An Interview with Saeko Ogi, tanka poet and translator in Australia PDF Print E-mail

by Guy Simser



Ogi’s 2010 bilingual collaborative tanka book, Weaver Birds (co-author Amelia Fielden, Australia) has been highly praised by award winning Japanese poet, Noriko Tanaka, who refers to Weaver Birds as “…a new page in the history of tanka”.  That is highly complimentary given that tanka is Japan’s oldest form of poetry dating back at least to the eighth century. 

Saeko Ogi (Tokyo, 1931- ) graduated from Tokyo Woman’s Christian University and is a member of Araragi-ha tanka poetry writing group. She departed Japan for Australia as a widow in 1972 and taught Japanese language to Australians over a period of 25 years. Ogi is a poet/translator and leads a small group of Japanese who write tanka in Japanese in Canberra. She has been described as a very accomplished watercolour painter. For a detail list of Ogi’s poetry writing/ translations, see the conclusion of this interview.

GS: Before beginning my questions regarding the difficulties of translation of poetry, allow me to congratulate you and Amelia for Weaver Birds, such a unique book of collaborative tanka which you wrote back and forth over a period of a year. With English and Japanese text, readers of each culture now have access to your special exchange of poetic visions and their interconnections, as the two of you respond to each other’s poem. I might add that I read the book three times and each time it became richer. 

To provide some background for Simply Haiku readers, please offer a brief description of your poetry Araragi-ha group in Japan. Your comments will assist those English tanka writers who are unaware of how Japanese tanka groups operate.

SO: Perhaps the best way to explain this is to go back to the early members of the Negishi Tanka-kai (tanka group/club). These members followed the teaching of Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902) who left his great mark on modern Japanese haiku and tanka writing. The Negishi Tanka-kai magazine (Araragi 1908-1997) published the work of those poets whose approach to poetry was realistic, focussing on sketches from daily life (shasei)  with expressions reflecting contemporary thought. The group emphasized copying life, in other words, painting nature and life with words, all within the frame of 31 syllables, 5-7-5-7-7.

After the 1997 demise of Araragimagazine, its poets were divided into four (or more) smaller groups. Araragi-ha is one of these groups and publishes a monthly tanka magazine called Araragi-ha.  The names of the two magazines may seem exactly the same to Simply Haiku readers, however, “ha” means “derivation” or “school of”.  Therefore Araragi-ha magazine is clearly derivative from but not the same as the defunct Araragi magazine. I have been a member of Araragi-ha magazine group since 2003. We are led by Buddhist Reverend Tokiwai Ranyu in Tsu City, situated on the island of Honshu. Members attend 12 monthly meetings: 10 in Tsu, one in Tokyo (two days) and one in Osaka (two days).

Under the talented leadership of Rev. Tokiwai, Araragi-ha members are devoted to their magazine which averages about 60 pages per month. Some details of their dedication may be of interest: Monthly each member contributes 10-15 tanka for publication. Published contents are roughly as followings: 20 pages of members’ tanka, to which are added critical commentary by Rev. Tokiwai; 10 pages of articles by members, on noted tanka poets; 10 pages of member’s comments on back issues of the predecessor Araragi magazine (1908-1997); 8 pages of reports on our tanka meetings by members; 6 pages of members’ comments on the previous issue of our magazine. Our magazine also welcomes contributions from other tanka groups or non-members.

According to the 2010 Yearbook published by the Tanka Kenkyu-sha, there are 780 similar tanka group magazines in Japan. It also lists 5,000 leading tanka poets in this yearbook.

GS: Those figures bear repeating: 780 tanka magainzes and 5,000 leading tanka poets. My, my! What a rich source and tradition. Tanka is relatively new in Canada. Our first tanka journal Loneliness Within the Barbed Wire Fence: Haiku and Tanka, was published by Japanese internees in 1943 (M. Kei, A History of Tanka in English: The North American Foundation, 1899-1985). Kei also states that the first tanka journal in English was published by the Kisaragi Poem Study Group in 1964, with two further editions in 1972 and 1973. More recently, Canada’s tanka journal Gusts, edited by Kozue Uzawa of Vancouver, began in 2005.  It is flourishing to date with increasing numbers of submissions but has a very recent history.

I would like to turn now to how the translator, in turning aJapanese poem into English, or vise-versa, works through the problem of cultural differences. I imagine the answer would fill a book of two, perhaps a library! However, I would like to try, within the limitations of time and length of this interview, to gain some insights about this process, particularly as it applies to different cultures such as Japan and that of English speaking countries.

Historical events references/ dates/ place names.


The word “kamikaze” for most English readers would mean WW 2 suicide pilots, whereas for Japanese the word may also be a literary “pillow word” for the province of Ise, or the divine wind that destroyed the Mongol fleet during an invasion of Japan in the 1200’s, or finally, simply strong coastal winds.

SO: I guess it is quite easy to understand any one of the three from the context. If translated in English, it should tell you the real meaning. There is one “kamikaze” tanka in Weaver Birds (p.121).  It is about my brother-in law, a kamikaze pilot who was killed during WW2. Do you think that ‘Kamikaze’ means the storm which came to Japan at the Mongolian invasion in old, old days?  Of course, sometimes one might use the word in that sense, but it would be understood from the context and a translation should be done likewise.

GS: The word “kawaii” was often used during my years in Japan, and almost sung in small social groups to reinforce their solidarity/agreement, for example on valuing an object or person. This cultural “emphatic togetherness” is not so common in English culture. How can one translate this in the Japanese poet’s context? You may wish to select some other examples and indicate your approach to this problem, perhaps from the translations done in your Weaver Birds book.

SO: First of all, I would like you to understand the task of translation. Bilingual translation goes two ways, from A to B and from B to A. In my case, I, born in Tokyo, came to Australia in 1972 and have lived here 39 years. Similarly Amelia Fielden, my co-translator is an Australian who has lived in Japan for about 9 years and visits there frequently. Our co-translating work consists of the following steps:

1). We read the tanka regardless of whether it is in English or Japanese and try to grasp what it wants to say through our discussion or sometimes asking the poet if possible.

2). Each one of us produces a translation, in English by Amelia and in Japanese by me.

3). We re-work it if necessary.

4). We add any cultural notes to the tanka if needed.

I understand that my mission is to introduce English tanka to Japanese people. There might be some disagreement, but I keep the strict 5-7-5-7-7 tanka form as much as possible. English tanka is usually written in 5 lines with 3-4-3-4-4 syllables. Normally English words have a larger number of syllables than Japanese words. Therefore, I take great care in a selection of words, to express the meaning of the tanka as well as its syllabic count.

The reason why I stick to the 5-7-5-7-7 tanka form in translating English tanka is that the translated tanka would not sound like tanka when read out, if it is written in prose. My wish is that Japanese people appreciate that they can share the enjoyment of writing and reading tanka.

Therefore my translation is not a mechanical word-to-word translation. Due to tradition and to cultural, historical, or grammatical differences, one cannot find an exact translation in one’s mother tongue for a certain word in the other language. You need to do addition or subtraction in translation. That is what I do, through good discussions with the poet/co-translator. Translating a tanka written in Japanese into English or vice-versa, is not done word by word. The translated tanka in English should sound English, therefore often the word order may need to change; and one may need to change parts of speech, e.g. from a noun to an adjective, or from a verb to adverb.

With regard to the question about “cultural emphatic togetherness”, the word ‘kawaii’ is very colloquial and would not be used in tanka as often as you hear in daily conversations. I can think of the word ‘cool’ in English. I did not see any colloquialism to that extent. Rather I would like to talk about what I was careful about in translating Amelia’s Weaver Birds tanka.

through a window
in the clouds, snow-covered
mountain cone ---
it’s not what you look for,
it’s what you might find

The lines 4 and 5 of this Amelia’s tanka have a charming rhythm. I wanted to show it in my Japanese translation. I chose a spoken style for this. The translation sounds crisp and effective.

day after day
bushfire infernos spread
night after night
on our TV screens
ravaging life and land

I tried hard to retain the effective repetition of this tanka, ‘day after day’ and ‘night after night.’ In English they appear in lines 1 and 3. In Japanese they are put in lines 1 and 5.

When read aloud in Japanese, the repetitive effect is successful, I believe.

For example, from ‘Weaver Birds’ p.28. Amelia wrote:

in first grade
learning we must love
this land
‘of droughts and flooding rains’ ---
a harsh lesson, life long

This verse tells the reader about Australia’s harsh climates. The first line, ‘in first grade,’ is translated as ‘in our childhood,’ which fits perfectly in Japanese and yet it is not an exact translation (because an exact translation would not fit within the rhythm of the Japanese translation).

GS: Language/metaphor/mythology: The late Canadian critic Northrop Fry (Spiritus Mundi: Essays on Literature, Myth and Society, 1991) states that “our (English) literature is most directly descended from the biblical myth”; that “the poet is taken over by a mythical and metaphorical organism with its roots in the bible and the integrity of that organism is his muse… “. That sounds awfully “heady” but if true, how does the English/Japanese translator deal with this. The same forces I suspect apply with Japanese intentional or unintentional references to Shinto or Buddhist mythology.

SO: At this moment I do not recall any particular example, however we would add notes for readers if necessary.

GS: Language/ social rank: My nine Tokyo staff members were all Japanese, with varying levels of understanding and English speaking ability. The layers of formality in the Japanese language are infinitely more complicated that in English. If a Japanese poet writes an “elevated” or “lower level” expression for the “persona” in the poem, how is this rendered in English without looking awkward or out of place in English culture. This question is further complicated if the poet is writing the word/expression in an ironic sense.

SO: I know that the English language does not have the levels of speech in the same degree as Japanese. By which I mean special expressions clearly showing respect, distance of relationship or intimacy etc. I know the Australian people are polite and show their respect towards each other. It is possible to express the attitude of people in translation, I believe.

GS: Japanese poetic aesthetics: mono no aware, wabi, sabi, yûgen, kireversus Western aesthetics and how the translator closes this divide.

I indicated earlier that I wanted to ask you about Japanese aesthetics in the writingof tanka. As you regularly write in Japanese and translate English language tanka into Japanese, I believe your comments would be of interest to Simply Haiku readers.

To begin, I’ll raise an observation made by Robert Wilson in a recent Simply Haiku website book review (see attached review: Janick Belleau’s tanka book D’ĂMES et D’AILES [of souls and wings]) which won the 2010 Canada-Japan Literary Award.

In this review, Wilson states that most Occidental tanka writers, due to their cultural background, approach their tanka writing with a bias toward “object(s)” as opposed to Japanese writers whose bias is “action” based.

He goes on to say that he feels Japanese writers have the ability to “step outside” of the object due to their use of Japanese aesthetics such as yugen and ma. This observation had not previously occurred to me. Intrigued, I went back to re-read Weaver Birds and found Wilson’s comment quite accurate. Of course, one may argue another’s interpretation of “action” versus “object” bias, however, to my eye Weaver Birds poems appear mostly “action biased”. If my reading of the tanka by you and Amelia is anywhere near accurate, I have some questions.

For starters, do you have any comments regarding Wilson’s observation?

In your tanka work, do you write ‘action biased’ tanka by design or instinct? Do you recognize this cultural bias when you translate English language tanka into Japanese?  And if so, do you attempt to resolve this difference, or leave the tanka as written?

Likewise, when translating Japanese tanka, yours or that of others, into English, is it difficult to maintain the original writer’s bias?

OS: Thank you very much for giving me an opportunity to read through Robert Wilson’s website book review of Janick Belleau’s tanka book. I don’t think that I could fully understand his argument of “action” versus “object” bias. Therefore, I cannot really give a satisfactory answer. However, I do find interesting what Robert Wilson says about Japanese writers having the ability to ‘step outside’ of the object due to their use of Japanese aesthetics such as yugen and ma.  Denis Garrison has a similar observation and he calls the feature ‘dreaming room’.  He explains ‘dreaming room’ as some empty space inside the poem which the reader can fill with his personal experience.

As for how I write a tanka, actually this feature is very important in writing a tanka.

We call it yojō or literally ‘unsaid emotion/sentiment, not yugen. We compose a tanka without saying everything, yet it should leave within the framework some empty space for the reader’s imagination. After reading a tanka, what readers feel may well be different as everyone has their own interpretations, experiences and flashes of understanding.

In composing a tanka, we would try to concentrate on a simple theme, as the form, 5-7-5-7-7, does not give us space to belabour. A tanka is neither a statement nor explanation. Also, a tanka should have a flow and rhythm.

I understand that Wilson analyses only tanka approaches in his book review and does not tell us what he felt after reading Mayu’s tanka, see pp. 34-35 of D’ĂMES et D’AILES (of souls and wings). Perhaps the poet wanted to express her discovery of her father’s deep love towards her mother and hence her recognition of the children’s love towards their father. Or this could be an elegy for her mother. We readers receive various messages from Mayu’s tanka.

For many years I have worked on translation with Amelia. As far as I remember I have not experienced any difficulties because of cultural bias, except for our technical matters, e.g. idiomatic expressions that require special attention or changing word or phrase orders due to grammatical or traditional reasons.

GS: Thank you Saeko Ogi for you time and commentary on this subject of complexities in translation, which I believe is a mystery in the minds of unilingual poets. I wish you continued success in your own work and your collaborative work with Amelia Fielden.


Saeko Ogi tanka poetry:

Weaver Birds, by Saeko Ogi and Amelia Fielden, Trade paperback, 147 pages.

Port Adelaide, Australia, Ginnindera Press 2010.

Saeko Ogi poetry translations in collaboration with Amelia Fielden:

Eucalypts and Iris Streams: out of print  Poems by Amelia Fielden, translated by Saeko Ogi, 2002, Ginninderra Press, Canberra, Australia

Fountains Play and Time Passes: out of print, An anthology of tanka poems in English and Japanese with translations by Saeko Ogi and Amelia Fielden, 2002, Ginninderra Press, Canberra, Australia
The Time of This World : 100 Tanka from 13 Collections by Kawano Yuko, selected by Oshima Shiyo, 2010, Modern English Tanka Press, Baltimore, USA. 

Doorway to the Sky,tanka written by Noriko Tanaka translated by Amelia Fielden and Saeko Ogi, 2008, Nagarami Shobo, Tokyo, Japan

Breast Clouds, tanka written by Noriko Tanaka translation by Amelia Fielden and Saeko Ogi, 2010, Tanka Kenkyu-sha, Tokyo, Japan