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Lost and Found in Translation

Started by Dave Russo, December 19, 2010, 11:22:39 PM

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Dave Russo

As a reader, I like to learn about all elements of Japanese haiku, including elements that cannot be translated, such as Japanese syntax, rhythms, literary references, and cultural associations. As a writer of haiku  in English, however, I am more interested in the elements of Japanese haiku that can be translated, such as seasonal  references, certain approaches to imagery, certain ways of expressing feeling,  a sense of "now," and the effect of surprise (based the Haiku Guide by Patricia Donegan and Kazuo Sato).

For example, when I read The  Essential Haiku, Versions of Basho, Buson, and Issa, edited by Robert Hass,  I see poems that are like nothing else in English, poems which probably could not have been born in English. Yet, there they are in English, inviting us into another world.

Is this world the world of Japanese haiku? Not really, that world cannot be reached unless you can study haiku in the original Japanese. But translations are the closest that most of us will ever get to that world. Whether this is close enough to give English-speakers the right to create haiku in English and call them haiku is a debate that will never be resolved until the River of Heaven falls into the sea. Poets will make up their own minds about this question.

What Japanese haiku traditions (including 20th century traditions) help you to write haiku in English?

Gabi Greve

Dear Dave,
thanks for bringing up the problems of translation ... my perennial headache !

Anyway,
I have been introducing more than 100 Japanese haiku poets over the years, many with in-depth discussions of possible translations and the cultural background of a given situation necessary for understanding the meaning.
Many Japanese haiku are thus introduced "in context" for readers who do not speak Japanese and know little about Japanese culture.

The list would be too long to post here, so look at this link please.
http://wkdhaikutopics.blogspot.com/

The World Kigo Database also tries to introduce Japanese kigo with more detail than just the word itself.

If there are any Japanese haiku or kigo you would like to be discussed in more detail, please let me know.


My mother tongue is German, next comes British English and since 1977 Japanese. I work as a translator of scientific, medical and Buddhist art texts.
(BTW, I dream in Japanese and often my German relatives talk to me in Japanese in a dream ... which makes me wake up in wonder . . .   :D)

All the Best with English-language haiku (ELH).

Gabi

.

Gael Bage

Hi Dave, nice to meet you, and you raise interesting points which others here could probably answer far better than I. You will probably think me a heretic, but my thoughts here sometimes we can get lost in minutae, and sidetracked, read absorb and assimilate but like basho and the other early poets haiku moments are in the now and being in tune with the flow of our individual universe with all our senses alert and open to that flow. Gabi, how wonderful to be fluent in three languages, it must help your appreciation of how haiku is evolving in a shrinking world, I guess some multilingual japanese poets now write haiku in english too, I would love to read some of those.
Poetry is an echo, asking a shadow to dance
- Carl Sandburg

thf_admin

Thanks for your reply and links, Gabi. You know far better  than I about the difficulties of translation from Japanese to English!

My point is different than that, though. I am suggesting  that there are advantages—for poets who write haiku in English—in focusing on those  aspects of haiku which are more readily translatable: such as seasonal  references, certain approaches to imagery,  etc. I'm suggesting that these translatable characteristics, rather than the  ones that are so Japanese as to defy translation, could be the basis of  haiku in other languages.

For example, I'm not so sure that the Japanese idea of kigo, as opposed to the simpler idea of a seasonal reference, is as meaningful in other languages as it is in Japanese. Here's hoping that the World Kigo Database, and such books as Haiku World (William J. Higginson, Kondansha America, New York, 1996), prove me wrong.

Also,  I'm sure you know that the Gendai haiku poets and others have  challenged kigo and every other haiku convention. If Japanese haiku poets can do that and still write poems that are accepted in haiku in many quarters, my hope is that we can do that, too.

Dave Russo

#4
Oops! I was logged in as the admin during my reply to Gabi. Sorry Gabi, I did not mean to do that.

Thanks for your post, Gael. I am no expert, just someone who reads and writes haiku on occasion.  

You bring up a point that often gets lost in the back and forth of forum posts: the proof is in the poems.

If there are those who believe that haiku in English should be as Japanese as possible, they should form a group and publish their haiku in various venues. We already have groups who take other approaches. Of course we have the Yuki Teikei Haiku Society, but it would be good to see poems from other groups with a similar philosophy.

Once we start talking about poems instead of ideas I think we will be reminded of something: we are talking about matters of taste.

Mark Harris

#5
"For example, I'm not so sure that the Japanese idea of kigo, as opposed to the simpler idea of a seasonal reference, is as meaningful in other languages as it is in Japanese. Here's hoping that the World Kigo Database, and such books as Haiku World (William J. Higginson, Kondansha America, New York, 1996), prove me wrong.
Also,  I'm sure you know that the Gendai haiku poets and others have  challenged kigo and every other haiku convention. If Japanese haiku poets can do that and still write poems that are accepted in haiku in many quarters, my hope is that we can do that, too." --Dave Russo

Gabi, despite or because of your tremendous effort to build a multicultural kigo database, you must see that a seasonal reference would have to be widely adopted for a very long time before it could graduate to a literary device with the contextual richness of Japanese kigo. If we do succeed to such a time (as unlikely as that seems, but I'll dream the dream with you and your Deutsch relatives for now) will we arrive there through carefully laid out and obeyed rules and regulations, or will the pathway be organic and unpredictable? The latter is more likely, imo. Please don't drop your project on my account (I know you won't, and shouldn't).

Dave's last point in the above quote is crucial to our discussions here, I think. Elh can learn from Jlh, no question, but Jlh is not monolithic, nor are Jlh rules indisputable.

chibi575

Quote from: Dave Russo on December 20, 2010, 02:31:44 AM
Oops! I was logged in as the admin during my reply to Gabi. Sorry Gabi, I did not mean to do that.

Thanks for your post, Gael. I am no expert, just someone who reads and writes haiku on occasion.  

You bring up a point that often gets lost in the back and forth of forum posts: the proof is in the poems.

If there are those who believe that haiku in English should be as Japanese as possible, they should form a group and publish their haiku in various venues. We already have groups who take other approaches. Of course we have the Yuki Teikei Haiku Society, but it would be good to see poems from other groups with a similar philosophy.

Once we start talking about poems instead of ideas I think we will be reminded of something: we are talking about matters of taste.


Hi Dave,

I like your suggestion of forming different groups that support different ideas.

The "proof is in the poems"... do you mean that if one writes a poem based on a certain set of rules they are the proof of the rule?

If you would, could you clear a little more what was meant in your last sentence?

Once we start talking about poems instead of ideas I think we will be reminded of something: we are talking about matters of taste.

Thanx and Happy Holidays!

知美

Dave Russo

Hi Chibi, happy holidays to you as well!

By "the proof is in the poems," I meant that the proof of an aesthetic is in the poems that are written according to that aesthetic. If someone thinks that criteria x, y. and z are critical to haiku, let's see the poems with x, y, and z skilfully employed. Otherwise we get bogged down in the descriptions of what were are going to do or ought to do in our poems, whenever we stop talking long enough to write them ;-)

"...we are talking about matters of taste." I meant that there are no objective criteria for determining whether a poem is or is not a haiku. My assumption is that "haiku" like all art is ultimately defined by artists, and artists like to disagree with one another. 


Mark Harris

#8
QuoteWhat Japanese haiku traditions (including 20th century traditions) help you to write haiku in English? --Dave Russo

Going back to your original question, Dave, I'm influenced by the way the Japanese juxtapose images (chunks of words, really, usually anchored in the sensual, and which serve many functions) through the use of cuts and extremely compacted encoded references. By encoded references I mean the complex contextual cues imbedded in every word and phrase, kigo and otherwise. By cuts I mean multiple cuts that are sometimes designated and other times semantically implied. I could go on longer, but more erudite explanations than mine can be found in the books and articles of Haruo Shirane, Hiro Sato, Richard Gilbert, and others.

Mark Harris

and if we choose to call what we write haiku, whether we utilize Japanese ways of compacting and encoding information or instead come up with our own strategies, I think it's useful to inform ourselves about the genre's traditional techniques, and its origins. How much (as readers of haiku written in any language) are we missing if we don't?

Lorin

well, I'm probably missing a lot because I don't have access to that aspect of kigo, hon'i, so I probably don't really get the more intellectually based haiku which use hon'i, whether traditionally or as something to bounce off or rebel against. 

So I must admit that the Japanese traditions which "help me write haiku in English" are those which I've found embodied in EL haiku by my elders and betters, and what I've found moving in translations of Japanese haiku: awareness and engagement with the natural world (including humans) on the literal level, which, in relation with a seasonal reference (not kigo, since I don't share that culture), can open a non-literal world without losing the literal, can produce resonance. Basho's 'lightness', the Japanese aesthetics of yugen etc. , simplicity of diction, the fact that there is the requirement for the reader to infer quite a lot, the 'dreaming space'... maybe the Japanese aesthetic of makoto ('sincerity of the heart', as I understand it to mean) which doesn't seem to me to be an exclusively Japanese thing, but a human thing, evident in what I regard as the best EL poetry of all sorts.

Here is the haiku which sucked me into haiku in the first place:

picking up a jellyfish
my lifeline
clear and deep

- Dhugal Lindsay

I had no idea that he was a marine biologist at the time. That was later, and extra. I simply recalled in a flash the reality of holding washed-up moon jellyfish on my palm as a child (I tried it once with a small blue stinger, too, but learnt quickly not to), being fascinated how one could see all the lines on one's palm magnified through this once living, but totally transparent creature, and how that set me to wondering. I recalled my own everyday, childhood connection with the sea and the things of the sea. Here was a transparent poem! And it included me, asked me in!... when what I had been hearing were the long, passionate, dramatic, opinionated and confessional or political pieces of performance poets which totally excluded me or the persona-boosting puns and faux-naivety of performance 'haiku', and what I had been reading were the clever (but 'disjunctive') manipulations of language-based poetry which, though interesting, too often led me up the garden path and left me there. (with some exceptions) So this haiku was a breath of fresh, sea air to me. That was my beginning, and that haiku is still my 'totem haiku', being the first I connected with.

Since then, I've connected with many haiku, and am gradually appreciating the various different styles. The first two Japanese haiku (in translation) that I really connected with were:

the sea darkens:
the voices of wild ducks
are faintly white
(Basho)

Yes! I thought, I've noticed that with seagull's voices when a storm is immanent. (again, early on, the connection with intensely perceived personal experience was what touched me deeply... which included, btw, watching part of the making of the film, 'On the Beach', and seeing it with parents at a drive-in on its release here, and afterward being frightened when the sea turned dark and oily-looking, believing that any minute there would be dead seagulls washing in as evidence that the fall-out was coming, as it had to do, over the sea to my beach. I was often over at the beach by myself.)

and

Mother, I weep
for you as I watch the sea
each time I watch the sea

(Issa... I think the translator was Sam Hamill)

...which never fails to move me, for several reasons which are irrelevant here. It's that repetition, that 'each time', that shows me the veracity of this. It rolls in and breaks as inevitably and primarily as the waves do, and repeats in the rhythm of waves of the sea, unending. It's no mere sentiment expressed here.

More recently, the haiku which has stuck in my mind is:

spring thunder
young magicians
reappear

- Peggy Willis Lyles

I take the 'young magicians', first, on a literal level. Children 'being magicians', as they are wont to do, and 'disappearing' ("You can't see me, I'm invisible!") but reappearing pretty smartly at the sound of thunder, not really having control of the weather, but maybe half-believing that one of their spells has caused the thunder. The veracity of this, the humour of this, the gentleness with which we co-operate with and protect children's imaginative play. Then I think of how a particular atmosphere and sound can bring memories alive into the present, and that the children of long ago can return, reappear in all their vitality (even if one's 36 year old son and his mates are staring one in the face), and how this seems magical, too, and somehow confirms that nothing experienced is ever lost, and what logically seems gone is not, and (to use TS Eliot's words) "all is (really!) always now". And the surprising reality is, if one's grown children or grandchildren do happen to be present, the same thought/ perception, strikes them at the same time, without a word being spoken beforehand. Test it! These are shared experiences, and so good, because unpremeditated, simple human love is alive in them, is magically 'resurrected' in them.

So what are the Japanese traditions operating in Peggy's poem? I have forgotten, if I ever knew, apart from simplicity of language, the use of images, the gap, the space between 'spring thunder' and the rest which both invites the reader to infer and links the sense the power of a natural thing, thunder, with the vitality and imaginative power evident in children.

I could go on (mercifully, I won't  :D) Another I've discovered recently that appeals to me is Peter Yovu's:

mosquito she too
insisting insisting she
is is is is is

What does that owe to Japanese tradition? Conciseness and brevity, to be sure. The recognition that other things are alive and real and that we might invest them with a persona, maybe via Issa? The humourous reflection on ourselves and all the noise we make to show ourselves and each other that we're here, that we are? Are these things essentially Japanese? I don't think so, but expressing them with such brevity seems to be a superb thing that we've gained from Japanese tradition.

- Lorin


Mark Harris

#11
I'm not suggesting that people who write and read elh need to make an intellectual study of kigo, or become experts in Japanese language, literature and history. Other people have done that for us. Their books are in print, available in libraries, and some are online. I've been to a few haiku club meetings here in the U.S., and at every one the discussion has touched on kigo, for example. Since the information's out there, I think it's important to understand what it all means.

Lorin, my relationship to the haiku genre is similar to yours. Believe me, I'm also missing a lot. Dreaming space and sincerity of heart are important to me. Intellectually-based haiku, lacking other layers and a human element, I find mostly uninteresting. In my own haiku, I don't use kigo in the true sense of the word, but often use a seasonal reference as an anchor to nature and season.

I'm also a reader of haiku, and here's where this discussion becomes, for me, more nuanced. In the intro to this thread, Dave wrote:

QuoteAs a reader, I like to learn about all elements of Japanese haiku, including elements that cannot be translated, such as Japanese syntax, rhythms, literary references, and cultural associations.

Me too. Let's take for example the wonderful Basho hokku:

the sea darkens--
a wild duck's call
faintly white

which you and I and many others connect with. I find it translated in Makoto Ueda's Basho and His Interpreters. It's accompanied by a biographical sketch on the opposing page, and followed by two pages of commentary by different critics. Not a hard book to find, I ordered it from an online bookseller named after a river. I'm not, nor do I desire to be, an academic. Once informed by the commentaries, whether I agree with them or not, I'd have to be incurious not to take another look at the poem, and possibly gain a different understanding of it. I might learn that the poet wrote in a headnote, "When I was at Atsuta in Owari Province, people invited me to go boating and enjoy the year-end seascape." I might learn that Sanga claimed, "there is an infinite amount of yugen in this scene."

And so, when Dave writes:

QuoteAs a reader, I like to learn about all elements of Japanese haiku, including elements that cannot be translated, such as Japanese syntax, rhythms, literary references, and cultural associations. As a writer of haiku  in English, however, I am more interested in the elements of Japanese haiku that can be translated, such as seasonal  references, certain approaches to imagery, certain ways of expressing feeling,  a sense of "now," and the effect of surprise (based the Haiku Guide by Patricia Donegan and Kazuo Sato).

I can only agree with his sensible sentiment. My very next thoughts:

once I know a little about Japanese kigo, that knowledge will inform my understanding of elh seasonal references.

much of what I know and learn finds a way into what I write, sometimes in surprising ways.

Wish I had time to write more, I'd like to comment on the Dhugal Lindsay poem. later...

AlanSummers

You might like to check out the haijinx spotlight feature of Dhugal's:
http://www.haijinx.com/I-2/lindsay/index.html

There are several pages and soundclips of Dhugal in Japanese and English.

Alan
Founding Editor, Haijinx

Mark Harris

Thanks for that link, Alan. I agree with Lindsay's comments, so well expressed. Many of my favorite haiku have an undertow of humor born of compassion.

a few days have passed since our last posts here, but I'd like to revisit:


picking up a jellyfish
my lifeline
clear and deep

   - Dhugal Lindsay


about which Lorin wrote:
QuoteHere is the haiku which sucked me into haiku in the first place

and also:
QuoteI simply recalled in a flash the reality of holding washed-up moon jellyfish on my palm as a child (I tried it once with a small blue stinger, too, but learnt quickly not to), being fascinated how one could see all the lines on one's palm magnified through this once living, but totally transparent creature, and how that set me to wondering. I recalled my own everyday, childhood connection with the sea and the things of the sea. Here was a transparent poem! And it included me, asked me in!

Lindsay invites us in with simplicity, transparency. There are children in New York City, a mere half hour's drive from the Jersey shore, who have never seen or held a jellyfish. Still, Lindsay has chosen an experience many people have in common, and many more understand and associate with summer (at least around here, and I think in most regions).

The discussions on this forum demonstrate that many elh poets think of Japanese kigo (the only haiku kigo imo) as a complex code, impenetrable without research and footnotes. "picking up a jellyfish" might lack a Japanese kigo's vertical axis (constructed of many poems, commentary, volumes of saijiki, and rote recitation). I think it's worth noting that to the Japanese, kigo, especially the more popular ones, are meant to be transparent. Just so, Lindsay's seasonal reference (I'm aware that "moon jellyfish" has been suggested as an Australian "kigo").

And so, I agree that Lindsay's haiku invites us in. As I read the poem, it has multiple layers. I'm not so sure I agree they're all transparent, but as with a multi-layered Japanese haiku that begins with a friendly and familiar kigo, he assures us the water's warm and we are free to dive down to the more opaque layers as well. An example of an opaque layer: people unfamiliar with Lindsay's personal history probably wouldn't understand he's musing, among other matters, on his career path as (I think) a marine biologist.

And as has been pointed out, Lindsay first composes in Japanese, and in the original his seasonal reference is a kigo, I suppose.

AlanSummers

Good points Mark, and yes Dhugal writes and thinks (and feels in Japanese) when he composes a haiku.

I think it's time for another article (or even book) on kigo. 

I love discussion on kigo, but we are continuously told we can not only not do it, but we shouldn't even attempt it.

Even young and famous Madoka Mayuzumi is telling us that without kigo, a poem cannot be a haiku.  But then what is a kigo if someone who is Japanese (and in Japan) creates a new seasonal reference, is that also not a kigo?

She said recently in Brussels: "A haiku must have kigo -- without a kigo, it is not a haiku."  Madoka Mayuzumi is currently on a mission in the neighbouring country of France to get their haiku into 17 syllables and contain a kigo.

Alan

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