October 2003, Volume 1, Number 4

Eiko Yachimoto - What can I say on translating haiku?


Born in Yokosuka, Japan, on February 14, 1947, Eiko Yachimoto graduated from Sophia University in Tokyo (with a Russian language major and a minor in political science). She also graduated from the University of Minnesota, earning a 2nd BA in English language and literature in 1982. She works as a writer, translator and/or a language teacher--sometimes employed, sometimes as a free-lancer. She has been Vice President of the Association for International Renku since 2000. She is married, and is the mother of a 17 year old girl. She has lived in Yokohama, Sasebo, and Minneapolis, and now lives in Yokosuka.


I have heard those stories in Bulgarian, but know them in German. Let me talk about this mysterious translation. Over 60 years I have nurtured myself with my infant experiences in Rusctschuk (or Ruse, Bulgaria) and yet vast majority of my memories are tied to the language I did not know in those days. I do Not feel that I am warping or bending my memories by using German. I usually avoid *translation like the plague, a word that has become meaningless from overuse. Yet this translation was not like usual text translation, it has been done unconsciously over unconscious time frame and it went natural, or on its own accord inside me...

--from ‘The Tongue Set Free ‘
by Elias Canetti

I have been asked to translate haiku on a number of occasions. Sometimes I complied, other times I refrained. There certainly exists a chunk of ambiguity in me as to the act of translating other poets’ haiku into another language.

*translation software vs haiku*


In today’s world there is a thing called translation software. The first time I heard ‘machine translation’ was ages ago when I was a student of the Russian language. Some students put the concept of automated machine translation on a pedestal as a rosy dream for the world as one. I remember having been disturbed by them instinctively. Now I see my old hesitance in the light of reasoning. Why can’t the machine translate what is most crucial of human language? Because the machine understands the language only based on the past data that were fed to it, whereas people keep expanding the inexhaustibility of language in each unique way as they live each day anew. Yet, an increasing number of people are losing the feel towards the true organic language... This tendency is parallel to the tendency of many dialects in all parts of the world being now endangered into extinction... Alas, we seem to be surrounded now by words without fresh and pulsing life.

Haiku exists at the extreme opposite-end of such lifeless language. Before any haiku translation I would make sure that I grasped and breathed in that life from the particular haiku I would work on. In this sense it makes sense that those simultaneous interpreters who play such an important role in international conferences are said to avoid or dislike translating haiku. In their usual function they start switching words without waiting to hear the statement out to the last . This method will work only as a Very rare exception in haiku translation.

*translating one’s own haiku*


This will lead me to discuss all different levels of our language use. There are all kinds of haiku, but great ones inevitably take us to a deeper consciousness level--not as deep as the level where philosophical or religious convictions occur, but deeper than the surface level of everyday communication. I would argue that each translator should be capable of fathoming this level and sharing the consciousness of the original poet before he starts converting the first word of a haiku.

This process occurs even in the same person. I, for one, had to wait a certain period of time before translating my own haiku into another language. Let me give you an example:

First I wrote in English:

the green shape
of sea-scented wind
rosemary

I knew that word by word translation would kill both the life of this haiku and my love of rosemary and the sea. Long after I had given up translating this English language haiku, one 5-7-5 possibility naturally came to my tongue:

shiokaze ni (5) (blown by the sea-scented wind)
ro^zu mari^ no (7) (rosemary)
nobini keri (5) (has grown rather wildly! )

I guarantee that these two versions share the same consciousness level where my poetry and love of rosemary/sea exist, in spite of the surface difference! And each satisfies the language-unique sound-pleasantness and the image-order aesthetics..

*personal trust in haiku translation*


Such surface difference as above is not usually allowed if one translates another poet’s haiku. Here comes another point in haiku translation and that is the personal trust between each haijin and his/her translator. One beautiful example is to be found in ‘Infinity‘, a kushu by Ohba Kinuta, a resident haijin of Sekiguchi Basho-an in Tokyo. I am impressed with this bi-lingual kushu published in spring, 2002. By placing only one haiku on a page, it was possible to print Japanese haiku in the vertical way in the book that opens in the Western way. If two or more vertical haiku are placed on a page, Japanese readers instinctively move their eyes across the page from right to left and turn the page the opposite way, which causes awful frustration when the book itself is constructed in the Western way for the readability of the English text. Have you ever seen the English language printed in the vertical way? I recently have! This stress taught me the importance of writing Japanese haiku in its original vertical way so that each word can reach, with its full and free-moving power, each reader. Most (not all) bilingual books do not have as much love given to their construction and end up being a cluttered mix lacking poetry in their existence. Mr. Ohba’s translator is Prof. Aki Hirota of California State University, Northridge. Mr. Ohba told me that they fostered their friendship over the years as she visited Basho-an, with that old pond and nice foliage, while she worked occasionally on a campus in Tokyo.

Inconspicuously
at the edge of transmigration--
Hot Pepper

hissorito (5)
rinne no hashi no(7)
to^garashi (5) Kinuta

You may wonder what to do with a deceased haijin whose work is worthy of translation. Let me tell you a few recent episodes. First with Hisajo, a pioneer of all following female haijin, who died a tragic death in 1946, not in war, but in a hospital bed behind iron bars. She grew up away from traditional Japan, namely in Okinawa and Taiwan as the daughter of a high-ranking government official. As I learned her struggle in her adult years of being herself and being accepted, some of her haiku gradually started to live in me. I have come to believe that Hisajo has been misunderstood by ‘the traditional Japan’ in its various masks, on a grand scale. She was never mentally ill, but she had to die there of hunger and coldness. For the cause of redeeming this genius by excluding prevailing prejudice, I now believed getting her haiku published in English translation would be most effective. The following are five of 30 haiku I volunteered to translate for 'World Haiku Review.' This translation project was triggered, so to speak, by another kind of personal relationship. (I plan to translate many more than 30).

skyward flapping of their wings
the power of one hundred cranes

in a screw-spiral
a leaf falls from the cliff
blitz speed

each draws closer
listening to rain on kudzu--
our umbrellas touch

enough of kana practice
I let the children shell broad beans

I grew up
bathing in the emerald sea
of everlasting summers

(*she was a happy golden girl)

*haiku translation as a job*


There is a time when I have no room for ambiguity. I have to do it when it is a job. Last year I was hired to help create The Catalogue for Haiga Exhibition in Europe. Translating Edo period haiku was such a daunting responsibility, especially knowing that my English text would be the base for various local leaflets for the exhibition visitors who do not understand English. Getting beautifully flowing calligraphy deciphered into readable text of kana and kanji had been done by Mr. Collector--that alone took many years’ of effort. My part started from appreciating each haiku written on each haiga. Just after sending a batch of translated haiku to a printer, I happened to see another translation of the same haiku done by another translator. My blood froze (well, almost) at the discrepancy! After going through what little reference material was available to me, I found that this Edo man, a haikai(renku) master and a great nihonga artist in one, did write two versions on two different occasions:

higashiyama (5)
totte kaeseya (7) (kaese)
hototogisu (5)


higashiyama (5)
totte kaesuya (7) (kaesu)
hototogisu (5)

With *kaese, it becomes an imperative and with *kaesu, it is a description of what is happening. And the orientation of the bird’s movement, whether it goes towards the mountain or off the mountain is left ambiguous in both versions. The translation that surprised me was:

Hurry back
To Higashiyama--
Cuckoo

This was based on *kaese, or Turn!

The translation I did based on *kaesu was:

a cuckoo turns-
a half circle in the air
Higashiyama

I admit I used my discretion. I wanted this haiku to live as a poem in people’s hearts. I wanted exhibition visitors to see the image. How gentle, soft and round Mt. Higashiyama in Kyoto looks is the key to this haiku. And the parallel of the artist’s brush stroke and the movement of the bird . . . The catalogue project was quite challenging, and I learned as if anew how difficult it is to translate a haiku. In fact, I love one haiku of an Edo master so dearly and yet I still can not find a matching English poetic voice to this:

sakaya inete (6)
to^fuya inete (7)
sayoshigure (5)

our sake man has fallen asleep
our tofu man also fallen asleep
softly falling winter night rain

Once a translated haiku is sent to the public, a translator must take cold criticism, sharp comments, rigorous scrutiny and/or just about anything (even admiration if one is lucky) alone on herself. Yet, I sincerely hope ultimate evaluation of the haiku translation will be done by those who are poets themselves, in addition to being versed in both languages.

*haiku vs bi-lingual renku sessions*

I am one of few people who have encountered haiku as a starting verse of renku, the Japanese collaborative poetry of 1500 years' tradition. The joy of writing a starting verse led me to appreciate haiku also. Haiku actually was the name given by Shiki to a starting verse of renku, but most haijin of present-day Japan do not practice renku. I have been a core member of the Association for International Renku for about 10 years now and have been constantly writing bi-lingual renku in live sessions that are held once every month.

When there are those poets who are versed only in one language, some of us have to function as a renku-translator on the spot so that our renku poem can keep on flowing. Unless your translation is good enough, the originator will catch the translator's liability right away, because no good link will be coming in! I find renku translation very rewarding each time two poets of different languages shine in their contentment of the true linkage between their verses. No matter how subjective or idiosyncratic the act of translation may seem to you, there Is a way to prove its ‘literary objectivity’.

One example:

tallying at the register ......a shy face Hirobumi Hatsuzawa
in the silence .....of an autumn mist..... trace of a moon

Patricia Donegan

Invisible like an artillery running through our body, translation is there to make this link possible. What the Japanese language poet had in front of him was:

reji utsu hito no(7) shy na yokogao(7) Hirobumi

shizukesani (5) shizumorishi tsuki(7) kiri matou(5) Patricia


*in concluding...*

In concluding this short essay, I would like to thank Mr. Robert Wilson
for giving me this chance of writing on the theme which has been on my mind all these years. I strongly believe in his depth and broad-mindedness, and I am very sure that his editorship will flourish in 'Simply Haiku'.

Congratulations on the new start!



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