Transliterating Shiki

Haiku

The thing about translating haiku into English is that almost none of the original haiku form survives the journey unscathed. Seventeen Japanese morae usually break down to half as many English syllables. Most editors prefer line breaks to authentic one-long-line renditions. And kireji like ya and kana have no obvious English equivalent at all.

This is awkward. Kireji are old and worn, with no particular meanings of their own, but as the links above explain they really tie the ku together. To ignore them entirely will not stand.1 But what to do with them instead?

There have been many approaches. Punctuation is popular: em dashes for mid-haiku kireji, exclamation marks for haiku-final ones, and so on. Flat denial is another option: some argue that there is no way to simulate the effect in English and no need either. Some take the middle ground, believing that line breaks/phrasing/etc. will do the job without any special attention required.

In his Shiki collection Peonies Kana, though, Harold J. Isaacson showcases a unique solution, which you may already have guessed from the title: wave the kireji through exactly as they are. Here are two typical examples of Isaacson’s work, with originals added by me for comparison:

The caged insects
all start to cry,
Fine rain kana

[籠の虫皆啼きたつる小雨哉 = kago no mushi/ mina nakitatsuru/ kosame kana]

The coolness ya
Wind-bejumbled
rope curtain.

[涼しさや風にさばける繩簾 = suzushisa ya/ kaze ni sabakeru/ nawasudare]

The book’s blurb explains that Isaacson felt that haiku had, in previous translations, been

prettified [...] losing much of the power of the original. To try to rectify this he has worked long in the mountains of Shikoku to present the work of Shiki, the last great haiku master [...] in its thorniness and immensity as well as its beauty; and he has transferred into English the haiku particles, left out by previous translators.

“Left out” is a provocative way to put it. I am sure that the previous (and subsequent) translators here slandered would prefer “translated.” But Isaacson makes his position quite clear in his introduction:

As it is impossible to accurately understand a haiku unless one knows whether a particle was used in it or not, and if used, which particle and where placed, it will be seen that this is the first time that Englished haiku have ever been set before the Western reader.

Of course Isaacson also recognizes the need to provide an explanation of these “haiku particles,” and does:

They are three in number, “ya,” “kana,” and “keri.” They were originally Japanese grammatical components, but are used n a special way in the haiku [...] In brief they have not exactly any meaning, or rather they have the meaning that lies in themselves as sounds, and in that way are as meaningful when set in the English translation as they are in the Japanese.

Setting aside the issue of number, which is irresolvable, these claims about “meaning” are dubious at best. Ya, kana, and keri cannot be “as meaningful” in English as they are in Japanese, because they are not English.

A Japanese reader may not know the long and storied history of kana and keri, but at the very least they are known to be Japanese words often found in haiku. They are not jarring to a Japanese reader. An Anglophone reader, on the other hand, cannot but be jarred upon encountering these words. They aren’t even in the italics that signal “foreign word coming through” in modern English orthography. And knowing Japanese only aggravates the situation: the spark of recognition impedes acceptance of Isaacson’s innovations as new loanwords. (Archaic English interjections — “Lo!” “Alas!” “O!” — would arguably have gotten Isaacson much closer to the effect he claims to be seeking.)

Transliterated kireji are only a symptom of a deeper idiosyncracy in Isaacson’s technique. Consider these two examples, original asterisks included:

From the water* dropper
water is poured out to
the fukujusō*.

[入の水をやりけり福壽艸]

Year’s* Day ya
All the remembered
crests*.

[元朝や皆見覺えの紋處]

To readers who don’t know the Japanese word fukujusō or at least enough Japanese to guess that -sō ending means that it’s some sort of plant, the first haiku turns entirely opaque at the most frustrating possible moment. (And shouldn’t a “keri” be in there somewhere too?)

The second one isn’t quite as obscure, but it does require that the reader be familiar enough with Japanese culture to realize that “Year’s Day” and “crests” must refer to the old tradition (now almost entirely replaced by nengajō) of paying New Year’s Day visits in formal crested kimono.

As the asterisks show, Isaacson does provide endnotes for “Year’s Day”, “crests,” and “fukujusō,” and these endnotes explain all. But for the casual reader the damage has already been done. This style of translating is almost passive-aggressive in its demands on the reader. Shiki is serious business, it says. If you want to read him, there will be homework. There is some truth in this, but it is also possible to lose sight of the forest here. In Isaacson’s own analysis, Shiki’s is a subtle œuvre, one heavily reliant on allusion. Strapping it into a hulking exoskeleton covered in blinking lights might be the only way to get it through the alien territory of English, but the effect on the reader will obviously not be the same. Isaacson’s attempts to preserve Shiki’s elegance and wit as perfectly as possible have made a Dalek of him instead.

Perversely, the ideal target audience for Peonies Kana is exactly those readers who do not need it: those who can read Shiki in the original, and appreciate Isaacson’s versions as covers produced under Oulipoic constraints. As an introduction to or universalization of Shiki, Isaacson’s book fails — but as an expression of what Shiki’s work meant to Isaacson personally, it is a glorious success. The sketches of transcendence in Isaacson’s commentary (“‘ya’ has a hard force like a concentrated bolt of out-going power, and ‘kana’ has a soft force, diffusing and thus pervading”), the attribution on the cover of the haiku within to “the Upasaka Shiki”; and the inclusion in the book of Isaacson’s translation of the Noh play Tōgan koji3 all suggest that this was the real goal of the work anyway.

Today, Isaacson probably would have just put his work online, awaiting those who had proved their worthiness by digging deeply enough in the Google results for “shiki translation” to find it. We are fortunate that he managed to find a publisher to back his idiosyncrasies back in those days before the web had lengthened literature’s tail.

NOTES

1 By “haiku” throughout this post I mean “haikoid works from both before and after the word haiku was invented” in accordance with standard English usage.

2 On the other hand, one should never forget the typically farcical argument in the Kyorai shō (去来抄) between Bashō’s disciples over the master’s use of nite to end Karasaki no/ matsu wa hana yori/ oboro nite:

Some troll: Ending with nite sucks.
Kikaku: Nite is the same as kana. That’s why when the first verse in a chain ends with kana, the third shouldn’t end with nite. But using kana here would have sounded rushed, so it’s nite instead.
Romaru: I agree with Kikaku. Also, this is the third verse in a chain. Why are people thinking it’s the first?
Kyorai: This is a spontaneous expression of feeling, so it can only be the first verse in a chain. If it was the third in a chain, it would lose points for not being thoughtful enough.
Bashō: You guys are all overthinking this. I just thought it was cool that the pines were hazier than the flowers.

3 “Partly to throw more light on the character of the term Koji [the source of Isaacson's 'Upasaka'], but also because it makes clearer whatever Shiki was trying to do.”

Matt TREYVAUD
February 10, 2009

Matt Treyvaud is a writer and translator living near Kamakura. He is Néojaponisme's Literature/Language editor and the proprietor of No-sword.

27 Responses

  1. Carl Says:

    I like your translation of the Kyorai sho. It reminds me of a translation of Shonagon into blog-ese that used to exist: http://web.archive.org/web/20051024001706/http://blog.simon-cozens.org/shonagon/ . Someone should really do a whole book of that.

  2. marukusuboy Says:

    That line — “The coolness ya” — sounds like something an uninspired (= over- or under-stoned) Rastafarian poet might come up with.

    I wonder what Harold J. Isaacson was smoking up there “in the mountains of Shikoku.”

  3. Patrick Says:

    A fascinating post,once I’d overcome the initial suspicion that you had entirely invented Isaacson and his method, to cheer us all up on a dull day in February.
    His version of the fourth haiku creates an extra barrier to understanding for anyone interested in heraldry (western or Japanese): a crest ya is not the same thing as a badge kana. ; )

  4. Patrick Says:

    Whoops, meant to add that the superscript number for footnote 2 seems to have dropped out of the text somehow.

  5. W. David MARX Says:

    We are currently working on the Footnote 2 issue. Please stand by.

  6. Peter Says:

    Laughs for the marukusuboy comment. Isaacson didn’t factor in the idea that the kireji syllables could have a aural nuance of their own in English.

    This reminds me of (but is not all that related to) a disagreement I had with the wife the other night, while watching a performance of Poulenc’s L’Histoire Du Babar (小象ババールの物語 kozō Babar no monogatari), where I didn’t want to hear the spoken word in Japanese, but rather in the original French–even though I don’t speak French. The wife wanted the story and didn’t care about the extra layer of translation.

    Whether translating or transliterating, I think there is a point where the art of the original starts to suffer…

  7. Adamu Says:

    This one is way the heck over my head, but I just gotta say the art leaves me at peace.

  8. Daniel Says:

    “the first haiku turns entirely opaque at the most frustrating possible moment.”

    Thought that was a great line. Really enjoyed the article.

    Maybe we can convince a Murakami translator to start transliterating the yare yares.

  9. Leonardo Boiko Says:

    Love the Bashō student discussion.

  10. xee Says:

    I initially read the title of the book as ‘peonies 仮名’, which i’m sure was also not Isaacson’s intent.

  11. Matt TREYVAUD Says:

    I just gotta say the art leaves me at peace.

    It is of a coolness, ya? The Shiki sketch component is by Nakamura Fusetsu (1866-1943), probably from that photo you always see.

    Whether translating or transliterating, I think there is a point where the art of the original starts to suffer…

    One of my ongoing problems these days is deciding which translation to read of books originally written in languages I don’t speak.

  12. language hat Says:

    Man, I thought Zukofsky’s translations keeping the actual sounds of the original were weird, but this takes the cake. The obvious thing to do would be to have each translated haiku followed by a transliteration, so that the interested reader can see where the kireji are as well as getting a feel for the original, while in your translation giving a sense of what the original, you know, means. And on top of all that, kana is an English word of 300 years’ standing, meaning “Japanese syllabic writing,” which irrevocably conflicts with its use in this context. Bad Harold J. Isaacson! No biscuit!

  13. Leonardo Boiko Says:

    Yeah — what’s the problem with bilingual editions? I always believed they’re the best of both worlds & should be done more often (and not only for Japanese — why can’t my Icelandic sagas present the original Icelandic side-by-side?)

  14. Etl World News | TRANSLATING KIREJI. Says:

    [...] in this case, not translating them. Matt of No-sword has a typically irresistible essay in Néojaponisme, discussing the bizarre haiku translations of Harold J. Isaacson, who rather than [...]

  15. Etl World News | TRANSLATING KIREJI. Says:

    [...] in this case, not translating them. Matt of No-sword has a typically irresistible essay in Néojaponisme, discussing the bizarre haiku translations of Harold J. Isaacson, who rather than [...]

  16. claytonian Says:

    I agree with #13 Leonardo. Side by side translation, originals, and lingual notes.

  17. William Hone, Jr. Says:

    Thanks for this essay and especially for clarifying connotations that would escape non Japanese speakers like myself. It’s a perfect illustration of your MANIFESTO in action.

  18. Matt TREYVAUD Says:

    The only charitable explanation I can think of for the lack of originals in _Peonies Kana_ is that Isaacson’s publisher said “OK, we have 88 pages, do you want 150 poems with originals or 300 poems in translation only?” (It was the early 70s, after all.)

  19. Roy Berman Says:

    Did this book include the original Japanese next to Isaacson’s translation? Almost all of the Japanese poetry I ever got in class in the US had both an English translation and the Japanese rendered as romaji. Which was an odd choice really, because the romaji isn’t going to be of much use to non-Japanese readers except for giving a way for them to count the syllables and say to themselves “so there ARE seven!” while at the same time not giving Japanese readers an authentic presentation.

    “Archaic English interjections — “Lo!” “Alas!” “O!” — would arguably have gotten Isaacson much closer to the effect he claims to be seeking.”

    This is an interesting approach, and I’m sure one that has been used many times in translating such poetry. In fact, I know it has. But the problem is that these English interjections have their own nuances and poetic uses, and their use as a substitute for Japanese particles could be just as jarring (or at least misleading) to a reader highly familiar with archaic English poetry.

  20. language hat Says:

    Which was an odd choice really, because the romaji isn’t going to be of much use to non-Japanese readers except for giving a way for them to count the syllables and say to themselves “so there ARE seven!” while at the same time not giving Japanese readers an authentic presentation.

    But Japanese readers don’t need the translations at all and probably won’t be reading the book, whereas I suspect there are a lot of English-speaking readers, like me, who have enough of a smattering of Japanese to make some use of the romaji but to whom kanji would be nothing but a decorative element.

  21. xee Says:

    the romaji isn’t going to be of much use to non-Japanese readers

    perhaps the rōmaji is also there so you can try and work out what it sounds like even if you don’t speak japanese? poetry being sound as well as lexical meaning.
    That said, my editions of translated greek and russian poetry are either all-english or bilingual: they do assume you are either familiar with the script or don’t care about the original sound.

    my ideal for translations of japanese poetry, i decided a while back, would be something rather like the iwanami nihon koten bungaku taikei, with the page in three parts (e.g., orig/translation/notes), so there’s a continuous section for notes, which for me is somehow easier to deal with than individual footnotes.

  22. xee Says:

    (or indeed any other taikei! though istr the nippon gakujutsu whatnot only has two parts to the page and therefore lacks that pleasing balance.)

  23. xee Says:

    (or maybe i have them the wrong way round? oh w/evs i am sure youse know what i mean.)

  24. Matt TREYVAUD Says:

    Did this book include the original Japanese next to Isaacson’s translation?

    Nope. I agree with LH and Xee on this one though — lots of people interested in haiku have beginner-to-medium level Japanese, so better there than not. (Of course, the ideal edition has Japanese orthography, romaji, several translations by different authors, detailed and thoughtful notes, a wet bar, and a solid gold robot pony. Everything else is just an imperfect shadow of this idea.)

    TThis is an interesting approach, and I’m sure one that has been used many times in translating such poetry. In fact, I know it has. But the problem is that these English interjections have their own nuances and poetic uses, and their use as a substitute for Japanese particles could be just as jarring (or at least misleading) to a reader highly familiar with archaic English poetry.

    I’ll grant you misleading, but I don’t think it could ever be as jarring. I never did get used to Isaacson’s unitalicized “ya”.

    By the way, I’ve only ever seen the “Lo!” approach used in very old approaches to tanka/haiku, like William Porter’s Hyakunin Isshu. You seem to have something specific in mind too — do you know of any more recent attempts in this vein?

  25. nnyhav Says:

    emoticons

  26. Roy Berman Says:

    I was thinking more of English translations of classical poetry in general than any particular work, or even of Japanese poetry at all. I studied a bit of Japanese poetry in college, but not in any great detail and all those books are back home, far far away right now.

    “I’ll grant you misleading, but I don’t think it could ever be as jarring. I never did get used to Isaacson’s unitalicized “ya”. ”
    No, certainly not as jarring. I say misleading because the Lo! type language is usually an attempt to replicate the tone of written poetry based on oral literature, and I don’t think that’s very appropriate for highly stylized language of something like haiku.

  27. Matt TREYVAUD Says:

    H’m, interesting. For me, “Lo!” and “Alas!” are tied up with Biblical (and in the latter case Classical) language, so the main problem with using either would be that they immediately make the mood much grander and more solemn than most haiku aim for.