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Speaking in Tongues: Celebrating Walt Whitman in Translation

Emma Tămâianu-Morita

Over-specification in Japanese translations of “Song of Myself”


This contribution examines comparatively six Japanese translations of Song of Myself, focusing on a five-line segment from Section 4. Although to different degrees, the Japanese versions display a noticeable tendency towards lexical, grammatical and stylistic over-specification. The following types of phenomena were identified: referential over-specification; use of stylistically marked units instead of neutral ones; shift to tighter syntactic structures, with subordination instead of coordination; explicitation of cognitive modality by sentence-final particles or adverbs. These changes significantly narrow down the range of possible interpretations of the text, sometimes up to a univocal designation which reflects the translators’ misguided attempt to ‘clarify’ the text, thus profoundly altering the Japanese reader’s interpretive experience. Objective difficulties arising from the semantic organization and typological characteristics of Japanese are distinguished from translation choices that seem to originate in subjective predilections. In each case, the accuracy of the six versions is assessed, and more appropriate solutions are sought for, on the basis of a cross-linguistic comparison with several Spanish, French and German translations.

Full text


1This contribution examines comparatively, from a text-linguistic perspective, six Japanese translations of ‘’Song of Myself:’’ Takeo Arishima (1921), Kintarō Horii (1931), Saika Tomita (1949), Shigetaka Naganuma (1959), Takashi Sugiki, Norihiro Nabeshima and Masayuki Sakamoto (1969), Masayuki Sakamoto (1998). In order to discuss individual strategies in depth and assess the adequacy of translation choices in each case, thereby also identifying the more general tendencies they may illustrate, the analysis focuses mainly on a five-line segment from Section 4 of “Song of Myself.” For easier reference, the lines will be numbered conventionally as follows:

(L1) Apart from the pulling and hauling stands what I am,

(L2) Stands amused, complacent, compassionating, idle, unitary,

(L3) Looks down, is erect, or bends an arm on an impalpable certain rest,

(L4) Looking with side-curved head curious what will come next,

(L5) Both in and out of the game and watching and wondering at it.


2Two considerations justify the choice of this particular textual segment. First of all, multiple Japanese versions from various historical periods are available and ensure a wide-ranging comparative basis. Thus, a first reading of the six Japanese versions indicated above immediately yields an intuitive observation: although to different degrees, at least five of them display a noticeable tendency towards lexical, grammatical and stylistic over-specification, contrary to what might be expected, in view of the fact that the literary tradition of Japanese poetry does seem to offer models of conciseness and linguistic under-specification, manifested in genres such as the haiku or the tanka.

3Consequently, in a very short fragment we can identify and analyze in depth problematic points pertaining to various levels of linguistic and textual organization (lexical, grammatical, stylistic, text-typological). In the following sections, five phenomena related to the lexical stratum of textual expression and three phenomena related to the grammatical stratum will be examined in detail. Discussed here with reference to Whitman’s text, all of these phenomena are in fact symptomatic of problematic issues encountered, more generally, in the process of poetic translation from English into Japanese.

4Secondly, a methodological aspect has been taken into account. The search for more adequate intra-linguistic options can benefit from the results of cross-linguistic contrast, deriving pertinent suggestions from the strategies adopted by translators into other languages. For the segment in question, numerous versions in European languages exist and can be taken as terms of comparison. Though operating with means of expression that may be much closer to English in terms of linguistic organization, these translators often had to face comparable challenges in precisely the same textual points that posed difficulties for the Japanese translators. In this study we will refer to the following versions: Spanish (Alexander 1952, Villar Raso 1999), French (Bazalgette 1909, Athenot 2008, Mourier 2011), and German (Reisiger 1922).

Contextual note on the six Japanese versions

5The Japanese translations of “Song of Myself” chosen for comparative analysis range over eight decades of the 20th century, and thus reflect not only individual tendencies and idiosyncrasies proper to the translators, but also socio-cultural and historical factors of the periods in which they lived and worked. In order to situate the versions within a minimal frame of reference, their basic bio-bibliographical information is indicated in Table 1.


Year of publication

Basic bio-data

Takeo Arishima


(1878-1923), novelist

Kintarō Horii


(1887-1938), activist in Akita, translator

Saika Tomita


(1890-1984), poet

Shigetaka Naganuma


(1890-1982), translator

Takashi Sugiki

Norihiro Nabeshima

Masayuki Sakamoto


(1899-1968), translator, academic

(1904 - 1979), academic

(1931- ), academic

Masayuki Sakamoto


same as above

Table 1: Bio-bibliographical background of the Japanese translations

  • 1 For a brief literary-historical overview, se...

6Only a few crucial aspects of this very complex socio-cultural background can be mentioned here. Thus, before WW II, the translations came mainly from intellectuals with a literary career of their own, who had learned English primarily from native speakers, in Japan and during extensive stays in the U.S.1 On the other hand, after WW II, we note a rising dominance of translations coming from the academic world: the translators are scholars with university positions in literary domains and memberships in scientific organizations, and their work unfolds in the context of the ensuing relations of authority and seniority. These personal factors may have swayed their mutual interactions and shaped their connections with editors and publishing houses. For example, in the materials examined here from a text-linguistic perspective, significant differences can be noted between the version published by Sakamoto in 1998 and the one elaborated much earlier, when he himself was the youngest member of a team (Sugiki, Nabeshima and Sakamoto 1969), in charge of a first translation draft that would be revised with/by the two senior professors. From the perspective of literary and cultural history such aspects certainly warrant a closer examination, if reliable contemporary and subsequent accounts can be found, so as to allow for pursuing the matter beyond the anecdotal and the speculative.

7Apart from the historical interest of such an enterprise, however, what really matters, ultimately, is what kind of interpretive process the translated versions are apt to trigger in the experience of their potential readers, in the past as well as now. It is such a text-internal perspective that the present contribution aims to bring into focus.

Conceptual framework

  • 2 A concise outline of the dimensions and task...

  • 3 The original German version of this work is ...

  • 4 For a definition, classification and example...

8This analysis is carried out from the perspective of text linguistics as a hermeneutics of sense, developed by Eugenio Coseriu in the second half of the 20th century as part of an “Integral Linguistics”2–the study of language/speech as a cultural activity in all of its forms of manifestation. Text linguistics “as a hermeneutics of sense” (Coseriu 19813, 151) focuses on the specific units and strategies which serve to create and articulate textual meaning (sense) as a functionally autonomous type of linguistic content. Language-specific significata and their associated designata function as semiotic expression for textual meaning; the latter thus presupposes and integrates the former two types of linguistic content, while at the same time expanding beyond them, mainly owing to the contribution of a wide range of contextual knowledge manifested in the “evocative relations” of the signs which constitute the text.4

  • 5 The articulation of text-constitutive units ...

  • 6 Tămâianu(-Morita) 2001, 144-149, 2013-2014, 73.

9In this framework, translation is viewed as a “a peculiar form of speech:” “speaking by means of another language and with a content that is already given.” Thus, the translator acts as the creator of a new text (the translated text), but s/he does so with the knowledge that “the content to be expressed is given beforehand, up to its very details (Coseriu 1977b, 215, 223; translation and emphasis mine –E.T.-M.). In other words, what is at stake in translation is not the transmission of a ‘disembodied’ content, but a re-constitution of the original text, with the materials of the target language, in such a way that the target-language reader is prompted to construct the overall textual designation and interpret the sense along the same lines as the original. Analyzing the source text as a text, and not as a ‘sample’ of the source language, involves identifying the text-constitutive units and strategies5 that serve as vectors guiding this hermeneutic process of sense construction. It is these units and semantic vectors that need to be replicated or approximated in translation, and it is the extent to which this goal is achieved that can serve as a benchmark for assessing the appropriateness of the translated version. Given the complexity of the semantic decisions involved, we have argued elsewhere that the translator’s endeavor cannot be considered merely secondary to the primary act of producing the original but can justly be characterized as a process of “speaking raised to the power of two.”6

10Due to space limitations, the present contribution will focus only on one type of text-constitutive units: language-specific significata from the lexical and grammatical strata of idiomatic organization, with the constellation of their paradigmatic and syntagmatic relations in the source language and serving as points of anchorage for one type of text-constitutive strategy–evocative sign relations.

11Objective difficulties arising from the semantic organization and typological characteristics of Japanese will be systematically distinguished from translation choices that seem to originate in subjective predilections. In each case, the accuracy and adequacy of the six versions will be assessed, and more appropriate translation options will be sought for, in light of the solutions advanced by the versions in European languages reviewed for cross-linguistic comparison.

Text-constitutive units anchored in the lexical stratum

12Five categories of lexical phenomena will be examined, ranging from the language-specific organization of lexical significata as such, to the stylistic markedness of some lexical units and the evocative relations they engender. Emphasis will lie on the resulting changes in the construal of the textual world.

13For easier comparison, in this section the six versions are presented in parallel in the form of tables, with the unit(s) representing the focal points for analysis highlighted in bold. In the tables, an explanatory gloss, consisting of literal equivalences and supplementary paraphrases or clarifications, is included after the Japanese original, in order to render explicit the Japanese significatum in itself, its functional status in the architecture of the language and, where necessary, its cultural evocations. To avoid overloading the tables, the Japanese translation is given only in the original script, while an alphabetic transliteration is added for the key units taken up in the critical discussion.

(1) The problem of “I”: diastratically / stylistically marked vs. neutral

14A first crucial decision that confronts the Japanese translator is a choice concerning the pronoun “I” and its related units, such as “myself” and “the Me myself.” In Japanese the corresponding lexical units are personal nouns, but the major difference is that, while in English the personal pronoun is purely deictic, devoid of any particulars as to the identity and status of the speaker, in Japanese there is a whole range of personal nouns which are pragmatically specified via diastratic and diaphasic values: <male> vs. <female>, <young> vs. <old>, <formal / standard / colloquial / slang>, and many other sub-categories and combinations thereof. Merely employing one noun instead of another constructs a radically different identity of the poetic “I”, and conveys a radically different relationship to the addressee–the “you” within the textual world. The choices of the six translations are indicated in Table 2.

Line (1)

“[…] stands what I am”

Arishima 1921


“stands (upright) that which is (the real) me

Horii 1931


“I <male> stand (upright)”

Tomita 1949

[…] から離れて所在するもの、それがわたしというものなのだ

“that which exists separate from […], that is (the real) me”

Naganuma 1959


“I […] after all, have ‘myself’” (idiomatic phrase, approx. “I have autonomy and stability given by unfaltering personal beliefs”)

Sugiki, Nabeshima & Sakamoto 1969

[…] 干渉沙汰に僕という存在は無縁

“the entity which is me <male> is detached from the interference of […]”

Sakamoto 1998


“that which is really me <male> has no involvement with the annoyance of [… ]”

Table 2: Glossed versions for “stands what I am”

  • 7 Cf also Section 51 in Sakamoto (1998), “Do I...

15Arishima, Tomita and Naganuma choose the neutral unit (watashi), which can be used both in male and female adult speech, in a standard or neutral register of politeness. In contrast, (boku) from Sugiki, Nabeshima and Sakamoto (1969) and Sakamoto (1998) is marked diastratically for <male speech>, and diaphasically as <colloquial>.7 So is (ore), chosen by Horii: <male>, and <colloquial-rough>, i.e. serving to project an assertive and domineering image of the male speaker. Thus, the identity of the poetic ‘I’ is construed in radically different ways simply through the choice of personal noun.

16In order to avoid imposing such limitations on the possible identity of the “I”, the solution needs to be the neutral (watashi). This is especially true, in this particular context, of the phrase “stands what I am,” which projects the intimation of a quintessential “I” abstracted from the accidents of the empirical individual.

17In a coherent relation with this element, the interpretation of the predicate “stands” should give precedence to the sense of “enduring,” rather than the physical posture of “standing upright.” Thus, if a lexical equivalent of similar organization (i.e. one word, like “stand,” that has both meanings) does not exist in Japanese, then 立つている (tatteiru, “stands upright”), should be replaced with a unit that designates intransience or permanence, such as 留まっている (todomatteiru, approx. “stays,” “endures”): “であるものが、留まっている.

18This interpretation is further validated by the solutions adopted in translations into European languages: “se tient ce que je suis” (Athenot), “permanece lo que yo soy” (Alexander), “perdura lo que soy” (Villar Raso), “steht, was ich bin” (Reisiger).

(2) Lexical significata, from abstract to concrete, and from concrete to localized: “an impalpable rest”

19In the case of lexical significata, the further apart the source language and the target language are in terms of linguistic lineage and typology, the more frequently a need to adapt the level of genericity vs. concreteness will appear, entailing the use of a hyponym instead of a hypernym or vice versa. Such shifts are inevitable if a lexical unit of comparable rank does not exist in the target language, but should be avoided where a corresponding unit does in fact exist or can easily be created. Line (3) offers a prototypical example of how what should remain a generic significatum is specified and even localized, with the result that the spatial configuration of the textual world is completely modified.

Line (3)

“or bends an arm on an impalpable certain rest

Arishima 1921


“or leans an arm onto a hard-to-touch rest

Horii 1931


“reposes an elbow” (the sequence “on an impalpable certain rest” is omitted)

Tomita 1949


“or bends an arm on a hard-to-perceive pillar (/pole)”

Naganuma 1959


“or reposes an arm on a hard-to-perceive pillar (/pole)”

Sugiki, Nabeshima & Sakamoto 1969


“bends an arm resting it on a fixed cosmic balustrade invisible to the eye

Sakamoto 1998


“or puts an elbow on a fixed unperceivable elbow-rest

Table 3: Glossed versions for “an impalpable certain rest”

20Arishima’s 倚りもの (yorimono, lit. “thing to rest against”) is generic and does not evoke sensory features. On the other hand, 支柱 (shichū) is a support pillar or pole, 欄干 (rankan) is a balustrade, and 脇息 (kyōsoku) is a traditional Japanese low elbow-rest, such as one would find in a tatami (straw-mat) room. Major differences in the configuration of textual space-time ensue.

21A pillar delineates a vertical axis with a single point (the tip) serving as somewhat unstable support for the elbow. A balustrade delineates a horizontal axis for relatively firmer support, but at the same time splits the space into two zones, like a fence. In Sugiki, Nabeshima and Sakamoto (1969), the interpolated characterization uchū no (“cosmic”) imposes a hasty answer to a mystery that should remain intact, left for the reader to solve, as to the nature of the “impalpable rest.” Finally, while with a pillar or balustrade the poetic “I” is depicted as standing, with the traditional Japanese elbow-rest the poetic “I” has to be imagined in a seated position, against the background of a very traditional Japanese setting, a tatami room. All these three options are too concrete. A faithful solution is Arishima’s generic 倚りもの (“rest,” “support”).

22On the other hand, with “impalpable” we notice the opposite tendency, of replacement with a more generic term, approximately “hard-to-perceive,” “unperceivable,” or a shift from tactile to visual perception, as in “invisible to the eye.” Nevertheless, “impalpable” also lends itself to a more accurate rendering: taking as a base Arishima’s 触れがたい (furegatai, “hard-to-touch”), it is perfectly possible to construct the phrase 触知できない (shokuchi-dekinai, lit. “cannot be felt by touch”), as a precise equivalent of “impalpable.”

(3) Internal vs. external designational scheme: “unitary”

23The adjective “unitary” from Line (2) raises the question of how to render as closely as possible the designational scheme generated by this unit. Does it describe the inherent essence of the poetic “I”, or does it place the poetic “I” in an implicit comparison or contrast with other individuals? In other words, does this adjective contribute with an internal or an external designational scheme to the construction of the textual world? The six Japanese variants are indicated in Table 4.

Line (2)

“Stands amused, complacent, compassionating, idle, unitary

Arishima 1921


“[…] stands without flustering” (= “composed”)

Horii 1931


“[…] is looking silently” (= no clear equivalent)

Tomita 1949


“[…] single-minded”

Naganuma 1959


“[…] keeps on standing, just one / alone”

Sugiki, Nabeshima & Sakamoto 1969


“[…] one / alone”

Sakamoto 1998


“[…] is autonomous”

Table 4: Glossed versions for “unitary”

24Arishima and Tomita adopt an internal scheme, with 取乱さず (torimidasazu, “composed”) and 生一本 (kiippon, “single-minded”) respectively. On the other hand, the other translators adopt an external scheme, with (ただ)ひとり (tada hitori, “(just) one / alone” [i.e. without any others]) or 自立している (jiritsu-shiteiru, “is autonomous” [from others]).

  • 8 To a hypothetical objection that this lexeme...

25The original word, “unitary,” favours an interpretation based on the internal designational scheme. The idea of internal “unity” can in fact be rendered in Japanese either by using the noun 統一性, tōitsusei, or its corresponding adjectival form 統一的な, tōitsutekina.8 These equivalents can be incorporated in the syntactic structure of the respective sentence in the forms 統一性を保ち (tōitsusei wo tamochi, “maintaining (its) unity’”) or 統一的であり (tōitsuteki de ari, “being unitary”).

(4) Down the treacherous path of over-specification: “the pulling and hauling” and “Looks down, is erect”

26The tendency towards over-specification becomes more evident when it is manifested in interpolated segments which completely change the sense-constitutive vectors of the text, thus actually creating a different text from Whitman’s original. The segments “the pulling and hauling” (Table 5) and “Looks down, is erect” (Table 6) will be examined in order to analyze this phenomenon.

Line (1)

“Apart from the pulling and hauling […]”

Arishima 1921


“Apart from those things coming and going

(lit. ‘things pushing towards me and pulling away’)

Horii 1931


“Aside from the giving and taking, the pushing and pulling, the hurling and being hurled” (sic!)

Tomita 1949


“Apart from the things pulling and hauling in

Naganuma 1959


“Aside from the countless hassles

Sugiki, Nabeshima & Sakamoto 1969

目ひき袖ひきの干渉沙汰に […] 無縁

“is detached from the interference of (people’s) calls for attention

(lit. “drawing my eyes and pulling on my sleeve”)

Sakamoto 1998

目ひき袖ひきのお節介に […] かかわりがない

“has no involvement with the annoyance of (people’s) calls for attention” (same idiomatic phrase as above)

Table 5: Glossed versions for “the pulling and hauling”

27Arishima and Tomita interpolate the lexeme もの (mono, “thing”), preceded by a paraphrase of the two actions (pulling and hauling), and thus justified as a discourse-grammatical means of nominalization. This is a reasonable solution in order to match the effect achieved in the original by the nominalized form of the verbs. Arishima settles for more generic significata to render the two actions, while Tomita resorts to more concrete ones, evoking the acts of manually pulling on a string or rope. The latter strategy, however, has the adverse effect of making the scene more difficult to decipher coherently, since such an overtly physical action can hardly be imagined in the given context. Horii’s verbose version multiplies the pair threefold. Sugiki, Nabeshima and Sakamoto (1969) as well as Sakamoto (1998) use an idiomatic phrase (mehiki, sodehiki no kanshōzata / o-sekkai), lit. “drawing my eyes and pulling on my sleeve,” which limits the interpretation to a peculiarly human agent–the complications of human relations. While this option may be justified in an anaphoric connection with the “trippers and askers” from the very beginning of Section 4, in the analyzed segment “the pulling and hauling” covers the whole range of disturbances, temptations and distractions from which the “I” sets itself apart.

28Thus, the most adequate solution here appears to be Naganuma’s いざこざ (izakoza, “hassles,” “complications,” “troubles”), possibly without 凡百の (bonbyaku, “countless”). Two arguments support this evaluation: this compound is generic enough, and also maintains a parallelism with the symmetrical construction of the idiomatic phrase of the original.

  • 9 Although in terms of semantic nuances “va-et...

29These two aspects are also apparent in the translations into European languages: “À l’écart des va-et-vient”9 (Athenot), “Lejos de la contienda y (d)el conflicto” (Alexander, Villar Raso), “Abseits von dem Ringen und Raufen” (Reisiger).

30An even more striking case of over-specification can be found in the equivalent of the sequence “Looks down, is erect” from Line (3) (Table 6).

Line (3)

“Looks down, is erect, […]”

Arishima 1921


“Looks down, stands straight”

Horii 1931


“Looks while standing, looks while seated”

Tomita 1949

[そのものは] 見おろし、上を向き

“Looks down, glances up”

Naganuma 1959


“Standing haughtily, looks down”

Sugiki, Nabeshima & Sakamoto 1969


“Looks down upon the far-off netherworld, rises toward the far-off skies”

Sakamoto 1998


“Looks down from above, stands up resolutely”

Table 6: Glossed versions for “Looks down, is erect”

31While Arishima proposes a concise and direct expression, in a subdued tonality, Horii and Tomita interpolate the idea of “looking” in the second clause, thereby constituting a pair of opposites that does not exist in the original. Naganuma specifies the clause “is erect” as a type of attitude that the posture supposedly indicates. Sugiki, Nabeshima and Sakamoto (1969) use the verb 屹立 (kitsuritsu), prevailingly collocated with mountains or tall buildings, and interpolate expressions that enlarge the scene up to a cosmic dimension. While it can be argued that Whitman’s vision does in fact imply a cosmic expansion of the poetic “I”, this element of the global textual world is not revealed in this particular point of the text, where the reader must still be allowed to experience fully the enigma of how the scene should (or could) be visualized. We can note that in his own new version Sakamoto (1998) adopts a more subdued formulation, closer to Naganuma’s strategy, by deleting the interpolated expressions and adding only the attitude that the posture supposedly indicates. This attitude (haughty, resolute etc.) is, of course, a purely subjective interpretation on the part of each translator, and narrows down the reader’s own choices, orientating the sense-construction process in a restrictive way that does not do justice to the original–where the poetic effect is achieved precisely by the baffling (one is tempted to say even “Zen-like”) task of imagining an immaterial essence (“what I am”) in a physical posture.

32An adequate solution can be devised starting from Arishima’s 見おろし、直立し (mi-oroshi, chokuritsu-shi, “Looks down, stands up straight”). For the sake of stylistic consistency, we can revert to the native Japanese words with the same meaning, instead of the Sino-Japanese compound chokurisu-suru: 見おろし、まっすぐ立ち (mi-oroshi, massugu tachi).

(5) The problem of “game:” diachronic and functional stratification of the Japanese lexicon

33The lexical unit “game” from Line (5) foregrounds a problem arising from the stratification of the Japanese lexicon into layers defined by different diachronic periods (older genuine Japanese words vs. later lexical creations or borrowings in various periods, up to the contemporary period). This stratification results in coexisting words with the same designation, but often differentiated functionally, for slightly different meanings, or stylistically, for different evocations, in their usage. The equivalents for “game” proposed by the six Japanese versions are highlighted in Table 7.

Line (5)

“Both in and out of the game […]”

Arishima 1921


“Inside the match (/gamble) or after it”

Horii 1931


“From inside the game, from outside the game” (the English loanword as such)

Tomita 1949


“Becoming a participant in that competition, and also becoming an outsider”

Naganuma 1959


“From inside-outside (= from all points of view) of this kind of amusing stuff

Sugiki, Nabeshima & Sakamoto 1969


“Standing outside the hectic fretting of the fleeting world, and at the same time being also inside it”

Sakamoto 1998


“While also participating in that competition, being a spectator”

Table 7: Glossed versions for “Both in and out of the game”

34Naganuma’s paraphrase 面白い事 (omoshiroi koto, “interesting / amusing stuff”) suggests a more derisive and condescendent attitude of the poetic “I” than the original can vouch for, and should be discarded for this semantic reason. Even more inadequate, however, no matter how “poetic” it may sound, is Sugiki, Nabeshima and Sakamoto’s 浮世の戯れごと (ukiyo no zaregoto, lit. “hectic fretting of the fleeting world”). Not only does this phrasing suggest that the “game” is mere inconsequential make-believe, but it also introduces a specifically Japanese cultural evocation, of the frivolous “fleeting world” of worldly pastimes and temptations as portrayed, for instance, in ukiyo-e woodblock prints. The nuance of competition or confrontation is completely lost.

35Three valid choices remain: 競技 (kyōgi, Tomita and Sakamoto), which is used mainly to designate competitions, especially sports competitions or athletic contests, 勝負 (shōbu, Arishima), a Sino-Japanese unit whose characters literally signify “win-or-lose,” “victory-or-defeat,” used in similar contexts with the English “game” in the sense of “match” or “gamble,” and ゲーム (gēmu, Horii), which is the English loanword taken as such, with minimal phonetic adaptation, and written in katakana script. For the contemporary Japanese reader, this loanword is both the most modern and the most general, covering both the nuance of playful competition or inconsequential preoccupations, and the nuance of confrontation with winners and losers. Out of these three options, Arishima’s shōbu and Horii’s gēmu are the most faithful to the original and therefore the least restrictive in terms of interpretive possibilities.

36If the whole phrase “both in and out of the game” is taken into account, then the idea of being simultaneously in and out of the game, conveyed in the original by the adverb “both,” should also be included in the translated version. For instance, a formulation such as 同時にゲームの中と外にいて (dōji ni gēmu no naka to soto ni ite, “being simultaneously in and out of the game”) can be proposed, with a simple coordination of naka (“inside”) and soto (“outside”), instead of a compound with Sino-Japanese readings (Naganuma’s 内外, naigai) or extended repetitive constructions as in Sugiki, Nabeshima and Sakamoto (1969). In some of the European languages, a similar translation strategy is adopted: “A la vez dentro y fuera del juego” (Villar Raso), “Dans le jeu et hors du jeu à la fois” (Athenot).

Text-constitutive units anchored in the grammatical stratum

37Proceeding now to the grammatical devices and constructions that play a major role in the configuration of the textual world, we shall examine in detail three types of phenomena.

(1) Grammatical subject: “stands what I am” vs. “I stand”

38The Japanese translations put forward two conceptualizations for this structure. One is the clear differentiation of the subject, expressed in Line (1) and implicit in the rest, from a straightforward “I”, echoing the distinction conveyed in the original by the third person singular as opposed to a first person singular. Such is Arishima’s version 私というものは立つている (watashi to iu mono wa tatteiru, “stands that which is me”), and similar versions in Tomita (1949), Sugiki, Nabeshima and Sakamoto (1969) and Sakamoto (1998) (see supra, Table 2). A contrasting choice is the mere equation of this subject with “I”: 俺は立っている (ore wa tatteiru, “I stand,” in Horii) and 私は自分を持している (watashi wa jibun wo jishiteiru, “I have myself,” in Naganuma).

39The same alternative can be found in the two Spanish versions we took into account for comparison. Alexander proposes “permanece lo que yo soy” in Line (1), but then shifts to the first person singular of the verbs in Lines (3), (4) and (5) (“miro,” “me yergo,” “apoyo,” “participo,” “sigo,” “me pregunto”), whereas Villar Raso systematically maintains the third person singular as subject (“perdura lo que soy,” “perdure,” “baja,” “se yerge,” “apoya,” “mira”). The translations into French and German faithfully follow the third person conceptualization, in consonance with the original.

40Although Japanese verbs do not have the category of person or number, and the closest correspondent to personal pronouns are personal nouns such as watashi (for self-reference to the speaker), paraphrases using the generic nouns mono or sonzai (“thing,” “entity”), indicated above as examples of the first conceptualization, represent valid solutions for this structure.

(2) Grammatical coordination: “Stands amused, complacent, compassionating, idle, unitary”

41Whereas the English original presents a smooth, simple form of coordination, by the juxtaposition of adjectives and adjectival forms, this grammatical construction does not have a formal parallel in Japanese, so it is inevitable to replace it with functionally equivalent alternative structures. The Japanese translators’ choices (see supra, Table 4) can be subsumed to three basic patterns:

Pattern (1): conjunct (-te) forms of verbs or adjectives (Tomita; Sugiki, Nabeshima and Sakamoto 1969) or juxtaposition of adverbials (Horii);

Pattern (2): one unit posed as simultaneous with the others through the form –nagara (“while~”) (Arishima, Naganuma);

Pattern (3): tight syntactic structure, with three units posed as alternating (conjunct –tari forms of the verbs) (Sakamoto 1998): lit. approx. “sometimes amused, sometimes complacent, sometimes compassionating, and idly is autonomous.”

42Because a choice between these alternative forms is inevitable, and because all of them are less neutral than the English juxtaposition, one would have to assess in relative terms which pattern is least marked, and therefore apt to remain closest to the original. Pattern (1) fits the description and can thus be validated as the most appropriate in the context.

(3) Sentence modalization by sentence-final particles or interpolated adverbs

43In addition to the phenomena described on the basis of the five-line fragment discussed above, another relevant tendency pertaining to the grammatical stratum can be illustrated by the line immediately preceding the fragment: “But they are not the Me myself.” In the original this is a statement whose tonality, though firm and final, is at the same time objective and detached, without any indication of emotional involvement, thereby generating a coherent cataphoric link towards the separation of an essential “I” from the contingent “I” in Line (1) (“stands what I am”). This is the solution adopted by Arishima, whereas other Japanese versions introduce cognitive modalizations which signal the emotional or attitudinal involvement of the “I” as a human individual (see the four versions compared in Table 8).

44It is true that in casual, everyday oral communication in Japanese it is more common to add such sentential modalizations, especially in final position, in order to emphasize the dialogic dimension of discourse and the interpersonal relationship between locutor and interlocutor. This might explain why some translators felt this to be more “natural” in Japanese. However, if applied to Whitman’s text, this device generates a cleavage between this line and the fragment that follows, and consequently modifies in a substantial way the construal of the textual world in this point of the text.

“But they are not the Me myself”


Arishima 1921


“But all those are not the real ‘Me’”


~ no modalization

Tomita 1949


“But those are not the ‘Me’ of me myself + <sentence modalizer noda>”

<Explanatory statement + Emotive emphasis>

~ noda, approx. I do say,” “you know”

Sugiki, Nabeshima & Sakamoto 1969


“But, of course, such things are not ‘Me’ <male> myself”

<Objective, conceptual counterargument>

~ muron, modal adverb, approx. “needless to say”

Sakamoto 1998


“But [that] these things should be the person ‘Me’” <male> himself + <sentence modalizer wake wa nai>’

<Strong counterargument>

~ wake wa nai, approx. there’s no way”

Table 8: Glossed versions for “But they are not the Me myself”

45Needless to say, all the translations into European languages that we have considered for comparative examination maintain the neutral tonality of the original. Once again, Arishima remains the most faithful to Whitman’s text.

Overall tendencies. Possible motivations

46The detailed analyses undertaken in the previous two sections evidence the following general tendencies in most of the Japanese translations:

(a) referential over-specification by: shift from abstract to concrete significata, localization, restriction to one designational variant of a polysemantic significatum, interpolated clarifications;

(b) use of stylistically marked units instead of neutral ones;

(c) shift to tighter syntactic structures, with subordination instead of coordination;

(d) explicit expression of cognitive and emotive modality by the use of interpolated sentence-final markers or adverbs.

47These changes significantly narrow down the range of possible interpretations of the text, sometimes up to a univocal designation. This reflects the translators’ misguided attempt to “clarify” the text, with the direct consequence of profoundly altering the Japanese reader’s interpretive experience.

  • 10 While it is difficult to assess the situati...

48One major reason for these tendencies may reside in the pursuit of “natural” and “easy-to-understand” Japanese, to the detriment of the characteristics of the original, which is not meant to be natural or easy-to-understand in the same key as an everyday casual communication act. Secondly, it is also true that in Japan the general (reading) public tends to feel uneasy with metaphor, vagueness and the abstract, possibly because of the lack of proper text interpretation training in school education in recent decades.10 In this context, perhaps the tendencies towards over-specification and clarification do not always derive solely from the translators’ personal decisions, but also reflect the influence of editorial policies dictated by commercial considerations.

  • 11 Let us take a famous example from Matsuo Ba...

49The Western literary world is familiar with Japanese genres and discourse traditions such as the haiku or the tanka which appear to be characterized by extreme conciseness and therefore also by vagueness, and should thus warrant easier acceptance of similar features in the case of translations. In fact, however, what we have, especially in haiku, is not vagueness at all, but its very opposite: a form of highly coded abbreviation associated with a highly concrete (sensorial) construal of the textual world.11

50Our comparative examination leads to the assessment that the versions least affected by these tendencies are Arishima (1921) and Naganuma (1959), which consistently remain the most faithful to the original.

Concluding remarks: alternatives and a possible solution

51In the course of our comparative analysis, we have emphasized that, subjective factors set aside, several objective limitations arise from the peculiarities of Japanese in contrast to English, in terms of purely linguistic organization. Thus, for example, it is inevitable to operate both categorial changes (adjective to verb, noun to adjective etc.), and shifts in the level of lexico-grammatical organization (syntagmatic procedures instead of paradigmatic procedures, compulsory choice between different conjunct forms of adjectives and verbs). It is also inevitable that some lexical units will be stylistically marked, due to the diachronic and functional stratification of Japanese vocabulary (native Japanese / Sino-Japanese / loanwords from English).

  • 12 Version by the author (E. T.-M.) and Tomo M...

52Despite these objective limitations, if the peculiarity of the original text as a text is given precedence, we can propose a Japanese version much closer to the original, apt to offer the Japanese reader an interpretive experience in keeping with the peculiarities of Whiman’s text. The version below12 pays tribute to the published translations analyzed here, by taking up and integrating, like pieces in an intertextual puzzle, some equivalences from Arishima, Horii and Naganuma (the units marked in bold), which have been appraised, in our examination, as valid and inspired solutions.


53As indicated in the introductory considerations, our analysis is informed by a view of translation as a process of speaking raised to the power of two,” which sets for itself a daunting task: to capture the voice of the original not merely by an interpretation of its overall meaning, but primarily by an accurate grasp of the strategies of expression which guide the reader of the original towards configuring the textual world and intuiting the text’s meaning. Thus, the translator’s role never equals blind subordination to the original in its material–or purely linguistic–form. On the contrary, what is required is a rigorous understanding of, and a selfless commitment to the dynamic map of discourse strategies that underlies the articulation of textual sense.

54The translation of a famous text finds itself in a privileged situation from this point of view. Having the benefit of numerous intra-linguistic and cross-linguistic comparisons with previous versions, the translator is better equipped to analyze the text’s constitutive units and strategies, and better informed in devising alternatives and choosing among them.

Works cited

Analyzed texts

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass (1891-92). (A Norton critical edition). Ed. Sculley Bradley and Harold W. Blodgett. New York & London: Norton & Co., 1973.

Japanese translations:

Kusa no ha (1921). Trans. Takeo Arishima. Tokyo: Kyōwa, 1948.

Kusa no ha. Trans. Kintarō Horii. Tokyo: Shunjūsha. 1931.

Walt Whitman shishū. Kusa no ha. Trans. Saika Tomita. Osaka: Asahi Shinbunsha, 1949.

Kusa no ha. Whitman shishū (1959). Trans. Naganuma Shigetaka. Tokyo: Kadokawa Shoten, 1999.

Whitman shishū. Kusa no ha, vol. 1. Trans. Takashi Sugiki, Norihiro Nabeshima and Masayuki Sakamoto. Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 1969.

Kusa no ha, vol. 1. Trans. Masayuki Sakamoto. Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 1998.

Spanish translations:

Hojas de hierba (1952). Trans. Francisco Alexander. Madrid: Visor Libros, 2009.

Hojas de hierba. Antología. Trans. Manuel Villar Raso. Madrid: El Mundo (Colección Millenium), 1999.

French translations:

Feuilles d’herbe, vol. I. (1909). Trans. Léon Bazalgette. Paris: Mercure de France, 1955.

Feuilles d’herbe (1855). Trans. Éric Athenot. Paris: José Corti, 2008.

Feuilles d’herbe (1855). Trans. Gilles Mourier. Paris: Jean-Paul Rocher, 2011.

German translation:

Walt Whitmans Werk in zwei Bänden, Zweiter Band. Trans. Hans Reisiger. Berlin: S Fischer Verlag, 1922, (accessed 10 March 2014).

Other cited works

BEPPU, Keiko. “Whitman in Japan,” Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia. Eds. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (eds.). New York: Garland Publishing, 1998, (accessed 1 July 2018).

BURTON, Susan. “An Overview of English-language Literature Study in Japan.” Litmatters. The Liberlit Journal of Teaching Literature, Vol. 1, Issue 2 ( 2015): 112-142.

COSERIU, Eugenio. “Tesis sobre el tema ʻlenguaje y poesía,’” El hombre y su lenguaje. Estudios de teoría y metodología lingüística. Madrid: Gredos, 1977a. 201-207.

COSERIU, Eugenio. “Lo erróneo y lo acertado en la teoría de la traducción,” El hombre y su lenguaje. Estudios de teoría y metodología lingüística. Madrid: Gredos, 1977b. 214-239.

COSERIU, Eugenio. Textlinguistik. Eine Einführung, Tübingen: Narr, 1981. Critical Spanish edition by Óscar Loureda Lamas, Lingüística del texto. Introducción a la hermenéutica del sentido, Madrid: Arco Libros, 2007.

COSERIU, Eugenio. “Fundamentas y tareas de la lingüistica integral,” Segundo Congreso Nacional de Lingüística. 16 al 19 de Setiembre de 1981. Actas. Volumen 1. San Juan (R. Argentina), 1984. 37-53.

KABATEK, Johannes / Murguía, Adolfo. “Die Sachen sagen, wie sie sind...”. Eugenio Coseriu im Gespräch, Tübingen: Narr, 1997.

MATSUO, Bashō. Oku no hosomichi (1689). Ed. Yasuo Hagiwara. Tokyo: Iwanami. 1979.

MATSUO, Bashō. Oku no hosomichi / The Narrow Road to the Deep North. Trans. Tim Chilcott. 2004, (accessed 29 September 2020).

TĂMÂIANU, Emma. Fundamentele tipologiei textuale. O abordare în lumina lingvisticii integrale, Cluj-Napoca: Clusium, 2001.

TĂMÂIANU-MORITA, Emma. “The form of texts: possibilities and limitations of an «integral» text-typological model.” Energeia IV (2012): 1-31.

TĂMÂIANU-MORITA, Emma.What makes you say so?” On the types of motivation in the domain of expressive competence. Energeia V (2013-2014): 63-88.

TĂMÂIANU-MORITA, Emma. “Towards a Definition of «Textual Constitution» in the Framework of Integral Linguistics.” Coseriu: Perspectives contemporaines, II. Eds. Eugenia Bojoga, Oana Boc and Cornel Vîlcu. Cluj-Napoca: Presa Universitară Clujeană, 2014. 130-145.


1 For a brief literary-historical overview, see Beppu (1998).

2 A concise outline of the dimensions and tasks of “Integral Linguistics” can be found in Coseriu (1984). For the justification of this term and an analysis of its implications, see also Kabatek / Murguía (1997), Ch. 7, esp. pp. 158-163.

3 The original German version of this work is entitled simply Textlinguistik. Eine Einführung (1981). So important is the key phrase “hermeneutics of sense” as a descriptor of the theoretical perspective in the linguistic study of discourse/texts proposed here by Coseriu that Loureda Lamas, the translator and editor of the critical Spanish edition from 2007, brings it to the foreground by using it as a subtitle: Lingüística del texto. Introducción a la hermenéutica del sentido.

4 For a definition, classification and examples of “evocative sign relations,” see Coseriu (1977a, 201-202 and 1981, 68-101).

5 The articulation of text-constitutive units and strategies is discussed extensively and illustrated through Whitman’s poem “So Long!” in Tămâianu-Morita (2012, 3-5) and (2014, 138-141), and Night on the prairies” in (2013-2014, 72-81). These studies also examine how this articulation is dealt with in the process of translation into several languages, including Japanese.

6 Tămâianu(-Morita) 2001, 144-149, 2013-2014, 73.

7 Cf also Section 51 in Sakamoto (1998), “Do I contradict myself?” (“Boku ga mujun-shiteiru no kai?”), where the sentence-final particle for constructing the interrogative sentence is also one marked for <colloquial> <male speech>, kai, and not the neutral one ka.

8 To a hypothetical objection that this lexeme does not sound “poetic” enough, more specifically that it evokes the discourse universes of science and philosophy rather than that of poetry, one would have to respond that this is precisely what the evocation of “unitary” is in the original.

9 Although in terms of semantic nuances “va-et-vient” differs from the Spanish and German equivalents, as it does not necessarily entail a negative connotation, the two features it shares with them (generic nature and symmetrical construction) support the view that the same type of translation strategy was applied in all of these cases.

10 While it is difficult to assess the situation in the decades immediately following WW II, due to the lack of direct evidence, this tendency has been documented for more recent periods. Telling examples of this state of affairs can be found in Burton’s (2015) analysis of the decline in the level of English-language literature education at Japanese universities over the last few decades, on the backdrop of “[t]he academic decline of Japanese students in all subjects,” caused, among other factors, by the “yutori kyoiku (relaxed education) policy” promoted by the Japanese Ministry of Education from the late 1970s onwards (p. 115).

11 Let us take a famous example from Matsuo Bashō’s Oku no hosomichi (“The Narrow Road to the Deep North”): 五月雨を集めて早し最上川 (samidare wo atsumete hayashi Mogami-gawa). English versions revolve around the axis of three key words (“summer rains–swift–Mogami River”), as in, for example, “gathering the rains of summer, how swift it is–Mogami River” (Tim Chilcott). A literal gloss, however, is: ‘The rainy-season-downpour gathering, swift, Mogami river.” First of all, 五月雨 (samidare, lit. “the fifth-month rains”) is a kigo, a seasonal key word selected from a pre-existing acknowledged set, and therefore acting as the anchorage point of a very concrete contextual frame: the downpour specific of the rainy season in Japan, where rains can continue for days on end, in stark opposition to what a European might imagine of “summer rains,” and frequently cause flooding–with catastrophic effects on the livelihood of the inhabitants of rural Japan in Bashō’s time. Secondly, Mogami River in the northern region, Tohoku, is known as one of the fastest flowing and most dangerous rivers in Japan, thus particularly prone to claiming human lives during the rainy season. The Japanese reader of haiku can decode the text based on these two clues, the kigo and the toponym, and build a specific and concrete sensory image of a place and a moment in time. The step of interpretation, for example of the more general human relevance of this scene, can only start after this operation of decoding takes place. By contrast, in Whitman’s text, of course, no such concrete decoding is possible, and this may underlie the Japanese reader’s uneasiness with the semantic leap of faith required by a faithful translation, as indeed by the original itself.

12 Version by the author (E. T.-M.) and Tomo Morita.


Emma Tămâianu-Morita, «Over-specification in Japanese translations of “Song of Myself”», TIES [En ligne], TIES, Speaking in Tongues: Celebrating Walt Whitman in Translation, mis à jour le : 06/04/2023, URL :

Quelques mots à propos de :  Emma  Tămâianu-Morita

Emma Tamâianu-Morita (b. 1968) is currently Professor of Linguistics at Kindai University (Faculty of International Studies), in Osaka, Japan, where she teaches courses in the fields of Communication Studies, Cultural Semiotics, Intercultural Communication, Translation Studies. She started her academic career in 1990 at Babes-Bolyai University, Romania (Chair of General Linguistics and Semiotics), and from 2009 to 2016 she worked as Professor of Linguistics at Akita University, Japan. Her principal fields of research are text linguistics, with special focus on the issue of text typology, contrastive linguistics and translation studies (using textual material mainly from English, Japanese, Romanian and Spanish), cultural semiotics. Among her main publications are four single-authored books, four co-authored books, one translated book, three edited volumes, over 80 scientific papers and translations of linguistic studies.