On Translation and Meaning
Suppose you discovered a modern English version of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. In this modern English edition all obsolete words are eliminated and modern equivalents are substituted; kind of like several modern updates of the King James Version of the Bible such as the “Third Millennium Bible” or the “New King James Version”.
Gratefully you purchase the new edition. You feel grateful because there were some expressions that were never quite clear to you (e.g. what does ‘bootless’ mean?) and you are aware that some words have changed meaning in the last four hundred years. Your hope is that the Sonnets will be more accessible and therefore more meaningful.
To your surprise you find that not only has the language of the Sonnets been updated but also the lineation has been updated in accordance with modernist esthetics. Intrigued, you find a free verse rendering of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Gone are any regularity of count, gone are any attempt at metrical usage, gone are the mellifluous rhymes. Here’s the opening of Sonnet 73:
In fall you see
A few leaves, just a few, on the branches,
Shaking in the wind;
They look like ruined buildings with birds singing in the rafters.
You go to your old edition of the Sonnets just to check the original:
That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang.
The hypothetical modern rendering of Shakespeare’s Sonnets simulates a certain translation philosophy. It is the view that thinks that poetic form has negligible meaning, or perhaps none at all, and that the job of the translator of poetry is to translate semantic, or discursive, meaning. The view here is that the meaning of poem is not primarily embedded in the formal parameters of the poem’s structure, rather the meaning is, from this perspective, primarily conceptual, primarily related to the idea that the poet is trying to communicate.
One of the primary ways that we form an overall view of a foreign language poetic tradition is through translation. The choices a translator makes in transmitting poetry from language to another strongly effect how the reader will place the foreign language tradition. I bring this up because one of the barriers syllabic poetry in English has in developing a native syllabic approach is that access to long-enduring syllabic traditions is often obscured by the translation philosophy used by the translator. If the translator feels that the form is unimportant or of negligible significance, if the translator is further influenced by free verse norms (which is likely if they are a contemporary poet, particularly if they are university trained), then it is likely that the translator will offer a free verse rendering of poems which in the original context are highly regulated and formal.
I think the most extreme example of this has been the way that Chinese poetry has been translated into English. There has been almost no attempt on the part of translators of this type of poetry to convey to the reader the highly structured, formal characteristics of the Chinese poetic tradition. Free verse lineation is the norm in such translations. Because of this the majority of those reading Chinese poetry in English translation get the impression that Chinese poetry is unregulated and unrhymed. The opposite is true: Chinese poetry is highly regulated, rhymed and formal. Chinese poetry in English is particularly afflicted by this problem; it is really very difficult to find translations which seek to mimic, even to a minimal extent, the formal characteristics of Chinese poetry.
Japanese poetry translated into English differs. What I have discovered is that there are two major approaches to Japanese poetry translations. The first approach seeks to mimic the syllabic requirements of the poetic form. A primary example of this is the two translations of the Kokinshu into English; one by Laura Resplica Rodd and the other by Helen McCullough. Both of these translations mimic in English the syllabic structure of the Japanese Tanka. That is to say the translations share the 5-7-5-7-7 syllabic structure of the original Japanese. Other translators of Japanese poetry into English who use this approach include Cranston and Carter.
In contrast, other translators of Japanese poetry use a free verse approach to lineation. Examples of this include all of the translators of Basho’s Haiku that I am aware of. Another widely read example is Jane Hirschfield’s translation of Ono no Komachi, “The Ink Dark Moon”.
The example of Rodd and McCullough is based on a philosophy which regards the form of the Tanka as having meaning and that therefore the translator needs to communicate that meaning to the reader. This is done by mimicking the formal structure. Perhaps the fact that the Kokinshu consists of over 1,000 Tanka, and that all of these Tanka have the same form in the original, lead the translators to focus on the form of the Tanka itself as having significance.
Think of what a translation of the Kokinshu would look like that ignored the formal count of the traditional Tanka, say one that took a free verse approach to lineation. Each Tanka would have a different overall syllable count; there would be no observable pattern of line length as one moved from poem to poem. Gone would be the lyrical, rhythmic, and musical linkage as one moved from Tanka to Tanka.
It might be the case that such a free verse approach would more accurately translate the semantic and discursive meanings of particular poems. That isn’t necessarily the case, but it might be the case in specific instances. But I would argue that the formal parameters of Tanka are significant to the meaning so that even if the semantic meaning is more accurate, the loss of the formal meaning would constitute a significant overall loss.
Rodd and McCullough have done English language readers of Japanese poetry a great service by conclusively demonstrating that it is not only possible to mimic Japanese syllabics in English, but also that it can be done with eloquence and accuracy. Although it is difficult, it is possible, because Rodd and McCullough have done it, to transmit from Japanese into English the overall syllabic shape of Japanese poetry.
For the syllabic poet writing in English, this is a significant find. Reading Japanese poetry translated into English which preserves the syllabics of the Japanese poetry opens up a whole culture of syllabic verse to the English language poet. By studying how a long-enduring syllabic approach to poetry approaches lineation, what kinds of tools such a culture uses in its poetry (such as pivot and caesura), the syllabic poet in English receives guidance on how to write syllabically in English, where a syllabic approach to poetry is new and, in comparison, untested.