Timeless jabs at the ordinary


LIGHT VERSE FROM THE FLOATING WORLD: An Anthology of Premodern Japanese Senryu, compiled, translated, and with an introduction by Makoto Ueda. Columbia University Press, 273 pp., 1999.

My employer, a Japanese trade agency, holds an annual New Year senryu contest. One entry back in 1992, when Bill Clinton was elected U.S. president, went: Arkansas aakansasu jaa aakannzoo, which may be translated, limply: “Arkansas: it won’t do to say Ah Kansas.”

It was a clever caveat to Japanese who might assume that the obscure state from which the president-elect hailed was pronounced to rhyme with “Kansas.” I remembered this when I took up “Light Verse from the Floating World,” a selection of some 400 senryu from the Edo Period by the accomplished translator Makoto Ueda. Senryu, a genre of wry, if not entirely satirical, verse, depends for its effect on a clever turn of phrase or an adroit choice of word. Knowledge of specific time and place also helps — it can, in fact, often be crucial.

Take what Ueda calls “one of the most famous senryu of all time”: “the official’s little son — / how fast he’s learned to open / and close his fist!” I can’t tell just what this translation, which is pretty accurate, makes the reader think of, but the original, “yakunin no ko wa niginigi o yoku oboe,” twits the government employee for his propensity to accept — nay, demand — bribes, a bad habit even his baby boy quickly learns to copycat.

The pivotal word is “niginigi.” A derivative of “nigiru,” “to grab” or “to grip,” and a typical example of the baby-talk vocabulary with which the Japanese language abounds, niginigi describes the innocuous way an infant is induced to open and close his palm. You can almost hear a happy child gurgling.

You must also know that the senryu refers to one distinctive aspect of the period in which it was composed: the age of Tanuma Okitsugu (1719-1788). Tanuma, who ruled first as shogunate adviser, then as top administrator, was so tolerant of bribery that his name became almost synonymous with the act. Given this, the description of the innocent act takes on a sinister meaning.

If some of this can be surmised from Ueda’s translation alone, this senryu must be counted, from the translator’s viewpoint, among the more fortunate. Most classical senryu, with references often too remote from us, are hard to comprehend without explication. An alien experience that has to be explained can be a death knell for the verse translator’s work.

This is especially true when the form consists of only 5-7-5 syllables, too brief to allow circumstantial padding. This does not mean that senryu are basically unamenable to translation. There are, according to Ueda, about 200,000 senryu that survive from the Edo Period. In that multitude there are bound to be a sizable number that appeal across ages and languages. Here are some samples.

” ‘Sudden change for the worse’ — / a doctor always has / that escape clause” hen to iu nigemichi isha wa akete oki. “

‘There is no hell’ — / to his mistress, the priest / tells the truth” kakoware ni jigoku wa nai to jitsu wo ii. “the laundryman / feeds on the filth / of his neighbors” sentakuya kinjo no hito no aka de kui. “

‘Lock up the doors / when you go to bed,’ says the thief / leaving for work” yoku shimete nero to ii ii nusumi ni de.

Burton Watson once rendered the same senryu this way: “Off to work, / the burglar to his wife: ‘Lock up tight when you go to bed!’ “

“first eye to eye / then hand to hand / and mouth to mouth” mazu me to me sore kara te to te kuchi to kuchi.

This one reminds me of Donald Richie’s amusing essay, “The Japanese Kiss,” which begins: “More than 100 years ago, May 31, 1883, to be exact, the brothers Goncourt wrote in their journal that dinner conversation had been about kissing and that somebody who had lived for many years in Japan said that the kiss did not exist in Japanese love-making.”

“how long it seems / when you unwind a woman’s sash / while lying in bed!” nete tokeba obi hodo nagaki mono wa nashi.

Watson: “When you’re trying to get it / unwound in bed, / nothing’s longer than a kimono sash!”

“going to the outhouse / and finding it occupied / he admires the moon” setchin e saki wo kosarete tsuki wo home.

Watson: “Beaten / to the privy, / he praises the moon” “till the rain lets up / he haggles over the price / of an umbrella” ame no yamu uchi karakasa now negitte ii.

Ueda groups his selection into 10 categories and provides each with a helpful guide to relevant social and cultural backgrounds. He also gives footnotes. As the examples I’ve cited here may show, though, the senryu that come across best in translation are mostly found among those dealing with common daily behavior.

In going over a Japanese selection to review “Light Verse,” I spotted one senryu that reminded me of two other pieces. The 1765 “Yanagidaru,” the first collection of senryu edited by Karai Senryu (1718-1790), included the one about the official’s little son.

It also had hinnuita daiko de michi o oshierare: “With a pulled-out daikon I was shown the way.” One suspects that Issa knew this senryu when he wrote the haiku daiko-hiki daiko de michi o oshiekeri, which R. H. Blyth translated, “The turnip-puller / Points the way / With a turnip.”

Later, the American poet Alan Pizzarelli, who like many English-language haiku writers was an admirer of Blyth, paid homage to Issa and, indirectly, to the anonymous senryu poet when he wrote: “the gas station man / points the way / with a gas nozzle.”