TRANSLATING LANGUAGE, TRANSLATING CULTURE

When we read or write hokku in English, we should be careful to avoid romanticism and exoticism, both of which lead us into illusions and fancy and away from the aesthetics appropriate to hokku.

Old Broken Window

(Photo credit: Big Grey Mare)

That is why, when I translate old hokku, I often like to translate not just from language to language but from culture to culture.

Teiga wrote:

Kusa no to ya   tatami no ue no aki no kaze

If we translate rather literally, we get:

A grass hut;
Over the floor —
The autumn wind.

Kusa no to literally means a grass hut, and of course tatami are the woven grass mats that cover the floor of a traditional Japanese home.  But Blyth translates well the overall rather than the literal meaning:

A poor hut;
The wind of autumn
Blows over the tatami.

A grass hut is a poor hut, made of the cheapest of materials.

If we translate this hokku culturally, we might say:

An old shack;
The wind of autumn 
Blows over the floor.

That way we see a dilapidated old house with broken places in the windows and gaps in the walls.  Such a house cannot be said to keep out the wind, and that is the point.

But we might want to emphasize the poverty, as does Blyth.  We could then translate:

A poor house;
The wind of autumn 
Blows over the floor.

That way we know it is not simply an old abandoned shack, but a house of poverty; it is lived in, and that has significance.

Its poorness is in keeping with the poverty that is part of the “feeling” of autumn as it deepens.

The original, as you can see from the literal version, does not have the word “blows,” but it is helpful to add it in English to convey the effect intended.

The point of this little posting is not only the effects achieved by variations in translation,  but also the the differences of effect we get when we write original hokku in English.  The principle is the same.

David

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