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re:Virals 119

Welcome to re:Virals, The Haiku Foundation’s weekly poem commentary feature on some of the finest haiku ever written in English. This week’s poem was

     rain clouds 
     inflating its belly
     the frog
          — Fukuda Chiyo-ni (1703-1775)

(Translation by D. Blackwell)

Linda Weir feels connected:

The two parts to this poem are closely linked for me. The rain clouds portend rain, and the frog’s inflated belly happens just before it voices its song.  A frog’s call often signifies rain or rain coming.  This poem is full of the promise of spring—breeding frogs in the rain, shower leading to spring wildflowers, young animals soon to be.

It could be a modern poem in a suburban neighborhood, but there is an additional joy in noting that it is a translated poem from the past, making me feel a connection to the timelessness of this experience and the human condition and its connection to the natural world.

Bob Aspey sympathizes with the bullfrog:

In Louisiana there is a Creole saying: Laplie tombé, ouaouaron chanté — when rain is coming, the bullfrogs sing.

Many frog species respond to humidity changes prior to rainfall by calling, either alone or in chorus. As the rain arrives and the frogs gather together in their breeding sites, the calls segue into mating songs. Males compete with each other to be heard and females respond to the males with their own song.

It’s tough being a bullfrog. To stand a chance of mating successfully he has to stand out from the crowd and females prefer louder, more intense and lower songs. So the bigger frogs, the ones who can inflate their resonance chambers the most, will get the girls. Chiyo-ni captures the moment the frog begins to inflate preparatory to singing. Will he win out?

But with climate change and industrialization encroaching on breeding sites and altering food availability, frog numbers are falling. More than 120 frog species have gone extinct since 1980, and in 2006 over 1,300 species were considered to be threatened. There was not enough evidence to be able accurately assess the status of over 1,400 more.

As the singers leave the stage, the chorus falls silent

Dan Schwerin helps complete the poetry:

In a world tearing at the seams, this haiku exemplifies why haiku has something holistic and healing to offer. Haiku needs a reader to complete some tired humble jotting we call a poem. Our poems have been called breath poems because they are so minimal. In addition, we exhale some small thing that another inhales for meaning, or joy, or to add to the one large poem we are writing about being human. This haiku points to the larger interdependence that is our life together. I love how the poem has a letting go—the clouds are full, heavy, pregnant, and may let go in some near future. That said, the frog’s belly is in a place of taking in. This breathing out and breathing in, letting go, letting be, and becoming, is the story of which we are all a part. This haiku dares to suggest a frog’s belly and our appetites are part of a generous whole. And we are fed. Don’t take my word for it, there will be another perspective, another poem, another someone, and we are blessed by the abundance. Thanks for this forum, and these poems.

Clayton Beach paraverses:

rain clouds inflating its belly the frog
—Fukuda Chiyo-ni (1703-1775)

I find this translation inserts a bit of English language haiku aesthetics on what is a slightly different poem in the Japanese. For starters, the poem reads as a fragment and phrase in English,
with an implied cut after the first line:

rain clouds<>
inflating its belly
the frog

If this were so, the first part would read 雨雲や (amagumo ya). If that were the case, it might just be better put without the additionally deranged syntax of the first translation:

rain clouds—
the frog inflates
its belly

However, this ku does not have a standard mid-line cut like Bashō’s “old pond” with its use of the kireji “ya.” In this case it actually has the end-cut “kana,” which provides a playful, wistful trailing off. As a kireji, kana invites a juxtaposition between the current stanza and the next, it is an open ended, incomplete ending almost like an enunciated ellipsis or semi-colon. So it may be better to translate the poem without a sense of interruption, with an ellipsis or question mark at the end, avoiding a “fragment and phrase,” as in these two possibilities:

in the rain cloud
is it a frog
that inflates his pouch just so?

toward the rain clouds
the frog inflates his pouch,
I wonder. . .

These are more wistful and playful interpretations, but the ku was written by Chiyo, not Bashō, and should be seen in terms of her unique style. She was writing in a period after Bashō, when haiku was exploding in popularity in the wake of the late master’s passing, and her teacher promoted the karumi (slenderness) aesthetic of late Bashō rather than the austere sabi aesthetic of his middle period.

A surplus of students and teachers made this a time of folksy, light and at times frivolous haiku, a kind of “pop” aesthetic seen as inferior to the serious asceticism of middle Bashō by later conservative haiku theorists like Kyoshi, who was heavily critical of Chiyo and her contemporaries. I think her ku have their own kind of charm, and if looked at separately from Bashō, rather than being judged by his style, they are perfectly charming, if a bit simple. But again, this was the taste of her time, not a fault of her own, she was actually quite beloved in her day.

In this ku, there is a parallel between the billowing, blustering clouds and the frog’s pouch as he sings, perhaps even fancifully placing a frog in the clouds; “ni” can mean at, in on, to, for etc. and usually has a direction component. The “kana,” a questioning, pensive ending somewhat like “I wonder,” adds to this musing quality. Perhaps there was no frog at all, and Chiyo was merely daydreaming, looking at the shapes of the clouds and finding animals, or the distant thunderclap sounded like a frog, or perhaps there was an actual occurrence of a frog singing while she watched passing spring rain clouds that also coincidentally looked like a frog. The simplest explanation has the frog defiantly facing the clouds and pointing his inflated form their way. In any case, this ku asks for a lighter, airy style that is undercut by the uber-minimalist translation with a strong mid-cut as originally given.

A more sober interpretation, still respecting the style and use of language might be:

the frog
inflates his pouch
toward the rain clouds. . .

Here, the kana is translated as an ellipsis. While kana was used in haikai-renga to connect the two verses of linked pair, it is still used today in contemporary, solo haiku, to leave a poem open ended. The lack of following stanza with that implied sense of juxtaposition toward a latter half invites interpretation and a “what then?” In writing haiku in English, it would be profitable to occasionally emulate this style, rather than cutting in the middle with two images, we can provide a single image or image cluster and leave things unfinished, ambiguous and invite the reader to “continue the verse,” so to speak.

Interestingly, while I was unable to find the author or source of the English translation we were given, in searching for it, I found this Spanish translation:

La rana
infla el buche
ante las nubes que traen la lluvia
(trans. Vicente Haya)

(The frog/inflates his throat/before the clouds that bring rain)

This translation is once again very literal and spare, but it at least keeps the continuous structure of the original rather than imposing a cut that was not there to begin with. With so many options, which translation do you prefer?

Danny Blackwell gets lost in translation:

I can’t resist the temptation to abuse my editorial power and offer some words about my translation, which received some interesting criticism from Clayton above. And while I am partly motivated by poetic ego, I also feel that, at the very least, I need to offer the readers of re:Virals a romanization of the poem, to help them decipher Clayton’s comments, as he has recourse to use them in his dissection:

amegumo ni hara no fukururu kawazu kana.

First off, for the sake of simplicity, let’s assume the frog is singular and the clouds are plural although that may not be the case, as the Japanese language often does not specify. With that caveat in place, I’d like to explain that there two things I wanted specifically to do in my translation. The first was to capture a common feature of the Japanese language, and therefore also to haiku, that of ending an oration with a noun and having all the preceding material functioning as if it was a type of adjectifying of that final noun (in this case of the noun “frog”.)
A literal rendering of the Japanese would therefore be something like this:

     rain cloud belly-inflated frog

The English language would naturally reverse the order, of course, resulting in something like this:

     the frog that inflates its belly in front of rain clouds

It is this feature of the Japanese language which explains why many haiku in translation change the order of the elements, and commonly result in the final line of a Japanese haiku becoming the opening line in the English versions—something that I was trying, precisely, to avoid.
Obviously, most would find the above poems, in which the poem is simply the word “frog” stacked under a series of qualifiers, to be pretty indigestible as poetry—bearing in mind the long tradition of haiku in translation and our acquired reading habits. In translation one has to strike a balance between the options of giving an air of exoticism that reflects the different language of the original, and trying to make it sound as natural in the target language as it would do to a speaker of the original language.

The second thing I wanted to do with my translation was allow the poem to maintain the possibility of a double reading. Clayton reads an implied kire after the first line, and while I intentionally allowed for that option, it is not the only option I am allowing the reader, and if one doesn’t impose that cut, one can read the poem as:

rain clouds inflating its belly:
the frog

That is to say, it is the rain clouds themselves that inflate the frog’s belly. This sense of the interpenetration between things is key to haiku juxtaposition, and I feel is particularly acute in this poem by Chiyo-ni.

The Japanese particle “ni” can be used purely to situate the existence of something in a geographical or temporal place, allowing the literal reading that Clayton references, in which the frog is actually seen in the clouds themselves. Regarding particles, one thing that surprised me when I lived in Japan is that while English speakers will naturally stress the words in a sentence that carry meaning and pretty much orally gloss over prepositions and so on, the Japanese do the opposite. When speaking the Japanese tend to place emphasis on particles, that is to say, the punctuative elements of a sentence. In haiku the marker “ya” (used after the words “old pond. . .” in Bashō’s frogpond haiku for example) is much easier to identify and translate, but I find that “ni” is also frequently used in haiku and does indeed cut the sentence, whether one interprets it as a kireji or not. I also feel that here “ni” is allowing us to imagine that the frog’s belly (or pouch) billows due to the rain clouds. This could be viewed as juxtapositional whimsy, or it could be, as another commentator this week mentions, a reference to a very natural phenomenon in which frogs react to approaching rain.

I intentionally avoided punctuation in my translation to allow this middle-line hinge possibility, but one can also read the poem, more conventionally perhaps, as:

rain clouds;
inflating its belly: the frog

Here I use the semi-colon, which I find particularly good for translating a cut between juxtaposing elements. (Whatever one thinks of Blyth, I think he is one of the best translators of punctuation in haiku and adapts his ideas for each particular poem with a great deal of nuance, and one would do well to study his work in this regard.)

Admittedly, my translation last week may seem like syntactical absurdity (to paraphrase Clayton) but I opted for “inflating its belly/the frog” as opposed to “the frog inflates its belly” because I wanted the word frog to be the last word, for the reasons stated above.

Setting aside his patriarchal preference in his translation of the Spanish translation, I would also question Clayton’s interpretation of the end marker “kana.” Modern Japanese speakers often end sentences with the sounds “ka” and “na,” and sometimes with the two of them together. They are, respectively, an oral question mark (ka) and a question tag (na). They are more or less equivalent to saying “isn’t it,” or “I wonder,” at the end of a sentence. However, having discussed this with Japanese colleagues, it is my (possibly mistaken) understanding that the archaic literary “kana” (哉) of haiku is not equivalent to the modern day “kana” (かな) of everyday speech, which is much closer to the “kana” that Clayton seems to have offered in his translations. I would also question having “I wonder?” as a whole line in the English version, when it is only a line-end kire. That said, I welcome Clayton’s comments, which are always illuminating, and his criticism may well be justified—I’m afraid I’m not in a position to be wholly objective about my own translations. One thing I did find particularly worthy was Clayton’s suggestion that the word kana could be treated as a kind of trailing off, represented in one of his translations as an uncompleted ellipses:

the frog
inflates his pouch
toward the rain clouds. . .

I should also mention that it is common, and perhaps at times justifiable, to translate “kana” as an exclamation mark, and it has been common throughout the history of English-language haiku translations to do so. This discussion is, without doubt, a long and complex one that is muddied by a long tradition in both languages.
Reading Clayton’s comments and alternative translations, I do admittedly find myself questioning my inclusion of the word “belly.” In using “pouch” Clayton is possibly more precise, as it is the vocal sac—and not the belly—of the frog that we are accustomed to seeing inflate (although the frog would first inflate its lungs in order to do so, and in the original Japanese they use the word for belly/stomach). Interestingly, a Colombian friend of mind objected to Spanish translator Vicente Haya’s use of the word “buche,” which she considered a rather ugly word.
As a final note, readers should be aware that haiku poems such as this one, and the ubiquitous “old pond” poem of Bashō, use an archaic pronunciation for the kanji for frog, which is read here as “kawazu” instead of the modern day “kaeru.”
[Addendum 01/01/18: While Vicente Haya romanizes this poem with “kawazu” I have since found other sources using “kaeru.” Anyone able to definitively say which reading Chiyo-ni would have used please use the contact form and let us know.]

Hopefully the re:Virals readers will comment further and help us to up our game, so to speak. Translation is always, to a degree, a form of deception—no matter how didactic its intentions.

As this week’s winner, Clayton gets to choose next week’s poem, which you’ll find below. We invite you to write a commentary to it. It may be as long or short, academic or spontaneous, serious or silly, public or personal as you like. We will select out-takes from the best of these. And the very best will be reproduced in its entirety and take its place as part of the THF Archives. Best of all, the winning commentator gets to choose the next poem for commentary.
Anyone can participate. A new poem will appear each Friday morning. Simply put your commentary in the Contact box by the following Tuesday midnight (Eastern US Time Zone). Please use the subject header “re:Virals” so we know what we’re looking at. We look forward to seeing some of your favorite poems — and finding out why!
re:Virals 119:

     half autumn color. Come take my hand in the ghost land and
          — David Boyer, Bones 14

This Post Has 6 Comments

  1. rain clouds inflating its belly the frog
    —Fukuda Chiyo-ni (1703-1775)

    + variations & versions.

    The thought has struck me: perhaps Chiyo grew tired of politely writing ‘haiku of greeting’ on demand (by request or by custom) to all the passing dignitaries who stopped in front of her place? And wrote this one for herself and her women friends? 🙂

    Interpretation is as about as reliable as poetic translation, perhaps.
    – Lorin

  2. “Much have I travelled in the realms of gold/ For which I thank the Paddington and Westminster/ Public Libraries/ . . .”
    – Peter Porter, ’The Sanitized Sonnets’, 1970
    – Lorin

  3. Great meta-commentary Danny, I enjoy the dialogue! I caught your use of the middle line as a pivot only after I wrote my comments. It adds depth to the ku in English, though perhaps in a much different way than the original, as the clouds seem to be on the receiving end in Japanese, the frog in English.
    “Ni” is one of the hardest articles to translate for me, just by virtue of its versality and many possible readings, so that ambiguity definitely adds layers to the ku.
    One note, I meant nothing negative about your translation by “derangement of syntax,” I use that term to describe our English language equivalent of katakoto in terms of warping sentence structure for artistic ends. After all, “Haikai,” I believe can have a connotation of “crippled/bizarre.” So I think we can use deranged syntax to artful effect, it was more that I didn’t feel there was enough katakoto in the original to justify its use in translation.
    I appreciate the distinction between the spoken and literary kana. I have spoken with a few friends and nobody has given me a satisfactory explanation of the difference between the two, Japanese translation can be quite challenging to begin with, classical bungo makes it even more so.
    The most important part of your commentary for me, and which I’d like to reiterate for the other readers, is the ability in Japanese to stack sentence fragments, adjectives and verbs all together in a chain to form a single conceptual adjective that modifies a noun at the end of the sentence. We saw this a few weeks back with the paddy stubble of “life and death for man.” That phrase could be seen both as a separate concept, and as an adjective modifying the rice field. This is such a difficult concept to render in English, and is used to such brilliant effect in Japanese haiku. Thanks for your corrections and response.
    I also agree that in translation, there is always a tension between keeping the logical order of words in English and the sequential, temporal order of images in the Japanese. Sometimes, making the sentence logical in English “ruins the punch-line” of the ku so to speak, by putting the last line first.

    1. [Addendum 01/01/18: While Vicente Haya romanizes this poem with “kawazu” I have since found other sources using “kaeru.” Anyone able to definitively say which reading Chiyo-ni would have used please use the contact form and let us know.]

  4. I like to think that, preferring wet conditions, the frog is shouting at the clouds to hurry up and release some rain!

    As a monoku fan, the version below particularly resonated:

    rain clouds inflating its belly the frog

    Even if it is not the belly but the ‘air sac’ or ‘pouch’ that inflates, I’m not sure that this technicality makes for great poetry. Could the word ‘throat’ be used instead, I wonder? And also, if the word for cloud can be singular or plural in Japanese, what about:

    rain cloud inflating its throat the frog

    …so that it can be read that a frog-shaped cloud looks like it is inflating its throat, or that the cloud is really making the frog croak because it anticipates rain. And of course, there is that frog in the throat connection, except here it is the frog that has a cloud stuck in its throat. 🙂

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