Monday, July 03, 2006

Translating Translating Basho

Last week, I did a reading/talk at the Canadian Embassy in Tokyo. Upstairs, Dalton McGuinty was talking about his plan to privatize quatrains. Actually, I’m not sure what he was talking about, but he drew a bigger crowd. And they had better canap├ęs. I did have a cut-out Mountie present, though.

My talk was downstairs in the Embassy’s large library. I was asked to read from derek beaulieu’s and my frogments from the frag pool and talk about the book, haiku, translation, the interaction of cultures, Canadian writing, and the creative process. The Embassy supplied a translator to translate everything I said (but not the poems) into Japanese. They suggested that I provide a handout with copies of what I would read so that those whose English wasn’t strong could follow along (unless of course I objected to the “rustling of paper.”)

There were about 30-35 people there. They invited a range of guests – people from various haiku societies, academics, haiku and other poets, someone from the Canada Japan Cultural Foundation, students, and teachers. About half of the people spoke fluent English. There was a reception afterwards.

I can’t remember such a warm, interested, expressive audience. I was quite worried about being translated, but the translator was excellent – good natured (she seemed to get into it, and laughed a lot – at least, I hope that was good…) and astute (she queried me when I said that Thumper was from Snow White instead of Bambi. Of course, she was right.) I was astounded how much longer it took to say things in Japanese. Also, how many English words she used. But her manner really put me at ease. The previous night, she had been at a press conference, translating, I think it was, Ken Watanabe (The Last Samurai). The only poem I asked her to translate was:

Why do we worry?

Every word on earth is

In the perfect place

I thought it would be a good opening invocation to my reading/talk.

I was a concerned too, about talking about the haiku tradition in Japan. Explaining coal in Newcastle, but there was lots to say about haiku in the West. To contextualize how I thought of what I was doing, I also mentioned that Borges story about Pierre Menard writing Don Quixote in 19th France and how it was an entirely different text than Cervantes writing it in Renaissance Spain.

I had no reason to feel anxious about anything, though. As I spoke, the audience quietly chuckled, smiled effusively, nodded enthusiastically, and took copious notes. They asked great questions afterwards. What do I think about how to render cutting words in the original Japanese into English? Why is the Blythe translation the best known English version? We discussed the Japanese calligraphic tradition vs. Western visual poetry and the philosophical underpinning of the original Basho poem. A TV actress (who had performed dramatic versions of haiku) mentioned the difference between great big western bullfrogs and the more delicate Japanese frog alluded to in the poem, and how Westerners often think of many frogs jumping as opposed to just one. One woman discussed alternate interpretations of the poem (as explained to her by an old Japanese teacher). A very articulate and seemingly older man questioned me about my (and typical Westerners’) seeming interest in the physical specifics of the poem (frog, pond, water sound) as opposed to Basho’s intent to oppose those physicalities against the implied silence. He asked about how “mind” was prevalent in derek and my versions, and probed to see my ideas about Buddhism in the poem. He commented on how Japanese don’t trust rhetorical devices or speech, often believing that these devices cover up or obscure. We talked about images, Imagism, Ezra Pound, the rise in the west of images which imply rather than state, the interest in Western poetry in Eastern techniques, approaches, and philosophy. He discussed the difference between the highly homogenous Japanese society where context is clear and is everything. Things can be implied, the context taken to be inferred, whereas, in the West, he believed, this wasn’t so clear. He also told me how he preferred to read Haruki Murakami in French since many of Murakami’s techniques seemed fresher and more experimental when they weren’t in Japanese. (When seen outside of the coherent Japanese cultural context, the language seemed full of leaps. In Japanese, he said, it is too easy to fill in the leaps.)

Quite few poets spoke with me about their work and interest in haiku. One poet, Hiroko Takahashi, gave me a book of her collaborations with a visual artist (Takuro Iwamoto) The images were all rendered with a pen or brush. Ink blobs, squiggles, scratches. All derived from the calligraphic tradition. Very lovely. The book (Wind and Ellipse) consists of two page spreads. Each page comprises visuals, haiku in Japanese (written vertically), and English translation.

Here’s one:

I am pregnant with the clown of snowy day

or another:

The thirteenth night moon—

the wax doll’s pubic hair grows


The pistol muzzle

tunnel at summer’s end

Many of the haiku are filled with Western references: Rilke, JFK, Monet, Man Ray; some refer to more tradition haiku material. The book is a dynamic interplay between visual and verbal movement/energy. In both arenas, it plays with allusion, referentiality, and resonance.

I also had a really interesting talk with a professor from Tokai University. He was Japanese, but spoke English with a Polish accent. He had learned English at Warsaw University. He is a professor of Slavic studies and had recently attended a big haiku conference in Bulgaria. He translates haiku from Eastern European languages into Japanese. Amazing to talk with someone with such a different perspective and experience. And to find out how much we had in common. He invited to drink vodka with him, which sadly, I’ll have to wait until next time to do.

After the reading, the Etienne Lambert, the Third Secretary at the Embassy, and his wife, Erin, took us out on the town. We went to the mad, busy area of Tokyo known as Shinjuku. At 11pm, thousands of people were crossing the street. Evidently over 2 million people per day go through the metro station there. You could buy designer "perfect" fruit for a hundred or more dollars. The placed is filled with teenagers and people out to party. Also, Love Hotels.

We went to a Buddhist themed restaurant and then to a bar which where you are handcuffed and led to little cells to have your drinks.

A perfect way to end a night of haiku.

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