183_1822  fallen Camellia
Fallen Camellia (Kate's Photo Diary)

I wrote yesterday of R. H. Blyth and his method of translating hokku.  He wrote six volumes of such translations, nearly all of which had to do with hokku, though he used the terminology of the Japan of his day (mid-1900s) and anachronistically and confusingly called them “haiku.”

Blyth’s purpose in translating was to explain a quite different kind of poetry to the West, a verse form with aesthetics and a philosophical basis quite unlike that of conventional Western poetry.  He was not presenting a guide to writing new hokku in the English language, because he had no idea, in the beginning, that Westerners would be interested in such a thing. Those interested in learning how to write hokku today — in English and other languages — will find what Blyth omitted described in postings on this site.

Blyth explained the hokku gradually through his commentaries on each verse, but these were largely overlooked as readers concentrated on the verses themselves.  Without the commentarial background, and without a thorough study of what Blyth offered, rather unsystematically, as the aesthetics of the verse form, readers simply saw the hokku he presented through the dark glass of their own preconceptions — derived from a background in Western ideas about poetry.  They did not comprehend, for the most part, how very different the hokku was from the kind of poetry to which they were accustomed.

What Blyth attempted to transmit to the West then, was for the most part (in spite of his terminology) an overall understanding of the hokku — not an explanation of how to write it.  History has shown us that he was, unfortunately, writing far over the heads of his readers, who apparently failed en masse to grasp the point of his unsystematic presentations.

Further, Western readers did not realize that in his translations of hokku, Blyth was often not at all literal.  His intent was to give the “meaning” of a verse, filling out his translations with what would have been added to a spare original by the mind of a Japanese reader experienced in the reading of hokku.  That means he added elements that are not actually written on the page in the original — elements that must be supplied by the intuitive mind of the (Japanese) reader.

Blyth often changed the arrangement of elements in a hokku as he translated, and the form — the inherent structure of the hokku — sometimes got lost as  a consequence.  So again, what readers found in Blyth’s translations were not by any means clear examples of how to write the hokku form in English.  They were, instead, often glosses, expanded versions of the originals, that made them accessible to the Western-educated mind and cultural background.  In fact I was tempted to write “explanded” versions, meaning translations that were simultaneously explanations and expansions.

As such, Blyth’s translations are excellent, because they do convey the real sense of the originals, though often they do not faithfully reflect the “bare-bones” nature of Japanese hokku.  But as I have said, they do not provide the Western reader with a clear and obvious explanation of how hokku should be written in English; that was not Blyth’s original intent.

I gave one example of Blyth’s method yesterday, along with the Japanese original for comparison.  here is another, a spring verse by Dansui (died 1711):

Camellias fall
One after another, plop, plop,
Under the hazy moon.

But here is a literal translation of the original:

Plop Plop camellias drop; hazy moon. 

As you see, there is no “one after another,” there is no “under the.”

Further, Blyth has given no clear idea of the structure of the original, which has, as hokku do, two parts, one longer and one shorter, separated by a cutting word.  Knowing of that original form is really essential if one wishes to write hokku in English.

In English, one possibility for translating the hokku with correct form would be:

Plop!  Plop! 
Camellias dropping;
The hazy moon.

That is much more faithful to the original in both form and content, and it is how we would write a hokku in English.  Even though there are exclamation points in the first line, the cut actually comes with the semicolon after “Camellias dropping”.  It separates the longer first part of this hokku from the shorter second part.

An added advantage of this translation is that one gets the imitative alliteration so common in Japanese hokku in the repetition of  the “p” sounds in “PloP! PloP!” and “droPPing.”  In that repetition we actually hear the sound of the camellias dropping from the bush.  The technical term for the connection between the original sound and the word we use to imitate that sound is onomatopoeia.

If only Blyth had made all of this clear and obvious in his writings, which otherwise are so full of valuable insights into the aesthetics and principles of the hokku!

In the original of the verse discussed here, the term “hazy moon” tells us it is a spring hokku.  That is because of the old Japanese system of “season words” used to automatically identify the season in which a verse was written and in which it should be read.

In English we indicate season merely with classification of each verse by its season — we write it on the slip of paper on which we compose the hokku, and pass it along when the hokku is read or published.  But of course in Dansui’s verse, along with the season indicator “hazy moon,” the mere presence of the falling camellia tells us that it is a spring hokku, because that is the season for the blooming and falling of camellias, one of the first spring blossoms.

Note how very sense-based this hokku is.  We have only the heavy sound of the dropping camellias and the sight of the hazy moon.  There is no interpretation, no explanation, no commentary, no symbolism, no metaphor, no simile, not even any sign of a poet present.

Hokku is, in essence, a sensory experience — an experience of one or more of the five senses — sight, hearing, sound, taste, touch — transmitted from writer to reader, with nothing intervening.  That is very unlike most Western poetry, which almost always feels it has to add some sort of commentary or elaboration to the original sensory experience.

But in hokku, by contrast, particularly in the kind of hokku I teach, the writer is just a clear mirror reflecting what is happening — Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature.


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