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Gained in translation: bringing Asian poetry to the English language

by Donald Richie

SONGS OF LOVE, MOON AND WIND: Poems From the Chinese, translated by Kenneth Rexroth, selected by Eliot Weinberger. New York: New Directions, 2009, 90 pp., $12.95 (paper)

WRITTEN ON THE SKY: Poems From the Japanese, translated by Kenneth Rexroth. New York: New Directions, 2009, 90 pp., $12.95 (paper)

Translation from one language to another, particularly that of poetry, remains problematic. As one of the finest of the translators from Japanese to English, the late Edward Seidensticker, once said: “Translation is a series of impossible decisions.”

Ideally, he added, the translators should be like a counterfeiter in that his aim is to imitate the original down to the last detail. If he makes George Washington more handsome than George Washington is on the dollar bill, he is not a good counterfeiter.

But there is more to translation than accuracy and this is where the more impossible decisions come in.

Another fine translator from the Japanese, Charles Terry, has with both wit and a touch of misogyny said that translations are like women: If they are faithful, they are not beautiful; if they are beautiful, they are not faithful.

Then there is a certain incompatibility that translators must keep in mind. Seidensticker mentions one of them. “There is a rather tentative air about Japanese that disappears when the sentence is put into even ‘literal’ English.”

What then to do amid these various impossibilities? An early solution (and I am here quoting Susan Sontag in an uncollected 2003 essay) was that of Saint Jerome, busy with the Bible back in 395. You keep the sense but alter the form by suiting your own language. “I,” says Jerome, “have not deemed it necessary to render word for word but I have reproduced the general style and emphasis.”

Whether this would result in a superior translation or not, it does avoid some of the impossibilities, though it can also lead to the mere paraphrasing said to be typical of certain types of Japanese-French rendering. At the same time it would clearly indicate that translators should know their own language best.

Indeed, it has been sometimes asked if all that much knowledge of the language being translated from is necessary. If Yeats could make fine translations from the classic dramatists knowing very little Greek, how much Japanese do you need to know to properly translate it?

The question is not absurd, but the answer must depend upon the nature of what is being translated. Much is done using an under translation (usually prepared by someone else) and the result can be sturdy and useful. I myself use this method in preparing film dialogue-titles. But then I am not translating that most difficult of forms — poetry.

One who successfully did just this is the American poet-translator Kenneth Rexroth (1905-1982), one of the first to explore Japanese poetic forms and himself a literary figure of note. He was leader of what became the San Francisco Renaissance; he introduced Ginsberg to Snyder, and Ferlinghetti named him as one of his own mentors.

TIME once referred to Rexroth as “the father of the Beats” to which he made the admirably succinct reply: “An entomologist is not a bug.”

From 1955 he began his study of Japanese and Chinese poetry, an activity that up to 1976 lead to a number of collections, and now to these new selections. I knew him back then and sometimes heard him talk about his methods. He worked with under-translators (all of them scrupulously named in these new editions) and on this work he based his own, always with care, with study and with much discussion.

Rexroth’s means would have satisfied St. Jerome’s demands for general style and emphasis. He once explained how he did it. “The basic line of good verse is cadenced . . . built around the natural breath structures of speech.” This results in a rare naturalness. Here are several examples.

From Ki no Tsurayuki: “Out in the marsh reeds / A bird cries out in sorrow, / As though it had recalled / Something better forgotten.”

From Enomoto Seifu-jo: “Everyone is asleep / There is nothing to come between / the moon and me.”

And from Oshima Ryota: “No one spoke, / the host, the guest, / the white chrysanthemums.”

What Rexroth gives us is the poem, his reaction to it, and how it sounds. Difficulties remain, and impossible decisions loom, but at least we have these verses. They parallel their originals, mirroring their inherent qualities. They model themselves in the mode of their new language and are faithful in their fashion.