Here's another wordplay-laden Manyōshū entry:

Yoki hito no/ yoshi to yoku mite/ yoshi to ihishi/ yoshino yoku miyo/ yoki hito yoku mi
Good people heard that it was good, looked well upon it, and called it good: Yoshino. Look well on it, good people, look well.

The story is that Emperor Tenmu composed this poem while at Yoshino with his six sons, after having them all vow not to wage war on each other.

To commemorate such a solemn and important occasion, I personally would not have composed a tongue twister. But that's why Emperor Tenmu was Emperor.

Obligatory linguistic factoid: while all of the "good"s and "well"s are variations or conjugations of the same OJ adjective (yoshi, ancestor to modern ii/yoi; yes, the pun on "Yoshino" is intentional, although that yoshi means "reed"), they're written many different ways.

The first "good people" uses the kanji 淑 ("noble", etc.), but the second uses plain old 良 ("good", "superior"). Most commentaries explain that the 淑 refers to the emperors and extremely high-ranked folks of old, leading up to Tenmu himself, while the second refers to less exalted gentlefolk -- like, say, the Emperor's six sons.

Two of the "wells" are written with 吉 ("favorable", "splendid"); I have no idea why this is. (Anybody?) The last "look well" is written using kanji for their phonetic value (when used to represent Japanese words): 四来三 (yo.ku.mi).

Oh, and when 淑 people said that Yoshino was "good", they used the kanji 好 ("pleasing", "likable", "beautiful").

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I'm going to ask the dumb question, not being experienced in translation. If some of the "good"s are created by characters that mean "noble", etc, how as a translator do you decide not to use that clearer meaning? Is it something in the characters or just a group decision?

Why not: "Noble people heard that it was superior/"... and so on.

Or am I just trying to stuff logic into art?

Chris Kern (hikarugenji):

Interesting to see you doing tanka -- I've recently been plodding through the Kokinshu poem by poem; I'm only at #151 right now but it's been a great experience.


Haha, me too, Chris -- I decided to finally work my way through the entire Manyoshu from beginning to end.

Ali: Not a dumb question at all! If I were publishing just translations it is an issue I would struggle with. Since here I have the luxury of explaining myself, I thought I'd translate them simply and then discuss the issues at length. (Using different kanji can mean that the poet or recorder was intending different meanings, but it doesn't necessarily mean that they should be considered different words...)

Chris Kern (hikarugenji):

Wow, the Manyoushu is a huge endeavour. I actually did a few poems from that using an excellent series I found in the library called 万葉集全注. There's something interestingly primitive about the poems in that collection.

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