Exotic Translation: Can Poetry & Wit be kept?

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Exotic Translation: Can Poetry & Wit be kept?

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Jun 13, 2010, 11:11am

My first title for the "topic" (called a "subject" when one actually tries to post it) was "Penny-wise and Pound Foolish – is knowing everything, or does style matter?" It was supposed to be posted in the Ancient China group because the Fogies and MMcM, among others, are intellectually alive, while the exotic tongue -- viz-a-viz -- English -- that I know and translate, Japanese, seems to attract people interested in Anime and so-and-so modern authors who are cool. The original introduction was this:

Though I take no stock in the politics of Pound, I wonder what is gained by pointing out how little Chinese he knew rather than considering the merits and demerits of his style, as a way to translate literature already available in multiple translation, with notes, by people who could read Chinese. To me, doing otherwise seems to not only miss the forest for the trees but, in some cases, the trees (individual poems) for the leaves (words).

I will continue, here, for I do not feel the problems involved with translating from Chinese need to be confined to a Chinese-related group:

A prosaic translation can be accompanied by notes about how and why the poems are wittier or sound better in the original, but unless we are capable of reading them well, we have a hard time getting it. J.I. Crump, by far my favorite translator from Chinese (Songs From Xanadu, Song-poems from Xanadu) wrote of students delighted and amazed to discover rhyme in Chinese poetry (thanks to his lively rhymed translations). Familiar only with the uniformly smooth deliberatedly unrhyming modern-poetry-style translations, they had just assumed such was Chinese.

Reading Pound’s version of the Shi-ching, or Book of Songs (Waley), for the first time decades ago, I recall being pleasantly surprised to find something that tickled the ears came out from the same Harvard Press that had just published volume I of an utterly boring translation of the Manyoshu that was “winner of the 1982 American Book Award for Translation.” So I was delighted when, a few years ago, a professor at CUNY specializing in the classic Japanese poetry wrote “It was bad old Ezra Pound, acknowledging his heavy debt to haiku in translation, who affirmed that the first rule of poetry was "Make it new." This is something Gill has done more effectively, as far as remaking haiku in English goes, than anyone else around. . . .” Since that time, I suppose I have done as much or more for senryu and kyouka (mad poems). My point? I admit to having a horse in the race.

In judging the worth of a translation of one sort or another, I would argue there is no absolute standard; it depends upon the translateability of the original, expressed aim of the translator, target reader, what is already published, information provided with the translation, and even what other poems are in the book. We might call this “relative translation.” People who have read my books of poetry translated from Japanese, probably get what relativity in translation means, but that is unlikely, so I will provide examples for discussion in separate messages.

Note that you can find the original Japanese in my books, 100% viewable at Google Books. Here, I cannnot show the composite translation in multi-columns and will have to show the long vowels by adding a “ ^ ” which in the books goes over the vowel, etc. Please pardon the ugliness.

Jun 13, 2010, 11:14am

Bonito & Cuckoo.

This is an example of what Japanese call an iyaku or “meaning-translation,” one loose but faithful to the broad intent of a well-known kyoka by late-18c kyoka poet Kisshû that may be glossed (the “ = ” a plain pun & “ => ” a pivot pun understood differently coming and going) “which loses, which wins=>bonito & cuckoo: both-from first-sound=price’s highly/loudly heard” (izure make izure katsu=>o to hototogisu tomo ni hatsune no takô kikoyuru). Here is most of a paragraph from Mad In Translation:

After a singularly uninspired reading (“Which one will lose / And which one will be the winner? / The bonito or the cuckoo? / The first notes of both of them / Sound awfully high.”) Donald Keene, describing the two puns, one tricky (win/beat=katsu+accusative o ⇒katsuo=bonito) and one easy (sound=ne=price) pronounced this a prime example of a poem that loses everything in translation. That is true. If only he were less keen to put down a genre he was evidently incapable of translating by statements such as “Puns and verbal dexterity were also valid excuses for writing a kyôka.” Would Keene say that about English light poetry? Are rhyme (a sort of pun) and the ability to turn a word “excuses” for, say, Shakespeare’s sonnets, or, for that matter, any witty poetry?

While Keene loses the snappiness of the original, he does make a game try to retain the original pun, if you can find the “price” in the “note.” And, the bonito vender himself is loud. My first tries to save the puns came out something like “Will Bonito beat Cuckoo, or the reverse? What comes first: / Will the fish break my purse / or the bird my eardrums burst?” That is clever, perhaps, but too contrived. Luckily, I came up with a paraverse, a true alternative poem, that was alive:

Bonito bidding goes so high,
it drives me cuckoo, that I know;
But cuckoos are themselves so loud
they’re driving me bonito!

What do you think? My comments were: “This shows that if we drop the beating and losing in the original but keep the colloquial tone, introducing a pun that only works in English and play with our idiom, we can still have a poem, not the same one, perhaps, but if the poet read English . . . Our pleasure writing and delight reading does not come from the wordplay Keene calls an “excuse” for poetry or the ideas he might consider a reason for it, but from their union.”

Let me add that verbing “bonito” is novel, but so, too, the original pivot pun where the verb “win” followed by the article article “o” turns into “bonito.” Is the preservation of novelty important enough to justify changing as many details as I have? I would say yes. Would you?

Sparrow & Fox, an example of analogous translation next, but only after I get at least two comments on the above!