Words and meanings

When I read a translation of a poem I often want to shorten it. The translator makes too much effort to recreate the equivalent of the original form of the verse. In a way this is the hardest bit to translate, because it is made by the nature of the poem’s original language. For me, the verse structure of a translated poem is a distraction, the shell, and I am impatient to crack it and discover the core of meaning it contains.

Haiku is a popular verse form, and many English speaking poets assay it. I can’t help feeling this is as non poetic an attempt as doing a crossword puzzle. The haiku has its formal rules, for instance, three lines of 5, 7, 5 syllables followed by 2 of 7 syllables, and with a reference to the season, something much easier to do in Japanese, where so many words have seasonal associations (says Dorothy Britton who translated my volume of Basho). Japanese speakers can appreciate the formal skill, so nonchalantly achieved, with which Basho reaches the perfection of the verse form. But technical mastery of form, no matter how wedded to poetic feeling, is not itself a value now, at least in English (at least to me). It once was when poetry was taken more seriously, and contributes not a little to the reputation of someone like Alexander Pope for instance. What I value is the intensity and conciseness of expression Basho achieves, which convey his feeling and reaction to what he sees superbly. The famous verse which runs:

Listen! A frog
Jumping into the stillness
Of an ancient pond!

(Dorothy Britton tr)

The old pond
A frog jumps in
The sound of water

(R H Blyth tr)

Lucien Stryck is more concise and seems better to me:
Old pond
leap – splash
a frog

(L Stryck tr)

There are five images in the verses, and I want to list them to express the suddenness of the event described, and the suddenness of the poet’s perception, and forget the haiku rules.

Red-eyed Green Tree Frog by G R Guy

Tim Flach Frog under water
The discipline I value is the cutting away of the elaborations, generalisations, associations and second thoughts from the original perception (supposing it worth writing about), not the adapting it to a verse form, though this might on occasion be the same thing (as it is in the Japanese of Basho).

Another favourite Basho verse is translated thus:

How very noble!
One who finds no satori
in the lightning-flash

Or, in another translation:

How admirable
He who thinks not ‘Life is fleeting’
When he sees the lightning!

I want to shorten this, and say just what the poem tells me, with no distraction from the verse form.

the lightning flash!
see it!
no stale thoughts on eternity!

When confronted with Sappho’s

I have a beautiful daughter
Like a golden flower
My beloved Kleis.
I would not trade her for all Lydia nor lovely…

(Julia Dubnoff tr)

I prefer to turn it into

My lovely daughter, Kleis, a golden flower
I love her more than golden Lydia or lovely Lesbos

and sacrifice the verse form.

I realise I’m talking about adaptation rather than translation, yet consider how much ‘translated’ poetry is just that. A famous English poem is Edward Fitzgerald’s ‘rendering’ of Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat:

And, as the cock crew, those who stood before
The tavern shouted – “Open then the door!
You know how little time we have to stay,
And, once departed, may return no more”.

It has moved more than one generation of English speakers, yet apparently is not accurate at all.

And Cory’s translation of Kallimachos:

They told me, Heraclitus, they told me you were dead,
They brought me bitter news to hear and bitter tears to shed.
I wept as I remember’d, how often you and I
Had tired the sun with talking and sent him down the sky

which meant a lot to earlier generations of English poetry lovers, is definitely nothing like the original, according to Peter Levi (Pelican History of Greek Literature).

To me the regular metre and rhymed line endings in these excerpts seem dreadfully clunky, and bring back boring school daze when the class recited aloud to learn by heart. They worked once, but have ceased to do so. Not that I’ve anything against rhyme: the absurd rhymes in a Bob Dylan song seem good, and rap wouldn’t be rap without rhyme (but these are not poetry either, despite what Dylan’s fans say). The verse form of a translated poem has to stay current, not waste time trying to conform to either an acceptable but dated native structure, nor recreate the original one.

If I were a poet perhaps I would appreciate the attraction of a metric discipline. Taking a poetic form from another language is even more of a challenge. Haiku are popular throughout the world, and just as in ancient Japan, many poor ones are written. But metric form is only one of the challenges a poet has. Other alternatives to guide the verse are now common, such as photography, and they provide challenges too. And there is the temptation to write a song and get a recording contract (it worked for Leonard Cohen).

I can’t help feeling that many translations of poetry from another language are not themselves poetry. That translation drives a wedge between the poem’s contents and its form. The translator must choose between literal and prose translation, or adaptation which might falsify the original poem. The verse form is a kind of container to carry the poetic drink, and perhaps to lure the teetotaller towards inebriation. I don’t know if this is poetry or not but I think not:

You ask me why I dwell in the green mountain;
I smile and make no reply, for my heart is free of care.
As the peach blossom flows downstream, and is gone into the unknown,
I have a world apart that is not among men.

(Li Po, Question and Answer, tr Robert Kotewall and Norman L Smith)

In my ignorance it does go to swell the myth of Li Po, who is said to have drowned while trying to hold the moon’s reflection in the river in a drunken embrace.

Reading a translation of poetry is like drinking water from your linked palms. You have to move quickly before the water drips away. The form of a verse structure holds me up.

To know if a poem has been well translated or not you need to know the language it is translated from, and the original work. In which case you don’t need the translation.

Wonder what this would be like in Japanese:

Cinderella, she seems so easy
It takes one to know one, she smiles
And puts her hands in her back pockets
Bette Davis style
And in comes Romeo, he’s moaning
You belong to me I believe
And someone says, you’re in the wrong place, my friend
You better leave
And the only sound that’s left
After the ambulances go
Is Cinderella sweeping up
On Desolation Row

©2009 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.


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