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The Times Stephen Spender Prize 2010

Open category, commended

Read the judges’ comments
To obtain the free booklet of winning entries and commentaries,
please email: info@stephenspender.org


Mary Weatherburn

A Small Garden
by Rin Ishigaki


The old woman came
to her long path’s end.

Had she lived
striving straight for the light? Or
had she fled,
driven here by the dark?

The children:
buds of graft
on vines of toil.
(Yet she speaks of this
to no one.)

She turns her back
to their meagre home
and tends her morning glories.
Green, slim shoots:
these alone will bloom for her
unfaltering.

Her old eyes shine
like a little girl’s.
‘I want a sky-blue watering can,’
she says.

Translated from the Japanese by Mary Weatherburn
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The original poem may not display properly in older browsers or on computers running non-unicode-compliant operating systems. To view an image file of the poem, click here (opens in new window).

ちいさい庭


老婆は長い道をくぐりぬけて
そこへたどりついた。

まっすぐ光に向かって
生きてきたのだろうか。

それともくらやみに追われて
少しでもあかるい方へと
かけてきたのだろうか。

子供たち──
苦労のつるに
苦労の実がなっただけ。
(だけどそんなこと、  
人にいえない)

老婆はいまなお貧しい家に背をむけて
朝顔を育てる。
たぶん
間違いなく自分のために
花咲いてくれるのはこれだけ、
青く細い苗。

老婆は少女のように
目を輝かせていう
空色の美しい如露が欲しい、と。

石垣りん Rin Ishigaki
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Translation commentary


Rin Ishigaki (1920–2004) is a rare female voice in post-war Japanese poetry. Despite being one of the best-known contemporary poets in Japan, few of her poems have been translated. I chose ‘Chiisai Niwa’ because it is representative of her work, I could not find an English translation, and I was charmed by the way the stark truths of the old woman’s thoughts capture, rather than detract from, her humanity.

Leith Morton, a specialist in modern Japanese poetry, comments of Ishigaki: ‘There is a dimension of her poetics that cannot be communicated transparently in translation. I am speaking of the simplicity and power of her diction. The words can be light or heavy but they are always spare and deliberate.’ Although the free verse and colloquial style did not present boundaries of rhyme or a particular metre, it was a challenge to make the scansion representative within the confines of Ishigaki’s lean expression.

Japanese is not only entirely unrelated to English, it is an isolate language; translation is therefore especially difficult. One issue is the lack of articles and pronouns. I chose ‘A Small Garden’ because it captures the sense of her life’s insignificance. ‘Their meagre home’ could be a/the/her; I chose ‘their’ because she is turning away from a past defined by the sacrifice of motherhood (represented by the family home) to a present where she can put her individual happiness first.

Capturing the subtexts of a language with different cultural associations is problematic, particularly when they are wrapped up in nuances of the Chinese characters themselves. For example, the compound 如露 (watering can) is a combination of ‘as if + dew’. In Japan, dew is associated with transience; this may suggest being at peace with passing on, which I was unable to evoke at the poem’s close.

Mary Weatherburn
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