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Posted on behalf of [personal profile] rainjoy. Anne Carson translation of Fragment 16 can be read here.
===

Forgive my intrusion, as someone who is not a poet, nor a classicist, nor even for more than ten years any official student of literature - I'm a philosopher who doesn't know when not to dabble, but I do soothe my conscience for my constant interfering in art by being an aesthetician by trade; I might in my daily life deal mostly in very abstract concepts, but what they relate to in the end is this poem in front of us, and what it does to us, and what it does to me every single time. So I'll try to keep this fairly brief and on point, and what I'm going to talk about here is mostly context for the poem, because there are a few things to take into account which really do matter and I always want to grab people tight and *make them understand this* because I *want* them to love the poem the way that I do. And I do love it, painfully so.

Always remember the act of translation, and the translator's choices; always remember the conception of beauty in the poem, and the poet's choices; and always remember the sheer state of the poem as it survives, because the 'test of time' is a lie. What survives for two thousand years is a matter of luck as much as taste, a matter of how useful scholars across history thought the Greek in that passage was for teaching Greek grammar, a matter of whim and fire and forgetfulness and creeping damp. The fact that we have what we have of the poem is a gift, an accident, a fluke, a blessing. And as for the missing pieces, when it comes to it, after more than two thousand years, even Sappho's silence sings.

So. There is a reason that when it comes to Sappho I stick my fingers in my ears and make furious noise if anyone besides Anne Carson attempts to translate her. )

The fact that this is an ancient Greek poem matters, because Sappho's conception of beauty is downright subversive to some classical minds. )
lnhammer: lo-fi photo of a tall, thin man - caption: "some guy" (Default)
[personal profile] lnhammer
While it is tempting to pick a relatively easy translation tension, such as word order versus order of images, I think it is time to tackle the infamous pronoun problem and the related issue of context. Here's a particularly knotty one, one that would be even worse were it not for its complicated textual history.

Kokinshu #35 is from book 1, in the section of plum blossom poems. To explain the difficulty here, I need to lift up the hood and show the details of how to unpack a Japanese poem. Or at least how I do it, which as you've seen is often at length, and immodestly long posts go under a modesty cut. )

And that's it for me this week (unless someone really wants that word-versus-image-order post). I hope I've managed to convey something of the fun of translation, and the beauties of classical Japanese poetry -- or if not, that I was at least entertaining. And I leave you with a question: which of the above versions is "correct," and why?

---L.
lnhammer: lo-fi photo of a tall, thin man - caption: "some guy" (Default)
[personal profile] lnhammer
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. Brief discussion of ways of doubling meanings, including one unique to Japanese, ) 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? Let me count the ways -- and the compromises. ) 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.
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[personal profile] lnhammer
Ki no Tomonori is best known today as one of the four editors of the Kokinshu. His birth date is unknown, but he died before the collection was completed around 905 CE. In his day and for a few centuries afterward, he was considered a major poet, writing works that struck a fashionable balance between a courtier's smooth wittiness and an elegant manner.

One reason his reputation declined is that tastes changed, as open wit was devalued in favor of emotional depth and subtle allusion. Another is that he was, in fact, not a very original poet: I've seen him use only a single image or conceit I haven't met somewhere else in the works of his predecessors or contemporaries, and that's in a thoroughly mediocre poem. What he excelled at, more than anyone of his time, was making it sound beautiful. Or to put it another way, his poetry is good in precisely those ways that do not translate well.

Here is his most famous poem, chosen to represent him in One Hundred People, One Poem Each. It is from book 2 of the Kokinshu, a spring poem with the topic "Written on cherry blossoms falling."

久方のひかりのどけき春の日にしづ心なく花のちるらむ
hisakata no
hikari nodokeki
haru no hi ni
shizugokoro naku
hana no chiruramu
    Gentle light shines down
from the eternal heavens,
    so on this spring day
why do the cherry blossoms
scatter with such restless hearts?


A transient footnote. )

The main difficulty here is what makes this his best-known work -- the original is absolutely lovely, quite possibly the most beautiful poem in the Kokinshu in terms of sound and rhythm and their play with the sense of the words. Something of the effect can be half-glimpsed by noting the interplay of syllables beginning with h and k. The only thing one can do is polish, and polish, and polish until the translation gleams with its own reflected grace.

I cannot claim I've succeeded at that, but I am pleased I managed to shape the progression of vowels, rising high and back in the mouth until dropping to the low front with the final line's restless hearts. This is only a pale imitation of the original's effect, but it's something.

So here's a question: can anyone recommend translations from any language that reproduce the aesthetic, and especially sonic, effects of the original poem?

---L.
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[personal profile] lnhammer
The Kokinwakashu ("Collection of Old and New Japanese Poetry"), or Kokinshu for short, was the first imperially commissioned anthology of poetry in Japanese, compiled around 905 CE by a panel of four leading young poets of the day. This was a cultural watershed -- it firmly cemented the reputation of Japanese as a valid language for poetry, as opposed to the Chinese in vogue for the prior century and a half, and it set what was acceptable in terms of diction, subjects, and images for court poetry (and by omission, what was not acceptable) for the next thousand years minus a couple decades.

Background notes on the collection, verse form, Japanese grammar, and the collapse of ambiguity (if not civilization itself). )

For what it's worth, my philosophy of translation is to render my best understanding of the original's sense while reproducing as much as possible of the poem's quality and structures -- sonic, linguistic, rhetorical, and so on. This involves not only interpretation, but trade-offs. For example, the normal sentence order of Japanese is almost, but not entirely, the complete reverse of English. This means that in a literal prose paraphrase of a poem that's one long clause, the nouns, verbs, and adjectives are in the opposite order in English from the original. If the sequence of images these substantives call up is not important to the poem's effect -- for example, if the mainspring of the poetry is a witty metaphor -- then this reversal does no real damage. But if the images form a careful progression, such as sweeping from a wide scene down to a small detail, it is probably better to maintain that sequence as best as possible, at the expense of breaking up the smooth swoop of a single clause.

Trade-offs. Just like in any poem, or any other work of art.

For this week, I've chosen three Kokinshu poems that highlight different problems of translation. I'm afraid there's far more prose than verse in these posts -- partly because the poems are so small, but mostly it's that it takes a lot to unpack these lovely puzzle-boxes that are Japanese verse. Starting on the next rock, coming tomorrow.

Until then, for discussion: those of you who translate, what is your philosophy/practice? What do you focus on the most?

A modest footnote )

---L.
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[personal profile] lnhammer
Hi, I'm some guy named Larry, your host for the week. My focus will be on translating poetry, illustrated with some of my own. My basic thesis is that yes, it is indeed possible to translate a poem, but that the process is subject to the same compromises between sound, form, content, structure, image, trope, and so on as in an original poem, only even more so.

My current obsession* is Japanese, which I've been learning for a couple years now -- both modern and classical languages, which are roughly as different as modern English and Chaucer's dialect. For the past year and a half, by way of practice, I've been working my way through the Kokinshu, a poetry collection compiled at the start of the 10th century -- posting drafts in my DW and compiling revisions in my LJ starting here; the latest versions are also available in a free ebook (ePub only, sorry).

The translations I plan to discuss this week are all from this collection; two are also in One Hundred People, One Poem Each, an anthology compiled a couple centuries later, which I've translated in full. Even more than the Kokinshu, this collection is part of the canon of classical literature, being required reading for Japanese high school students. As a result, it's been multiply translated -- which means it's relatively easy to check my work against other versions. (BTW, if anyone can comment on or correct my interpretations, please do -- I'm very much just a journeyman at this.)

But enough about me -- on the next rock, some background on Japanese poetry and language.


* In the past, I've also translated Spanish and Latin.


---L.

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