About two months ago, we were given an interesting assignment in my translation class.
Translate five poems homophonically—entirely according to the sound. Pay no attention to the meaning. Simply try to replicate, as closely as you possibly can, the rhythm and rhyme, violence/softness, fastness/slowness, consonance/assonance of the original poem. I picked out three haikus by Matsuo Basho, and the results stunned me.
I didn’t think I did a particularly good job. However, examining haikus from this angle made me realize something.
Americans don’t have a very accurate picture of the Japanese haiku. We either think strictly of 5/7/5, or a super minimalistic poem, thanks to lots of translation like this:
夏草や 兵どもが 夢の跡
Natsukusa ya/ Tsuwamonodomo ga/ Yume no ato
Grasses in summer.
The warriors’ dreams
All that left.
Like, that is awful. It seems like a machine translation. In reality this is a very pretty-sounding poem, but English readers don’t realize that the 5/7/5 also entails a distinct, rather beautiful lilting rhythm, and that all haikus employ dozens of sonic effects. It made me realize. I think beyond 5/7/5 we have the impression of haikus as imagism, thanks to Orientalist poets like Ezra Pound and Kenneth Rexroth, but haikus also imply stories most of the time.
Japanese doesn’t use subjects like “I”, “he”, or “you” often, so many haikus can imply two or three different stories at the same time–but if you translate it directly, it’ll seem like there’s no story at all.
Thanks to that little homophonic haiku project, I stumbled upon a way to translate haikus that I think conveys more than just imagism, and that captures the sound and the story of any good haiku.
Let’s go through my process.
行春や 鳥啼き魚の 目は泪
Yukuharuya Torinakio-ono Mewanamida
The passing spring,
Bird-song and fish,
Okay, so we’ve got some nice images here. But in reality the flowing “oo” sound is dominant and juxtaposed with “ohs”, and contrasted with the many “ahs” of the final line. Not to mention the flatness of these three lines. “Spring”, “fish” ,and “tears” all end with your pitch going DOWN, which creates a dull impression of finality. Meanwhile the Japanese ends going UP, lilting, like a song. Let’s translate this entirely based on sound.
You cool sparrow, you
Old tree naked pool, oh no,
Great. Now we know what the poem actually sounds like. Repetitions of “ooh”, with drawn out final syllables at the end of each line to create a formal sense of “nostalgia”–a word that sounds almost exactly like 泪–we’ve got the flow of the original.
But I think we’ve lost too much of the meaning. So let’s modulate just a bit back without losing the rhythm we’ve established.
You song sparrow, you
naked fish and eye’s old tears.
Not bad. Could be better, but not bad. We’ve got most of the meaning, and most of the sound. Even though we’ve cut out “passing spring”, the Kigo-word that indicates what season the haiku-refers to, the sense of nostalgia instead becomes much more crystallized. We will always have to make sacrifices in translation, and I’m willing to sacrifice the direct meaning in order to convey the poetic sound-qualities of haikus.
But you may be asking…
What is this “Haiku Project”?
I’m so very glad you asked.
I’ve created an instagram account, the Haiku Project, haikuproject365 (yes, haikuproject was taken. I am angry). On this account I will post almost every day artistically arranged original translations of famous Japanese Haiku.
They will look like this:
Then in the Instagram post description I will give all the proper creds to the offer, what season it refers to, and much more useful and snazzy information. AND THIS POSTING WILL GO ON FOR ONE MONTH, AT LEAST!
So do me a favor. Follow! Check it out! Get a poem in your feed every day. Maybe it’ll get you hype about the coming summer (or for those in New Haven, the recently arrived Spring), just a little bit.