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The Stephen Spender Prize 2019 for poetry in translation
in association with the Guardian

Open category, first prize

Read the judges’ comments
Download the 2019 booklet
Email to request a free hard copy of the booklet (UK addresses only)
Read the winning entries from previous years

James Garza

Going Home

Listen to 'Going Home'

It sways up ahead
its rhythm my rhythm
in the dark, this small
yellow circle splashing
dully on the pebbly road.
Oh my solemn friend:
Take me home. My eyes
are sore and happy to be
your prisoner in this field
of restless winds. There's
something eager in the dark.
I speak to it. 'This light in my
hand is our poem, it answers
to no-one else.' In the glow
the furrows in the road seem
carved of a deeper dark, yet
the grass is greener than green,
and I hear it, the rustle in
the colour, and I hear it,
the way home

Translated from the Japanese by James Garza

歸 路

View the original Japanese as an image


Itō Shizuo


Translation commentary

This poem is from the fourth and final collection of the Japanese Romanticist Itō Shizuo (1906-1953). A devotee of Rilke and Hölderlin, Itō sought to break down the barrier between subject and object, and to give voice to truths inherent in the physical world. The scholar Takeda Hideo sees something 'pantheistic' about the poet's relationship to the non-human in his first collection, Laments to My Beloved (Waga Hito-ni Atauru Aika, 1935). In his second collection, Summer Flowers (Natsu Hana, 1940), the poet's world had become one where objects seem to call out directly to him. The poet is no longer the one that sings, but rather the one 'sung to,' in Itō's words.

According to Donald Keene, Itō's final collection, Echoes (Hankyō, 1947), was 'written in a much simpler style than his earlier poetry, so simple indeed that the poems have been faulted for their prosiness.' However, this is exactly what drew me to the poem I chose to translate. Here, in simple but carefully chosen language, is a real place. Desolate though it may be, each detail is so present it contributes to a tremendous sense of repleteness. The words are plain but full.

This was by far the most difficult thing to translate. I wanted my words to be plain but full. How does one attain 'fullness' in language? In the Japanese, the lines are long‑ish and prosy, and I tried at first to match the length of these lines in my translation. But the feeling that something special was happening did not come until I broke the lines up a bit. It struck me that when using plain words, perhaps it is best not to be able to see too far down the road. I hope my line breaks preserve this sense of anticipation.

James Garza