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re:Virals 124

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

     ちりて後 おもかげにたつ ぼたんかな
     (chirite nochi omokage ni tatsu botan kana)
     after it has fallen
     the image haunts the mind— 
     a peony flower
          — Yosa Buson 
    (Tr. Makoto Ueda)

Danny Blackwell tries to get to the heart of the haiku:

This week I received no submissions by the Tuesday deadline so I set myself the task of musing on this haiku. The first thing I started thinking about was the first line, and specifically the effect that the Japanese verb chiru (fall) has on me. I began to ponder how the sound of this word (here in its –te form: chirite) makes me feel. It is not the same for something to chiru as it is to fall. By that I am referring to my indescribably different perception when faced with the two different words for the same phenomenon. What is signified is the same (the act of falling) but the signifiers (the Japanese word chiru or the English word fall), while both beautiful, have a different power over me. While I was considering this, I stumbled across a Facebook post from my brother, in which he mentiones my nephew, and which I shall mention at the risk of seeming flippant. According to my brother, my nephew “has just discovered that Donald Trump is a real person and not just a name for farts. He keeps asking ‘How can Donald Trump be real?’ I genuinely don’t know how to answer that question.”
My brother’s zen koan reveals the problem of translation on the level of words and culture. As far as I’m aware trump is much more a British term than an American one and I, as a British-born human, have had recourse recently, on various occasions, to consider how the world has changed so drastically that a synonym for fart has ceased to be just that and has now become a signifier for a man of arguable power. The fact that I now regularly hear the word without giggling is bizarre to me. (I offer, of course, my most sincere apologies to anyone sharing that surname and who may be offended by this particular example.) You see, all of my life it has been a silly word but it has, by and large, now been stripped of that previous value—although it would seem in the new generation of Britons it continues to maintain its more juvenile meaning.
I constantly wrestle with the philosophical dilemmas of translation and this seemingly flippant example is still operating on the same terrain as that of any haiku poem I happen to tackle with. Translating poetry is, without doubt, deserving of the title of an “impossible task.” If I translate a scientific document, for example, the important thing is the content, and I can change the words I use to convey that essential meaning without any real loss. But when a poet chooses a word, often it is the word that makes the poem. To a large degree, the word is the meaning. If I went through the works of any great poet and substituted all the words for synonyms, or equivalent expressions, would anyone want to read them? And, more importantly, would it still be poetry? I am sure, for example that Neruda would never have used the word “pañuelo” as often as he did if the word in his language had been “handkerchief,” which I confess to finding a little ugly. I find the word pañuelo, with its soft and curvacious “ñ,” more appealing to the eye and the ear than handkerchief. It also seems to sonically ally itself, in my mind at least, with another recurring motif in Neruda, that of “pan” (bread).
I am sure that with great frequency it is the words that dictate the poetry as much, if not more at times, than the meaning. It comes as no surprise, then, that the Brazilian translator Haroldo De Campos rather intelligently used the word “trascriações” (transcreations) instead of translations.

I am fond of the verb chiru both for what it means, namely to fall, and also for its sound, which—for whatever reason—creates a unique sensation in my mind. In fact, we’d do well to remember that the Japanese word for mind (kokoro) also means heart. Mexican haiku poet José Juan Tablada wrote in his book on Hiroshige: “kokoro is more, it is the heart and the mind, the sensation and the thoughts and the very guts, as if it was not enough for the Japanese to feel with the heart.”

Anyway, so far I’ve said very little about this week’s poem. In fact, I haven’t got past the first word and it seems I’ve said nothing at all about haiku.
The verb for fall is followed by the word “after” (usually pronounced “ato,” but here most likely read in its more literary form as “nochi”).

“Omokage” is a compound of face and shadow, and can mean face, vestige, trace, and so on.

“Ni tatsu” refers to omokage. “Tatsu,” literally, means to stand, but it is common in many Japanese expressions. “Haru ni tatsu,” for example, means, “Spring has arrived.”

“Botan” is peony, and it is followed by the exclamation (or end cutting word) “kana,” which is often translated as an exclamation mark, an “ay,” or an “oh,” and so on. (And which we discussed briefly in re:Virals 119).

As an aside I’ll mention that Seisensui (who taught, among others, Santōka) criticized a selection of Buson’s peony poems for revealing little of Buson the man. In regards to Buson’s poem “The peony falls—/lying upon each other,/ two or three petals” Seisensui said: “The poet worked so hard at depicting the peony that he became a slave to his own contrivance. As a result, he succeeded in creating an interesting picture of the peony, but failed to absorb its life into his own mind.” Interestingly enough this week’s poem deals precisely with the image of a peony that has been absorbed by Buson and remains there. It is up to each reader, however, to decide if they agree with Seisensui’s criticism that the objective, painterly style of Buson (much like the “sketching” technique of Shiki) is the result of a kind of poetic frigidity or not, and whether this poem is deserving of such criticism.

Anyway, to thank you for reading this far and for tolerating my more unusual digressions, here are various different translations that may help repay you for your time and consideration, and possibly help us get to the heart and mind of the poem. (In the interests of reinforcing the nuances of cultural translations, I will precede them with the original Japanese in its original vertical form, lest we forget that even our textual spacing is sometimes a distortion of the truth):

After it scatters
The visage still remains—
A peony.

(Tr. by William R. Nelson & Takafumi Saito)

All fallen,
Yet your form remains before my eyes,
O peonies.

(Tr. by Thomas McAuley)

Reminding me of
an image of falling after death
tree peonies

(Tr. Allan Persinger)

All fallen,
Yet the vision appears to me—
The peony!

(Tr. by Shoji Kumano)

After it has fallen
its image still stands—
the peony flower.

(Tr. Yuki Sawa & Edith Marcombe Shiffert)

after it has fallen
the image haunts the mind—
a peony flower

(Tr. Makoto Ueda)

After they’ve fallen,
their image remains in the mind—
those peonies

(Tr. by Steven D. Carter)

I, myself, was initially tempted to translate this poem using the word linger . . . but then I thought of trump and it seemed like a much less appealing verb.


As this week’s winner, Danny 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 124:

     in a room
     with no windows
     drawing stars
          — ai li, still two one (1998) 

This Post Has 5 Comments

  1. A fascinating read, Danny. As someone without Japanese, it at least gives me some insight into the quandaries of translating poetry…& I recall that Jorge Luis Borges was very particular about finding and working with the translator of his choice, for his stories.
    ‘Trump’? A German word that came into British English long ago, before America was ‘found’ by Europeans. Also a German surname, (presumably derived from the word) and the USA had many German early settlers who influenced the language. At one stage, it was moot whether English or German would be the common language.
    Personally, I’m more used to the word as it’s used in card games…and metaphorical extensions of that usage. I think it’ll be sooner rather than later, now, that Trump is trumped.
    – Lorin

    1. Thanks for the comments, Lynne. I’ve since learned a bit more about the word trump and some meanings I hadn’t known about before (like the final trump of judgment from the biblical Apocalypse). Regarding Borges, he was also a very daring translator, even going so far as changing the gender of characters when he was translating other people’s work.

  2. Chiru is a beautiful word and it has so much association with poetry, “fall” definitely fails to capture to emotional resonance and cultural significance of the verb. Thanks for the commentary!

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