Day 5

antiquated pond
amphibian leaping in
aquatic sounding

And that's even worse... Basho done by the SAT. The sounds are lovely (the repetition of the t sounds, the a's, the p's in "pond" and "leap" rhyming with the b in "amphibian"), but those words don't sound right to the English ear, unless you're a pretentious shit. Plus, they're just not accurate--"antiquated" meaning something like "obsolete" (and I can't imagine Basho understanding a pond in the way we understand computers), and amphibian referring to much more than the species kawazu

I was contemplating trying to translate the poem into Latin. Since our latinate English words seem most closely to approximate the syllable length of the Japanese, I figured they'd sound more natural and less hoity-toidy in Latin. Then I thought it would be even more hoity-toidy to translate it into Latin.


Day 4

At the old pond's side
a frog slips away into
the sound of water.

See? 5-7-5 is just too much room for our Angl0-Saxon words to wiggle around in. The prepositions are unnecessary and overdone--they focus us too much on the moment, a HUD of poetic attention. And that "away"--ick, so much metaphysic in that word. Again, as well, the trouble with the articles--should any of these activities and objects be definite? Or indefinite? Or is the indeterminacy the key of the original (this frog here, and also all frogs at all times everywhere)? 

And finally, ugh, the syntax ("the arrangement of the army") puts us into a lockstep lemming-like march to that final period, where we all plop in with the frog, only we can't breathe underwater...


Day 3

old pond--
here the frog leaps in
water's sound

The form of haiku in Japanese is, as we all learn in kindy-garten, 5 syllables first line, seven syllables second line, five syllables last line. I've read somewhere that English ought to put it into 3-5-3, which I've done here. 

My personal experience with this rhythmic translation was in Japan: a friend suggested I write a haiku for the emperor's annual competition, which I did, packing as much nature imagery as I could into a 5-7-5 haiku in English. It was full to the brim with asyntactically allied cranes, bike rides and roadsides, and when I brought it to my friend to have her help me translate it, she read it and laughed at me--she said there was no way to translate all of that into the Japanese form. (crane=tsuru=2; bike=jitensha=3; ride=noru=2; roadside=robou no=4; total=14 syllables already...). 

The 3-5-3 form seems to work fairly well with the old pond poem, compacting experience and occasion into a linguistic glimpse of that moment. I think I like the here of the above translation, as it locates us and provides the intensification/focus of the ya, the "cutting word" in the original. It reminds me of the "AND!" in Hopkins' line "AND! the fire that breaks from thee then," which provides an ecstatic resituation of the reader, of the poet, of the attention. I think the "here" gets us close to that idea of satori, the hope that the poem will provide a sudden ah ha! moment in us. 


So, three days in, and I'm already realizing that, as much as I love this little poem, I don't know that I want to carry it around with me for a whole year (especially when there are so many other poems whose company I would miss). I originally intended to "come up with" a new translation every day, with or without commentary--I think I'm going to carry a little notebook and just let inspiration strike when and where it may. Also, there are supposed to be 365 unique translations, and some days I just want to say "old pond / frog jumps in / splash," and a notebook full of reimaginings might mitigate against too many of those...


Day 2

an old pond
a frog leaps in--
water's sound

There's something that is both specific and universal in the original, and I'm not sure that the indefinite article does that ambiguity justice. Natch, I'll have to try it out with the definite article one of these days (though I'm not so sure I'll like it). 

What I do like is that last line--"water's sound" is, to me, the closest English cousin to "mizu no oto". I've always loved the Japanese no--the possessive article--because it replaces "of" in the position of the possessive "apostrophe-s". In Basho's poem, the assonance of the "o" sounds in the last two words is particularly lovely and particularly indicative of the sound of a frog slipping into the surface of a pond. The long "i" and "u" in mizu supplies the surprise of the movement. Granted, it's still a quiet surprise, and that's why I find the short "a" and schwa of "er," the elided esses and the rounded end of "sound" to be a happy relative to Basho. The vowels are all quiet, but they all vary. They are the quiet surprise in a newly troubled lake. 

More another day about the ya...


Here's the most famous haiku of all time (so says I): 

Transliterated, it reads: 

furu ike ya
kawazu tobikomu
mizu no oto

It's been translated into English probably hundreds of times, to greater or lesser effect. See, e.g., here. Personally, I dig Suzuki's, Rexroth's, Corman's and Watts', and probably Hass' is my favorite, with Reichhold's as a close second. Then there's Marks' lame attempt at translating form from haiku to limerick, and then the additional translations here which range from silly to shitty by Bryan, Behn, Einbond, and Young. 

Literally translated into English, it reads:

old pond--ah!
frog jumps in
water's sound

And, okay, we're already lost in translation (tee hee!). There's that odd word ya that serves as a "cutting word"--a "word" that some say serves as an exclamation mark, others say serves as a sort of apostrophe (and which I translate here as em-dash/"ah"/excamation mark). 

I don't know what to do with that clitic, frankly. I'm not a scholar of nihon-go. (In fact, one of my greatest regrets in life is that I didn't spend every moment of my non-working time in Japan in language study.) But it's a word that seems crucial in a poem that seems crucial to any number of English-speaking poets, and it was that word that I latched onto last night at 4 a.m., trying to distract myself from a migraine. 

See, I woke up at 2:30 with a headache, took my Imitrex and then got the jitters. I went downstairs so as not to disturb Ann and tried to distract myself into sleeping. One distraction I tried on was Basho's poem, and I thought that I must've been remembering it wrong--that the ya must've been wa (the subject marker in Japanese). I started trying on different translations of the poem as different distractions, and thought to myself that it might be fun to try on a different translation every day for a year. Thus, I foray into bloggishness. 

So, if you come tobikomu-ishly to this page, what you can expect is a more-or-less daily attempt at a new translation of Basho's most famous poem. I certainly hope that I repeat some of the successes of the old, and hope just as much that I might stumble upon a relatively decent and original success of my own. Granted, it's a poem that has seventeen syllables in the original, which comprise a grand total of eight (or seven, or six, or five) words, but Imma try my damnedest to get 365 poems out of old Basho.

A few salient details about what I'm setting out to do:

My audience: 
  • poets who like this poem; 
  • poets who like translation; 
  • poets who know Japanese and can help me out with etymology; 
  • poets who hate the poem; 
  • people who might know me; 
  • people who are curious about people who embark on stupid projects; 
  • employers who think this project is not stupid; 
  • people who can tell me how the fuck to work blogger/layout and all that shit (Adobe insights?--i.e., what flipping program do I use?).

My plan: 
  • "Clean" translation (see: my literal translation above, which is already the frontrunner for the best translation of the 365); 
  • "false" translation (see: Zukofsky's Catullus; see "And then went down to the ships"; see "O     /     tree     /    into the World," etc.); 
  • combinations of the two; 
  • commentary on the activity of translation; 
  • random acts of curiosity about the Japanese language (see: entry for "kyrie eleison" in the Sanseido Romaji English-Japanese Japanese-English Dictionary, the definition of which is "rentou," which is not "take the pitcher's mound in two successive games," but, since I don't have my copy of P. G. O'Neill's Kanji dictionary, I don't know what the "tou" is, so I'm gonna just blabber like, "huh, weird that 'O Lord have mercy' means the same thing as 'Daisuke! Get your ass out there again!'"); 
  • random details about my personal life that you may or may not find interesting (see: "I had a heady-weadache this morning" above). 

Thus, I complete my first post.

P.S. I fucking hate bananas.