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Written by Kamo no Chōmei 鴨長明, a snubbed aristocrat, in the early 13th c., Hōjōki 方丈(often translated as Record of a Ten Foot Square Hut since a hōjō is roughly 10 sq. ft.) occupies a revered place on the NKBZ shelf, and rightly so, because it is fantastic, as I hope to demonstrate below. Let us examine the original and attempt a translation of the first (行く河) section. I have mostly followed the NKBZ.


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If you’ve never read Kenkō’s Tsurezuregusa (Essays in Idleness), do it. Here’s a familiar gem from dan 127:


益 is read やく here.

Someone could probably translate this in a style much more appropriate to 14th c. Japan, but it essentially means this:

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”

Moving right along in chronological order to the Kokinshu. A few from the Book of Spring.









Spring has come-quote

People say-concessive (i.e. “although”)


Not singing time


Poem on the coming of spring.

–Mibuno Tadamine

Although they say

That spring has come

Until I hear

The warbler’s song

I don’t believe their words

*An uguisu is a Japanese bush warbler, a kind of secretive songbird whose distinct mating call can be heard in early spring. I have seen it translated as nightingale, but there is a fundamental problem with this: uguisu primarily sings during the day.

*あらじ is probably the copular ari + the negative speculative particle ji. So literally something like “I think not.”

— uguisu









You-if not

To whom shall I show

Plum’s blossom

Color and fragrance

People who know, know

On sending someone a plucked plum blossom

–(Ki no) Tomonori

To whom but you

Shall I show this plum blossom

Its fragrance and its blush

You know them all too well!

* I translate 色 as “blush” because of a slight erotic connotation that iro carries, associated with this earthly world of form, in Buddhist thought. Also, apparently in the Tendai meditation manual (Makashikan 摩訶止観), 色and 香 are used to signify this world of form.

*Umenohana was also a very popular incense at the time.

So there is quite a bit of uncertainty about the meaning here. It seems that there are a number of possible interpretations. Among them: one, literal. Two, with a highly sexual connotation. Three, as a reference to incense. Perhaps there are shades of multiple ones.

Continuing to mourn the passing of Emperor Tenji.




Two poems from the time the Emperor was interred at the temporary mortuary.

如是有乃 <懐>知勢婆 大御船 泊之登萬里人 標結麻思乎            [額田王]

かからむと  かねてしりせば  おほみふね  はてしとまりに  しめゆはましを

If only I had known before

That it would be like this

I’d circumscribe the harbor

Where your royal barge had docked!

Princess Nukata


八隅知之 吾期大王乃 大御船 待可将戀 四賀乃辛埼        [舎人吉年]

やすみしし  わごおほきみの  おほみふね  まちかこふらむ  しがのからさき

Do you wait in yearning

Shiga’s Karasaki

For the royal barge

Of my well-rested lord?

— Toneri no Yoshitoshi (?)

Read on for details.

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Moving right along the elegies for Emperor Tenji in the Manyoshu (MYS). We looked at #147 and #148 in previous posts. Today, #149 and #150. Continue reading for the full translation and analysis.

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Continuing with Manyoshu banka. In the last post we looked at poem #147, and now on to #148. There’s some controversy about this poem, specifically about the headnote. It seems that it doesn’t quite fit with the poem.

The headnote reads:


According to one source, poem composed by the Empress after the Omi Emperor’s (Emp. Tenchi/Tenji) affliction turned critical.

The poem:

青旗(あおはた)の 木幡(こはた)の上を 通(かよ)ふとは  目には見れども 直(ただ)に逢(あ)はぬかも

My eyes watch you come and go above green-bannered Kohata

Yet we will not meet face to face!

The controversy stems from the observation that if the Empress can see Emp. Tenji’s spirit hovering above Kohata, then to call his situation ‘critical’ is a bit of an understatement. The man is dead. However, in his study of Japanese ritual poetry, Gary Ebersole (history professor at UMKC) suggests that it might well belong here. This is  because in ancient Japan death was not considered to be instant, but a rather drawn out affair, complete only when the spirit cannot be ‘coaxed’ back into the body.

Who knows. At any rate, here’s the breakdown:

青旗(あおはた) is a makura-kotoba for 木幡(こはた), in modern day Yamashina-ku in Kyoto, where Emp. Tenji is entombed. Literally, it means green-or blue-banner. I picture it referring to treetops on a mountain.

見れども is izenkei of みる + ども, which is a concessive, meaning “although.”

逢(あ)はぬかも mizenkei of あふ + rentaikei of negative ず + かも, which is a Nara-period exclamation particle.

There is a kind of reoccurring image of deceased spirits hovering above the ground. So it would seem that Emp. Tenji’s spirit was on his way out.

Stay tuned for #149!

Manyoshu (万葉集) is the earliest extant Japanese poetry collection, dating to the 8th century, although the poems themselves vary chronologically from the 4th to the 7th centuries. It is divided into 20 books, but I will be focusing on a collection of banka (挽歌), or elegies, from Book 2. Poems 147- 155 are believed to have been composed during the period of Emperor Tenji’s (r. 662-671) illness and death by women who were intimate with him.

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If you’ve been following this, we’ve got two of Yamato-takeru’s songs under our belts: song 23 and song 25. We’ve come this far, so let’s keep barreling along.

What follows is perhaps my favorite exchange in all of Japanese literature. But before we get to that, let’s walk a mile in Yamato-takeru’s shoes. Picture this: you are Yamato-takeru, a strong and brave warrior (pretend) who finds a fetching “bride,” lets call her Princess Miyazu. But before you manage to “marry” her, you have to go off and pacify some unruly deities and barbarians. So off you go, but promise to return and tie the nuptial knot, so to speak. You’re away for a long time, but finally make your triumphant homecoming. You hurry off to keep your promise to the nubile lady who waited for you all this time. She brings you wine, things are looking good. But there’s one problem. There’s something on her dress…

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Moving along now on our short trip through Kojiki. In the previous post we saw really a mean-spirited little song from Yamato-takeru. A little smug of him. The story preceding the following song is very brief, essentially Yamato-takeru is travelling. Continue reading for the full analysis:

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As promised in the earlier “Agenda” post, I will be working on classical Japanese poetry this semester. So, I’m kicking it off with a song from the Kojiki. This song is attributed to Yamato-takeru. Continue reading for the full analysis.

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