Today I am very happy to share news of a brand new publication, Kyoto: A Literary Guide, which was launched this month by Camphor Press. This book was born from the shared efforts of the Kyo-centrics: a long-standing poetry in translation discussion group – of which I happen to be a member. In addition to myself, the six Kyo-centrics who collated, translated and edited this book comprise Paul Carty, Joe Cronin, David McCullough, Itsuyo Higashinaka, and our group captain John Dougill. Having watched the development of this book from its first inception to the final proofs I can honestly say that this has turned out to be a very special book indeed, with poems and prose passages selected from the full sweep of Kyoto’s literary history, detailed explanatory notes, and beautiful black-and-white illustrations including photographs, prints, and picture scrolls.
Here is an excerpt from the blurb:
“This fascinating selection of Kyoto-specific literature takes readers through twelve centuries of cultural heritage, from ancient Heian beginnings to contemporary depictions. The city’s aesthetic leaning is evident throughout in a mix of well-known and less familiar works by a wide-ranging cast that includes emperors and court ladies, Zen masters and warrior scholars, wandering monks and poet “immortals.” We see the city through their eyes in poetic pieces that reflect timeless themes of beauty, nature, love and war. An assortment of tanka, haiku, modern verse and prose passages make up the literary feast, and as we enter recent times there are English-language poems too.”
The theme that unites the book is of course Kyoto, this enchanting city in which we have made our homes. All the pieces selected are either about ‘the ancient capital’ or about particular locations in the city and are arranged chronologically. Original Japanese texts are presented alongside our fresh translations with rōmaji transcriptions, and footnotes with biographical details. In the later stages of the book, English poems are presented with original translations into Japanese.
The translations I think are highly unique in that they are very much a group effort created in a spirit of gracious compromise. Each translator’s early renderings were followed by much debate and negotiation on how best to maintain linguistic accuracy while striving to adhere to the poetic spirit of the original texts. It is commonly said that writers must be prepared to kill their darlings to improve their work and this is equally true of translators. However, a remarkable feature of this project was the good-humored manner in which all members were ready to slaughter their darlings wholesale in pursuit of the greater good. In many ways this book stands as a fine testament to our ongoing friendship and to our overriding love and respect for this great city. More importantly, I believe we have succeeded in presenting an anthology of works that have the power to move and inspire the reader even through the filter of translation. Along the way I have certainly acquired my own personal favorites. Look out for the booming of the Gion bell that opens Heike Monogatari: a powerful meditation on transcience filled with vital imagery. Then there is the light snap of bamboo that wakes Fujiwara no Ariie from snow-bound dreams, Baisaō the tea seller hiking up the steps of old Kodaij-ji to make a soul-refreshing brew, Rai San’yō watching dusk fall over the Kamo River, the Emperor Meiji feeling the weight of history at the tombs of his ancestors, Yosano Akiko recording a Gion night infused with the beauty of cherry-blossom, and Amano Tadashi’s surreal encounter at Tō-ji temple’s flea market. These are just a few snapshots from a wonderful selection that captures and reveals the special magic of this inspirational city. For anyone who loves Kyoto, or who is interested in the great flow of Japanese literature, this book is an essential read.
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