Translating Chiri Yukie’s parallel Ainu and Japanese text into English is perhaps not quite so hard as Chiri’s original translation from Ainu into Japanese, but it still presents many challenges and many inevitable compromises.
First and foremost, the Ainu text is meant to be sung, not read; yukar are recited to a short repeating melody and with a specific intonation that cannot be expressed in English text. I have tried to retain the sense that this is a poetic form by breaking the lines, as far as possible, where Chiri Yukie did. However, even in the Japanese text, the metre is irretrievably lost. The first line of each yukar gives the sakehe, the refrain, which is usually untranslatable, and so has usually been left exactly as written in Ainu.
Secondly, the Ainu language in which these yukar were written down is not particularly in line with modern concepts. The vocabulary is not particularly extensive, but on each word and phrase there may tower a cargo of meaning and allusion. One of the most remarkable things about Chiri’s original translation is the relationship between the clear, sophisticated, beautiful Japanese text and the superficially simpler original.
For example, human beings in the original are referred to almost invariably simply as ainu; this may mean ‘human’, ‘Ainu’, ‘person’, ‘inhabitant’ and so on. The word nispa refers to an unusually important person and may mean ‘chief’, ‘wealthy man’, ‘honored ancestor’ as the case may be. Kamui is normally translated ‘god’, but ‘spirit’ or even ‘demon’ can often be more appropriate. Both the Japanese text and this translation, therefore, use many different words where the Ainu original uses only one; this is one of the ways in which a translator’s culture inevitably imposes itself on a text.
Other words are problematic because of the great weight of cultural reference that rests on them. The best example is inau. An inau is a shaved willow wand with a tuft of bark strips at one end. The general significance of inau can be inferred to some extent from these stories – they are ritual objects which kamui are fond of. But in fact there is a great wealth of detail around different types of inau and the places they are kept and the occasions on which they are used, that does not directly appear in this book, and the same goes for the different parts of the house and the objects found in the house. The result is that some passages can seem rather arbitrary and terse in English. The translator must turn, feebly, to the use of footnotes.
Other expressions are difficult for yet other reasons. The fox’s song, for example, contains some rude words whose exact nuance is unclear to me. I have rendered these in English with what I hope are approximately similar rude words. Chiri Yukie on the other hand chose to use delicate and adorable Japanese euphemisms.
Lastly, and here I must offer my own apologies, translation is difficult. Even the translation from Ainu to Japanese has some unclear points – how much more so my hit-or-miss rendition into English. This translation has many faults and weaknesses, which the reader is warmly invited to highlight, criticize, and fix.