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Tuesday, May 4, 1999

Artistry lost in translation

WHITE LETTER POEMS, by Fumi Saito, translated by Hatsue Kawamura and Jane Reichhold. AHA Books, 1998, 110 pp., $10.

The title of this well-produced selection of tanka by the venerable poet Fumi Saito is taken from the first tanka in the book's first section, which contains work from "Gyo ka" (Songs of a Fish), her first collection, published in 1940. The other five sections cover work reaching to 1993, when she published "Shuten Ruri" (Emerald Autumn Skies) and was inducted into The Japan Art Academy, a singular distinction. The book is printed with one tanka per page, in the original Japanese, English and romaji, which is very useful for those who have difficulty reading the kanji.

In the last 50 years or so, there have been very many translations of haiku and tanka into a great variety of languages. Unfortunately, those in English are rarely satisfying, either as translations or as poems in their own right. Tanka, in particular, is a wonderful poetic form, and the translator should ideally be a good poet.

Most of these translations are made by amateur poets, and so lack the rhythm, musicality and muscular form that only a true poet can produce. Therefore both haiku and tanka have been misunderstood abroad, particularly in the United States, where their apparent simplicity has led thousands of would-be poets to produce works that are complete fakes. Naturally, the general public has shown very little interest in such trivial work, and the true nature of haiku and tanka has been lost.

Fumi Saito's work is full of mysterious, macabre, grotesque and deeply spiritual meaning, perfect in its rhythmic musicality. She usually favors the traditional 31-syllable form, but uses it with skilled flexibility, dropping or adding a syllable very occasionally to respect an instinctive sense of flow.

The translations under review have for the most part avoided the more sinister themes of vengeance, murder and suicide in her work, and have completely ignored her mastery of rhythm and form and that very special "tune" which is at once recognizable as Fumi Saito's. From the outset, she proclaimed that her work was "modernist" in approach, with profoundly symbolist imagery. Many of her tanka contain hidden or outright references to the tragic episodes in her family's life and in her own personal emotional affairs.

Another of her motives was to eliminate the idea of the "sketch" in favor of deeply meditated poetic feeling of a very unusual kind. Ironically, these translations of her beautiful tanka take the form of the "sketches" she so abhorred.

The main faults in these translations are: lack of form, errors of translation and at times totally incomprehensible use of English. In poetry, translation is also interpretation. In Saito's case, one has to read between and behind the lines and words to find what she really meant, for her messages are often hauntingly disembodied voices from nature or beyond the grave. The translations here are quite lacking in the peculiar pathos we find in Saito's work.

There are many errors of interpretation. Let me give some examples, with the Japanese followed, in each case, first by Kawamura and Reichhold's version and then by my own translation of the same poem, for comparison:

sarada nano asaki midori wo mote uzumu sara no e no tori me wo toji zareba

vegetable salad with pale green I bury a bird painted on the plate eyes that do not close

I buried under the pallid green colors of lettuce leaves the bird on the decorated plate that refused to close its eyes.

Part of the trouble stems from the fact that Japanese syntax is different from English and therefore has to be carefully manipulated to fit the foreign language, without losing any of the sense and without interposing unnecessary words. So a completely wrong impression is given by this version of a complex poetic meditation:

shichi izuko to kimezaru karusa furusato wo motazaru mono wa kaze no tomogara

not having to choose a place to die or a hometown I am light-hearted a companion to the wind

With a lightened heart no need to make my mind up about where to die -- People without a hometown are companions of the winds.

Many of Saito's poems of great lyric beauty have been transformed into banal clutters of meaningless words:

kore yori wa masani hitori no kudari zaka sukoshi kimamani hana isshi mochi

hereafter and surely then alone on the easy slope for my own little pleasure to have a branch of flowers

From now on, I know it is simply all my own downward path I tread -- Quite carefree, and carrying a branch of cherry blossom.

One wonders what part the native English speaker had in all this cacophony. She could at least have corrected errors of English, like "Turkish blue" for "turquoise blue." These are neither poems nor cribs.

One of the great problems in the Japanese literary world is that people are afraid to criticize each other in print. They praise even incompetent work. How can Japanese poetry improve if it is never truthfully criticized?

T.S. Eliot said that each generation has to make its own new translations. It is to be hoped that literary people will stop scratching each other's backs, and begin to produce vital, original works. And that all the badly translated literature of the past, uncritically praised to the skies, will begin to be entirely retranslated.

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