Here is the text of the Iroha poem, sided with a possible translation (mine):

色は匂えど Iro wa nioedo | Colors, although bright,
散りぬるを Chirinuru wo | Will scatter.
我が世誰ぞ Wa ga yo tare zo | In my world, nobody
常ならぬ    Tsune naranu | Is eternal.
有為の奥山 Ui no okuyama | The remote mountains of the vicissitudes of life
今日超えて Kyou koete | [I'm] crossing today,
浅き夢見じ Asaki yume miji | Not dreaming shallow dreams,
酔いもせず Ei mo sezu | [And] not getting/being drunk.

My questions are:

  1. What does the particle "zo" in l. 3 mean? Should I understand ll. 3-4 as 私(たち)の世には誰も常ならない "In my/our world, no-one is unchanging"?
  2. What verb form is "miji"?
  3. How would you suggest to translate the last line? "Not getting drunk"?

Any comments on my translation are naturally welcome.

[Note to self: "nioedo" ~ "niou keredo", it's an archaic verb form equating to having a contrastive conjunction after (I believe) a present (or rather non-past) tense.]

  • 1
    Regarding 3: Japanese Wikipedia suggests that it comes from Buddhist teaching that we should transcend this world and not "indulge in sickness". Although, they also state that since the Middle Ages there have been many schools of thought on this. Dec 8, 2021 at 0:06

2 Answers 2

  • is an emphasis marker. 誰ぞ常ならむ is 誰が常であろう in modern Japanese. It is essentially a rhetorical question ("Who is eternal?"), but "Nobody is eternal" is a valid translation, too.
  • The last two lines have several possible interpretations, but assuming じ is voiced, it is a negative volitional auxiliary (~I will not). 酔いもせず connects to 浅き夢見じ. A literal translation would be "I will not have a shallow dream, nor will I get drunk/deluded".

#I'm neither a monk nor a classical Japanese expert.

色 means the same as in '色即是空' (Everything is Nothing). So the first two lines mean roughly 'Everything has perfume, but will be gone'.

Note that L4 is 常なら. is a classical auxiliary verb meaning will (≒ modern う・よう). I have nothing further to add to naruto's answer.

Regarding the last two lines, there seems to be a controversy if it is 見し or 見. I always thought 見し due to a manga adaptation of The Tale of Genji. The following is about 見し variant.

L5-6 mean 'I go over the mountains of worldly things, today'. 有為 here means roughly the same as 色 above (things that are made to happen by some other things; things we see).

し of 見し is 連体形 of き which is an auxiliary verb indicating past tense. So L7-8 mean 'I was dreaming a shallow dream, without drinking'. As mentioned in the yahoo answer linked above, I have the impression this fits better (Going over the tangible world, then the author is saying it was a dream).

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