Yosano Akiko’s Sea of Death

From languagehat’s A Draft of Mandelstam thread come two tantalizing translations of a poem by Yosano Akiko about the Sea of Death, one apparently a traditional translation of Russian to English and the other an original translation from Japanese:


They told me that the road I took
would lead me to the Sea of Death;
and from halfway along I turned back.
And ever since, all the paths I have roamed
were entangled, and crooked, and forsaken.

read (and Bathrobe):

Sono michi o zutto yuku to

If to go by that road until the end

Shi no umi ni ochikomu to oshierare,

To the sea of death you will come I was told

Chūto de hikikaeshita watashi,

Midway I turned around

Hikyō na rikō-mono de atta watashi,

being me, weak and rational.

Sore irai, watashi no mae ni wa

Since then before me

Eda-michi to

crossroads and

Mawari-michi to bakari ga tsuzuite iru.

detours only continue.

In Japanese with transliteration:



Sono michi o zutto yuku to
Shi no umi ni ochikomu to oshierare,
Chūto de hikikaeshita watashi,
Hikyō na rikō-mono de atta watashi,
Sore irai, watashi no mae ni wa
Eda-michi to
Mawari-michi to bakari ga tsuzuite iru.

…and I can’t resist the Google Translate version:


I go with the path by
Education is to drop into the sea of death,
I’m halfway 引返Shita,
I am clever, who has been unfair,
Since then, in front of me
Crossroads and
Continues to occupy only detour.

More by the same poet:

Translations of seven poems by Kenneth Rexroth, some of them quite, mm…, I suppose NSFW.  I rather like this one:

Not speaking of the way,
Not thinking of what comes after,
Not questioning name or fame,
Here, loving love,
You and I look at each other.

and this has echoes of Omar Khayyam:

This autumn will end.
Nothing can last forever.
Fate controls our lives.
Fondle my breasts
With your strong hands.

Here are two more translated poems along with a short biography.

The appearance of her first book, Tangled Hair (Midaregami), in 1901, created a scandal, not only for its explicit female sexuality but for its complexity & presumed unintelligibility within the framework of the traditional tanka form. As a by now acknowledged masterwork of “Japanese romanticism,” already influenced by symbolist & other fin-de-siècle European writing but drawing as well from older Japanese & Chinese sources, it provided a vehicle for women’s liberation – a “battleground poetry,” in Janine Beichman’s phrase, not as a form of rant, but as Yosano described it, writing of her own “first poems,” “I realized that if women didn’t really exert themselves they would never mix with men on an equal footing. That was the first time I made a poem.” The resulting innovations – both in tanka (five-line closed verse) & in “new-style” poetry – went beyond most poets of her time: a use of multiple voices (male as well as female); an unprecedented focus on the naked body derived, it was said, from European painting & from the erotic side of the ukiyo-e (floating world) tradition of print-making; & a sense of mystery & ambiguity, created by formal means (“asymmetry, ellipses, and numerous allusions”), that she called shinpi & that Beichman delivers further as “the palimpsestic effect.” Her work, as it moved into the new century, was voluminous; by Kenneth Rexroth’s count, “she wrote more than 17,000 tanka, nearly five hundred shintaishi (free verse [poems]), published seventy-five books, including translations of classical literature, and had eleven children.” She was also an active pacifist & a socialist sympathizer, who openly opposed Japan’s military adventures in the twentieth century, as in a fiercely anti-war poem addressed to her brother (1904), which brought denunciation as “a traitor, a rebel, a criminal who ought to be subjected to national punishment.”

Some excerpts from Tangled Hair are online here.
And here are some more (thanks, read).

Posted in Poetry. 2 Comments »

2 Responses to “Yosano Akiko’s Sea of Death”

  1. read Says:

    thank you, N! for including my humble try too
    great post!

  2. Nijma Says:

    Thank you, read. She’s a very interesting poet.

Comments are closed.