Let’s talk a bit about poem translation and Chihayafuru ep. 14

I haven’t mentioned it anywhere, but Crunchyroll’s subtitles of Chihayafuru seem somewhat unreferenced. It’s a bit frustrating, as these are well-established pieces of poetry with a long history. 

There’s been quite a bit of focus on this week’s title poem, and its relation to Shinobu. 

But Crunchyroll’s translations seem heavy handed at best, and ignore two of the most respected (and professional) translations available easily, Professor Mostow’s 2006 version and MacCauley’s 1917 version, both of which are fairly widely circulated.

The Original Poem

(shino - bu - re - do)

(iro - ni - i - de - ke - ri)

(wa - ga - koi - ha(wa))


(mono - ya - omo - fu(u) - to)

(hito - no - to - fu(u) - ma - de)


The original poem, transliterated and lightly analysed

My main references are Jim Breen’s wonderful WWWJDic and Random House J-E Dictionary by Seigo Nakano.

(shino - bu - re - do)

忍 (read alone as nin) = restraint; endurance; forbarance; patience; self-restraint

忍ぶ (shino - bu) = to conceal oneself, to endure.

れど (re - do) = colloquialism of  けれど (ke - re - do). Typically translates as “but”, or “though”. 

忍ぶれど (shino - bu - re - do)

Though it is hidden/restrained/concealed.

(iro - ni - i - de - ke - ri)

色 (iro) = colors/appearance/look but alsokind/type/variety/means - i.e., 色々な__. 

Note that 色 is occasionally used in the phrase 色仕掛け (iro - ji - ka - ke), “to use seductive means to achieve an end”. In the case of this phrase, 色 imparts a meaning of love/lust/sensuality.

に = typically means “in”.

出で (i - de) = this is more commonly read nowadays as 出る (de - ru) or 出す (da - su), both words which mean, roughly speaking, “to [go] out”. The “ide” reading of the verb is typically seen in the phrase “oide” お出で, which itself means “come out”, and is typically used in reference to small children or animals. If you were playing hide and seek, you’d ask another child to “oide”. If you were a mother speaking to her child who’d just broken a vase an hidden herself, you’d ask the child to “oide.”

に = typically means “in”

けり (ke - ri) = this is the part of the phrase least familiar to me. WWWJdic gives us the following definitions: 

(1) indicates recollection or realization (i.e. of hearsay or the past); can form a poetic past tense;

(2) indicates continuation from the past to the present;

(3) (also written with the ateji ) end; conclusion

So, putting it together..


(colors/ways/kinds) (in) (comes out) (realization/past tense)

(wa - ga - koi - ha(wa))

わが (wa - ga) = my.

恋 (koi) = love, affection, passion

は (ha, pronounced “wa”) = is.


(my love/affection/passion is)

(mono - ya - omo - fu(u) - to)

物 (mono)  = Things. Note that this doesn’t imply material things per se.

や = This is a bit complicated. Typically it’s used to punctuate lists of things, like a comma, but in poetry it’s (according to WWJDIC) a “punctuational exclamation , much like “yo” is in every day speech.

思ふ (omo - fu(u)) = it reads “fu”, but almost every translation I’ve seen treats it as “u”. Omou is to think, to believe, to have an opinion on in everyday speech, but it can also mean to dream, to imagine, to feel, to desire, or to want. It all depends on the context of the phrase it’s being spoken in. 

と (to) = this is actually a conjunction which leads into the next line.

(things) (emphasis) (thinking/dreaming/sizing up) (or so)


(hito - no - to - fu(u) - ma - de)

人 (hito) = person (singular). Occasionally “people”, but typically hitobito (人々) is used, though this is a less modern context so.

の (no) = possessive. i.e, “people’s” or “a person’s”

問ふ (to - fu(u)) = Much like Omo-fu(u), the more common writing of this verb is to-u, and it means to ask/accuse/care about.

まで (ma - de) = Until (a time); as far as (a place). 

(a person’s) (questionings) (until)

The と (to) conjunction from the last line modifies this entire phrase to be secondhand information. In this sense, that と (to) translates as “or so” (i.e, or so they say). The typical use of this と (to) would be in a phrase such as うわさによると…, or “according to rumors…”


The last two lines of the poem, 物や思ふと (mono - ya - omo - fu(u) - to) and 人の問ふまで (hito - no - to - fu(u) - ma - de) are the crux of the poem’s meaning. Some questions arise, when translating:

  • What is the “mono” (things) that the speaker is “omou” (thinking) of?
  • Does the asker in the second phrase already know what the speaker is thinking of? Are they colouring their inquiries based on some foreknowledge, or is the question asked innocently?
  • How does the や (ya) - the emphasis - at the end of “mono” change things? Does it imply that the asker knows what the “mono” is?
  • Does the speaker in the poem know the asker, or is that person a stranger to them?

In regards to the first part of the poem, the most troublesome phrase is 色に出でにけり (iro - ni - i - de - ke - ri)

  • How to translate this phrase hinges on how one translates “iro”. It could read “in many ways it shows/showed”, “I realize(d) the color came out [on my face, i.e, blushing”, or anywhere inbetween.
  • The other troublesome part of this phrase is “keri”, or the idea of a realization. It also affects the translation of the phrase by potentially changing it into the past tense.

Crunchyroll’s 2012 translation (and why I hate it)

Since I could not hide my love,

People would always ask

If I was pining for someone

While I realize that Crunchyroll made some sacrifices in order to sub things nicely, breaking up the original poem into a mere three lines really ruins the rhythm. But in general:

  • implies that people wold “always” ask even though no such implication/phrasing was in the original
  • implies that the “mono” being thought about was known by the askers, even though they don’t appear to be familiar
  • IT’S JUST A KIND OF SHITTY HEAVYHANDED TRANSLATION K? The original makes no real mention of a “pining”, nor does it ever imply that that’s what they’re asking about? even if they were asking about that they definitely aren’t saying it that directly?

Professor Mostow’s 2006 translation

Even though I hide it,

it shows all over my face,

such is my longing.

so that people ask me,

"What are you thinking about?”

This translation assumes the following about our questions:

  • The speaker is thinking about his love (translated as longing).
  • The asker does not know what the speaker is thinking about. 
  • The “ya” emphasis is represented here as italics. 
  • The asker is a stranger; or rather, an abstract. Instead of singling in on one select person, Mostow assumes that people in general are asking the speaker what he’s thinking about.

This is probably my favorite translation, for a few reasons:

  • It keeps a nice abiguity around the word “iro”. The phrase “it shows all over my face” can refer back to “iro” as a color (i.e, I blushed all over) or as “iro-na” (many = all over).
  • There’s an ambiguity between the asker and the speaker, and the implication is that the asker might know what the speaker is thinking about, but might not. 

But there are some problems with it:

  • "Even though I hide it" 
  • It ignores the significance of the “to” at the end of the 2nd to last line
  • It ignores some of the phrasing/meaning  of the original in favor of keeping the beat pattern.

My translation

Note that i’m not exactly concerned with beat pattern here as original meaning.

Though masked,

in a way, it emerged,

my love.

"Are you thinking of things?” or so

they continue to inquire.

Some casual thoughts, closing thoughts

The fact that this is Shinobu’s ‘name’ card in Karuta is played out very nicely in her being, as the show takes great pains to point out, a Kyoto woman. The people of Kyoto, while very upstanding, are, in the Japanese context, considered hard to read. Whilst they’re stereotyped as being highly refined, very clean, and very archetypal of the “Yamato Nadeshiko” ideal, they’re often viewed as concealing their own feelings for the sake of omote (saving face in public). 

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    Hey! This is interesting and nice of you to post. I wanted to follow up because you’re missing a lot of the classical...
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    Love the breakdown Translating poems are the hardest, as Robert Frost says :poetry is what gets lost in translation
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    Really interesting look at some of the challenges that come with translating Japanese poetry to English.
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