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The Faerie Queene in Japanese Verse
by Toshiyuki Suzuki

Spenser, Edmund. Yōsei no Joō (The Japanese Verse Translation of The Faerie Queene). Trans. Shohachi Fukuda. Fukuoka: Kyushu UP, 2016. 2 vols. (I: 408 pp., II: 418 + viii pp.) ISBN: 978-4-7985-0188-8. ¥30,000 cloth.

Book design and photo by Shinju Oonuki

This Japanese version of The Faerie Queene by Shohachi Fukuda has marked a new stage in the evolution of the Japanese translation of the work. The first Japanese translation of the complete text of the poem published in 1969 was a verbatim rendering in prose, which attached great importance to fidelity to the meaning of the original.[1] The fidelity-first policy is understandable enough, but consequently, each Spenserian stanza was transformed into a paragraph that consisted of five to twelve lines, depending on the number of Japanese words it contained. This stage was followed by the second, when a revised edition appeared in 1994 with a thorough stylistic change of the Japanese text.[2] It limited the length of each line to twenty-six letters and brought about uniformity in the number of lines in a stanza—nine lines in accordance with the Spenserian stanza. Although its Japanese text reflected the stanzaic structure of the original to some extent, the lines thus arranged remained essentially prosaic, lacking a definite metrical pattern—or more precisely, a regular syllabic pattern. 

Then in 2016 there appeared the present verse translation characterized by the adoption of the form and cadence of traditional Japanese poetry. Though Fukuda had also worked on the previous versions as a joint translator, this is not another revised edition of those projects but an entirely new enterprise accomplished as Fukuda’s independent endeavor; it is the fruit of many years of labour pursued under his long held belief that a translation of FQ should reflect the poetic rhythm generally inherent in epic poetry. A distinction from his predecessors is also made clear by Fukuda’s adoption of the source text; he chose the text edited by Hiroshi Yamashita and Toshiyuki Suzuki in A. C. Hamilton’s edition in the Longman Annotated English Poets Series, first published in 2001, [3] whereas the earlier versions had been based on J. C. Smith’s Oxford edition published in 1909.

It should be noted here that the vast linguistic difference between Japanese and English presents a serious challenge to the translator of English poetry. For example, as an agglutinative and polysyllabic language, Japanese can hardly contain as many words as English normally does in a line in iambic-pentameter. Therefore, in order to translate an English poem into a fixed form of Japanese verse he or she must necessarily use ellipsis wherever possible and even resort to omission of some words in the source text, at the risk of losing some of its important elements. Furthermore, it is inevitable that the metrical construction of the original should be altogether lost, for unlike English, Japanese has no stress-accent and each syllable is given equal stress. It has instead a pitch-accent system where the accent in a word or phrase is marked by the syllable after which the pitch drops. In Japanese prosody, then, midline caesurae are used for introducing cadence or rhythmic pacing into poems.

Classical poetic forms in the Japanese language consist of units of five and seven syllables with various combinations of these units. Because of its distinct rhythm and tempo, the 7-5 cadence (or 7-5 syllabic pattern) is considered appropriate for recitation, and it has been most prevalent not only in classical poems and traditional performing arts, such as no, kabuki, and bunraku,[4] but also in the lyrics of modern pop and folk songs. Closely associated as it is with early poetry, this poetic convention is well-received by the general reader, including the younger generation. Incidentally, in 2014 Fukuda published a paperback anthology, intended for young readers, of his verse translation of thirty-six English poems or fragments of poems.[5] The selection covers both classical and modern poets, ranging from Chaucer to Dylan Thomas. His Japanese rendering of Spenser’s poems dates back to 2000, when he offered the general reader a collection of works by the poet.[6]  Containing The Shepherdes Calender, Muiopotmos, Colin Clouts, Amoretti and Epithalamion, and Prothalamion, rendered in the 7-5 cadence, it fully embodied his lifelong belief that verse is the style in which any poems in a foreign language should be translated.

In translating FQ, he naturally adopted the 7-5 cadence, or occasionally 5-7 for the first eight lines in pentameter, and 7-7 for the concluding Alexandrine of the Spenserian stanza. Each of these cadences is the closest to the original in number of syllables per line, so that the combination of these cadences comprises the closest approximation to the structure of the original stanza.

The Japanese text of the book is of course written in its proper form—in a mixture of Chinese characters and Japanese syllabaries—and printed in vertical lines.[7] Cited below is a transliteration in roman script of Fukuda’s Japanese text (FQ I.i.1) along with the stanza of the source text. The transliterated quotation is italicized, and the symbol ‖ is provided to indicate the caesura within a line—between 7 and 5 or 7 and 7 syllabic units.

Some details of the descriptions of the knight and horse in this stanza are abridged; absent from the Japanese text are equivalents for ‘the plain’, ‘many a bloody fielde’, ‘bitt’, ‘the curbe’, and ‘knightly giusts’. On the whole, however, his translation covers the essentials of the narrative of the scene.

Although Fukuda places priority on poetic rhythm over literal fidelity to the original, he makes every effort to minimize the loss of its richness caused by omission of certain detailed descriptions. This can be most clearly seen in his renderings of epic catalogues such as the enumeration of historical or legendary figures from Briton moniments and Antiquitee of Faery lond (II.x) and the list of rivers celebrating the marriage of Thames and Medway (IV.xi). While trimming away dispensable copulas and pronouns as well as somewhat redundant or commonplace epithets and modifiers applied to characters, places, or events, he partially complements what he omits with concise footnotes at the bottom of each page.Furthermore, to keep his lines compact and at the fixed length, he chooses shorter, plainer words from the Japanese synonyms equivalent to English words. Despite the sporadic use of archaic vocabulary and phraseology, his translation is basically done in modern, colloquial Japanese. His skills in abridgement of lengthy description and in the selection of simple words prove effective in making his style clear, fluent, and euphonic.

It is hardly possible to faithfully reflect the rhymes of the original in Japanese translation, to say nothing of the whole rhyme scheme. Nor does the practice of rhyming actually exist in Japanese prosody. However, literary devices such as alliteration, assonance, and consonance have often been employed in various kinds of Japanese speech and verse to emphasize recurring sounds of words and to create rhythm. Fukuda uses such devices in Japanese where he can, whether the lines he chooses to alliterate are originally so devised or not. When translated into Japanese, repeated alliterative sounds are in most cases changed to a sequence of sounds different from the original. For example, the line ‘For soueraine hope, which in his helpe he had,’ (I.i.2.5) is re-alliterated in in his version as ‘Kami no kago koso tanomi tote.’ The following example shows that internal rhyme is also feasible in Japanese, though rarely used in the book; ‘The hidden power of herbes, and might of Magic spel?’ (I.ii.10.9) is translated as ‘bu no haryoku jumon no jutsuryoku.’ Fukuda occasionally omits words originally alliterated to adjust the number of syllables to the cadence of the line. Thus he disregards the cross alliteration in the line ‘The whiles false Archimage and Atin fled apace’ (II.viii.56.9) and translates it simply as ‘Ākimēgo to Atin wa doron,’ using ‘doron’, a Japanese stage term for the sudden disappearance of a ghost on stage. 

Incidentally, Fukuda captures the derisive description of Atin’s quick flight, when he ‘So proudly pricketh on his courser strong, / And Atin ay him pricks with spurs of shame and wrong’ (II.v.38.8-9). Fukuda represents the poet’s sentiment by augmenting alliteration and increasing the tempo of the lines: ‘Kaku kanzen to kanba kari / Atin ga haji no hakusha wo kureru.’ He likewise retains the comic effect of the excessive alliteration in Braggadochio’s boastful speech ‘But minds of mortal men are muchell mard, / And mou’d amisse with massy mucks unmeet regard.’ (III.x.31.8-9) That is, in Japanese, ‘Yahi na yatsura wa yake ni yami / yamabukiiro no yama ni yarareru,’ which might be translated back into English, ‘Vulgar men are too easily corrupted / and done away by a heap of gold that glitters.’

As mentioned above, this Japanese version of FQ is characterized by abridgement of detailed descriptions and the choice of plain words. It may be said that these characteristics derive from basic techniques of haiku, a very short and well-known form of Japanese poetry. [8] Since the brevity of haiku necessarily restricts the number of words contained in it, extensive explanation is omitted and details are left to the reader’s imagination. Plain vocabulary as well as economy of language in haiku is considered effective in evoking wider or deeper meanings than what familiar words typically denote. Adapting conventional techniques of the short form of poetry to the rendering of the long epic, this edition has thus marked another significant milestone in the history of Japanese translation of European poetry. It is no wonder that it won the annual Japan Translation Award (established by the Japan Society of Translators in 1963) for the best translation in 2016.

The critical apparatus at the end of the second volume includes a list of the arguments of every canto of the entire poem, a chronological table of Spenser’s life, and Fukuda’s explanatory notes on FQ and its literary and historical background. One section of the notes contains a brief description of the commendatory verses and dedicatory sonnets, which are omitted from the text. The bibliography is very selective, featuring Japanese translations of Spenser’s works, including FQ, and relevant classics such as Homer, Virgil, Ovid, Dante, Ariosto, and Tasso. The index to the FQ characters compiled from ‘The characters of The Faerie Queene’ in A. C. Hamilton’s edition of the work should help the non-specialist reader not only to locate where in this long poem certain characters appear but also to get a quick reference to their identity.

Having been printed as a deluxe edition, the covers of the two-volume set of books are specially designed by book designer Shinju Oonuki, with fine workmanship; on the crimson-colored suedette front cover of each volume is placed a portrait of Queene Elizabeth I in miniature, along with the title and the names of the poet and translator, both in English and Japanese, all in gilt letters. In addition, the two volumes are housed in a slipcase made of high-quality cardboard with the same basic design as the cover (see the accompanying photo for an image of the book design and binding). The artistic and bibliophilic binding is a treasure in itself, but the book is a limited edition of only 400 copies. [9] However, Fukuda’s easy-to-read translation will be reprinted in a forthcoming paperback edition, which should attain a much wider circulation among general readers in Japan.


[1] Yuichi Wada, ed., Yōsei no Joō (The Faerie Queene), trans. Kumamoto U. Spenser Circle, (Tokyo: Bunri Shoin, 1969).

[2] Yuichi Wada & Shohachi Fukuda, trans., Yōsei no Joō (The Faerie Queene),

 (Tokyo: Chikuma Shobo, 1994).

[3] His actual source text is the second edition, i.e. A. C. Hamilton et al. eds., Spenser: The Faerie Queene, 2nd ed. (London & New York: Routledge, 2013).

[4] Originating in the fourteenth century, no is the oldest extant professional theater of Japan. It is a form of musical dance-drama with a script, mostly in verse, to be sung or declaimed by actors and chorus. Kabuki started in the early seventeenth century, and is still prevalent today. Though it is mixed with singing and dancing, one of its main attractions is the actors’ stylized and exaggerated acting. The lines spoken by the actors and the narration sung by the chorus have a distinct rhythm and tempo. Also originating in the early seventeenth century, bunraku is the professional puppet theater and a form of dramatic narrative chanted to shamisen (a three-stringed plucked lute) accompaniment.

[5] Shohachi Fukuda, Eishi no Kokoro (The Heart of English Poetry), (Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 2014).  

[6] Edmund Spenser, Spensā Shishū (Poems of Spenser), trans. Shohachi Fukuda (Tokyo: Chikuma Shobo, 2000).

[7] The Japanese writing system uses Chinese characters (called kanji) in combination with phonetic syllabic scripts (kana) derived from Chinese characters but developed in Japan.

[8] Haiku is a 17-syllable Japanese verse form consisting of three metrical units of 5, 7, and 5 syllables respectively.

[9] This new book has been made available at the British Library and the Library of Congress, among others.


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Cite as:

Toshiyuki Suzuki, "The Faerie Queene in Japanese Verse," Spenser Review 48.1.6 (Winter 2018). Accessed May 28th, 2018.
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