Classical Japanese poetry translation: “The Forgotten Garden” (廃園) by Yoshinobu Morikawa (森川義信)

By | November 4, 2019

Despite the many prose translations I’ve done, I’ve never attempted to translate an entire poem from Japanese to English before. That’s partially because I generally don’t read poetry that often (in either Japanese or English), and hence am even less comfortable trying to translate it. Another reason is that generally I’m pretty picky about what sorts of poetry I like.

When doing some searching on Aozora Bunko I recently came across I poem that really intrigued me; it possessed a dark atmosphere while keeping the theme of the poem somewhat vague. I think this generates an unsatisfiable desire that keeps my interest, even after a few reads through. Maybe it’s a little like the goal of completely mastering Japanese––compelling yet not quite achievable. Anyway, since I had always wanted to try my hand at poem translation, this poem seemed like a great place to start.

The poem is by Yoshinobu Morikawa (森川義信), an author that seems to be not very well known in Japanese, and even less known in the western world. From what I know this will be the first poem of his translated in to English. (Having said that, because of my lack of experience translating poems, please consider this an experimental and unofficial translation.)

You can see the original Japanese of the poem here on Aozora Bunko. I couldn’t find out the year the poem was written (only when it was first published, in 1991), but because the author passed away in 1942 we know it was sometime before that.

Because of when the poem was written it has some classical Japanese characteristics that you may be unfamiliar with. You can check out this post of mine that gives some tips to help you read older Japanese.

Regarding the interpretation of this poem, even after translating it I never reached a satisfying guess at the author’s meaning. I have some theories but I’ll omit those as to not bias your experience. But if you have any ideas about what this poem is about, please feel free to leave a comment.

The Forgotten Garden

Yoshinobu Morikawa

(Translated by J.D. Wisgo)

The sound of bones breaking

And within that sound

The flowing water dries up

The violet sky falls

And the rock-crusted brow sleeps, downturned

From the weight of an unseen change

The weight of an unseen change

Freezing, eyes closed

The half-body waits for oblivion with a collapsing shadow 

Have you forgotten


About being where the water was once clear 

In the city of Corinth

When did you learn

That once there, you could never leave

Did even the flowers’ roots wither away

No sound of wings at treetops

Nor a breeze at your back

The garden that was has fallen into ruin

In the twilight you made

There is no shoulder to lean on

Not even broken furniture

Does not the light flowing from countless scars

Disappear into a dark harmony

Why have you returned, as if tumbling   

To such a dreary place

The sound of bones breaking

And within that sound

The wind blows with a terrible force

It blows from within you

The wind penetrates

Chilling me

(English Translation Copyright © 2019 by J.D. Wisgo)

Note: picture of misty forest taken from

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