10 Questions for John Newton Webb
- By Edward Clifford
the soil it echoes with the footsetps of the world
I make my body tremble like a fallen leaf and sink
and I thirst for words of life which may bud in tomorrow's loam
—from "Loam" by Shiki Itsuma, Translated by John Newton Webb, Volume 63, Issue 4 (Winter 2022)
Tell us about one of the first pieces you translated.
The first poem I translated was Ishihara Yoshiro’s Funeral Train (published in The Kyoto Journal). I was finding my way into the world of post-war Japanese poetry and I came across a couple of Ishihara’s poems in an anthology. Funeral Train immediately stood out to me.
Ishihara (1915-77) spent 8 years as a Soviet POW after WWII and train journeys between concentration camps provide the setting for the poem, which is a wrestling with meaning, with God, with death, with humanity. Ishihara creates an extraordinary charged atmosphere with his syntax and stark imagery, while cutting enough holes in the darkness to suggest something beyond it.
As I got further into Japanese poetry, the desire to translate came naturally to me—partly as a way to dig deeper into the Japanese language and its poetics, partly to encourage myself to spend more time in some particular poems and partly to introduce the new poetic world I was discovering to English speakers. Funeral Train had stuck with me and was the obvious choice for a first attempt at translation. Syntax is the driving force of this and many of Ishihara’s poems and traversing the huge grammatical gulf between Japanese and English was part of the thrill of translating this poem, along with trying to dig as far into each image as I could.
Ishihara remains my favourite poet to translate (not everything he wrote was as dark as the title Funeral Train suggests!).
As we coincide with our spirits,
blur from them,
all of us
are waiting for the train to pull up at
the unbearable future.
—(from Funeral Train)
What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
Michael Symmons Roberts, Sinead Morrissey, Geoffrey Hill, Alice Oswald, G.K. Chesterton (his prose rather than his poetry), Ishihara Yoshiro, Marilynne Robinson, the music of Benjamin Clementine, Spike Milligan, Frank Cottrell Boyce, Nakahara Chuya, R.S. Thomas, David Harsent, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Scott Cairns. I enjoy being influenced, and whenever I read something good, I am thinking, "I want to write something like this," or "I want to learn about X from that."
What other professions have you worked in?
An actor, a children’s storyteller, a playwright, and a letting agent in between theatre jobs. I was in the Christian ministry in the UK, and am currently the pastor of a church in Japan.
What did you want to be when you were young?
A singer (it took me some years to realise I am tone deaf), then an animal rights activist, then a theoretical physicist (this one up till halfway through my maths degree when I realised that the theatre was calling louder than the quark).
What drew you to write a translation of this piece in particular?
Shiki Itsuma’s extraordinary achievement in this poem seems to me to be bringing great human suffering into the context of his tending of plants (and vice versa) in a way which gives dignity and depth to both without trivializing either. The shifting between scales, the hesitant syntax and the humble voice combine to make a vital and perspective-altering poem.
His subtle allusion to his disability (‘numb hands’; he had leprosy in days when treatment was minimal and discrimination was strong) suggested to me the limitations we all have to what we can do for this huge, messy world, but he does not descend into despair. The poem is framed with a subtle hope, and a joy in the small blessings of the everyday, both of which are born of his Christian faith.
I wanted to translate it to spend more time with Shiki and learn from him, as well as making his voice available to a wider audience. I hope my translation communicates at least something of his vision.
Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?
I don’t often feel consciously influenced by place, though I’m sure I must be. Being a Brit living long term in Japan must also be significant. The poetry collection I am working on has it’s setting in a fictional English town, and that growing town provides a context for each poem and each poem in turn expands the town.
Do you have any rituals or traditions that you do in order to write?
I am not sure I have anything which warrants being described as a ritual or a tradition, but I certainly have habits. Monday mornings are my main block of writing time, and are normally spent in a café (the same one). I buy a coffee, sit down and start writing straight away. Poetry tends to start on scrap paper, then graduate into a notebook when I feel it’s getting close to its final form, then finally onto the computer. I also make a lot of lists when writing poetry—possibilities/alternatives/phrases/fragments—most of which don’t end up in the final version, but I think they’re all part of the journey to get there.
Prose goes straight onto the computer and doesn’t get lists, just revision, revision, revision.
Translating tends to follow a set pattern (at every stage lists of anything that comes to mind are made): 1) Read the original many times; 2) Interrogate every word, phrase, line of the original, noting the rhythm and syntax etc.; 3) Write a translation and redraft a number of times with the original next to me; 4) Put the original away and work on the translation as a poem in its own right (being careful not to lose its Japaneseness); 5) Get the original back out to guide the final drafts of the translation.
Who typically gets the first read of your work?
Mostly my wife. I’m part of a group of poets here in Japan, and they tend to get first read (and chance to critique) poems I write in Japanese.
What are you working on currently?
Probably too much! 1) What I think will be the final draft of a children’s novel; 2) A poetry collection—various poems are appearing in various publications from time to time; 3) Further translations of Ishihara Yoshiro and Shiki Itsuma; 4) A series of comic short stories.
What are you reading right now?
In English: Les Murray’s Selected Poems; Brother Andrew’s (smuggler of Bibles behind the Iron Curtain) autobiography; Gregg Allison’s Historical Theology; The New Penguin Book of English Verse; Frankenstein; and with my kids, Lucy Brandt’s brilliant Leonora Bolt books. In Japanese: Shiba Ryotaro’s 8-volume historical novel about giant of the Meiji Restoration, Sakamoto Ryoma; the works of early 20th century poet and critic Hagiwara Sakutaro; a book by Japanese pastor Kawano Yuitsu on what it means to be made (and remade) in the image of God. And in both languages, a pile of commentaries on Luke’s Gospel.
JOHN NEWTON WEBB is the author of a number of plays and has had poetry published in a variety of magazines. He has recently had translations of Japanese poems published in Modern Poetry in Translation and Asymptote. You can read some of his work and mini-essays on modern Japanese poetry at johnnewtonwebb.blogspot.com. He is British and lives in Sapporo, Japan.