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Manoa 12.1 (2000) 86-90

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A Poem Should Mean and Be: Remarks on the Translation of Japanese Poetry

William I. Elliott

Translating Asian Poetry: A Symposium

The closing lines of Archibald Macleish's "Ars Poetica" are so telling that a few moments may pass before one realizes just how problematic those lines are: [End Page 86]

A poem should not mean
But be.

Yes. It is what a poem is and not what a poem says that counts. But was there ever a poem more "meaningful" than Macleish's own handful of disarming lines? Indeed the poem's meaning is so powerful that the "being" of the poem is in danger of being overlooked. A parable constitutes nothing if not meaning(s).

Perhaps a distinction should be made here between meanings as cerebral content and meaning-as-being. Apart from paraphrase or irreducible ideas or conclusions that may be abstracted from the words of the poem, the identity of the poem is askable. What is its "soul"? How is it different from what it is not? Do its constituent parts cohere? Do they work together to form a wholeness? Does the poem exhibit internal integrity? Such questions as these are ultimately referable to the distinct being of the poem that constitutes its fundamental meaning. Whereas a poem's intellectual meanings may be moot, its identity should not be.

Substitute the word "translation" for Macleish's "poem":

A translation should not mean
But be.

The questions that apply to the poem apply equally to the translation. It is at this point that the poems of a poet such as Shuntarö Tanikawa become, surface evidence to the contrary, difficult to shepherd into English. Because his language is largely colloquial, delivered preponderantly in the hiragana syllabary, it would appear that translation of his work should be transparent and fairly problem-free. To the contrary, his poems are written on the assumption that the poet does not entertain the composition of his poems as a primary goal; neither does Tanikawa intend to coddle words or cultivate language. He is searching for a way--poetry happening to be his way--of establishing, recognizing, and maintaining human bonds:

I want to make something I can share with other people. This happened to be poetry rather than cars, academic essays or asparagus.

This was written later in his career, in 1987. But at the outset of his career, in 1956, he wrote in an essay entitled "Deviations":

I've always considered that it is something other than poetry as such that matters to me. . . . What does really matter to me is the relationship between life and words. [End Page 87]

Central in Tanikawa's experience are the feelings that people hold or may hold in common. So far so good. When, however, it comes to rendering the work in English, the translator faces the challenge of making a coherent poem out of a colloquial Japanese that may lean on clichés and/or consist of otherwise flat language. Much is asked of translator and reader of either language. The task is to look beyond meanings for emotions emergent from the poet's deeper selfhood, to look for the poem's meaning-as-being; in mainstream Western poetic traditions, however, the quest for meaning(s), philosophic and otherwise, has often obscured the question of meaning-as-being. This has been the case, in part, because while meaning-as-being is hard to discern, meanings are comparatively easy to ferret out.

Whether meaning-as-being or mere meanings alone, the translation trek is so pocked by chuck holes and frustrated by blind curves that no translator works without assistance. There are, for instance, one's predecessors, from whom one learns by positive or negative example; there are living informants upon whom one relies (and it is unconscionable when their aid goes unacknowledged). I have never worked and would not willingly work in the absence of a native informant, for I do not possess sufficient knowledge of any subject that would be relevant to translation, including...


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