|A Copper Pheasant|
With Tagore we had a Bengali script but we also had a poem whose form and tone we seemed to recognise, and while the form was modified in the translation the tone drew ever closer to the register of the Biblical Psalms and, according to our dual language Bengali-English speaking and writing translator, that was not far off the mark. The form itself was adapted from international models: the voice and the plea were far from unfamiliar.
With Japanese we faced an altogether different set of problems. We gave a lot of time to the nature of the language itself and its relation to Chinese. We talked of the primarily visual nature of it, its pride in calligraphy, its clarity and brevity, of its privileging of the visual over the auditory and of the kind of feelings it arouses in its readers.
In talking of a couple of haiku by Yosa Buson (1716-1783) Aya Tanaka emphasised the sense of comfort she experienced when reading them. So much was familiar and deep rooted but could not be discounted merely as cliché. We briefly considered the many translations of Basho's famous haiku about the frog leaping into the water (Furuike ya/ kawazu tobikomu /mizu no) of which many variants exist. There was also the by-now long tradition of the English-language haiku and of the countless haiku societies established all over America and Britain. The English-language haiku may not be what a Japanese haiku is but it has certainly made a home here. And there were the early translations of Japanese verse by Pound and Fenollosa.
In other words the haiku is strange yet not altogether so. This is what Aya herself has to say about it.
Recreation of the image of the poem was the most difficult task for me in the translation process.Here is one of the two haiku we looked at:
For me, reading Haiku is always a visual experience. Haiku often describe one striking moment of daily life, especially an experience in nature, and the deep, quiet joyous feeling evoked by that moment.
Traditional Haiku should contain at least one word which implicates the season. Those keywords works like a trigger in my head, and my childhood memories (or shared images among Japanese people) revisit me.
Copper pheasant of
Step on the tail
Spring sunset oh
The reading in Japanese of the poem is over in a flash. The seventeen syllables of the formal structure sound as though they were compressed into no more than a dozen at most. The sensory or onomatopoeic quality of the poetry was clearly secondary.
The discussion was long and fascinating . What was the function of the "oh" at the end? Was it a cry of pleasure and surprise? No. It was a traditional way of ending a haiku meaning simply something like "the end".
In what way did the sun "step" on the tail of the copper pheasant. Was it like someone stepping on your feet at a dance? Aya suggested it might have been the shadow of the bird's tail on the ground.
And what of grammar and syntax? The apparatus of English requires all kinds of connecting words in order to create sequence and relation but how far was this necessary and desirable in the case of the haiku as described by Aya? Was not the classical haiku about a certain kind simultaneity?
As we returned to the poem in a later session Aya provided us with a list of emotions and associations she experienced in the poem. These included "soft, spring, warm, light, shadow, copper, brown, movement, stillness, gentle, slightly funny, etc." So these were important qualities to capture or hint at. This led us to explore the possibility of multiple translations in order to create a three-dimensional space for the poem to exist in. This is how she went about it. She looked out an existing translation by R H Blyth:
treading on the tail
of the copper pheasant
the setting sun of spring
alights on the tail
of a copper pheasant
copper pheasant’s tail
copper pheasant’s tail
a spring sunset
Between the three (and potentially many more) translations we might be approaching something like the effect of the original on its Japanese reader. Is that one of the tasks of translation? Is that in fact a model for poetry translation generally? (I myself think it might be and have experimented with several translations as variations).
This is what Aya said about the process as a whole.
Working with people with shared interests and passion was exhilarating in itself, but translating haiku and recreating it with people without prior knowledge of the Japanese language was an outstanding experience since I discovered many fresh viewpoints which I could never had on my own. Because I was translating into my second language I was particularly grateful that members of the group helped me to generate English words that might go some way to recreating the Japanese original image, even the idea of the image of one letter in one word in the form of an ideogram since the use of ideographs plays a crucial role in the poem.
There are, of course insurmountable problems. The whole project is in some ways one insurmountable problem. What we know is that both the original and the translation are reaching after something beyond either and that, paradoxically, helps us perform the impossible task of seeing together while retaining and respecting our distance.