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In Session: (Re)translations: The Challenges of Translating Modern Japanese Literary Theory
3: The Afterlife of Chinese Classics: How
Friday, March 26, 2021
12:00pm – 1:30pm EDT
National Institute of Japanese Literature, Japan
When translating works of modern Japanese literary theory into English, one encounters a number of Japanese literary terms that have origins in European languages. Usually, those terms can be translated back into English forms of the original European terminology without any problem. However, the ease with which such “retranslations” can be performed might be highly misleading for English-speaking readers (and in fact, for Japanese-speaking readers as well), since it obfuscates the complex history of cultural adaptations and linguistic experiments that took place in late Edo and Meiji Japan, and may give a false impression that modern Japanese literary theory is no different than its Euro-American counterpart.
In this presentation, I will examine how “shi,” which originally referred only to classical Chinese poetry, came to be used as a generic term for rendering the European concept of “poetry” into Japanese during the second half of the nineteenth century. The writers of shintai-shi (new-style poetry) drew heavily on Japanese poetic traditions, and yet they selected the Sinitic term “shi” to signify “taisei no poetorii” (Western poetry), in line with other contemporaneous Japanese intellectuals who relied on their familiarity with Chinese classics to import modern Euro-American culture, technology, and institutions and adapt them to Japan. I will show that the term was selected through a rather convoluted nationalistic quest to create a new genre of native Japanese poetry, and suggest that “shi” became totally congruent with “poetry” after the appearance and popularization of the newly coined term “shiteki” (“poetic”).