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Thursday, February 03, 2005

Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikibu

The Ink Dark Moon, Jane Hirshfield's translations of the tankas of Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikibu, continues to be a favourite book of mine. I like that Hirshfield chose not to be constrained by the technical form of the tanka as she moved these poems into English. That technical form is based in the Japanese language, in its rhythms and patterns and conceits, and I think if it were used as more than a guide then it would interfere with the passage of the poem into English. Here are two Komachi poems

I thought to pick
the flower of forgetting
for myself,
but I found it
already growing in his heart.


While watching
the long rains falling on this world
my heart, too, fades,
with the unseen color
of the spring flowers.

Hirshfield kept to the five lines of the traditional tanka, but instead of being constrained by the tanka's syllable count varied by line (5-7-5-7-7) she went with what made the poems work in English. And the poems do work. I think that three poems by Shikibu should go a ways toward quelling any argument there might be on that point

Why haven't I
thought of it before?
This body,
remembering yours,
is the keepsake you left.


If the one I've waited for
came now, what should I do?
This morning's garden filled with snow
is far too lovely
for footsteps to mar.


What color is
this blowing autumn wind
that it can stain
my body
with its touch?

Perhaps a person could argue with Hirshfield's positioning of line breaks in any of those poems. Perhaps. I wouldn't. I'd say perhaps those line breaks are a result of a commitment she made to stick to the five line form of the originals in order to gauge how she was doing with the more important matter of brevity.

The problems of translating are at least as old as written languages, I suppose. And the question of how closely the form of the translated version should mirror the original may never be answered to everyone's satisfaction. Nor do I think it should be.

To my mind, a translation should attempt to carry into another language what the translator feels is most important to the poem (and that should be the poem itself). I don't believe that forms necessarily translate well, but that content, images, themes, and voices may — I'm not so sure about voices, perhaps more the ranges and variations of a voice.

What I'm trying to get at here is that I've come to think of translation as transposing; the way a musician or a singer will move a song or a piece of music into a different key. Of course, the parallel, or analogy, is not exact. Although it might appear to be slightly less flawed if we think of a poem not as its words or its form, but as the effect of those words and form.


Loren said...

As I grow older and my attention span seems to get shorter, I find these short Chinese and Japanese poetic forms more and more appealing.

I'd also agree with you that the it's more important to convey the feeling and intent of the originals than to preserve a certain number of syllables.

MackJohnny said...

Good to see you out and about the net, Loren.

I don't know that I'd blame age necessarily for a preference for those shorter works. They're small and shiny things the whole of which can be held in the mind at once without great difficulty so they can be turned over and over with our attention locked on their textures and tastes.

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