There are only two groups of Americans who are likely to know about the Hyakunin Isshu, literature enthusiasts who’ve taken an interest in Japan, and fans of the comic and anime Chihayafuru. I’m certainly the former and like the latter enough to have imported the French edition, so Frank Watson’s One Hundred Leaves: A New Annotated Translation of the Hyakunin Isshu seemed like a must-have to me.
If you’re not in either of those groups, the Hyakunin Isshu is an anthology of one hundred poems, each by a different poet, compiled by poet and critic Fujiwara no Teika around 1237. For readers, myself included, who don’t have a lot of experience with Japanese poetry, Watson does offer a few things to help us out. There’s a short introduction on appreciating this style of poem, annotations explaining the intricate wordplay that characterises these works, and a “literal” translation of each poem to supplement the main translation. He also includes the original versions, both in Japanese script and English transliteration, for those who either know a little Japanese or want to read them out loud. Finally, he also provides a painting from traditional Japanese art to complement each poem. Unfortunately, a few aspects of the presentation do fall short of the ideal. The pictures are in black-and-white with no indication of the title or artist, and it’s sometimes hard to see what the picture has to do with the poem it ostensibly illustrates. Not all poems have annotations, either; some stand on their own well enough not to need much explanation, but it would be nice to at least get a short biographical note about the writers. The annotations also get a little repetitive; for example, he explains several times that the image of “wet sleeves” indicates wiping away tears.
As for the translation itself, my Japanese is nowhere near strong enough to speak for the accuracy, but Watson does have some poetic sense, and when faced with multiple possible interpretations of a poem he typically uses the more literary, which I think is the best approach. Comparing them with Joshua Mostow’s translation, which you can find with annotations at this blog, he’s often a little more clear. Compare Watson’s translation of poem 31, by Sakenoue no Korenori:
I gaze at the waning moon
Until the snow is falling
Over Yoshino Village –
White and mad.
So that I thought it
the light of the lingering moon
at dawn –
the white snow that has fallen
on the village of Yoshino
Now, there’s some subjectivity here, but Watson’s seems more poetic, and I find it difficult to parse Mostow’s “So that I thought it.” On the other hand, this isn’t always the case. Here is Watson’s version of poem 94, by Fujiwara no Masatsune:
Seeing Yoshino –
The mountain’s autumn wind
Blowing as the night grows old
My hometown cold
The beating of the robes
the autumn wind in its mountains
deepens the night and
in the former capitol, cold
I hear the fulling of cloth
This one is tougher to separate. I like Mostow’s “deepens the night,” because the “autumn wind” sounds more active, and I also like that in his version the speaker “hear[s]” the fulling of cloth, instead of just presenting a list. Watson’s “my hometown” introduces some nostalgia that isn’t really present in “the former capitol,” though.
As for the poems themselves, they generally rely on a single strong image, occasionally literally describing something the poet sees, but often metaphorical. Honestly, it took me a while to begin appreciating the poems, and it’s a style that you either get or you don’t. The best way to read these, I’ve found, is to read the poem once, then read the annotations, then re-read it, taking time to imagine the scene and digest the imagery. Like a fine meal, the works of the Hyakunin Isshu are to be savoured, not scarfed down like fast food.
In Chihayafuru, one character compares memorising the hundred poems to making a hundred new friends. All great literature is like that to some extent, but it’s especially true here, where the poems are so personal, so striking and subtle, that they invite the reader to experience the poets’ feelings of new love, heartbreak, and nostalgia all compressed into five lines.
I’ll leave you with one of my favourites, poem 81, by Fujiwara no Sanesada:
I look in the
Singing sound’s direction
But only the morning