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Haiku in the Workplace: Lost in Translation

Haiku is generally not at its best when describing complicated human interaction. That is more the provenance of senryu, a related genre that often explores the darker side of the human creature. Senryu is unconcerned with the niceties that elevate haiku to art: the relationship to season, the somewhat restricted tradition of content, the juxtaposition of images, the telling and at the same time subtle cut — and consequent silence — between them. It is much more likely to be employed to make a comment on our fellow (wo)man’s habits, beliefs, behavior, or bank account. And humans are rarely more complicated, and at the same time, exposed, as when they are encountering a language or culture not their own. So “lost in translation” seems a quintessential opportunity for senryu.

At the same time, we should not lose sight of the fact that these little poems are primarily image-based. Flat statement is still not the end goal — we have prose for that. The best senryu, like haiku, will be imagistic, and will rely upon the reader to see clearly in his or her mind’s eye the scenario the author has presented, with the highlighted peccadillo in the greatest relief. So finding the detail that most supports the point being made — rather than simply making the point — and exploiting it remains the best option for the writer of senryu, similar, for example, to the way a caricaturist might work.

The vast majority of the submissions this week simply stated their points, so they were, in fact, prose statement rejiggered to fit some rough conception of what haiku (or senryu) are supposed to look like. Here’s an example (please bear in mind that we are not intending to ridicule anyone — we are all still learning — but that sometimes seeing something concrete is worth a thousand descriptions of the same thing):

only so far —
ironic understatement
does not travel well
	[David Dayson]

The poet here makes his point—in fact, he simply states it in the last two lines. So where does the poetry of this come in? Well, it doesn’t. It would have to arrive from the first line, and how that line relates to the rest. But in fact the first line is only a quantifier: it’s not an actual image, nor does it supply an actual scene we might imagine. It simply says “there’s a limit” — to what, we find out only later in the prosy capper. So we might say this is exactly what we are not trying to do.

Here’s a second example that goes halfway:

mind the gap —
where truth stumbles
between cultures
	[David Dayson]

Here we have an image to begin with — even if it’s a cliché, at least we might imagine entering or leaving the Tube. But what follows doesn’t complete the poetic scene — that is, it doesn’t follow through with a consonant image that might resonate with that first phrase. Instead, we are given a bromide about “truth.” At least the poet has truth stumbling, which fits the mode of the first image. But it is still a work that resides primarily in prose mind, making a point rather than revealing one.

Compare that with the following:

Seine boat cruise —
the steward asks in French
what translation we need
	Sonam Chhoki

See how the poet manages this experience: 1) we have a clear setting (and having a Bhutanese poet place the poem in France and then publish it in the US makes it understood to be “foreign”); 2) the following image is the human interaction, and points to the human foible — the idea that everyone will understand in French how to choose the correct language for their tour. Is it great art? No, it’s a humorous moment, quickly sketched. But the manner in which it is sketched, allowing the images to convey the content, rather than stating the content in so many words, is exactly the way the genre works. This (and every) week’s winners are considered in just this way, so I offer this brief triptych of poems for your consideration as you go forward.

Third place this week goes to this homely moment:

dyslexic line-dance;
black script un-sequenced —
till spell-check re-jigs      
	[Sarah Leavesley]

The “translation” here is done by a machine, and in fact in this instance clarifies rather than obscures. It’s an electronic “before and after” comparison that we’ve all experienced. The humor is in the unprepossessing mess we’ve made on the screen — and the clunky manner of expressing it — redeemed as if by magic by some coder’s effective use of algorithms. Life can be so mysterious . . .

In second place I offer

a soufflé —
when hard boiled words
was all I wanted
	[David Dayson]

The poet begins with a clear image that connotes a specific process. The metaphor of “hard boiled words” responds to that first image, and conflates it with the “real” subject of the poem: translation. Rather than the firm and identifiable boiled egg, with clean outlines and certain shape, the poet is the recipient of something less identifiable, more altered — but possibly also a good bit tastier.

Our top choice is the poignant

Je suis Charlie: so
easy to confuse I am
with I follow
	[Sarah Leavesley]

French for “I am” is je suis. French for “I follow” is . . . je suis. Given the consequences meted by some to what they find to be heterodox belief, a simple lingual isotope such as this could result in torture or death. The poet has skillfully seized the catchphrase from the recent horrific event and used it as his or her first image — an entire mindspace arrives. It resonates with the potential calamity a simple overlap in diction might create. A startling and telling poem of much power.

New Poems

office joke
her wherewithal
to move on
     — Betty Shropshire
he accepts all the compliments
for her solution
     — Gail Oare
call center agent
not enough time to encode
her transcriptions
     — Willie Bongcaron
lost property dept. 
I search for what  
the boss is saying
     — Rachel Sutcliffe
dolphinately; lost . . .
between me and the boss
this ear cupping
     — Ernest P. Santiago
lost in translation
raising her eyebrows
one slightly higher
     — Michael Henry Lee
passing a memo 
down the line
Chinese whispers
     — Marietta McGregor
another language —
hoping my words
find their way
     — Anna Maria Domburg-Sancristoforo
unfinished canoe below the quarter moon hut Mālama Honua
     — Martin Gottlieb Cohen
wading pool
the intern says she’ll research it
then asks her phone
     — Jennifer Hambrick
bits and bytes 
my computer speaks
from the heart 
     — Valentina Ranaldi-Adams
thought I was dying
a fever of one-hundred . . .
it was Fahrenheit
     — Maria Bartolotta
skylark’s song
the mayor’s speech
fades away
     — Cezar Ciobika
interpreting . . .
something always lost
immigration hotline
     — Samantha Sirimanne Hyde
googled for a word  full of twinkling stars
     — Pravat Kumar Padhy
Hindi to English
addressing "you" for youths 
as well as for elders
     — Aparna Pathak
“Break a leg!” —
the Italian transfer
crosses himself
     — Maria Laura Valente
bad translation
the first minister’s name
     — Eufemia Griffo
tech webinar
       cloud talk above
pre-millennial’s head
     — Lamart Cooper
on-shore job
missing the slang
taught by mother
     — Srinivasa Rao Sambangi
meeting in German:
the notebook 
stays blank
     — Elisa Allo
market price
the difference between monnaie
and money
     — Olivier Schopfer
Gestures and smiles
in different languages
at the front office
     — Nazarena Rampini
bring us coffee honey
message delivered
no sugar
     — Peggy Bilbro
in German then English
the pilot
gives us first the good news
     — Mark Gilbert
lost in translation —
another editor floats
in strange mud
     — Goran Gatalica
imagining sarcasm
where non intended 
my lengthy explanation
     — Madhuri Pillai
at checkout 
your bill must be correct 
        the computer says
     — Paul Geiger
after gesticulating for a day
we find a common language
in code
     — Christina Sng
lunch break —
the sentences to translate
think of the bathroom
     — Angela Giordano
lost in translation —
I re-read the pages
of my palm
     — Tanmoy Das Lala
displaced —
a houseboat and the moon
floating together
     — Lucia Fontana
change of venue —
my parrot
no longer speaks
     — Angiola Inglese
to reactions
“reply all”
     — Michael Stinson
office banter
the silence after
my joke
     — Debbi Antebi
raised eyebrows
the greeting
I thought I said
     — Brendon Kent
trying to figure
your mouthed words over our desk
the boss’s shadow
     — Karen Harvey
“thanks” to google
it loses its smile —
my senryu
google translate
perde il suo sorriso
il mio senryu
     — Lucia Cardillo

Next Week’s Theme: March Equinox

Send your poem using “workplace haiku” as the subject by Sunday midnight to our Contact Form. Good luck!

kacian_jimFrom October 2014 through April 2016 Haiku Foundation president Jim Kacian offered a column on haiku for the London Financial Times centered on the theme of work. Each week we share these columns with the haiku community at large, along with an invitation to join in the fun. Submit a poem by Sunday midnight on the theme of the week, from the classical Japanese tradition, or contemporary practice, or perhaps one of your own, which you might even write for the occasion. The best of these will be appended to the column. First published 23 January 2015.

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