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Manoa 12.1 (2000) 120-126

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Some Thoughts on the Meaning of Translation

Shogo Oketani

Translating Asian Poetry: A Symposium

Translation of a poem begins in the reading of it. But the reading of a poem is not necessarily an easy task.

The poet's work of finding the first word or phrase can be compared to the work of a miner who digs for a lode he may or may not find. The reader's task can be like trying to arrive at the center of that lode through the holes bored by the poet's pen. The reader must rely on the faint light of a lantern. In other words, the reader has to regenerate, reconstruct, and accept the voice, images, and ideas the poet has uttered and acquired in the process of digging.

This act is a creative process imposed on the reader. This is the only way a poem can be read.

I don't want to reject the idea that reading or appreciating poetry should be a simple activity. But the emotional impact on the reader of a great work is the result of this internal process of reconstruction, whether it be conscious or not.

The act of translating a poem is premised on the act of reading a poem, of reconstructing the poet's words. Though reading a poem is an individual process of reconstruction, the act of translating requires some kind of collaboration. Through the process of reconstruction, the translator has to reflect on the cultural and social forces that have shaped him, because the basic purpose of translation is to convey the meaning of the original to those who speak the same tongue as the translator. By its nature, then, this process can no longer remain in the realm of the individual. Translation is not merely the transferring of a work to a language with different words, grammatical structures, or features. It is also the task of understanding and reconstructing the original in a different language system.

We can't deny that language reflects a culture's particular "way of seeing," just as the "way of seeing" of a culture is defined by its language. When a work constructed in a language born of a particular climate, history, and nationality is translated into another language, the new language has a kind of convulsion because of the impossibility of understanding the core words of the original, which were created in a different historical framework or were influenced by a particular natural environment. Generally, this convulsion may seem to symbolize the difficulty of translation, but it is this very convulsion that shakes the translator's conventional perceptions of the foreign culture that is the foundation of the original work. [End Page 120] This convulsion acts as a catalyst for people to destroy their old frame of reference regarding the foreign culture, which was originally formed by a different belief system. This ultimately leads to changes in cultural and social perceptions necessary to support the creation of new words and terms that come from subliminal acceptance of the different culture. This is where translation finds its meaning and mission.

For example, the basic reason the Beat poets were fascinated by the world of haiku, symbolized by Bash o's Genroku Haikai, or by Zen was not because they were looking for "new and unusual" things. Rather, faced with the rise of the Civil Rights Movement and the advent of the Cold War, they were forced to acknowledge deception in their social and cultural background, which had supported a highly developed consumer society monopolized by white people. They needed new values to replace the materialism and commercialism on which their society rested. One alternative was the world found in the haiku written by Basho, which saw the self as having an uncertain place in nature. The Beat poets' inner need led them to this world.

I have written such a long and somewhat self-evident definition of translation because of my dissatisfaction with the state of the translation of Japanese literature in America. I have felt this way since...


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