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Sunday, May 11, 2003

Some sentiments just don't translate

"Why are the birds crying out?"

One might well wonder. It must be a poignant sorrow indeed, to draw such an urgent and unusual response from the poor birds.

The question is raised by Ohio University poetry professor George Hartley in a review of Sam Hamill's 1998 book, "Basho's Road: The Essential Basho." As Basho, about to depart for his "narrow road to the Deep North," bids a tearful farewell to his friends, he indites a poem which Hamill translates:

"Spring passes
and the birds cry out -- tears
in the eyes of fishes."

"As a single poem," writes Hartley, "these lines are beautifully haunting and evocative, the more so because of their ambiguity. Why are the birds crying out? Are these cries of joys or of sorrow? Are they celebrating or lamenting the passing of spring?"

Or perhaps . . . none of the above?

Haiku, as all the world knows, is a breathtakingly short burst of poetry, compressing into 17 highly charged syllables scene, meaning, nuance, insinuation, feeling and, besides all that, a vaporous quality known as yugen -- the eternal mysteriousness of things. Certain peculiarities of the Japanese language make this compression possible. But can haiku survive translation?

Basho's birds do not "cry out." The Japanese reads:

"Yuku haru ya
tori naki uo no
me wa namida."

"Tori naki" is the pertinent phrase. There is nothing odd about tori (birds) performing the action indicated by the verb naku. They do it all the time. Normally the English verb "sing" would do here. If the animal in question were a lion, "naku" would be "roar"; if a cow, "moo" -- and so on. But -- and this is part of what makes haiku so special and also so hard to translate -- "naku" is a homonym (same sound, different kanji) for the verb meaning "to cry" or "to weep." A single word that conveys a double meaning. How to capture this effect in English? One thing is sure -- "cry out" doesn't do it.

Here are some other translations of the same poem:

"Spring going --
birds crying and tears
in the eyes of the fish"

-- Haruo Shirane

"Loath to let spring go,
Birds cry, and even fishes'
Eyes are wet with tears"

-- Dorothy Britton

"The passing spring,
Birds mourn,
Fishes weep
With tearful eyes"

-- Nobuyuki Yuasa

Which is right? Well -- none of the above. Inevitably.

Many readers of Basho in English must wonder at times what all the fuss is about, and why they are expected to regard these innocuous little word clusters as great poetry.

Some haiku slip through the language barrier intact.

"An ancient pond
a frog jumps in
the sound of water"

This poem would be mysteriously beautiful in any language. But how about:

"Secluded for a while
in a waterfall --
beginning of summer austerities."


"Matsushima --
borrow the body of a crane


"Beginnings of poetry --
rice-planting songs
of the Deep North."

Most haiku can be fully appreciated only in Japanese. Fortunately, anyone with basic-level Japanese can approach the Japanese originals. Haruo Shirane's partial translation of Basho's "Narrow Road," included in his "Early Modern Japanese Literature" anthology (Columbia University Press, 2002) is particularly helpful. Each of his English versions is accompanied by the original in romaji. Obscurities are explained in copious footnotes -- ironically far longer than the poems they explain. Read the English, read the footnotes -- then go back to what Basho wrote. The last poem mentioned reads:

"Furyu no
hajime ya oku no
taue uta."

There's rather more to "furyu no hajime" than the lame (though probably inescapable) "beginnings of poetry."

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