Toward a Speculative Poetics of Translation: Janine Beichman’s Translation from Japanese of Ishigaki Rin’s “This Overflowing Light: Selected Poems”

By James Garza

Over a career spanning decades, Ishigaki Rin (1920-2004) forged a poetry of keen moral discernment and wry self-discovery. On the one hand, her work was democratic in its language and outlook, premised on the possibility of liberation from the strictures of poverty and repressive social institutions. But it was also grounded in the absurdities of the everyday and the domestic, with a propensity for sharp turns into darkness.

She is also known for having produced this enduring body of work while working full-time as a bank clerk: she was employed by the Industrial Bank of Japan between the ages of 14 and 55. Factor in a history of family hardships stretching back to the Great Kantō Earthquake of 1923—not to mention a firsthand experience of wartime devastation two decades later—and the elements are nearly all in place. That is, we have almost everything we need for the standard literary-biographical line on Ishigaki.

While this picture is not wrong, Janine Beichman argues in This Overflowing Light: Selected Poems (Isobar Press, 2022), it needs an update to recover several vital aspects of her poetics. In the volume’s artful and engaging introduction, Beichman calls our attention to several correspondences with contemporary poetics: first, there is the speculative orientation of Ishigaki’s work, capable of uncanny leaps in spatial and temporal perspective. Then there is its under-explored connection to eco-critical thought. And finally there is its playful but intense awareness of the agentive role of fantasy and imagination in constructing ‘real life.’  

I have long admired Beichman’s approach to biography. As in her Embracing the Firebird: Yosano Akiko and the Birth of the Female Voice in Modern Japanese Poetry (University of Hawai‘i Press, 2002),[1] Beichman historicizes poignantly and economically, interspersing dates with anecdotes and quotations from the poet’s own essayistic reflections. The sense is of Ishigaki collaborating in the telling of her own story. But it is not so simple: there are fascinating reminders that this effect is inextricable from the translator’s own presence inside—and outside—the text.

For example, Beichman writes in the introduction: “[Ishigaki’s father] used to say of her ‘This one does as she pleases.’ She was never sure if it was humblebrag or genuine pique, but she was allowed to do what she wanted” (18). Here Beichman employs something like free indirect discourse—a technique “often seen as a means of encouraging empathy” (Wales 133), or “feeling ‘into’” (ibid.) the text—but the vocabulary (“humblebrag”) points right back outside of Ishigaki’s cultural context, toward an altogether different cultural-historical milieu (early 21st-century, Anglophone, etc.).[2] It is one of several beguiling moments in the book where the interaction between the two voices (Beichman’s and Ishigaki’s) is manifest, complicating the notion of translation as reported speech. There is a sense that we are involved in a game of ‘what if…?’—what would Ishigaki sound like if a different state of affairs obtained in the world? To my mind, this is less about translation as reporting, and more about translation as making an “ontological commitment” (Pavel 30), however temporary or fleeting, to a “possible world”—a world that “bear[s] a relation of empirical alternativeness” to this one (ibid., 38).

This is a topic (modal logic and possible worlds) that has not been much explored in relation to translation—and is certainly beyond the scope of this review—but which may yet have something revealing to say about the nature of translation as a speech act. In the above example, translation acquires a kind of speculative character, not unlike the ‘fictive’-ness that Johanna Skibsrud (25) holds is inherent in all language, and which poetry encourages us to question by “rendering discourse legible as discourse” (19), allowing us to “glimpse the ways in which facts arise as the result of complex and fluid processes of belief and knowledge” (11).

My mention of this here is not coincidental. Ishigaki’s own poetics are deeply concerned with the “role that [..] the illusive […] and the imaginary play in creating the truth about our histories, politics, and everyday lives” (Beichman 17). As Beichman writes:

Ishigaki is a kind of cartographer, mapping the spaces and the activities of her world: the public bath, the home, toilets, kitchens, the workplace, food shopping, cooking, her own bedroom, funerals and so on. […] Those quotidian spaces often enlarge or dissolve into other dimensions, places of dream, fantasy, and imagination. The events that then occur happen in the same quotidian spaces but they are invisible to the eye. (31-32)

Beichman translates several fantastic poems in this vein. My favorite is probably “The Women’s Bath,” from Ishigaki’s first collection in 1959. The setting of the poem is prosaic enough, but Ishigaki’s and Beichman’s language accomplishes a “derangement of scale” (Clark 150) that manages to link the date of the poet’s observation—”midnight of December 31 1957”—with both mythological and deep time:

On midnight of December 31 1957

piping hot clouds of steam blanket the public bath

the crowd bobbing and bumping like potatoes

          washed in a barrel

The bathwater

muddied with skin oils and grime

adrift with seaweedy wisps of twisted hair and what not

fairly bubbles, overflowing

with the humans in it and their abundant blood,

while on the flooded shores

the soap — 25 yen a bar at most — brews a sudsy foam

and of that whiteness, to the New Year turned, is Venus born (50)

The poem shuttles us from the grimy to the mythic and back again, as the woman described in the text returns to the changing room and the “shabby clothes awaiting her in a bamboo basket.” These are “all she knows of her own true ‘rights’” (50).

And this is how the Venus of Japan

comes to be in a painting even older than


In lines like these, Ishigaki’s work gives the uncanny sense of multiple—sometimes incommensurate—viewpoints at once. The poet Kasuya Eiichi, writing in an essay in a Japanese volume of her selected poems, described her technique as one of “writing […] from a strange [fushigi-na] position […] both far away and close up” (236-237). In this case, there is also a sense of reversal: what we thought was ‘life’ (a scene in a public bath) is possibly revealed to be ‘art’ (“a painting even older than Botticelli’s”). The problem is not resolved; the poem ends on a startling image of the bathtub as a “primeval swamp” (51).

Here, as in other poems like “Seascape” and “The Watcher,” Ishigaki compels us to think about the radically different scales of human and geological time. In this way, her work attempts to think beyond the limits of human perception, to ask “what it means to live enfolded by deep time” (Farrier 2019: 7). Indeed, Beichman writes that another of Ishigaki’s poems, “The Twilight Crane” from 1970, “must be one of the earliest eco-poems in Japanese literature” (31).[3] However, it is not just Ishigaki’s imagination but the cultural specificity of her work that has something to add to eco-critical and Anthropocene thought. As Ikuta Shōgo (275) has pointed out, the way people relate to nature is strongly locally inflected, tied up with a particular sense of place and means of expression, and these local perspectives are a vitally necessary corrective to the still largely Anglocentric orientation of the field. Insofar as translators draw attention to these local perspectives (either in terms of the texts they choose to translate, or the strategies and techniques they use in the process), translation may also play a key part in coming to grips with the “crisis of meaning” triggered by the Anthropocene (Farrier 4).

The experience of a stylistic diminishment between source texts and their translations seems to be common among translation scholars. As Callum Walker (2) notes, this phenomenon has been described in other contexts as the “decaffeinat[ing]” (Rodríguez Herrera 281), “standardizing” (Ramos Pinto n.p.) and “leveling effect” (Hatim and Mason 66) of translation. This effect is emphatically not happening here. Beichman’s vocabulary remains as heterogeneous and bumpy as the “bobbing and bumping […] potatoes washed in a barrel” that open “The Women’s Bath” (50). (A note on the translation: The source text ‘merely’ describes the public bath as ぎっしり芋を洗う盛況 gisshiri imo wo arau seikyō, or being in a state of ‘close-packed potato-washing prosperity’ or ‘crowdedness’. My gloss notwithstanding, there is no alliteration in this part of the source text. So I wondered if Beichman’s alliteration might be a response to a sound repetition in the previous line, which includes the word ほかほか hokahoka, a mimetic adverb expressing pleasant warmth. Whatever the case may be, I appreciate the technique as one of many in Beichman’s toolkit for crafting energetic target-language poetry.)

I don’t know any active Japanese-to-English translators who would have translated the above poem quite like this—but I am very glad that Beichman did. I am impressed by her willingness to body forth the difference that her own subjectivity makes as a (very) close reader of the source texts. The only way I know how to describe it at the moment is this: she seems to approach translation as an embodied reader—a reader who does not simply “access” the text (Göransson) from a position of distant mastery,[4] but who is capable of being moved and changed by the source text, and who constructs the target text in the still ‘warm’ affective space of that experience.[5] The target-language words are somehow picked up and put together differently than if someone were to pick them up ‘cold.’

What brings Beichman’s approach to translation into productive friction with some recent activist approaches is the embrace of a style that goes beyond merely instrumentalizing cultural difference as a form of resistance to some dominant target-language ideology. In this book, as well as in her Beneath the Sleepless Tossing of the Planets: Selected Poems (Kurodahan Press, 2018) by Ōoka Makoto, there seems to be an awareness of the unlikeliness of opening “new conceptual space” (McCannon) through a superficial dictionary-style translation, or through some pre-approved translation idiom that forecloses the possibility of affective engagement. In this way, she invites much-needed reflection on the role of so-called ‘creative’ approaches to translation at a time of intense interest in the ethics of literary translation. I recommend this volume highly to anyone interested in modern or contemporary Japanese poetry, as well as to students or scholars of translation with an interest in the issues outlined in this review.

James Garza is Assistant Professor of Translation Studies at International Christian University in Tokyo. His translations have appeared in Poetry, Modern Poetry in Translation, and Asymptote, among other places. He is a previous winner of the Stephen Spender Prize for poetry in translation.

[1] This monograph was devoted to another groundbreaking poet who embraced personal freedom as a major theme and shouldered a financial burden for the sake of her family.

[2] One might quibble that the passage quoted above is not translation proper, but a paraphrase instead. However, it is an English-language paraphrase of material from a Japanese source text. Thus, I do not hesitate to refer to it as an example of translation.

[3] Referencing an “anti-capitalist” play [Tierney 154] by Kinoshita Junji, the poem revisits a pivotal scene of betrayal, re-staging it on a planetary scale.

[4] See also Alina Stefanescu’s notion of “stand-insideness” as a critical approach.

[5] Perhaps ‘activated’ is a better term than ‘warm.’ The affective experience of a text may not always be a positive one.    

Works Cited

  • Beichman, Janine. Embracing the Firebird: Yosano Akiko and the Birth of the Female Voice in Modern Japanese Poetry. University of Hawai‘i Press, 2002.
  • Clark, Timothy. “Derangements of Scale.” Telemorphosis: Theory in the Era of Climate Change, vol. 1, edited by Tom Cohen, Open Humanities Press, 2012, pp. 148-166.
  • Farrier, David. Anthropocene Poetics. University of Minnesota Press, 2019.
  • Göransson, Johannes. Transgressive Circulation: Essays on Translation. Noemi Press, 2018.
  • Hatim, Basil and Ian Mason. The Translator as Communicator. Routledge, 1997.
  • Ikuta, Shōgo. “‘Eco’-ga katarikakeru-koto.” [What the Word ‘Eco’ Tells Us]. ‘Basho’-no shigaku [The Poetics of Place], edited by Ikuta Shōgo, Murakami Kiyotoshi and Yūki Masami, Fujiwara Shoten 2008, pp. 273-276.
  • Ishigaki, Rin. This Overflowing Light: Selected Poems. Translated by Janine Beichman, Isobar Press, 2022.
  • Kasuya, Eiichi. “‘Oni’ to ningen.” [‘Demon’ and Human]. Ishigaki Rin shishū. [Selected Poems of Ishigaki Rin], Haruki Bunko 2005, pp. 227-242.
  • McCannon, Olivia. “The Defence of Poetry: Ownership and the Co-Operating Mind.” NCLA New Defences of Poetry Project, July 2021.  ownership-and-the-co-operating-mind/
  • Ōoka, Makoto. Beneath the Sleepless Tossing of the Planets: Selected Poems. Translated by Janine Beichman, Kurodahan Press, 2018.
  • Pavel, Thomas G. Fictional Worlds. Harvard University Press, 1986.
  • Ramos Pinto, Sara. “Ya Care How Me Speaks, Do Ya? The Translation of Linguistic Varieties and Their Reception.” The Translation of Dialects in Multimedia III, special issue of inTRAlinea, 2016.
  • Rodríguez Herrera, José Manuel. “The Reverse Side of Mark Twain’s Brocade: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and the Translation of Dialect.” European Journal of English Studies, vol. 18, no. 3, 2014, pp. 278-294.
  • Skibsrud, Johanna. The Poetic Imperative: A Speculative Aesthetics. McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2020.
  • Stefanescu, Alina. “Chimeric Entanglements.” Poetry Foundation, 7 November 2022.
  • Tierney, Robin Leah. Japanese Literature as World Literature: Visceral Engagement in the Writings of Tawada Yoko and Shono Yoriko. 2010. University of Iowa, PhD dissertation.
  • Wales, Katie. A Dictionary of Stylistics. 3rd ed., Routledge, 2014.
  • Walker, Callum. An Eye-Tracking Study of Equivalent Effect in Translation. Palgrave, 2021.

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