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the Complete Review
the complete review - poetry

One Hundred Poets,
One Poem Each

A Translation of the Ogura Hyakunin Isshu

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the translator

To purchase One Hundred Poets, One Poem Each

Title: One Hundred Poets, One Poem Each
Authors: various
Genre: Anthology
Written: (ca. 1237) (Eng. 2008)
Length: 207 pages
Original in: Japanese
Availability: One Hundred Poets, One Poem Each - US
One Hundred Poets, One Poem Each - UK
One Hundred Poets, One Poem Each - Canada
Ogura hyakunin isshu - Deutschland
  • A Translation of the Ogura Hyakunin Isshu
  • Japanese title: 小倉百人一首
  • Originally compiled by Fujiwara no Teika (藤原定家)
  • Translated and with an Introduction by Peter McMillan
  • With a Foreword by Donald Keene
  • With an Afterword by Eileen Kato
  • With an Appendix on: The Colors of the Flower: Poem 9 as an Example of Code Language and Multiplicity of Meanings in Waka
  • With illustrations, the Japanese text, and romanized transliterations
  • There are more than a dozen other translations of the Hyakunin Isshu into English

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Our Assessment:

B+ : attractive presentation, appealing translations

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Japan Times . 16/3/2008 Donald Richie

  From the Reviews:
  • "Keene has called this "by far the best translation to date" and it comes to us with full notes on the poems as well as notes on the poets, a listing of the waka in Japanese and in transliteration, a full glossary, and each of the poems illustrated by line drawings (from various sources) that render the plainly aristocratic tone of this collection." - Donald Richie, The Japan Times

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Ogura Hyakunin Isshu is a poetry-anthology first put together around 1237 by Fujiwara no Teika (who also included one of his own poems), and remains a very significant collection. As Peter McMillan puts it in his Introduction:

     The Hyakunin Isshu is a concise history of Japanese poetry from the seventh century to the middle of the twelfth. For hundreds of years, it has been the most widely known and popular collection of Japanese poetry. Along with the Tales of Ise and the Tale of Genji, the Hyakunin Isshu is one of the three most influential classical works of Japanese literature.
       It certainly has an all-star line-up of poets, including familiar literary names -- Tale of Genji-author Murasaki Shikibu and Pillow Book-author Sei Shonagon among them -- as well as court figures ranging in rank all the way up to emperor.
       The poems collected here are all waka, here five lines long, with five syllables in the first and third lines, and seven syllables in the others. Translator McMillan does not adhere to this in his translations (which he says are: "neither scholarly nor free"); indeed, he even shapes some of the poems according to the subject matter (so, for example, in his version of the third poem, by Kakinomoto ni Hitomaro, he (effectively) employs a layout: "meant to convey visually the long night and the long tail"). Fortunately, this edition also contains not only attractive but not always easy to decipher calligraphic renditions of each poem but an Appendix with both the printed Japanese text of each poem and romanized transliterations (which allow even those with no Japanese to get at least a vague sense of the sound and possible rhythm of each poem).
       McMillan notes that there are already more than a dozen translation of the Hyakunin Isshu, and he defers to "Joshua Mostow's monumental Pictures of the Heart" as "the standard reference work on this text for a generation". McMillan offers a much more compact version (and, of course, a new translation) -- though even here there are some welcome frills and embellishments: beside his Introduction there are sections of notes both on the poems and on each of the poets -- useful and not excessively detailed glosses and background that are helpful in understanding aspects of the poems. (There are not, however, notes on all of the poems.) The illustrations and calligraphy (to go along with each of the poems) also give the body of the book -- the section devoted to the translated poems -- an attractive look.
       One would like to say that it's the translations that are what's most important, and McMillan has none a nice job here. By not forcing the English to mirror the syllable- (or even line-)count he's able to effectively capture and convey the 'feel' of many of the originals effectively, and the vast majority of the hundred poems do read very well. Nevertheless, as his Appendix devoted to poem nine -- the only poem subjected to a close reading -- suggests there's a lot more to these waka than simple translation can convey.
       Poem nine is admittedly among the most extreme cases: as he notes: "Almost every word is embroidered with many layers of meaning, creating an effect of rich emotional intensity and stunning intellectual prowess", and in spelling out some of the "multiple overlapping meanings" McMillan gives an idea of all that these poems can be loaded with -- and what is lost in translation. In this sense the Hyakunin Isshu actually lends itself to and benefits from multiple translations (and/or heavy annotation), in suggesting to readers additional possible meanings and uncovering a variety of the layers. Still, McMillan's do stand out as particularly approachable and appealing versions.
       While there are a hundred different poets at work here, many of the poems are essentially variations on one of a few themes, making for a relatively cohesive collection. There's a surprising amount of passion (and even more longing). Perhaps even more surprising is the misery in some of the poems -- such as 'Retired Emperor Sanjo' beginning his waka:
Though it's against my wish,
I must go on living
in this world of pain.
       McMillan's versions are, for the most part, not quite as succinct as the originals (with their strict syllable length-restrictions) -- though in a few instances his version is as tight as the original -- and the rhythmic sameness of the Japanese (where each poem is identical in length) is lost, but a good deal does seem to come across and they read well in their own right. One Hundred Poets, One Poem Each thus makes for an attractive volume of the Hyakunin Isshu containing all the essentials: an appealing translation, plus the originals. Still, these are also poems where one may well want to delve deeper (with McMillan's gloss on poem nine suggesting the possible additional riches), for which one has to turn to additional books.
       Among the minor issues are a bit of clutter -- especially Eileen Kato's Afterword, almost lost slipped in somewhere in back -- and a few infelicities. There's McMillan's strange claim for poem nine that: "The most striking feature of the poem is that it is a masterpiece", for example. And someone should have caught the discrepancy that McMillan claims the first translation of the Hyakunin Isshu, by Frederick Victor Dickins, was published in 1866, after Donald Keene says in his Foreword that this translation -- "The first Japanese work of literature to be translated into English" at that -- first appeared in March 1865 (with a second version published in 1866).

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One Hundred Poets, One Poem Each: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Translator:

       Peter McMillan teaches at Kyorin University.

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© 2008-2023 the complete review

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