lnhammer: lo-fi photo of a tall, thin man - caption: "some guy" (Default)
[personal profile] lnhammer posting in [community profile] poetree
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."

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?

One minor thing needs explanation. Hisakata no is an untranslatable stock epithet applied to things in or descending from the sky. This is often glossed today as being derived from hisoi, "broad/wide," but according to etymological dictionaries it is more likely related to hisashii, "long-standing," and in the earliest Japanese texts it was written with the kanji for that word. (The kata part indicates "direction of/manner of," while no is a genitive case-marker.) It is unclear whether the original meaning was still known in Tomonori's day or whether, as in later times, it was simply a poeticism one is supposed to use to describe sunlight, clouds, and so on. Since one must account for it somehow, "eternal heavens" it became.

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?


Date: 2012-02-24 04:47 pm (UTC)
jjhunter: Drawing of human JJ in ink tinted with blue watercolor; woman wearing glasses with arched eyebrows (JJ inked)
From: [personal profile] jjhunter
I think Seamus Heaney's translation of Beowulf comes close, but I'm untrained in reading the original. Simon Armitage's contemporary English translation of 'Sir Gawain and the Green Knight' is an interesting example in that it does an exemplary job of replicating the aesthetic effects but the translation overall is looser and less literal. Will have to think on this further - I have some experience myself with Latin to English translations, and some decided Opinions as a result.

Date: 2012-03-20 06:03 pm (UTC)
jjhunter: Drawing of human JJ in ink tinted with blue watercolor; woman wearing glasses with arched eyebrows (JJ inked)
From: [personal profile] jjhunter
One day I'll make time for OE. In the meantime, there's always writing inspired by the translation. (E.g., see my epic Mother-Tongue based off of Heaney's translation, which delves into the stories of Beowulf's mother & Grendel's mother.)

Date: 2012-02-25 02:25 pm (UTC)
snowynight: Kino in a suit with brown background (Default)
From: [personal profile] snowynight
The English translation of this Yuan Dynasty poem is good.

Original poem:


Translation by Shi Wen-lin:

Tune to “Sand and Sky”
——Autumn Thoughts
By Ma Zhiyuan

Dry vine, old tree, crows at dusk,
Low bridge, stream running, cottages,
Ancient road, west wind, lean nag,
The sun westering,
And one with breaking heart at the sky’s edge.


poetree: Paper sculpture of bulbuous tree made from strips of book pages (Default)

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