10 JULY 1964, Page 28

Crystal Days

The Penguin Book of Japanese Verse. Translated with an introduction by Geoffrey Bownas and Anthony Thwaite. (Penguin Books, 7s. 6d.) THIS new collection of Japanese verse in English translation is the most comprehensive so far published. Of the two translators, Mr. Bownas is Lecturer in Japanese at Oxford, and Mr. Thwaite, who modestly disclaims more than an elementary knowledge of the language, spent some two years in Japan. It is Mr. Bownas who is responsible for the selection, and for the sub- stance of the translations. Mr. Thwaite's part was to suggest, for final joint consideration, acceptable English versions of •Mr. Bownas's first drafts. The result of the collaboration is renderings which seem in general to have a high standard of accuracy and which certainly read very well in English.

The selection covers the whole period of Japan- ese literary histofy, back to the eighth century. It includes, in fact, a few songs composed well before they were recorded in the eighth century, though the attribution of some of these dates up to five centuries earlier is not to be taken very seriously. The selection is catholic in scope, including traditional folk-songs as well as more orthodox literary modes. The volume• is unique in giving so much modern verse. The allocation of space to different periods is worth noting. The twentieth century gets almost as much as is given to the whole of the preceding eleven (ninth to nineteenth); while the eight century (and earlier) has not much less than the twentieth. The heavy representation of the earliest period is partly dictated by the importance in Japan- ese poetic history of the Manyoshu, but the fact that so much more is taken from this and other eighth-century sources than from the poem- collections of the immediately following period seems to show Mr. Bownas's personal preference for the simple and earthy over the ornate and precious.

Certain questions, though they may not in fact be very important, seem to arise concerning the type of reader for whom the volume is de- signed. Scholars would have welcomed detailed references to the original texts, but these are not given. Mr. Bownas contributes a clear but tightly packed introduction in which he seems to be addressing a reader who wishes to go more deeply into the techniques and history of Japan- ese poetry than the rest of the contents allow him to. After this introduction and a table of dates --landmarks in Japanese history set against events in the West—come the English transla- tions (230 pages), some rather sparse notes (six and a half pages) and an author index.

The translations are not accompanied by the

original poems, and a non-specialist reader will sometimes be uncertain of the original metrical form, since the English does not always have the same number of lines as the original. Nor is there any strict correspondence between the length of lines. The English is commendably free from the padding which always results from using English lines of the same number of syl- lables as the Japanese, Japanese syllables being on an average so much less weighty. But the problem of finding some equivalent in English for the five- and seven-syllable lines of traditional Japanese verse remains. The renderings here— apart from those of modern 'free verse'—will usually suggest what the original form is to any- one familiar with the Japanese metrical forms, but, although specimens of them are given in the introduction, I suspect that it is difficult for anyone to get a firm grasp of them without having numerous examples. The notes hardly seem adequate. Granted that there is some truth in the doctrine that poetry need not be fully understood in order to have its effect, it is doubtful whether it should be accounted relevant to translations; and, anywaY, it scarcely accords with Japanese poetic theory, for a statement of the circumstances of compo- sition was a normal accompaniment of much of the earlier ver,se, and the tradition was carried over into much of haiku literature. An example of an item in this volume which seems to need annotation is the haiku by Issa rendered as : 'The world of dew is/A world of dew , , . and yet/And yet . . (page 122). A perceptive reader may, from what is said in the introduction and from comparison with other poems, get as far as divining the Buddhist implications of 'world of dew.' But can the lines function as poetry for anyone who does not know that Issa wrott them after the death of his young daughter?

But, as I said, these questions may not be very important. This volume has many merits. The English versions, taken together, convey, I believe, a very good idea of the general scope and the general 'feel' of Japanese poetry. They should give enjoyment to many readers and maY well inspire a few to take up the study of Japan- ese literature. When I myself first came to Japanese in the late 1920s I was almost put off making any study of the verse because I was repelled by the average poor quality of the English translations then available. The situation now is very different. A number of good collec- tions of translated Japanese verse have been published, mostly since the war and mostly it' Japan or America. The present volume is a worthy addition, and it has the widest coverage of them all.