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This review is taken from PN Review 52, Volume 13 Number 2, November - December 1986.

MCCULLOUGH'S KOKIN WAKASHŪ Kokin Wakashū: the First Imperial Anthology of Japanese Poetry, with 'Tosa Nikki' and 'Shinsen Waka', translated and annotated by Helen Craig McCullough (Stanford University Press), US$49.50
Helen Craig McCullough, Brocade by Night: 'Kokin Wakashū' and the Court Style in Japanese Classical Poetry (Stanford UP), US$55.00

What a pleasure it is to be able to praise unreservedly both a translation of Japanese poetry and a work of scholarship concerning Japanese literature. Helen Craig McCullough's Kokin Wakashū: the First Imperial Anthology of Japanese Poetry (which also includes translations of Ki no Tsurayuki's Tosa Nikki and the anthology of poems that Tsurayuki regarded as the best of his time, Shinsen waka) and her Brocade by Night: 'Kokin Wakashū' and the Court Style in Japanese Classical Poetry deserve to be on the shelves of everyone interested in Japanese literature.

In her preface to the first of these two volumes, McCullough remarks:


Two basic options exist for the translator of classical Japanese poetry. A waka may be treated as a point of departure for a very different poem in another language, or an effort may be made to reproduce content, form, and tone as faithfully as possible. The second method, which seems more conducive to an understanding of Japanese literature, has been the one adopted here. Unfortunately, it has not produced many poems in English.


That last statement is doubtless true, but I think that the translator is being rather too self-deprecatory. Her versions are far superior to those which appeared in Kokinshū, a Collection of Poems Ancient and Modern, translated by Laurel Rasplica Rodd with Mary Jane Henkenius (university presses of Tokyo and Princeton). She has a sense of poetic form, a good ear, and a great sensitivity ...


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