Simply Haiku: A Quarterly Journal of Japanese Short Form Poetry
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Autumn 2009, vol 7 no 3


Morning Glories! (Asagao ya): Translator's Notes

In this short translation I have sought to convey a sense of the musicality of the original. In order to do so I have made compromises. Whether or not these are fatal to the validity of the piece is for the reader to decide. Some departures from the strictly literal are:

Verse 8 – a cat. The original has から猫 – karaneko – Chinese cat.

Verse 8 – heated throw. The original has 火燵 – kotatsu – a form of brazier built into a low table-like frame, the whole being covered with a quilted blanket.

Verse 10 – Kyoto. The original has – miyako – metropolis.

Verse 11 – a famed bloom. The original has 花の名 – hana no na - reputation of the blossom

Verse 12 – wicker. The original has 枝折戸 – shiorido – a gate or picket made of woven brush.

Why have I taken such liberties? Well, Japanese haikai prosody makes extensive use of metrical control and phonic effects. Given that renku is not a succession of individual verses, but rather a sequence of dependencies, the consonances and dissonances of utterance, and the organisational structures that govern the phrasing of the individual verses, also govern the relationships between verses.

It is a puzzle therefore that so much renku in translation is sprawling and inelegant. It is almost as though the sense of the poem is deemed to reside in the individual words rather than in the relationships that mesh the words, as though a coarse one-to-one equivalence in the most narrow form of meaning is somehow ‘correct’ because it is ‘accurate’. This is of course nonsense; any translation based on such precepts inevitably delivers a form of non-poetry which all too readily gives rise to anti-poetry.

Consider the following poem:

It's there
upon the shore . . .
an ancient lullaby
that beckons me, "come sleep and dream
once more."

naia. 2001

At its simplest the cinquain is an unrhymed stanza that counts 2/4/6/8/2 syllables, written in iambs. In the hands of a skilled poet, as with this outstanding example by the contemporary poet naia, the meter may be inflected, and partial rhyme introduced. Less obviously, the line-breaks are ‘strong’ in that they sustain a pause without destroying the syntax, and the lines may be so structured that they contain a layered contraction. Here the poet gives us:

it’s there/shore/lullaby/dream/once more

and generates a pure synthesis from the first and last elements:

it’s there/once more

Having marvelled at the poet’s command of the form, the reader is now invited to translate the poem into the language of their choice. Seriously, have a go…

It rapidly becomes apparent that there is a tension between preserving form and preserving absolute correspondence of expression. At its worst the one is inversely proportional to the other. It is likely that if we wish to render absolutely the ‘meaning’ we must effectively sacrifice the cinquain structure and adopt some form of vers libre. Which is fine. In fact it’s so fine that it makes one wonder why naia bothered to adopt the cinquain form in the first place.

And so with haikai. The renku translations of ‘authorities’ such as Miner are a problem not so much because they are crass and ugly, but because they are contagious. The majority of readers, able only to access the English text, innocently imagine that renku is composed of random dollops of gnomic imagining held together by inscrutability alone.

This is a travesty whose effects are little short of catastrophic for the development of the genre in English. Having stripped the literature of any sense of beauty the prospect is offered that such artistry as it contains must reside in the intellectual challenge of following the rules – a frightfully abstruse kind of word game for the anally retentive.

Lest we forget: renku is poetry. Any translation which reads otherwise is simply a poor translation, no matter how many thousands of dollars we are required to pay for the privilege of studying it.


John Carley

Related item in this issue of Simply Haiku: "Morning Glories! (Asagao ya)" translated by John Carley.


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