Editor’s Note: This is Episode 16 of the Fresno Poets Archive Project. It is a Hiroshima commemoration featuring the poet and translator Eric Selland, with music and singing from Kiyoko Sakamoto Nosker, recorded August 6, 1990 at the former Fresno Metropolitan Museum. Background research and closed captioning for this video was conducted by student Mary Yamanaka in the spring of 2018. California raised and Chamorro born, Mary earned her bachelor’s degree in English, with a minor in creative writing, from Fresno State in May 2018. She hopes to pursue a career in editorial and publishing work, particularly in fiction. She enjoys writing in her free time, in order to create.
By Mary Yamanaka
For the Fresno Poets Archive Project
Translation, I have come to believe, tries to read into the hearts of other people. First, one must accept translation as a form of art. There needs to be an understanding of the skill required to move a piece of literature from one language to the next, all while maintaining the integrity of the piece.
This sounds easy, because it just means moving each word into the respective language. But languages rarely intersect so easily. Every language possesses its own specific cultural values and form.
A personal example of this for me is the word “magodai” in my native language of Chamorro. This word expresses the overwhelming emotions a person might feel when they feel helpless to express their love, excitement, or adoration. This applies mostly to things of a cute nature. It implies a need for physical release of an emotion because the feelings become so overwhelming. This one word requires a whole paragraph as a definition!
Translators must attempt to convey a multitude of words like this especially in poetry, as seen in the video of Kiyoko Sakamoto Nosker and Eric Selland’s performances for the 1990 Hiroshima tribute, on the 35th anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
A multitude of art is created in order to be interpreted. People seek out critics to tell them about a piece of literature or art, and in many ways this is a type of translation. In the poetry reading by Selland, he reads the poems of Modernist Japanese haikuists who broke traditional standards of haiku.
The poetry itself has depth and wonderful imagery, but there will always exist the wonder over whether or not the translations properly convey the meaning and context of a work well enough.
When the musician and singer Kiyoko begins her koto piece, she uses a traditional art form, in contrast with Selland’s own choice of art. She performs in Japanese to an English-speaking audience, and part of me wonders if she chose this for conventional and practical means, or if she knew translations do the original song no justice. Perhaps both apply to her performance. Or perhaps, Kiyoko understands music translates itself without needing a conveyer.
The same cannot always be said for poetry. In Selland’s performance, he admits to this limitation in translations by claiming there are many different ways for one line to be translated. As I listened to the poems he shared, I noticed inconsistencies between the way he read a poem and the way he chose to publish the same haiku. I witnessed with my own eyes, in that moment frozen in time in the video recording, how the art of translation can be a fickle process.
There will always be something to be missed in a translation depending upon the choice a translator makes. There’s the loss of form, the loss of word for word translation, loss of emotional impact, loss of cultural meaning, and many other possibilities to be lost.
And yet, we keep translating. We keep insisting there must exist a method to convey one work of art into another language where everything may end up different. In many cases, the classics are nothing more than translations we keep reading. There may be a loss of form, context, culture, or definition in the translated words; but the overall message hopefully remains intact. Maybe people read translations because there exists a search for the universal experience within a text.