Tuesday 18 June 2013

Haiku: *Everything* lost in translation


The lamest translation of the lamest poem ever written in the history of the world:

The old pond,
A frog jumps in:

Matsuo Basho translated (ahem) by Alan Watts




Are there any good Haiku in translation? I've read an inordinate number of the blimmin things, since I came across them heavily recommended by JD Salinger - and never found one that rose even to the level of mediocrity as a poem.



The Crow said...

That's because you insist on seeing haiku in relation to what you think of as poetry. You don't know what haiku is: it's not part of your culture. Furthermore, it was not written with your approval in mind.
That said, I don't know what it is, either, since it also is not part of my culture.
But the Japanese clearly think otherwise.

I take it to be about simplicity. Observation distilled down to its absolute minimum. Westerners go about things from the other extreme; take something simple and inflate it into a vast and complex formula. We write poetry for others. Orientals write it for itself.

Haiku is what haiku is.
Whatever it is.
It is.

And that's haiku.

Sean G. said...

Haiku's are like a lot of modern art garbage. The beauty can be found only in your attempt to appreciate it as art. Put a frame on anything and it becomes an exercise, to draw some meaning from it. Great art doesn't require such effort to appreciate (although it does not preclude it).

Sean G. said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Thursday said...

An old pond -
The frog leaps into
the water's sound.


The frog is leaping into the sound he creates by hitting the water.

Thursday said...

Among available translations of Basho and Issa, Sam Hamill's are the best. W.S. Merwin has a new translation of Buson, but I haven't looked at it yet.

Thursday said...

Two more from Basho:

Summer grass -
Remains of great soldiers'
imperial dreams.


This harvest moon -
Has it suddenly blossomed
in the cotton field?

Gnecht said...

Any good Haiku? In translation? I expect you will have to find someone who understands both Japanese and English cultures to answer that.

But, here is the most creative use of Haiku I have ever seen. Apparently the Craigslist website used (uses?) them for error or user-notification messages. (I do not use Craigslist myself, so I have no experience here.)

From an article in Wired magazine, October 2009:

"For instance, start too many conversations in the forums and your new threads may fail to show up. Instead, you will see this:

frogs croak and gulls cry
silently a river floods
a red leaf floats by

Attempt to post a message that is similar to one you've already entered, and this may appear:

a wafer thin mint
that's been sent before it seems
one is enough, thanks

The slight delays in cognitive processing that these haiku cause are valuable. They open a space for reflection, during which you can rethink your need for service."

End quote. From http://www.wired.com/entertainment/theweb/magazine/17-09/ff_craigslist

Anonymous said...

Personally, I'm partial to three haiku in particular. Two by Basho (tr. Jane Reichold), one by Issa (I think, tr. Sam Hamill & J P Seaton).

How envious
Living north of the secular world
Mountain cherry

Nothing in the sound
of the cicada suggests
that it is about to die

and (on the death of his daughter):

This world is only
a world of dew.
And yet ... and yet ...

You may not find it to your taste, but a good translation can give a lot of depth to an image or a notion. Note also that the translators largely neglected to follow the strict 5/7/5 rhythm in translation.

JamesP said...

I once read that in Japanese culture almost all humor is verbal or visual.

Jokes or anecdotes are very uncommon and were possibly introduced by westerners.

Anonymous said...

Better translation:

at the ancient pond
a frog plunges into
the sound of water

Chris Hagar said...

From the essence of One,
Three Persons abide divine:
The triune God loves.

For a simple thought,
Three lines diverged in a wood:
The haiku spoke out.

Bruce Charlton said...

Thanks for the comments.

But I have not yet found a *three* line poem I consider to be effective - the shortest poem that I really like is by High Macdiarmid and has four lines, but each line is unusually long:

Now more and more on my concern with the lifted waves of genius gaining

I am aware of the lightless depths that beneath them lie;

And as one who hears their tiny shells incessantly raining

On the ocean floor as the foraminifera die.

Note: Foraminifera are intended to be those prehistoric, microscopic sea creatures whose shells now constitute chalk.

Bruce Charlton said...

BTW - for them as likes translations of Japanese poems - you might try this long poem by Basil Bunting who was a modernist 'disciple' of Ezra Pound that was born and mostly lived where I do, Newcastle upon Tyne.

He is most famous for writing Briggflats; but Chomei at Toyama is perhaps better - or at least more concentrated.

I wouldn't say I liked this poem, because I don't - its cynicism is corrosive - but it is effective:



Incidentally, when I was reading deeply into Bunting about 30 years ago, it was regarded as a great mystery why Bunting was not more highly regarded when he returned from the second world war, and scandalous that he did not have a higher professional position and a prestigious place in society.

Those who knew the reason for this said nothing; but if you read the following:


you will see that they mystery was rather why Bunting did not spend a long stretch in prison.

C. said...

A big problem that no one has mentioned is the translation itself. In Japanese, whole sections of a sentence can be left implicit - where an English speaker would say "I'm going," a Japanese speaker would say "iku" ("go"). There's no articles. The language also takes phrases that would be long subordinate clauses in English and makes them into something more like adjectives: so "The man who is wearing glasses" is always expressed as something more like "the glasses-wearing man," and so forth. This is especially the case with Japanese poetry, which is usually extra pared down.

When you try to translate that into a language like English, you have to add in subjects and subordinating conjunctions and all kinds of stuff, and then it ends up looking like clunky teenage poetry. Or you can try to retain the "simple Japanese style" and have it look like bad modern art.

There's a lot more to haiku than that - there's pun elements, Japanese "seasonal" words, all kinds of stuff - but honestly I'd never try to really "experience" haiku in English without a working knowledge of Japanese. The two languages are simply too far apart for a language-based appreciation to work that way.

Anonymous said...

In a Station of the Metro

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
Ezra Pound

Bruce Charlton said...

@Anon - Yes that was the 'poem' by Pound that started the whole Japanese/ Chinese thing.

But it is the exemplification of an Imagist theory; not a poem!

However, it was very easy to copy that kind of thing - hence the infuence.

The other famous example (more successful) of this kind of thing - by William Carlos Williams, was:

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

It does stick in the mind. But it is excruciatingly pretentious, desparately striving after portentiousness - isn't it?

'So much depends...' Aargh! If indeed everything does 'depend' on a rwbgwrwbtwc, then we are in deep, deep trouble; surely not an occasion for celebration?

dearieme said...

I'm sure I've told you this before but an English bishop (or archbish), when asked to summarise the message of Christianity, quoted

Jesus loves me, this I know,
For the Bible tells me so.

I's hard to beat a good bit of doggerel.

Arakawa said...

This whole discussion makes me wonder (bizarrely enough) if Haiku might have been more like the Twitter of 17th century Japanese aesthetes. Certainly Basho seems to have treated it more that way than I'd expected prior to researching this.

also cf. Wikipedia

"His indecision may have been influenced by the then still relatively low status of renga and haikai no renga as more social activities than serious artistic endeavors."


Anti-Democracy Activist said...

Simply put, no.

Language differences aren't just a matter of using different sets of words - of saying "train" instead of "densha" or "ginko" instead of "bank". Culture and language shape each other; they constitute the form with which a speaker expresses meaning, but the speaker adjusts himself to the language. Have you ever observed a bilingual person speak in one language, then another? They seem almost to have different personalities when using one or the other. Not only that, but language comes to reflect the national/collective soul of the people who speak it. It is only natural that it would; their unique needs for expression shaped the language, after all. Not just its words, or its syntax, but its idioms, its puns, its shades and colorations of meaning.

This phenomenon has varying levels of effect on different literary forms. Yes, I know Nabokov personally translated Lolita and Pale Fire from the English that he wrote them in to his native Russian; but you could have taught Basho English until he spoke like Patrick Stewart, and he still couldn't have written haiku in English that would have been even a pale shadow of what he could do in Japanese.

Then, of course, there's the "nuts and bolts" issue of the fact that Japanese is a syllable-based language instead of a consonant/vowel-based language - ka, ki, ku, ke, ko instead of a, b, c, d, e - so a syllable-based poetry form makes a kind of sense in Japanese that it doesn't and can't in a western language.

Lastly, this - some technologist once said that two people on opposite ends of a paradigm shift really can't ever truly understand each other. He was more right then he knew. We can't even quite understand the Victorians, even though they wrote in our language, dressed in ways not so different from us, prayed to a God we still (well, a lot of us anyway) still pray to, lived in family units like ours, worked at businesses organized in ways familiar to us, and so on. The paradigm shift brought on by the horrible, civilization-ending cataclysm of 1914 results in the fact that as much as we think we understand Dickens or Bronte, on some important levels, we really don't. And if we can't understand them fully, with the advantages of all the above-mentioned similarities in our favor, what chance do we have of understanding a Renaissance-era Japanese at anything but the very most superficial level?

The great 20th century American philosopher W. C. Fields once said: "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again. Then give up. There's no point in being a damn fool about it." I fear that an attempt by an early 21st centry westerner to truly understand haiku, or to find an "authentic" translation of it, is doomed to end up having Fields's advice be all too appropriate.

Bruce Charlton said...

@ADA - sounds plausible to me. Why have some many people continued hammering-away at such a futile activity, I wonder? Actually, I think I know...

Anonymous said...

Before you give up, Professor Charlton, please allow me to make a recommendation. Check out the haikus by the American poet Gary Hotham.