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Nishiwaki’s Ambarvalia: Reimagining Catullan Poetics in Modern(ist) Japan

Akira Yatsuhashi

SUNY College at Oneonta

Nishiwaki Junzaburō’s Ambarvalia, first published in 1933, has become one of the key works of Japanese Modernism and is also a work profoundly influenced by the world of classical antiquity. Ambarvalia is made up of poetic experiments including but not limited to travel vignettes, an ekphrasis on the Dionysus Kylix, and free translations of Tibullus and Catullus divided into two sections: “Le Monde Ancien” and “Le Monde Moderne.” Furthermore, it is a work mainly written in Japanese, yet a new form of Japanese full of lexical oddities and foreign loan words as well as some extended stretches in Latin. Much like in Europe, many Japanese poets of the early twentieth century were beginning to experiment with newer ways of producing poetry in attempt to break free from more traditional poetics, which still dominated the field with its rigid use of forms and vocabulary. It is in response to this tradition that one must read Nishiwaki’s poem.

Although scholars have written extensively on Nishiwaki’s Ambarvalia, few have paid much attention to a collection of four poems situated at the heart of the work, entitled “Latin Elegies” (拉典哀歌), and three of the four poems which make up this section are often dismissed as mere translations of the 1913 Loeb volume of Catullus, Tibullus, Pervigilium Veneris (Willett 2004; Hirata 1993). Upon closer examination of the “Latin Elegies” section, it becomes quite clear that two of the poems, which make up this section of the poem, “Catullus” and “Tibullus,” can only loosely be called “translations” if that at all. In fact, Nishiwaki’s “Catullus” poem reads more like a tour of selected poems from the Catullan corpus and even then only excerpts from those poems. 

This paper is an attempt to reassess the significance of selectively translating Catullus for the work as a whole. Through a close reading of Nishiwaki’s poem, “Catullus,” I will demonstrate how this poem is not merely a random, uncritical sampling from the Catullan corpus but is rather a carefully crafted work composed of selected excerpts that articulates, promotes, and defends a new kind of Japanese poetry. Throughout his “Catullus,” Nishiwaki selectively eliminates certain lines and merely provides the reader with enough of the original Catullus to see his source material but also not enough to make it a straight translation. Ultimately, one might ask why this is the case. My response is that Nishiwaki does this to make Catullus’ work his own by either omitting the more overtly sexual images or toning down the language from the originals in order to focus on the metapoetic statements contained in the originals. Furthermore, Nishiwaki has positioned this key part in the heart of the “Catullus” poem which is likewise at the heart of his overall work, straddling the line between the “Le Monde Ancien” and “Moderne” sections of the poem.  By doing so, he has made it clear that the poem should not merely be a mere superfluous translation but rather should play a central role in the larger work. Through his creative act of translation, Nishiwaki uses Catullus not only to radically reimagine Japanese poetry but also to provide a way to articulate his new Modernist vision for it. It is this type of poetry, in turn, that Nishiwaki reproduces throughout the rest of his Ambarvalia, one that mimics the works of western Modernism and combines traditional Japanese forms and language with foreign and experimental ones. 

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Translation and Reception

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