Translated from the Japanese by Lucy North


Translator’s Note

In this essay, the author recounts an episode in which a Russian interpreter translates a Russian haiku into Japanese, and she herself creates a Japanese haiku out of that translation. The original Russian haiku is unavailable to the readers; we only get traces of it in the Japanese. In my translation I had to capture the differences between the versions (the Russian interpreter’s rendering and the author’s haiku), in yet another language, English, which would erase ‘original’ differences and introduce new ones. To me, it was important to reflect the differences between the two Japanese versions in English, but not to lose sight of the Japanese. So I kept the poems in English and Japanese on the page.

The season word, konayuki, ‘powdery snow’, is present in both Japanese versions. However, being a practised haiku poet, Kawakami includes some other haiku conventions, not the least being the seventeen-syllable limit; she includes the kire-ji (‘cutting word’) ‘ya’, a verbal punctuation mark that indicates a pause, or moment of separation, intensifying the comment that follows. Kawakami’s language is more delicate than that of the Russian interpreter. For ‘dead/ absent/ gone’ she uses the abbreviated, slightly literary, naki, instead of the tense-laden nakunatta. She uses a poetic word,harakara, for ‘brother’, instead of the generic kyōdai. A neutral word eru(‘obtain’, ‘get’) serves instead of moratta (‘received’). The ‘-ru’ in ‘eru’ is tenseless, allowing the seventeen syllables to be a quick gleam, a line of words, rather than to fall with a thud, as in the Russian interpreter’s version, where two sentences are completed heavily.

Needless to say, because English is not Japanese, the differences of Kawakami’s poem have to be evoked in English in a different way. In my translation of Kawakami’s poem, the ‘ya’ is rendered as a dash (sometimes ya is reproduced as an exclamation mark, or as a colon). The ‘eru’ of Kawakami’s poem is rendered as ‘receiving’, the present participle in English chosen to evoke a momentary, tenseless quality. To allow the sentence to mimic an ‘instant’ (or a ‘twinge’), I followed the practice of other haiku translators and, after the dash, avoided the interference of punctuation. Rather than trying to follow the word limit, I opted merely to simulate the lightness and brevity of her haiku.

Harakara’, a genderless word, literally ‘of the same womb’, written 同胞, might be translated as ‘sibling’, but I wanted something more specific, less coy. The Russian interpreter signals the sibling in question is male, and I settled for ‘brother’ (the use of the word kyōdai by the Russian interpreter, if it does refer to a single brother, might possibly be a mistake; kyōdai usually refers to brothers in the plural, though it can on occasion include ‘sisters’). My choice means that the poetic resonance of Kawakami’s harakara – a distinctly literary word that harks back to ancient texts, its literariness / indirectness here suggesting (to me) a sense of pain – is lost.

Kawakami’s brevity and lightness release possibilities of meaning. So we may read: ‘The poet, or speaker in the poem, discovers that it is snowing – there is a powdery snow. At this moment, he has just received, or perhaps is taking out, or is putting on, a coat bestowed by his dead brother.’

Or alternatively: ‘The poet, or the speaker in the poem, discovers that it is snowing – there is a ‘powdery snow’. Momentarily, he imagines that the snow that falls on his shoulders is a sign, a gift – a ‘coat’ – bestowed by his dead brother.’

In this second reading, the difference between this world and the next is erased; or at least the boundary between them is less clear. Is there a sense of longing, or perhaps momentary comfort, being conveyed?

In this essay Kawakami yokes together the inevitable failure of translation and the fragility of life, the closeness of death and the potential haphazardness of communication. Things are always, at best, a ‘near miss’. We ‘get through,’ sometimes just barely. In this episode, she shows what is involved in composing – not a dull and uninspiring report of an event, but a poem, evoking an indefinable feeling (a sadness? a sensitivity to ephemera?) that might flash across one’s mind on a snowy day.



I sometimes think back on certain events and find myself puzzled about when exactly they started.

It was a lovely day without a cloud in the sky, and the seven-storey building, out in the western suburbs of Tokyo, afforded a clear view of Mount Fuji. The air conditioning made the room pleasantly cool. Yet all of the dozen or so people dressed in white gowns and trousers waiting for their medical check-up looked like they had better things to do.

As someone who spends most of her time typing away in a study, I’d begun to think of my annual check-up more as a change of scene than anything having to do with my health. The hearing in my right ear has been muffled for over two decades, and for almost ten years my white blood cell count has been slightly lower than average. ‘If there’s a major change in your cell count, we might take some further tests. But not to worry,’ I am usually told. Small issues like these, it seemed to me, were normal for someone in her mid-fifties; it might be slightly embarrassing if I had nothing wrong with me at all.

After we had completed the tests, we were called in one by one for a chat with the doctor. How have you been feeling? Pretty much the same as last time. Good, keep it up, see you next year. You might try a little more exercise. This was how the conversation usually went, and how I expected it to go this day too. So when the doctor told me, in a gentle voice, ‘You have a tumour on your pancreas. You should go in for tests right away,’ for a second I had difficulty understanding his words.

That afternoon I made an appointment at the university hospital, and in a daze wrote the date and time in my calendar. I had no way of knowing if this was the start of something life-changing. It didn’t feel like anything – there were no signs. My appetite was fine. I wasn’t in any pain. I looked well. But malignant tumours are often the tumours that have no symptoms. My pancreas. A part of me that is impossible to see. Or touch. Even though it is so intimately mine. I found that terribly strange.

Several tests were conducted, and then, after reviewing my records from the clinic, the doctor said, ‘There’s a very high possibility the tumour is malignant. We need to do more tests. You’ll have to be hospitalized. When can you come in?’

Why do all doctors talk in that kind, gentle voice? I felt a slight urge to laugh. But I didn’t.

So it was that I was hospitalized, the next week, for further tests. Anaesthesia, intravenous drips, X-rays. Becquerel: a unit of measurement I first learned about at the time of the meltdowns at the Fukushima nuclear power plant. How many becquerels are passing through my body at this moment? I found myself wondering dimly. I lay on the bed and waited for the results. In a kind voice the doctor said, There’s a 90 per cent chance the tumour is malignant. The stress these people must feel, having to give news like this to patients every day. If it does turn out to be malignant, what’s the probability of survival? The five-year survival rate is roughly 10 per cent. I’m supposed to be going to Russia next week, for work, is it all right to go? Yes. But as soon as you get back you need to come into hospital. We’ll be performing a surgical procedure. Should I take any precautions, is there anything I shouldn’t do, anything I should avoid eating or drinking? No, nothing. Carry on as normal.

As normal. With the thought of that 10 per cent. The probability of the tumour’s being benign and the probability of five-year survival after a malignant tumour were the same. 10 per cent. A pretty unambiguous figure. It might be cold in Russia. Must remember to take a warm hat.

Arriving in Moscow, I remember I’ve forgotten to bring a small notebook. Whenever I’m travelling abroad, I make sure to go to a stationery shop and buy one. I use it to jot down every detail: the number of my air ticket, my daily expenses, schedules, the people I meet, the food I eat, the colour of the sky on any particular day. A week-long trip usually means I fill a fifty-page notebook from cover to cover. When I’m at home, though, I don’t keep a diary at all.

I hesitate, wondering whether I should buy one in the airport. But then the thought pops into my mind: why bother? What is the purpose of recording everything like that? When I get back from my travels I rarely open up the notebook to read what’s there. All those memories, lines and lines of them, filling a dozen or more notebooks. So, opting not to buy a notebook, I wave at the person from the Japan Foundation who has come to meet me. It’s the first heavy snowfall of the year. It might take us a while to get into the city. Really? In Japan, it’s still early autumn, still quite hot. We chat in the car. I’m nervous, I’m trembling a little, whether because of the 10 per cent, or because of the darkness of a city I’m visiting for the first time.

But human beings are forgetful by nature. Maybe I shouldn’t generalize. I am forgetful by nature. I gave a presentation at the Moscow International Book Fair. I enjoyed it: I truly did. I discussed haiku with some Russians who write them. That was fun: I really enjoyed that. And in St Petersburg, believe it or not, I got to hear Ludmilla Petrushevskaya sing. It came about by chance: on the train from Moscow to St Petersburg, Professor Mitsuyoshi Numano, who was part of my group, had a seat next to Petrushevskaya. She invited him to a concert she was giving the next day, and he asked if he could bring a guest, and she said – of course! And so, with a single word from the renowned writer, there I was, sitting in the audience. I really enjoyed myself. In a book cafe, I listened to some haiku composed by Russians. I presented some of my own haiku. It was fun: really good fun.

Maybe I’ve been concerned with death, all along. That’s what you actually do when you write fiction – you think about death. The one thing that no one, absolutely no one, avoids – the single thing that occurs to every human being, without exception. I only understood this is what death is after I’d been writing fiction for a while. I ought to have known it, but I didn’t. I only understood it once I’d lived with the people in my stories. I’m amazed that I had to be taught it not by the death of anyone in my life, but by people who hadn’t died yet, who existed only in my novels.

In Moscow, and in St Petersburg, I probably spent a total of forty-three minutes each day thinking about death. In the taxi as it waited to continue travelling along the snowbound roads, on the escalator descending into the depths of the metro, in those moments of silence during pauses in the discussions, in the minutes before I fell asleep late at night. It was only a little longer than the time I spent thinking about death in the days before I found out about the 10 per cent. Strangely, when I think about my death, it is as if a blockage intervenes. I only think about it in the abstract.

I walk through the snowy streets, and reach the book cafe. I am going to meet with a Russian haiku circle.

The woman who is to interpret for me has arrived well ahead of schedule, and she is sitting in a corner of the cafe on the topmost floor of the building. Haiku have kigo, season words, which say something about the sky, the breeze, the birds, the insects, the plants, the moon and the stars, in a given season. What kind of season words, I wonder, will Russians use when they compose haiku?

Soon, people arrive in twos and threes, and the meeting starts. Japanese is put into Russian. Russian is put into Japanese. The surface meanings come across fine. But I’m not sure about the nuances. The subtle shades of words are intimate to the culture that uses them. Feeling doubtful that anyone can align the nuances in one language with the nuances in the other, with two languages that are so vastly different, and in such a short time, I watch as the interpreter puts Russian into Japanese, and Japanese into Russian. All translation is mistranslation. So says Motoyuki Shibata, a translator and scholar of American literature whom I trust. He says this as a kind of joke, I know, but there’s a truth to it too.

The interpreter translates a haiku from Russian into Japanese for me:

Konayuki ga futte iru. Nakunatta kyōdai no fuku o moratta.
Powdery snow is falling. I received a coat from my dead brother.

The person who composed the haiku is sitting in front of me. A man, probably in his sixties.

I try to make this into a Japanese haiku.

konayuki ya naki harakara no fuku o eru
powdery snow – receiving my dead brother’s coat

The man is startled, and stares at me.

Several more Russian haiku are presented, and we each give our reactions. Words: such fragile, small things. I wonder if the man too is facing the possibility of death. Words, life . . . so very fragile, so small and insignificant. I realize I am probably being sentimental. In the beginning, we are cells with only half a set of chromosomes and with no distinguishing characteristics; at some point we become human beings; then we return to being nothing at all. What is there to surprise us in that?

The meeting comes to an end, and the man who composed the haiku about the powdery snow comes up and reaches for my hand. He shakes it, squeezes it tightly. I didn’t know anything about Japanese people. But today, meeting you, I knew Japanese people for the first time. I am happy. The interpreter tells me in Japanese what the man said in Russian. The subtler shades of meaning are beyond me. The man smiles; his eyes are grey. What kind of person was your brother? I ask. He was a good guy, he replies. On sleepless nights, I remember the man’s grey eyes.

I am not a religious person. I had thought that, when I was to die, not being religious might make it hard to bear. But maybe because I am dangling in the 10 per cent, I no longer fear dying.

Rather than death itself, it is the disappearance of traces that seems unbearable and sad. The disappearance of all signs that I existed. The traces that might linger in a coat I once owned, that would then be passed on to my sibling . . . When the coat got old and tattered, the memories of me would fade too, and eventually be gone. In old family photographs, or on the shelves of second-hand bookshops, my traces would linger, perhaps, for a few moments. Like those grey eyes that now rest briefly in me. It is in brief moments that we are born. All this should be no surprise.

I got back to Japan, and had the operation. The tumour on your pancreas was benign, the doctor informed me. In a kind, gentle tone of voice.

And so the days pass. All translation is mistranslation. But maybe there should be a second part to that phrase. All conversation is misunderstanding. I think about the discrepancies that will always exist in the gaps between languages whenever I go anywhere outside Japan, anywhere where Japanese, my native language, isn’t spoken. But even when I use my native language, the same thing does apply. All language is misunderstanding. In degrees.

Two months before my trip to Russia, in early autumn, I travelled with Motoyuki Shibata, his wife and some others to spend a night in the country house of Ted Goossen, a scholar of Japanese literature, outside Toronto. I had no inkling at that time of the 10 per cent that I was to know of two months later.

We built a bonfire, under a full moon. Every now and then, there was the small thud of an apple dropping to the ground.

‘There is a kigo for the full moon in autumn,’ I told Ted. ‘Jūgo-ya. Fifteenth night.’

‘In English,’ Ted said, gazing up, ‘we have a different word: blue moon.’

When two full moons occur in a single calendar month, he explained, the second one is known as a blue moon. It’s a rather rare event. After I got back to Japan, I looked the phrase up. The blue moon we’d seen was in August 2012, and the next one will be in July 2015.

Human beings have always judged the passing of time by looking up at the sky. Will I be able to look up at the next blue moon? It might appear that death has receded into the distance, but it really hasn’t, not at all. I know this now. I didn’t know it before.

The universe is said to have been created from a massive explosion 13.7 billion years ago. The earth was created 4.5 billion years ago, and modern human beings just two hundred thousand years ago. No one witnessed the beginnings of these events, and no one kept detailed observations of developments as they occurred. The same with all existence, from small to large. The universe, I myself, the birds winging through the skies, the snowflakes swirling through Moscow . . . No one sees the beginning of these things, and no one can predict how they will end. How precious it is, how precarious it is to be living. The skies during my week-long trip to Russia were overcast nearly the whole time, but there was one day when, miraculously, they were clear and blue and sunlight sparkled on the dome of St Isaac’s Cathedral in St Petersburg. At this moment, I am alive, I thought. That is enough. That is all I need.


Illustration © Yosuke Yamaguchi

Final Fantasy III
The Japanese Firefly Squid