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Poetry and translation are intertwined for Sawako Nakayasu

By Kris Kosaka
The Japan Times
March 10, 2021

TAMPA – For poet Sawako Nakayasu, 45, a multicultural upbringing is what forged her distinctive perspective of language and artistic expression. Nakayasu was born in Yokohama and moved to the United States with her family when she was six. Although she was raised mostly in the U.S., Nakayasu also lived in France and China. In 2002, Nakayasu, who was already a published poet by then, became interested in translation while earning her Master of Fine Arts at Brown University.

“The people important to me at the time, my professors — Keith Waldrop, Rosmarie Waldrop, Forrest Gander — were doing it,” she says, “and I understood intuitively that it was a fascinating kind of engagement with literature. At that time, I translated from French because that was my stronger second language and because we were told, as an exercise, to translate something that already had a translation.”

After graduation, Nakayasu was awarded a Creative Artists Fellowship from the Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission, which brought her back to Japan. “I started learning about Japanese poetry by going to Poem Parole, which was a little corner of Libro bookstore in the Seibu department store in Ikebukuro and supposedly had the largest selection of poetry in Tokyo,” she says. “I went there and read and read and read. I pulled books off the shelf at random and read as much as I could.”

Her deep dive into Japanese poetry cemented her commitment to translating from Japanese to English as she continued her own artistic pursuits.

To Nakayasu, translation “seamlessly intertwines” with her own writing and informs the choices she makes as a writer. “I love how translation pushes me as a poet,” she says. “It’s like writing poetry with formal constraints, except that the form is much more constrained. It’s challenging, and I have to search for new ways to make language work.”

Now an assistant professor in literary arts at her alma mater, Nakayasu’s work also involves exploring language and its intersections in culture and society. In 2015, She translated Tatsumi Hijikata’s butoh dance notations for a book titled “Costume en Face: A Primer of Darkness for Young Boys and Girls” and she was recently part of a collaboration to translate the poems of Korean modernist poet Yi Sang (1910-37), whose early writings were in Japanese as he was raised during Japan’s colonization of the Korean peninsula.

Advice to translators: “What you choose to translate is one of the most important decisions you can make as a translator. Out of the wealth of literature available in a given language, whose values are shaping that decision, and what is your role in that conversation?”

On writing and translating: “Translation provides an opportunity to break down our assumptions about literature and how we consume it as an artistic artifact. Thinking about ancient oral traditions of literature is helpful in considering how we might engage with translation. If we use translation to untether literature from commodity culture, there’s more room to acknowledge and celebrate, even value, the interpretation and artistry of the translator.”

Developing tools for translation: “At the most fundamental level, it is helpful to be a poet, because the act of translating poetry is also an act of writing poetry. The more flexibility (or muscle) you have as a writer, the more tools you have with which to approach translation. I know that many translators talk about the anguish in having to choose one element over another, and I certainly have felt that too, but if I try to approach the entire endeavor with a wider view, or with the lens of an artist, interesting possibilities can arise.”

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