Hagiography. What a fascinating word; at one time I thought the “hag” implied the study of witches! The word, which of course literally means “writings on [the lives of] saints”, has also taken on a pejorative meaning, in the sense that since saints are supposedly exceptionally good people, even considered “perfectly-formed at birth” as Alexander Gardner puts it, admiringly servile biographies which flatter exceptionally bad people or even mediocrities must also be hagiographies, because they make those people look like saints.
Anyone who has ever studied literature has probably come across the now rather hackneyed line by the American poet Archibald MacLeish (1892-1982), “A poem should not mean, but be.” Steven Carter, the Yamato Ichihashi Emeritus Professor of Japanese History and Civilization at Stanford University, notes that the Japanese poet Shōtetsu (1381-1459) expressed similar sentiments long before MacLeish. “A truly excellent poem is beyond logic,” he wrote, “One cannot explain it in words; it can only be experienced of itself.”
On 26 April 1895, the trial of Oscar Wilde began at the Old Bailey. He was there because he had attempted to prosecute the marquess of Queensberry for libel, an action which had led to unforeseen revelations about Wilde’s sexuality (Queensberry, whose command of spelling didn’t equal Wilde’s, had called Wilde a “somdomite” [sic]), forced him to abandon his suit, and himself face trial for gross indecency and homosexuality. If Wilde had read of a trial which had happened in far-off India two years earlier, he might have thought twice about suing Queensberry. The trial in question, here ably presented and carefully analyzed by Benjamin Cohen, was, like Wilde’s, a long, salacious saga of sex and lies. There was, of course, no videotape, but a nude photograph which no one seemed able to produce was verbally offered in evidence. Like Queensberry, the defendant was acquitted and, like Wilde’s, the plaintiff’s life, as well as that of his wife, completely ruined, although neither ended up doing two years’ hard labor. The Hyderabad incident serves, particularly in retrospect, to reveal some of the British Raj’s nastier sides, involving questions of race, gender, bourgeois morality and, to a somewhat lesser extent, religion.
“Hold this moment for ever, I tell myself. It may never come again.” This last sentence of Autumn Light recalls a poem by Shakespeare’s friend and collaborator John Fletcher, who observed, so many years before
Weep no more, nor sigh, nor groan,
Sorrow calls no time that’s gone.
In 1932 a new Asian country suddenly came into being in northeastern China. It was named Manchukuo, and it had been created as a result of the so-called “Mukden Incident”, in which Japanese soldiers had detonated a small charge of dynamite on a Japanese-built railway line and then claimed that Chinese dissidents had done it.
Translating poetry gives rise to a number of problems which may not be present in prose. Poetic language is different from that of prose; it employs many more literary devices. Furthermore, its rhythms may be quite different or varied. Then there is the question of rendering form and meter, not to mention rhyme, if it’s present, which brings on more language difficulties. Poetry may aslo indirectly allude to things through symbols, and these, too, have to be conveyed meaningfully to the reader. Factor in the translator’s own emotional response to the work and what may be perceived as the poet’s “intentions” (often rather opaque), and you have a formidable obstacle to overcome. In short, what medium is best suited to the translation of verse?
“Pardon me for asking,” says an elderly lady called Kaoru (a unisexual Japanese name meaning “perfume” or “fragrance”) to the protagonist, Mitsuki Katsura, and another hotel guest, “but has either of you come here to commit suicide?”