Larry Kenny -- Project portfolio

Like the Waters of a River

"With the deaths of Hibari and [Emperor] Hirohito the narrative that had plotted Japan within the postwar era now finally ... concluded." ~Alan Tansman

"Kawa no nagare no yō ni" was the swan song of enka legend Misora Hibari. It was voted "Best Japanese song of all time" in a national poll with over 10 million responses by NHK, and I understand that it is learned routinely by high school students all throughout Japan. In a sense, this song embodies the very essence of enka, if not the very essence of the Japanese people.

As such, the task of translating this song felt at times to be any combination of insurmountable, blasphemous, and futile. What allowed me to move forward was the realization that much of what made this song (or perhaps any timeless song) a legend was its circumstance – the role it played as the last song of Misora Hibari. No lauded and oft-quoted epilogue would attain its place in history if it did not sit at the end of an equally great novel. So this aspect of the song is surely untranslatable. In a sense, I was painting a portrait of something beautiful and alive. Whether or not the transformation was fatal remains to be seen.

Translating the music

Even assuming it would have been feasible (however abhorrent) to cleanly delete Misora's vocals from a recording of the song and substitute an English version, this would have been an omission of a crucial step in translating an enka song. Just as the cry of a slide guitar in a country song is different from a Hawaiian-style lap steel, just as a violin is not a fiddle, the exact same notes on the exact same instruments in my English-language, enka-not-演歌 adaptation would not make the same music.

Finding the right arrangement for English-language 21st century enka, however, proved to be an elusive beast, and I know I did not tame it. After several unsatisfying false starts, I racked my brain to determine what enka was for the Japanese audience, and at last I found my answer: Frank Sinatra.

...or not. The parallels were weak and the translation failed, but from the wreckage I did salvage the sound now used on the verses. This is how I got the string bass, guitar tone, and the jazzier piano lines. (And by "jazzier", I mean "I added some 7th chords".)

The real problem I had was that I was trying to identify what was "Japanese" about the music and translate that to anglophone music. But when I peeled apart the arrangement, I couldn't find it. The string orchestra was Western. The part writing was Western. The song structure, the drum fills, the arpeggiated guitar accompaniment, all Western. Perhaps I'm blinded by Occidental normativity, but this sure isn't gagaku. Perhaps Misora was carrying the weight of Japanese culture itself all on her solitary shoulders. Perhaps the Japanese-ness was breathing in the language itself. Very well; I translated Misora Hibari, pride of Yokohama, with upstate New York's own Evan Ross. Mission accomplished?

In a sense, yes. With a talented vocalist singing from the heart in English, a great deal of the conversion was good to go. From there, I suppose the best I could do was to give this new vocalist a good musical environment. Perhaps it was less translating from East to West and more translating from female to male – but surely some parallels can be drawn.

In the end, the strongest parts of my arrangement are outside the choruses, where there is less. Maybe trying to replicate the grandeur of the Greatest Japanese Song of All Time was a mistake. Maybe my stark inexperience with percussion calls too much attention to itself. Or maybe the verses just have more cohesive identity than the choruses. (We need not discuss my odd choice of organ, but to mention that it was previously a trumpet, guitar (smooth and crunchy), trombone, flute, and saxophone, and each sounded worse.) But whether or not I translated the music very well, I did translate it. As the standards of quality for translating music are much less clear than those for translating text, I suppose it is in my best interest to simply claim to have done a fine job of it, and hope enough people nod and agree.

Translating the lyrics

For reference, the original lyrics, a literal translation and my version are available at the bottom of the page.

Understanding the Japanese

The most immediately obvious problem in translating this song "accurately" is the absence of marked subjects in the Japanese – the subject walking down the road and listening to the stream could be the singer, the listener, the Japanese people, or everybody. And there is no right answer, since in the original none of these possibilities are closed off. My solution (aside from omitting a subject whenever elegantly possible) was to take the song from the personal to the general. The first verse is a personal experience – we meet our narrator, who has come so far from their hometown. As we see them, we realize their journey is our journey – that we are all traveling along a river without end, on forever. Of course, この身を任せていたい "(I) want this body/self to be entrusted / at the leisure of" doesn't sit too well with a plural subject, so we can call that the singer's individual emotion coming through.

The next challenge was the abundance of poetically loaded words. One of the most important words is 流れ nagare, "current, flow." It is the flow of a river to which the singer compares the spread of evening colors into the sky, the coming and going of the seasons, and life itself. The singer wants to float along with the flow of the river, calmly and eternally. 川の流れ echoes the opening line of the Hōjōki: ゆく河の流れは絶えずして、しかも元の水にあらず Yuku kawa no nagare wa taezu shite, shikamo moto no mizu ni arazu "The flow of a river never ceases, but the water is never the same".

故郷 furusato is a common theme both in enka and in descriptions of Japanese culture. Scholar Jennifer Robertson wrote a detailed essay about furusato, calling it "a word, or signifier, whose very ubiquity may camouflage its importance for understanding and interpreting Japanese culture" invoked in contexts ranging from "the gustatorial to the political economic". How does one translate a word so alive that it takes an essay to try and depict its nature? The literal translation would be "hometown." But beyond that, the furusato is the opposite of the city, of over-modernity, of over-Westerinization – it is everything as it was in the idyllic past that has been left behind. Does "hometown" have that kind of aura?

michi "road, path, way" is a theme of the song and a word that can carry a number of meanings, working here as the road being traveled and as our paths through life – though fortunately, the English "road" seems to be quite used to carrying such poetic weight. I found myself using both "road" and "path" to translate the one word, but I don't believe I've broken the connection between them too badly.

The や ya at the end of the fifth line could function either as the unfinished list particle – listing uneven roads and winding roads as two examples of several roads to be considered – or as the kireji or "cutting word" used in haiku, which functions as a sort of punctuation, creating pause or offering a scene for consideration. In that sense, it works well as a point for the lyrics to transition from the personal to the general.

雪解け yukidoke is just a nice word – "snowmelt". A convenient term for the springtime thaw. And でこぼこ dekoboko "uneven" is fun because it can be written 凸凹. I challenge you to find a word in any language written in a more appropriate way.

Ultimately, the poetic language characteristic of enka was not too pronounced in this song, or at least it was not so thick as to require enormous sacrifices in translation (unless I'm giving myself far too much credit, which is very possible). The themes of the song are quite universal, and so a goal of a good translation, I feel, would be to retain the song's feel of both nostalgia and triumph – the sense of life moving forever onward, coming so far and passing through so many ages.

Setting words to music

To translate 流れ, either "flow" or "flowing" would be faithful and appropriate, but sometimes (often) the melody just won't cooperate – the marriage between words and music that manifests in the songs of a language is a most interesting bond, and to treat the fusion as simply the sum of its parts will produce results much like trying to substitute yourself for the spouse of any real married couple outside the swinger community. "Flow" just doesn't flow. I tried "current" as well, but ultimately, "waters" simply sounded better, and in music, that is the only king worth bowing to.

Almost all Japanese songs do not rhyme. Most English songs do. This is a dilemma for anybody translating Japanese verse to English. Early on in the process I decided that an English ballad simply should rhyme, but as a safeguard, I worked on a non-rhyming version of the lyrics to keep tabs on what I might be missing out on or mangling for the purpose of rhyme. I was pleased to find that the rhyme scheme required few sacrifices and even led to some unexpected territory – for example, the line as we wait for April sunshine to melt the winter grey (perhaps sappy but reasonably accurate and arguably effective) came out of a refusal to have the the line lay this body down... be anything else. This same restraint led to my last line of the song, which diverged somewhat brazenly from the original – I took the unending river and dumped it terminally into a bay! Yes, "bay" was given to me by the rhyme-gods, but perhaps it is not that disloyal – the endless river of life is spilling into the infinite ocean of lives. You could call it poetic embellishment if you were feeling generous. One thing I never considered was using a different rhyme scheme – the one I chose seemed most intuitive; a translator with a differing intuition could have produced a vastly different result.

And some miscellaneous notes:

There was no need to translate 知らず知らず as a doubled phrase, as it is a meaningful unit and not just a doubling of 知らず "without knowing". But repeating the first three syllables seemed to form part of the structure of the original melody, and I thought "like a dream" might stand up to such repetition better than my first attempt, "unaware".

I wasn't quite sure what to do with 人生 jinsei "(human) life" right before the first chorus. It's fair to say it is being compared to the flow or a river, but grammatically it just kind of dangles, waiting around patiently for a verb until being denied by 時代. It isn't the first time I've heard a Japanese song hold a note dramatically on jinsei – it seems to be such an effective word to sing that confining it to grammar is optional. This seems to happen a lot in Japanese music.

The verse after the first chorus could not escape being schmaltzy, and I'd like to think that at least a few Japanese people feel the same way about the original. A last-minute change of "with" to "and" salvaged making memories and friends, from trite useless six-syllable filler, to an opportunity to use the word "zeugma" to describe my trite useless six-syllable filler.

I was a bit disappointed with my translation of いつかはまた晴れる日が来るから. I miss the feel of いつかは – it isn't "soon", but rather "some day; in due time". It's less sure, yet somehow more hopeful. The notion "on we walk" is actually nowhere to be found within the words of this phrase – there is only "despite the rain and mud" and "because a clear day will come", with the conclusion left to the listener. It could be that I'm just unrealistically expecting this line to live up to the image of Misora Hibari standing defiantly, looking hopefully upward, bringing the melody surging into the chorus like the sun blasting its way through the clouds.

This song is part of a project on enka music in translation. Other songs and related works can be found here. If you have any suggestions or comments, by all means let me know. Thanks for reading.


The original lyrics of "Kawa no nagare no yō ni" along with romanization and a mostly "literal", non-lyrical translation:

Shirazu shirazu aruite kita
hosoku nagai kono michi
Furikaereba haruka tōku
furusato ga mieru
Dekoboko michi ya
magarikunetta michi
Chizu sae nai
sore mo mata jinsei
Unconsciously, I have been walking
down this long, narrow road
If I look back, far off in the distance
I can see my hometown
Uneven roads,
twisting and turning roads
Even without a map,
still, life is...
Aa kawa no nagare no yō ni
yuruyaka ni
Ikutsu mo jidai wa sugite
Aa kawa no nagare no yō ni
Sora ga tasogare ni
somaru dake
Ah, like the flow of a river
countless ages pass by
Ah, like the flow of a river
never stopping
as the sky
is dyed with twilight
Ikiru koto wa tabi suru koto
owari no nai kono michi
Ai suru hito soba ni tsurete
yume sagashinagara
Ame ni furarete
nukarunda michi de mo
itsuka wa mata
hareru hi ga kuru kara
To live is to travel
on this road without end
bringing loved ones near
while searching for dreams
Even caught in the rain
as the road gets muddy
some day, once more
a clear day will come
Aa kawa no nagare no yō ni
odayaka ni
Kono mi wo makasete itai
Aa kawa no nagare no yō ni
Kisetsu yukidoke wo
Ah, like the flow of a river
I want this body to be entrusted
Ah, like the flow of a river
coming and going
while waiting
for the seasonal thaw
Aa kawa no nagare no yō ni
odayaka ni
Kono mi wo makasete itai
Aa kawa no nagare no yō ni
itsu made mo
Aoi seseragi wo
Ah, like the flow of a river
I want this body to be entrusted
Ah, like the flow of a river
while listening
to the blue stream

English version lyrics:

Like a dream, like a dream, passing day after day
down this long, narrow road I've been walking
If I turn, looking back I can see far away
the old town that I loved long ago.

Roads that wind and twist in every way,
Bumpy roads that have seen too many days
With no map to guide us, every path we cross in our lives,

Ah, just like the waters of a river, countless bygone days,
one by one how gently, how slowly they go,
Ah, just like the waters of a river, on unendingly,
into the sky painted colors of evening flow.

In our journeys and lives, though they start and they end,
still the road never stops, on forever,
as we reach toward a dream, making memories and friends,
we draw near the people who we love.

As the rain beats down upon our heads
and the mud covers all the road ahead
on we walk because soon a bright new day will come again

Ah, just like the waters of a river, slow and gracefully,
lay this body down, let them take me away,
Ah, just like the waters of a river, like the seasons flow,
as we wait for April sunshine to melt the winter grey.

Ah, just like the waters of a river, slow and gracefully,
lay this body down, let them take me away,
Ah, just like the waters of a river, on eternally
as we hear the rushing current flow out to the bay.