Sunday, March 22, 2009

Translating Basho

Thanks to Stephen Kohl of the Department of East Asian Languages and Literatures at the University of Oregon for putting online five different English translations (as well as the original, in Japanese) of Basho’s travel journal in 1689: The Narrow Road to the Deep North.

Here are five different translations of his haiku poem, "Monokaite" (Farewell, my old fan), in the chapter entitled Station 39: Maruoka:

Farewell, my old fan.
Having scribbled on it,
What could I do but tear it
At the end of summer?
(Translator: Yuasa) [1]

I'll scribble something on it
And tear up my faithful summer fan:
Just a farewell sonnet! (Translator: Britton) [2]

What was composed
on the fan wrenched apart
subsides together. (Translator: Corman) [3]

Hard to say good-bye
To tear apart the old fan
Covered with scribbles. (Translator: McCullough) [4]

Scribbled all over,
The summer fan might be rejected now,
But for its memories. (Translator: Miner) [5]

Now, the word "scribble" and and the word "compose" conjure up entirely different images for me.
I found that each translation elicited a completely different reaction.

While the chapter''s Discussion section enabled me to understand the poem a little better, it made my choice of which translated version to choose to follow infinitely more difficult. (And the words "some have suggested", "other documents suggest", and "what seems most likely is .." tells me maybe nobody really knows for sure what actually took place and they are making educated guesses.)

Where the translations differ is in what each chooses to emphasize. What was it about each version that caught my interest more? Was it (1) the fan as a cherished object? (2) the significance of the scribbling on the fan? (3) the reason for discarding the fan? or (4) the emotion(s) connected with the event?

There are those who agonize (or delight) in analyzing and rating which translation of a particular work is the "more definitive". Assuming someone has the inclination (and time!) to plow through all existing translations of a work and meticulously compare them, I'd be curious to know what the criteria for selection/rejection were
. But too much explanation in translating can be disastrous, for while it would probably be instructive, I could also foresee it's overwhelming me with even more threads to unravel, more sources to read, more historical and cultural trails to investigate, taking me away from the pleasure of sitting down and just reading any version. (Here, for example, are NINE different translations of the opening paragraph of this book, and here are THIRTY-ONE different translations of Basho's "Frog Haiku". Which version would you pick--and why?)

Even if one were able to read and fully understand both languages—the original and its translation--why does the translated text sometimes resonate more deeply with some of us than the original? (And by extension, X's translation of Basho more so than Y's?) Is it that the words seem richer or more expressive (or in some cases, less superfluous) that makes it more meaningful? Do we see the meaning of the words more clearly in one version than in another (regardless of what Basho may or may not have intended in the original poem)?

What fascinates me here though, is the process that seems to be unfolding when one act of creativity (the original poem) reappears, in a somewhat altered fashion, as another act of creativity, in another language). I’m phrasing this badly. But translations are not merely creative interpretations whereby one’s "song" is sung by someone else in a different language . Something else is taking place.

Words in the process of translation become two voices—that of the poet and that of the translator. The work
that results is a combination of the joined voices of the two, but there's a third voice, that of Poetry itself. ( I remember reading somewhere once that Petrarch considered that translation of a poem is to the original poem as a son is to his father, i.e., they share the same blood but each has his own distinct soul. Poetry, like blood in one's veins, flows like a creative force connecting the poet, the translator, and the reader, as it pulsates, spreads, changes and renews itself. Perhaps it's not so much a "voice" as it is an invitation to participate in its unfolding. I sense this happening; I only wish my clumsy attempt at explanation weren't so ... clumsy.

Can it be that the meaning of a poem doesn't actually come from the poet but from the words themselves? Poetry has many meanings, and translating/rearranging/reworking words of a poem in order to share them with a wider group of readers is kind of like poetry spreading itself. The translator, besides facilitating that flow, also recreates new meanings.

I came to the surprising realization that it is not Basho’s poems per se, as wonderful as they are—nor even the visual delight of viewing the gallery of images evoked by the several translations--that intrigued me so much as the unintended observation of what seems to me to be the evolution of that third element, brought forth in the creative process generally, and its extraordinary manifestation not only in words, but in art and music as well.

Kenneth Rexroth said that many of Basho's haiku "are as puzzling to Japanese as they are to Western scholars," that "they"resemble Zen mondos; but lurking behind their mystery is not the ultimate empirical religious experience of Zenism but Basho's own very odd and very refined personality. The translator of Basho sets himself the task of solving a whole set of telescoping conundrums, like Chinese boxes, in intercultural transmission." He also notes that, "the prosody of haiku is totally unknown to almost all haiku devotees in the West and bears exhaustive study, especially by those amateurs who think all you have to do is string together an imagist whimsy in seventeen syllables." [6].

I wish I were more familiar with the Japanese language and culture. Despite the many ways of singing Basho, I think his original voice still comes through sometimes, loud and clear.

Translations referenced:
From The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches, trans. Nobuyuki Yuasa, Penguin Books, 1966.
The Narrow Road to the Interior, in Classical Japanese Prose: An Anthology, trans. Helen Craig McCullough, 1990.
Back Roads to Far Towns, trans. Cid Corman and Kamaike Susume, Grossman Publishers, 1968.
Haiku Journey: Basho's Narrow Road to a Far Province, trans. Dorothy Britton, Kodansha International, 1974.
From The Narrow Road Through the Provinces, in Japanese Poetic Diaries, trans. Earl Miner, University of California, 1969.

Other translations:
The Narrow Road to the Deep North, trans. Tim Chilcott (2004) online here. (Japanese text alongside English translation)

Narrow Road to the Interior and Other Writings. trans. Sam Hamill. Boston: Shambhala, 2000.
The Narrow Road to Oku. trans. Donald Keene, Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1997.
Bashô’s Narrow Road, trans. Hiroaki Sato, 1996.

No comments: