Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Translating and Writing Tankas

In teaching the tanka, Kimiko drew our attention to the niceties of translating Japanese poetry into English. From Sato 1999 Symposium on translating Asian languages (see Manoa 11/2):

Finally, to state the obvious, syllabic value differs from language to language. Japanese is a polysyllabic, vowel-laden tongue; English isn't. English can express, on average, twenty to twenty-five percent more than Japanese can with the same number of syllables. You can guess what happens when the 5- and 7-syllable formations are applied in translating traditional tanka and haiku: the result usually says more than the original does.

Well, does all this matter? After all, Japanese and English are so different. Because the languages are different, shouldn't the assumption be that forms can't be transferred? Japanese poets may regard tanka and haiku as one-line poems, but it's highly doubtful that they have any notion of the "line" in the Western sense and, anyhow, one-line poems are non-poems in English--even though, yes, come to think of it, there's something called the monostich in the English poetic tradition. But of the monostich, the New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics says, "It is an interesting question whether a one-line poem is possible," doesn't it? [Note: the question has since been removed from the later edition of the encyclopedia.]

Kimiko writes tankas in English as a monostich: one long line that undergoes the kind of internal movement a tanka does. Besides including a nature image, she also aims for brevity.

My efforts for her workshop:

The sun casts shadows, so why am I surprised that loves makes darkness, as if I am not in its way?


Because this country has no mountains, we think highly of hills; look, we point to the peaks, where we can live.


Did you see the forsythia hanging over the road through the park on the first day of spring? I did, thanks to Helaine.


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