Monday, August 3, 2009

Basho Translation

Nothing to do with videogames today. I spontaneously decided to post my own translation of Basho's most famous haiku to Twitter earlier, and I wanted to take a second to explain it a little (is that supposedly against the spirit of haiku? well it's not my poem to begin with, so I think I'm free to analyze it). The original, in case you know Japanese but don't know it, is:

古池や 蛙飛びこむ 水の音

furu ike ya kawazu tobikomu mizu no oto

My translation is:

Back at the old pond
A frog leaps and dives within
The sound of water

So a couple things to note here. Firstly, I maintain the haiku syllable structure. Not all translations do, but haiku has the rule for a reason - it forces you to pick your syllables carefully. Contrast with this translation by Curtis Hidden Page (reference):

A lonely pond in age-old stillness sleeps . . .
Apart, unstirred by sound or motion . . . till
Suddenly into it a lithe frog leaps.

You can add a lot of detail by elongating the translation, sure. Conversely you can super-shorten it to just get the idea across very quickly, but the original poem is neither of these. It's just long enough to introduce a little personality into a thought, without being long enough to pin down and define the personality.

Ok, so secondly, the word "back" is nowhere to be found in the original, but the poem as a whole definitely gives the impression that the poet considers the pond a very familiar place, which the word expresses. Also, the wording maintains a certain ambiguity - it's not clear whether the poet is present at the pond or not. He might be back at the old pond, taking it in, when a frog leaps and creates a moment of awareness, or the frog-leaping might be occuring "back at the old pond" while he's elsewhere. I like the ambiguity, myself.

Thirdly, I use the singular "frog." In Japanese, there is no distinction between singular and plural, so kawazu is ambiguous. In English, we have to pick one, and my understanding is that Basho thought of it as a single frog (his painting to accompany the poem depicts one frog), so I went with it.

Fourthly, tobikomu is made up of two components. By itself, tobu means to fly, and the komu suggests being enveloped, thus I use two verbs to express the meaning of the multi-faceted word. This is apparently an unusual move - many people focus on the brevity of the haiku, but this word actually feels pretty long and considered to me, so I give it that time in translation.

Finally, "the sound of water" is a pretty literal and orthodox translation of the last line, but it's unusual that I lead into it with the word "within", suggesting the metaphor that the frog is becoming a sound. It does fit with the structure of the original poem, and it's a bit ambiguous, but it's fair to say that this is the second place (the first being the occurence of "back") where I'm taking some poetic license. I think it fits the impression of the poem as a whole, however. We don't know if Basho actually sees the frog, but in theory he does hear the frog. It's possible that he is surmising the existence of a frog based solely on the sound he hears. Either way, it is clear that Basho is leaving us with "the sound of water" as an indication that after the leap and the dive, the sound, and the impression of the action, is all that remains. It is in this sense that we might think of the frog as literally becoming a sound.

That's it for now. I seem to be on a roll this week with the posts. We'll see if I burn out soon from over-posting.

-Silent Ellipsis

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