A friend of mine writes poetry (but refuses to be acknowledged as a poet because artists can be weird like that). He also writes fiction and translates, but poetry is his passion, the thing he cares about the most. Some of what he’s written is quite beautiful and will probably be published soon, but my post bragging about that will come later. This post is about arcane Japanese art, a favor only partially fulfilled, and my distaste for the phrase “lost in translation”. Basically, it’s about literature and failure. My two true passions.
A while ago, while we were taking a seminar on the French avant-garde (here’s a great book about how orientalist it was), my friend realized he had never read any kind of poetry from Asia. It was all a huge question mark for him. And knowing I have a persistent interest in Japanese literature, he asked me to select a few Japanese poems for him to study.
I took the request to heart and carefully picked out for haiku which included imagery I felt he might like, and proceeded to translate them. I copied them out in the original Japanese alongside my own version on a piece of calligraphy paper bought at a little shop in Kyoto. My calligraphy skills are nonexistent, but がんばってみたよ.
A few days later, I gave him the piece of paper.
I’ll never forget the disappointment on my friend’s face.
In retrospect, I see that I made a huge mistake by not offering him enough contextual information. To me, the artistic value of haiku is self evident, but that’s because I’m at least minimally aware of the principles that guide the form and know what to expect. Meanwhile, the not-poet and big fan of John Keats (“Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art” is as far removed from a haiku as you can get), was handed a few odd sentences about flowers that could have been penned by an alarmingly naive eight-year old.
Historically, Japanese poetry followed a peculiar trajectory. Over the course of a few centuries, it gradually became shorter and more concise, a process that culminated in the 17 syllable haiku. The great professor, writer and translator Kazuya Sakai explained in his classes that this predilection for suggestion over transparency was borrowed from China and certain notions in Taoist philosophy, which were then assimilated into Buddhism and brought to Japan. In poetry, brevity and the instantaneous became more important than detailed descriptions covering stretches of space and time. The use of the right word immediately produces significant associations with other, absent, words, which in turn are associated to many more. Shakespeare’s brevity is the soul of wit expresses a similar admiration for the more succinct forms of expression.
But all this might still be a little too abstract. Fortunately, Tofugu provides an excellent introduction to haiku poetry that might be particularly useful for anyone who hasn’t encountered the form before, and still has enough references to add something of value to anyone who isn’t a haiku specialist. I strongly recommend checking it out. はい、どうぞ。
In general terms, I believe that, even when there is enormous distance between languages, haiku translation, as all poetry translation, remains possible. The essence carries through. I also believe that seeing the original poem next to its translation enriches the experience, even if the kanji are incomprehensible to the reader. Someday I’ll write more seriously about the topic but, until then, here are those four haiku, in the hopes that they’ll find the right audience. One day, I might add a few more.
Moritake (守武 , 1473–1549):
Fallen blossoms seem to return to the bough—
Oh, a butterfly.
Bashō (芭蕉, 1644–1694):
They eat snakes: knowing that, the pheasant’s call sounds terrifying.
The spring people don’t see: the plum tree on the other side of the mirror.
Yosa Buson (与謝 蕪村, 1716 – 1784)
The spring sea swells and falls softly all day long.