Sunday, June 29, 2014

To the Lighthouse: The Art of Translation

                                                                                                       the scent of sunlight ...
                                                                                                       tattered edges
                                                                                                       of One Man's Moon
                                                                                                       (for Cid Corman)

For me words have color, form, character; they have faces, ports, manners, gesticulations; they are mood, humors, eccentricities; -- they have tints, tones, personalities …

-- Cid Corman, At Their Word, 156

Part I: Jon LaCure's Review of One Man's Moon

On the title page of both this book [One Man’s Moon: Poems by Basho & Other Japanese Poets, English translation by Cid Corman] and the earlier edition the author statement is: “Versions by Cid Corman.” There is nothing in the introduction to indicate why Corman uses “versions” rather than “translations” to describe his book. Perhaps he intends to produce his own “poems” in English that take their inspiration from the Japanese rather than producing a technically accurate translation.

“For me words have color, form, character; they have faces, ports, manners, gesticulations; they are mood, humors, eccentricities;—they have tints, tones, personalities …” (Corman, At Their Word, 156). A sense of this comes through in Corman’s translations in this volume.

An example is the second poem by Basho that Corman translates. His version reads:

Morning-dewed                         asatsuyu ni
streaked cool                            yogorete suzushi
muddy melon.                           uri no doro

[Editor's Note: another translation by Makoto Ueda,  Basho and His Interpreters: Selected Hokku with Commentary, p.388

in the morning dew
spotted with mud, and how cool --
melons on the soil]

There are actually three versions of this haiku by Basho. The Japanese that I have supplied above is from the last version found in Oi nikki (“The Satchel Diary”). I am guessing that Corman may have used this version because of the word “muddy.” The two earlier versions end with the word tsuchi or “soil” (Imoto, 257). The grammar of the poem is relatively simple. “Covered with morning dew, mud on a cool melon.”

Corman’s translation is remarkable for the economy of words. It is a line-by-line and practically word-for-word translation. This kind of translation makes for fractured English grammar. “Morning-dewed,” and “streaked cool” both modify melon. The sound of the poem is also worth noting with multiple words beginning with “m.” Overall this seems a somewhat eccentric but very pleasant and effective translation of what most commentators agree is a simple descriptive poem.

-- reviewed by Jon LaCure (Modern Haiku, 35:1, Spring 2004)

most commentators agree [that it] is a simple descriptive poem.

Like most commentators, Jon LaCure missed one key phrase, "streaked cool/how cool," in the above-mentioned haiku by Basho.This "simple descriptive poem," which shows Basho's art in its maturity, asks the reader to exercise some poetic imagination and see that "melons look appealing precisely because they are spotted with mud. Clean melons are a common sight, with no appeal to the imagination." (Ueda, p. 388). This "misreading" of Basho's haiku reminds me of one of the insightful remarks by Cid Corman:

Each word is a matter of life and death.

Part II: Cid Corman with Philip Rowland: The Conversation Continues

ROWLAND: Coming back to the Japanese context, I was reading recently in a few of your books published by Gnomon Press, translations of haiku mostly by the old masters. [One Man's Moon, 1984; Born of a Dream, 1988; Little Enough, 1991.] You call them "versions": it says on the front of the books, "Versions by Cid Corman." I wondered whether your choice of word there indicates an attitude to translation, an individualistic approach, or --

CORMAN: I have no rules in translating, so... I've done a lot of translation -- am still doing -- from the ancient Chinese. Every time I do a translation I do it in a different way, so I don't have any one way of doing. And I've done some of the Basho in many different versions. There are two versions of many of the poems in my... Oku no Hosomichi has been reprinted a number of times; and the one that White Pine Press did has different versions of the poem -- many of them. But the newest version, that Ecco Press did, more recently, a couple of years ago [1996], goes back to my original version. OK with me -- both versions are OK. But different ways of working the stuff. I'm trying to get -- not to add words, but to keep to the minimal structure of haiku, usually (where haiku is concerned). I've done Chinese translations different from anybody else: I follow the exact syllabic structure of the Chinese, in many of the versions -- not always -- but I indicated in one way or another in any event, because usually it's in very rigorous form, Chinese poetry, the ancient Chinese stuff.

ROWLAND: In what other ways would you say your translations of Chinese or Japanese are different from most others?

CORMAN: So this one here is, what is it, Issa, I think. I've done many versions of this particular piece: "a dewdrop world ay / a dewdrop world but even / so -- but even so"

ROWLAND: Can you remember another version?

CORMAN: I'd have to look. Not so different: just a few word-placements different. But some of the poems... So now, my version of the famous frog poem is:

            old pond
                                       frog leaping

It's nicer, because you don't need so many words, you don't need so many syllables to say; but it's word for word the Japanese. But I also point out by the structure that it's one phrase that's really all modifying the word "splash." [Reads the poem again.] And that deepens the poem -- if people read. But, of course, many people don't. There's far more happening than is on the surface; and you have to read the poems over and over again; and you must say them aloud, if you want to understand the work: My poems are meant to be voiced -- all of them; and you won't get the layout of the poems without feeling that. I don't know when I start a poem what it's going to say: I have no idea. I'm always surprised...

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