasha Besher and Curt Matthews, established Chicago Review Press after working on the issue, and decided to publish a series devoted to modern Japanese poets. In the end they published my Miyazawa Kenji (宮澤賢治), Yoshioka Minoru (吉岡実), Takahashi Mutsuo (高橋睦郎), and Tomioka Taeko (富岡多恵子) collections. But they were too idealistic about poetry. Those volumes were all money losers of course, and they soon switched to prose. The press began to do well after that and it appears to be still thriving.

One of the writers you just mentioned is among my favorites: Takahashi Mutsuo (高橋睦郎). I love Seisho densetsu, or A Legend of a Holy Place (聖所伝説), with its almost pornographic homoerotism and iconoclastic use of religious imagery. I'd love to translate it someday if I can find a publisher who is daring enough to put it in print. Your first collection of his work in translation, Poems of Penisist, must have raised some eyebrows. What got you interested in Takahashi's work?
You are right in your characterization of Takahashi. I was attracted to him because he brought the art of story-telling to poetry and the careful building of images, two elements that are hard to discern in most modern poetry. Takahashi was also the first poet I met. He came to visit New York and Mr. Castile brought him to my apartment. Out of that visit, he wrote a trilogy of stories, as you know.

I heard your translations of Takahashi's work caught the attention of quite a few people, including Allen Ginsberg.
Yes, Ginsberg used to read Takahashi's poems aloud, walking back and forth in his apartment. I learned of this from Bob Rosenthal, who was Ginsberg's secretary. I came to know Mr. Rosenthal when he and several of his poet friends organized a festival of Japanese poets in New York, in 1985, and asked me to be the main interpreter.

My translations of Takahashi have also elicited the most reactions from outside the United States. I remember receiving letters asking permission to translate poems from Poems of a Penisist into Hebrew, Danish and even Afrikaans. The South African correspondent was apologetic that he would not be able to find the equivalents of certain words in his language, and I believe the Dane translated the whole book and went to visit Takahashi in that fascinating house of his, which you also visited.

I was at the annual International Poetry Festival in Medellín a few years ago, and one of the fellows who was there, the Colombian poet Harold Alvarado Tenorio, showed me a collection of international homoerotic poetry that Arquitrave, his press in Bogota, had published. In it were some Spanish versions of Takahashi's poetry that were apparently translated directly from your English rather than from Japanese. Have other of your English translations been translated into other languages?
Yes, my translation of Osiris, The God of Stone (オシリス、石ノ神) by Yoshimasu Gōzō (吉増剛造) was translated into Portuguese by a Brazilian and, I hear, into French. The French part surprised me because I was under the impression that France was in some ways ahead of this country in translating Japanese literature. Some of my other translations have been translated into German and Russian.

Tomioka Taeko (富岡多惠子) was among the poets you translated for the Chicago Review Press series. Did you ever meet her?
Yes, she came here in the early 1980s, I think, because one of her plays was being staged at the avant-garde theater La Mama. At the time I met her she was a no-nonsense Kansai girl, which is what her poetry had suggested. We went out for a drink or something and we ended up at one of those small joints serving only soft drinks like orange juice. We chitchatted, and I distinctly remember her dismissing feminism as something only shirōto-shū (素人衆)—how would you translate it? “those who don't know the way of the world”?—get excited about.

My goodness. I tend to think of her as a feminist writer! You must have been surprised.
I was, of course. But it was only five or six years later that she started dissecting all those male writers from a strong feminist stance. Her play on that occasion, incidentally, was a roman à clef about her boyfriend, a famous painter, who brought her to this country and went on to blatantly betray her. It was beautifully done with a combination of puppets and human actors and actresses. You know she also did the scenario for the movie, Double Suicide (心中天網島) directed by Shinoda Masahiro (篠田正浩).

You're in the final stages of editing Japanese Women Poets, a gigantic anthology forthcoming from M.E. Sharpe. Would you tell me more about this project?
It was around 1994 that I thought of doing an anthology of Japanese women's poetry from the beginning to modern times. I had a university press in mind. Then, in 1996, a commercial house took interest and gave me a good contract, complete with an advance. But the publisher abruptly called off the project. The contract had called for a manuscript of two hundred pages, to be completed in two years or less, but in the end it took six years and came to eight hundred pages. Then I took the manuscript to my friend Mark Selden, who advises M.E. Sharpe, and the publisher accepted it in toto. They even allowed me to add a couple of poets of Korean descent.

Has the anthology led you to become especially interested in any particular poets?
I liked Shinkawa Kazue (新川和江), Kimura Nobuko (木村信子), and Nagashima Minako (長嶋南子) well enough to do a separate volume for each at the poet's request. Long ago I did not like Shinkawa's poetry, but while working on the anthology, I completely reversed my view. She is feminine in the best sense of the word: at once strong and elegant.

How important do you think it is for translators to get to know the poet(s) that they are translating?
In most cases, I don't think it is so helpful simply because I usually do not translate all the poems of a particular poet but translate the ones I think I understand. Sometimes, what the poet tells you can be a sheer revelation. Yoshioka Minoru (吉岡実), for example, told me that his poems were written in such a way that each line modified the immediately preceding and following lines. That allowed me to read his poems differently, though I don't think I could reproduce anything similar in translation.

:Ishii Tatsuhiko:
Have there been writers that you have gotten along with especially well?
Takahashi Mutsuo used to ask me to translate this or that poem whenever he had a reading to do outside Japan or wanted to show a particular poem to a foreign poet. Now I do something similar for the tanka poet Ishii Tatsuhiko (石井辰彦). At the end of each year Ishii comes to New York to hear operas at the Metropolitan Opera House, and our year-end party includes poetry readings. He is a firm believer in sequential composition and an extravagant user of punctuation and symbols that often defy syntax.

Ishii Tatsuhiko is not terribly well known in this country, but he is an extraordinary poet, using what is a traditional form to do things that are very avant-garde. Would you mind sharing a few of your translations of his poetry?
Here are some tanka from the sequence I translated for this past New Year's Eve party, titled “Concerning a Modest Appetite” (ささやかな食慾について).


The Day of Error, should I call, it? The five kinds of tart I devoured at the very end of lunch


A piece of cake that even heals the scar on my soul? Strawberries, and, cream, added, to it?


What thoughtlessness when you aren't a young man! “I love alcohol© and I love sweets©” you say?


What fun! I also like his “bathhouse” poems, which you translated for the book Partings at Dawn: An Anthology of Gay Japanese Literature. They are, as far as I know, the first modern tanka to explore the world of the gay sexual underground of Tokyo.
Glad you liked them. Ishii, incidentally, argues that the tanka is a one-line poem. His book, Tanka as Modern Poetry (現代詩としての短歌), is a true dazzler that analyzes tanka from a range of artistic fields—music, photography, and so on and so forth. This is one book I wish professors working on classical Japanese poetry would read—not that I have any illusion that they'd change their approach to tanka translation. [Laughter]

I'm glad you brought up the subject of lineation. Most translators break tanka into five separate lines to convey the 5-7-5-7-7 pattern of sounds that gives the tanka its rhythmic structure. But you insist on preserving the one-line format of the Japanese. Why this one-line approach?
Most Japanese tanka poets write tanka in one line, and most Japanese scholars and commentators assume that the tanka is a one-line poem, just like the haiku. On the other hand, there are a handful of tanka poets who have lineated their pieces. What do those who transform tanka into five lines do when they have to deal with tanka that are written in three or five lines? “Translate” them into one line perhaps? There are also modern tanka that completely ignore syllabic patterns and use far more than 31 syllables but are still written in one line.

I use the conventional term “syllable,” but we know of course that the Japanese way of counting sounds is very different from the way English readers count syllables. I often feel that those who work on classical tanka do not read much modern tanka. The same, of course, is true of haiku.

To break these poems up into separate lines is to needlessly embellish them, which raises questions about our responsibility as translators. That's the question Nabokov raised in Strong Opinions objecting to Robert Lowell's “adaptations.” If you have that collection of Nabokov's essays, by all means read his comments on “the act of translation.” Not that my one-line approach solves any of the inherent problems of translating Japanese poetry into so different a language and tradition as English. In my tanka and haiku translations, I try to make them read well, in a limited sense, but I do not know how well I succeed in that meager endeavor.

You've mainly translated modern Japanese poetry. When did you get interested in translating classical poetry?
As it happens, the first four books of mine all came out in 1973, my annus mirabilis! One of them, the smallest at 12 pages, was Poems of Princess Shikishi, the Heian poetess, though, my substantial incursion into the academic domain of classical poetry started with From the Country of Eight Islands, which begins with “songs” in the Kojiki (古事記), Japan's oldest extant book, and ends with Takahashi Mutsuo.

Why translate Princess Shikishi (式子内親王) in particular? She is less well known than many other classical poets.
I was always interested in Princess Shikishi because Hagiwara Sakutarō (萩原朔太郎) thought of her as a romantic (if you will) court poet. He called her “a tanka poet of tragic love” (hiren no kajin 悲恋の歌人) and described her poetry as something that could have been written only by someone deeply hurt, seriously wronged, by unrequited love. As I later learned, that certainly was an overstatement. Convention required that if you were to talk above “love” (koi 恋), it had to be of an unrequited variety. But to read a famous modern poet talking about a classical poet in such a heartfelt manner was more than a revelation, especially to someone who felt his love was never requited.

The University of Hawaii Press published your complete poems of Princess Shikishi under the title String of Beads some years later, and it received quite a lot of critical attention.
The manuscript had gone through some nasty peer reviews because the professors have been innately inimical to my one-line approach to tanka—and haiku and renga, for that matter. For that reason, I was grateful when it was picked up by that wonderful editor at the University of Hawaii Press who had done my Takamura Kōtarō (高村光太郎) earlier. And I was very flattered when I learned that the poet Kimiko Hahn has been a great fan of String of Beads and has written a number of poems in a similar format. Last December she even invited me to her course at NYU to talk about the subject.

It seems to me that the process of translating pre-modern poets and translating living poets can be quite different, considering that you cannot pick up the phone and give a pre-modern poet a call to check on the meaning of a passage or idea.
You are 100% correct. Without ample annotations, I would not be able to translate a classical poet. I never had any training in classical Japanese. Allusions and references are often too obscure to make sense to me.
Let me change gears here. You have translated some English poetry into Japanese, including a volume of John Ashbery's verse.
I dared translate John Ashbery because when he was the poetry editor of Partisan Review, he accepted my one-line translations of Ozaki Hōsai's (尾崎放哉) non-5-7-5-syllable haiku, 150 of them, just as they were submitted, without selecting or changing anything. That was in 1979. He then wrote some one-line haiku, which he published in the anthology A Wave, and that is the book of his I translated into Japanese as Nami hitotsu (波ひとつ). He was, more importantly, the first famous poet to write me a note thanking me for my first Miyazawa Kenji book, Spring & Asura (春と修羅) published in 1973.

This has nothing to do with Ashbery, but Ginsberg wrote a whole series of what he called “American Haiku”—seventeen-syllable poems which he also wrote in one line. They were included in his posthumous book, Death & Fame.

The process of going from English into Japanese must be quite different than translating from Japanese into English.
Yes, I might even say more difficult, at the risk of sounding contrarian or paradoxical. I guess that's because my affinity with Japanese remains greater, more ingrained, than that with English. With the acquired language, I can be daring, can be more blind, if the term makes any sense.

I would imagine being a little “blind” in the target language might actually keep in check the natural tendency to self-censor “strange” bits of language.
Perhaps the other side of the coin is that the English-language reader of my English translations might think, “This man's comprehension of English is deficient.” My poet friend James Kirkup, once complained that I tend to use “dictionary words” in translating Takahashi Mutsuo. The one word I remember him singling out is “opprobrium.” I did not dare tell him that Takahashi goes out of his way to find “dictionary words,” if you will, so I feel obliged to do something similar in English.

You are known primarily as a translator of poetry, but you've also translated quite a bit of work by the novelist and playwright, Mishima Yukio (三島由紀夫).
I must tell you that I wasn't really interested in Mishima except, of course, for the spectacular way he killed himself—by disembowelment and beheading. I came to translate one of his novels and five of his plays because I was asked to do so. Professor Thomas Rimer, who sat on the advisory committee of the late Frank Gibney's Pacific Basin Institute, which had a project to translate into English a sizable number of Japanese books hitherto untranslated, asked me to choose one novel from the five or six Mishima novels they wanted translated, and I chose Silk and Insight (絹と明察) after reading them. Silk and Insight, as you know, provoked that famous contretemps between Mishima and John Nathan, who started out as his translator. When Mark Morris, who I hear is a scourge among academics, reviewed my translation for The New York Times Book Review, he brought that story up to pan it.

What about his plays?
I started translating Mishima's plays much earlier, in the late 1970s, when Ronald Homer Bayes, who later became the poet laureate of North Carolina, asked me to translate My Friend Hitler (わが友ヒットラー) for his magazine, St. Andrews Review. When he was in Tokyo, Mishima invited him to dinner with him and Yōko at a secluded restaurant. He had other interesting moments with the writer, and his admiration for him has remained unabated.

Do you know if My Friend Hitler was ever staged?
I'm glad you asked. Mr. Bayes staged it at St. Andrews College or did a read-through at least once, I think. For a time he entertained the idea of staging it in New York with an all black female cast, but nothing came of it. However, just recently, a Wellesley graduate named Zehra Fazal got in touch with me with her plan to do a one-act version of the play. It will be performed this July as part of the Capitol Fringe 2007 Festival.[http://www.theatermania.com/content/show.cfm/show/134328.]
Some years after I finished My Friend Hitler, Mr. Bayes asked me to translate another play, The Terrace of the Leper King (癲王のテラス), explaining it was the favorite play of Mishima's wife, Yōko. I've been working on a Mishima biography for a similar reason: I was asked to do so. And I'm glad I was. The more you learn about Mishima, the more impressive he becomes.

What impresses you most about Mishima?
His exceptional discipline. His ability to do something once he decided to do it. His ability to read so widely and remember everything he read. His ability to write. What John Nathan called, in his article for Life, in September 1966, “his rare capacity to enjoy himself.”

You might be interested in knowing that Full Tilt will have an interview of John Nathan, who translated a good deal of Mishima, in the same issue in which your interview will be appearing.
I am happy to hear I'll be in such good company. John Nathan and I met in 1975 and he gave me a copy of Mishima: A Biography, which had just come out. His gracious inscription said, in part, to “a man who like myself sings for his supper in two languages.” Isn't that nice?

As a final question, let me ask you – what has been in long career as a translator has given you the most satisfaction? Winning prizes? Meeting poets? The thrill of a new publication?
The most unexpected thing that has happened to me is the American composer Stephen Hartke turning one of my translations into choral music for the Hilliard Ensemble, the “Cadillac of the field,” as Hartke himself put it. The poem is Takamura Kōtarō's “Cathedral in the Thrashing Rain” (雨にうたるるカテドラル). I understand there is some information about the recording plus an excerpt from the poem on the web: link.

Sato-Sensei, thank you very much for agreeing to do this interview. It was an honor to speak with you!

Takahashi Mutsuo 高橋睦郎    

Myself with a Motorcycle   オートバイのある私  

Motorcycle, the vehicle for long-haired gods.
My god sports a glans-shaped jeweled crown we call a helmet,
sticks his legs with long shins into azure jeans
puts on heavy boots adorned with many golden studs,
and dashes through the twilight of purple gods.
At the moment, midway on the stone steps behind a theater, for example,
my god is in the midst of a blood-reeking conspiratorial discussion with other long-haired gods.
Their youthful conspiracy is too dazzling, too fragrant
for me, passing the foot of the stone steps, to clearly discern.
Below the stairs, only the god's seat made of steel gleams like a living thing.
I touch the motorcycle, particularly that part of its seat which was just glued to the ass of my god,
still retaining the ass's warmth.
My god eats Kentucky fried chicken, drinks Coca-Cola,
and from the dawn-colored slit of his beautiful ass he ejects shit.

Shinkawa Kazue 新川和江    

Death • My Death   死・わたしの死  

More readily than a ribbon in your hair
my outline will come undone.
What puff of wind,
what sway of flame,
what sound of voice
will readily undo this knot?

but it's right there,
like a sense,
always, right there.


In the innocuous color of iced strawberries,
when and where did the snapdragon
learn the smell of human death?
Emitting a sweetly sour odor,
it drops its flowers late at night thump thump.
What a
frightful frightful spectacle!
Who taught this babyish child
the secret rite of grownups?


Like the pond water in early spring
I wait with a smile on my face.
At times a titmouse or stonechat flies in,
spills a silverberry from the tip
of his beak.
A ring spreads.
The silverberry sinks.
Which of them will death be:
the ring that goes on spreading
or the substance that rots at once?