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
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 都 – 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:
upon the shore . . .
an ancient lullaby
that beckons me, "come sleep and dream
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
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.