Around the Writers’ Table: Poetry

Spencer Thurlow reveals the ins and outs of translation.

Poet Spencer Thurlow talks about his newest book. —Kate Feiffer

Last week I had a discussion with MV Times publisher Charles Sennott about the challenges of writing a good lede. A lede is the first sentence in a news or feature story, and should draw the reader in and set the tone for the piece.

The lede I had written for this column a few days back was: “Spencer Thurlow didn’t speak Japanese when he started collaborating with poet and translator Eric E. Hyett.”

I liked this lede. I had gone to hear Thurlow speak at the West Tisbury library about the new book of poems he translated from Japanese with Hyett, and he mentioned that when they began working together, he didn’t speak Japanese. He also said that after he started working with Hyett, he moved to Japan for a while to study Japanese.

So I wrote my lede, and wrote about Thurlow’s talk and then emailed him to find out when and for how long he lived in Japan. He emailed me back with additional details about learning Japanese. And it was from his email that I found out that after he graduated from college, he toyed around with Rosetta Stone to try to learn Japanese, but as he wrote, “struggled to find a way to apply myself and get beyond very basic understanding.”

Having this information, I started to doubt my lede. It wasn’t entirely accurate. Maybe it was OK, but now I knew too much. So I scratched that lede and wrote a lede about writing ledes.

But back to Thurlow, who was at the library discussing his most recent collaboration with Hyett, “Is It Poetry?” The book is a translation of Japanese prizewinning poet, playwright, essayist, and novelist Toshiko Hirata’s 2015 book.

“What is translation?” asked Thurlow. “More than anything it is a constructive act. It is a version of the original.” Thurlow, a 2006 graduate of MVRHS and the West Tisbury poet laureate from 2018–22, explained how he and Hyett work together. “We read the work, then we argue about what it means.” When there is something they are unsure about, they research it until they figure out what it means. After that, they do what Thurlow called a “rough translation,” to try to get to the core of a poem. They then workshop their translations of the poems, as they would workshop one of their own poems.

“We bring it to a group of poets who are not necessarily interested in Japan, and they critique it,” he said. It’s a lengthy process that includes not only choosing the correct words, but making sure they have the right tone. With “Is It Poetry?” Thurlow and Hyett had translated half the book before they realized they had the voice wrong, and so they went back and started again.

He explained that Hirata wrote the poems in the book during a period when she was seriously considering quitting poetry, but instead decided to designate one day a month to writing a poem. Each of the poems took longer to finish than the allotted day, and it took her two years to complete this collection, which is why the poems in the book are titled “Is It January?” “Is It February?” And so on until “Is It January Again?” After the book was published in Japan, she won the Hagiwara Sakutarō Prize for poetry for it.

Hirata sounded like a fascinating woman from Thurlow’s description, and this collection of poetry is a terrific introduction to her work, if you don’t already know it. She’s certainly a writer I’d like to read more of. On the site Writers Without Borders, Hirata is described as “one of the foremost voices of the so-called women’s boom of poetry. Her poetry is known for its directness and black humor.”

But now I’ll circle back to Thurlow, and when he learned Japanese. In his email to me he further explained, “In January 2012, my good friend Alexis Ivy, a poet, invited me to a party so that I could meet her teacher, Barbara Hyett, whose poetry classes I ended up taking. At that event I also met her son, Eric, who had spent a career in Japan doing business, but also wrote poetry. He’d been struggling with how to translate a poem by Minashita Kiriu about the 2011 earthquake and nuclear disaster in Japan, and asked me to collaborate.

“Translating, or at least trying to, gave me a reason to re-engage with Japanese, and do the tough work of understanding complex vocabulary and grammar. It was fun to advance with the skill while also doing something that I enjoyed, which was writing. It soon became clear that I needed to move there to understand the culture behind the words I was translating on a deeper level, and so I moved to Kochi, Japan, in March 2014, where I lived and worked as an English teacher until summer 2017. Our first translated book, ‘Sonic Peace,’ was published later that year.”

“Is It Poetry?” by Toshiko Hirata, translated by Spencer Thurlow and Eric E. Hyett, is available at Edgartown Books and Bunch of Grapes. 

Around the Writers’ Table is a column about writers and writing on the Vineyard. Please email with your writing-related news.