Each of the hundred parts of Jakuzen’s sequence is comprised of a dai (poem topic, in this case a short quote from Buddhist scripture in Chinese), a waka (31-syllable poem in Japanese) and a Japanese lyric prose afterword on the same topic. The hundred sections of the Hōmon Hyakushu are grouped into ten books, and these three sections are from book six, the Separation poems [wakare no uta].
The kinds of separation described in book six — the child from the parent, the parent from the child, from the beloved, from home, from those who take a different spiritual path, from the Buddha himself after his death — are each metaphors for the tests, obstacles, confusion, and longing the practitioner may experience on the spiritual path.
Jakuzen’s particular qualities as a writer include his gifts for evoking precise sensual-specifics of the natural world as emotionalized metaphors for interior landscapes, for plain, clear speech about complex spiritual matters, and for compelling retellings of parables from scripture and stories drawn from daily life.
As to our process in making literary translations of these poem/prose hybrids: we are a translation team. Stephen Miller brings the language skills, in this case of reading classical Japanese (and Chinese, in the case of the prefaces to the poems). The first part of his work is to prepare a “trot”, which is a translation of every word in the text, including labeling their syntactical/grammatical relationship to one another. Patrick Donnelly uses the trot to bring the text into idiomatic, musical, contemporary English, with the one great goal of having the translation sound like a real person speaking. We go back and forth between ourselves, until we’re satisfied that the translation is both accurate, in a scholarly sense, and successful in a literary sense, in that it may be enjoyed as a poem in English.
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