Kevin Woolsey: Noh Translation

For my CIP this semester I translated scripts of Noh plays under the supervision of Professor Diego Pellecchia, who taught the Noh portion of the class on Japanese performing arts at KCJS this semester. His team is creating a website which will serve as a reliable source of information on traditional Japanese performing arts for both English and Japanese speaking audiences.

Noh is a form of classical theater which generally took shape in the late 14th century and flourished under patronage of the warrior class. There are more than 200 plays still performed today, with the scripts generally written from the 14th to 16th centuries. As a result, the Japanese found in the scripts is quite different from modern Japanese; in fact, even at the time of writing the style had already become a classical written form. On top of that, the language of the scripts becomes very poetic at points, using rhetoric techniques found in waka poetry as well as citing poems themselves.

Naturally, this presents many challenges when trying to translate Noh scripts into English. Perhaps the most notoriously difficult to translate poetic technique is the kakekotoba, which are basically puns. One example which can actually work in English is matsu, which can mean a “pine” tree or to “pine” for someone, as in to wait for a loved one’s return. However, such convenient cases are rare, leaving one with two choices: come up with something clever, or just give up trying to translate it.

The following is an example from the play 猩々 (Shōjō):

飲めども変はらぬ秋の夜の盃 / nome domo kawaranu aki no yo no sakazuki (Drinking will not change this autumn night’s sake cup reflects the moon’s)

影も傾く入江に枯れ立つ / kage mo katabuku irie ni kare tatsu (light setting upon the inlet he stands among the withering reeds,)

足元はよろよろと…… / ashi moto wa yoroyoro to (legs wobbling,)


The kakekotoba in the first line is within 盃 (sakazuki): as a whole it means a sake cup, but the last two syllables serve as a kakekotoba for 月 (tsuki), the moon. This allows two readings for the first line: 飲めども変はらぬ秋の夜の盃 (an autumn night’s sake cup which does not change upon drinking = the sake never runs out) and 月影も傾く入江 (moon setting above the inlet). In other words, there are effectively two sentences, with the end of the first and beginning of the second overlapping in the sound zuki. I tried to reflect this in the translation, stringing two sentences together into one around the word “cup”.

Another kakekotoba can be found in the third line, with ashi meaning both “reed plant” and “leg”. The end of the second and beginning of the third line can be read either 枯れ立つ芦 (withering standing reed plants) or 立つ足 (standing legs). I tried to reflect both meanings naturally with the phrase “he stands among the withering reeds”.

It is impossible to fully recreate the experience of reading the original through translation, but it is possible to convey some sense of the techniques present in the text beyond the surface meaning.

I am glad to have had this opportunity to not only practice my translation skills but also contribute to a project which will be a valuable resource when released.

4 thoughts on “Kevin Woolsey: Noh Translation

  1. It sounds like you had a challenging yet exciting opportunity this semester. Not only did you get the chance to take on more difficult Japanese, but you also got to take part in something rewarding for yourself and others.
    Do you think you will continue translating for this project or in the future? With your already strong fluency in Japanese language and culture it really would suite you, and you would already be adept at correctly and eloquently transmitting the meanings, nuances, cultural understanding, etc. after this this rich experience.

    • I am working with the same professor for my summer research, so I will definitely be contributing to the same project, and it is likely that translation will be a part of that.

  2. Lovely experience indeed. I am glad that you are enjoying and learning from your engagement with Nou.