Japan Now East: Reading and Workshop with Hiromi Itō and Jeffrey Angles

This week I was lucky enough to attend a discussion and reading with renowned Japanese poet and writer, Hiromi Itō, and her friend and translator into the English, Jeffrey Angles. The following day, I also attended the workshop ‘Translating Cultures’, which focused on the difficulties of translating Japanese culture and language specifities into English culture and langauge.

The reading and subsequent workshop took place at the astoundingly beautiful Dragon Hall, part of the National Centre for Writing in Norwich. Upon arriving, I had no idea what to expect, having heard very little about Hiromi Itō, and simply buying a ticket for the event with an interest from the perspective of a translator. It is safe to say that I am very glad I decided to buy the ticket, as I have now discovered a new favourite poet in Hiromi Itō, and an awe at the lovely poet-translator relationship Hiromi Itō and Jeffrey Angles have formed.

The evening of the reading began with a brief discussion on Hiromi Itō’s and Jeffery Angles respective works, and their collaboration in translation. Hiromi Itō is a notorious figure in Japan, writing poetry on provocative subjects that in Japanese culture are often considered taboo, and Jeffery, her long term translator into English, and a poet in his own right. The evening then drew towards the main focus, a bilingual reading of the new volume of Hiromi Itō’s poetry collections ‘Killing Kanoko’ and ‘The Wild Grass on the Riverbank’, just published by Titled Axis Press.

The first collection in the volume, ‘Killing Kanoko’ covers topics such as sex, abortion, and post-partum depression. This was met with a sort of horror, and whole heap of critisicm in Japan, in particular from male critics. For this, Hiromi Itō became notorious, and somewhat of a feminist icon in Japan. The language is harsh, yet sad, troubling and unnerving. The second collection deals with a different theme, over the past twenty years, Hiromi Itō has divided her time between Japan and Southern California, and therefore, the second collection in the volume explores the ideas of discriminiation and immigration. Wild Grass on the Riverbank is written from the point of view of a narrator shuttled between the Riverbank (Japan) and the Wasteland/Wild Grass (Southern California). Hiromi Itō explores this through the weaving of weeds and plants into her langauge, the plants coming to life and experiencing trauma just like the narrator. The bilingual reading of excerpts from these two volumes was simply astounding. Hiromi Itō’s improv performance could almost be described as erratic, but resulting in a real, passionate, and striking reading that was utterly mesmerising and deeply moving. The poet and translator bounced off of each other, reading each other, and proving that this was more of a friendship than simply a poet-translator relationship, they had a deep understanding of each others art.

The next day, at the workshop ‘Translating Cultures’ the pair discussed the difficulties of translating between two such vastly differing cultures and languages as Japanese and English along with translator and writer Polly Barton. The workshop was chaired by Motoyuki Shibata, a renowned translator of contemporary American literature into Japanese, and current writer in residence at the National Centre for Writing. The group discussed the difficulties of translating elements of a text such as gender, and the need to be careful not to apply anglocentric gender norms to works in translation. For example, the Japanese language can tell an entire story about someone without revealing the characters gender until the very end of the text – something almost impossible to render into English – however something that for many texts may be essential to the meaning, and therefore, should somehow be worked into the English. Jeffery Angles also discussed how translating Hiromi Itō was particularly difficult as she often uses non-standard Japanese in her writing, and this unusual language is very difficult to work with in translation.

The afternoon came to a close with another reading from Hiromi Itō and Jeffery Angles that was as brilliant as the previous nights. For this reading Hiromi Itō took her older translation of the Sutra and retranslated it, proving, as Jeffery Angles stated that…

“A translation is never a completed process.”

I left both the reading and the workshop with a new found desire to read more Japanese literarture (in particular poetry) in translation, and with my own ideas of the difficulties in translating elements such as gender from French into English. And of course… I also left with the new book, an absolute must!

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