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[personal profile] lnhammer posting in [community profile] poetree
We know very little about Ono no Komachi aside from that she was active in the middle of the 9th century and the subject of later medieval legends about her as a hardhearted beauty. Based on a body of 22 poems reliably attributed to her, she's considered one of Japan's greatest woman poets, noted in particular for her passionate love poems and her technical mastery, especially at using words with multiple meanings.

That last requires some comment. Sometimes, as poets everywhere do to layer in meanings, she uses a word simultaneously in both a literal and a metaphoric way. This can be either as a symbol -- as in the poem below, where the flower is both one she is looking at and herself as a woman -- or in an original literal meaning and a metaphoric extension -- below, iro is both the flower's "color" and her own "beauty." Sometimes, however, she employs a technique that is, as far as I know, unique to Japanese poetry: a kakekotoba or "pivot-word," where the sound of a word is read with one meaning as part of the phrase before it and another with the phrase after it. As an example of how this might work in English, consider "with you gone I pine trees moan in the wind," read as "with you gone I pine" then "pine trees moan in the wind." Originally, this was done to cleverly join two otherwise disconnected phrases, but by Komachi's day, it was possible to use it to layer two phrases on top of each other, thus packing more meaning into a small space. In particular, Komachi is noted for her masterful use of pivot-words while writing about what reads as deeply felt emotions.

Needless to say, pivot-words are a pain to translate: the target language can almost never reproduce the pun -- for this is, indeed, a type of pun, used for serious rather than comic effect. My example above happens to be one of the few English can render: matsu can mean "pine tree" and "to wait," which in the context of love poetry can without much strain be understood as "pining" for someone. A typical strategy, or at least what I usually do, is to double-translate the pivot-word in both meanings, reproducing the sense a fluent reader would get -- if possible, also echoing something of the punnery, but if not, well, that's what footnotes are for.

All this by way of context. As for the poem: this is again from book 2 of the Kokinshu, in a section about flowers fading in late spring, and like Tomonori's poem, it also represents her in One Hundred People, One Poem Each. The headnote claims the topic is unknown.

花の色はうつりにけりないたづらにわが身世にふるながめせしまに
hana no iro wa
utsurinikeri na
itazura ni
waga mi yo ni furu
nagame seshi ma ni
    This flower's beauty
has faded away it seems
    to no avail
have I spent my time staring
into space at the long rains


So about those double-meanings? Komachi approaches the outer limit of semantic packing here -- almost every single substantive has more than one operative sense. Even the middle-line adverbial itazaru ni "in vain/uselessly/idly" can apply twice, to both the clause above and below. To list them out:

  • hana = flower / woman (so speaking of herself in the third person)
  • iro = color / beauty or possibly passion / circumstances
  • utsuru = change / fade / scatter (the verb is inflected as the speaker's realization of a completed action)
  • waga mi = myself / my body
  • yo ni = in the world (either the world in general or specifically the world of sexual relations) / extremely (can be treated as a pivot-word)
  • furu = to pass (of time) / grow old (of herself) / fall (of rain) (a pivot-word)
  • nagame = long rains / staring into space (understood as an abstracted gaze while lost in thought) (another pivot-word)
  • ma = period of time (for the raining, the gazing, and/or the getting old) / extent of space (where gazing into)
So, for example, we can understand her as growing old in general (in the world) or as having spent time in a specific relationship, or both. Complicating all this is that the trope of a lonely lady in springtime was common in the Chinese poetry in vogue at the time, one Komachi plays with in this and other poems.

In my version, I managed to reproduce a few of the double-meanings largely because a flower can be readily understood in English as representing a woman. By omitting punctuation, it's possible to read my middle line, matching the original's, as applying to either part. However, in flattening out some layers by double-translating pivots, I lost other doublets -- in particular, the explicit suggestion that it is a love affair that she feels was in vain is now implicit, and ambiguous enough that it could be read merely that she regrets how she has spent her life in general. To me, this is an almost acceptable compromise, as the original can also be read either way. Sometimes, you can let the ambiguities remain, if in different guises.

Nonetheless, I cannot claim this is a particularly good translation, only that it's the least bad I can do. My consolation is that I've read few others that are definitively better. If something of the original's haunting quality carries through, then I might be able to call it a qualified success. And even then, I'd still want footnotes.

Incidentally, if you ignore or overlook all the double-meanings, it's relatively easy to read the poem as a single, simple statement (for example, a descriptive bit about flowers fading in the rain). One that gets it very, very wrong. Which may, when coupled with its reputation, go a long way toward explaining why this is one of the most translated poems of any language. If you're interested in a detailed analysis of several English versions, and how they do or do not get it right, I recommend Joshua Mostow's excellent discussion in chapter 3 of Pictures of the Heart: The Hyakunin Isshu in Word and Image (link is to Google Books version).

Technical details aside, double-meanings appear in poetry in every language, of course. Can anyone recommend translations that manage to reproduce, either directly or by other means, double-meanings of the original?

---L.

Date: 2012-02-25 07:41 am (UTC)
meeks: meeks and lorelei (Default)
From: [personal profile] meeks
My favourite example isn't from poetry at all, actually...it's from the manga/anime series 黒執事(Kuroshitsuji, or Black Butler in English) in which the title character, who is a demon and a butler often says "あくまで執事です" which can be read as either "aku made shitsuji desu" (am a butler to the end) or "akuma de shitsuji desu" (am a demon and a butler). The fansubbers, and later Funimation translated it in English as "I am one hell of a butler".

Also, slightly OT, but I was amused to see you invoke Joshua in this post, since he was the second person I thought of when you introduced this topic at the beginning of the week. (The first was one of his former grad students, to whose eloquent ranting I owe most of my knowledge on the subject. XD)

Date: 2012-02-25 02:33 pm (UTC)
snowynight: An Asian doctor who's also Captain America (Default)
From: [personal profile] snowynight
Original Poem bu Liu Yue-shi:
杨柳青青江水平,闻郎江上唱歌声。
东边日出西边雨,道是无晴却有晴。

晴, which means sunny has the same sound as 情, feeling/love. The use here has double meaning.

Translation by Zhao En-tao:
The willows green, the river quite at rest, I barmy love
sing ashore his lay.
Sunshine in the east, and raindrops in the west, It isn’t
warm, but warm yet, I dare say.

The translation uses warm, which both refers to weather and emotion.

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