Posted by Susan Shand on January 30, 2013 at 4:10 AM Comments comments (0)


In “Poems of the Late Tang” [1] A.C. Graham discusses the translation of Classical Chinese poetry.


“When a Chinese poet writes abstractly it is nearly impossible to make him interesting in English (…) The element in poetry which travels best is of course concrete imagery” [p.13]


Which might explain why, amongst thousands of historical Japanese examples of haiku translated into English, the greater majority contain concrete imagery. If all you ever see is concrete imagery you might conclude that this was how it should be. It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that the insistence from some quarters of the bazaars, that haiku MUST ALWAYS contain concrete imagery; is based, not so much on the Japanese record, but on the simple fact that we don’t have many non-concrete examples in the English record – not because they don’t exist but because fewer of them have been translated.


Graham goes on to discuss the additional problems in translating Japanese poetry into English due to the structure of the Japanese language, word order, grammar, tenses, and conjugation. [p.14] Which, he reveals, the translator “forced to proceed in another sequence (of word order), finds himself writing a drastically different poem.” If you are thinking that all translators are far too diligent to alter the meaning of the text in the process of their translation, try this article…


I needn’t mention the ordinary everyday understandings of a culture in which lifestyle, beliefs, food, flora and fauna, social behaviour, and even relationships, are often drastically different from our own. If we also consider that many of the most well known historical Japanese writers were writing against a background of religious understandings and esoteric knowledge; the meanings of their haiku would therefore only be readily available to a reader who shared those specialist understandings.


In the case of haiku where a surface reading of concrete imagery carries a sub-textual level of meaning, metaphor, euphemism, dual reading, classical literary reference, or implication, there is no guarantee that we are in fact reading in English the whole of what the writer wrote in Japanese. It is therefore, nonsense to make definitive statements about what haiku should or shouldn’t consist of, based on the available historical canon translated into English.


I am not suggesting that we should all go away and write abstract haiku; I think there are some very good reasons for writing in concrete imagery. I am suggesting rather that we could be more circumspect in our reading of translated work. The chances that we have an accurate rendering in English of the original is dependent upon the skill of the translator to faithfully reproduce all these variables.


Graham talks about the quality of translation and states that,


“Its best practitioners have always been poets or amateurs working on the draft versions of others” [Graham [1] p.13]


In the introduction to his translation of Basho’s “The Narrow Road To The Deep North”, Tim Chilcott raises the question “To what extent, if any, is it possible to translate from a language of which one has little or no knowledge?” [2] He answers this question by describing his own process of translation. It is well worth reading this introduction. It gives us the confidence that we ourselves can see in a literal word-for-word translation, with the help of existing alternative translations, a more direct understanding of the writer’s mind; a better flavour of their intent, largely free of the translator’s mind imposed as overlay on to the original.


The study of historical literature can inform our writing today, broaden our knowledge; but as modern poets we have to keep their influence in perspective. Reading historical and/or translated poetry is not the same as writing our own poetry today. We can read Milton, Wordsworth, or Shakespeare with equivalent levels of miscomprehension. We can write sonnets or poetic drama in Iambic Pentameter if we should choose to do so – but we wouldn’t really expect to produce carbon copies of their work. We may prefer to write haiku, senryu, tanka, kyoka, etc etc etc. It doesn’t really matter as long as we write from our own reality. Those poets who precede us can inform our own journey but should never prescribe it. The world has moved on, our reality is very different from theirs and we can be true to the genre without trying to become them. We have a responsibility to write with integrity and honesty of our own lives and culture. Haiku is the discipline of the wordsmith in its most concentrated and condensed form. Yet that very form is merely the box in which we contain the poetic expression of our heart, our inner being, our own truth.




(stardate 20130130)



[1] A.C. Graham (1965) “Poems of the Late Tang”, Penguin Books



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