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.”
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?
Literature comes in many forms; sometimes it is sung.
If it hadn’t been for Ezra Pound and a 20th-century literature course at university, I would never have heard of Li Bai, and even then I thought his name was Rihaku, because in 1915 Pound, who knew absolutely no Chinese at all, published a number of “translated” poems by Rihaku in a collection entitled Cathay.
How many readers of this book will have been subjected to teachers who made them write bad haiku in school? I count myself lucky to have attended a school where such torture didn’t take place, although I am assured that some students actually enjoy the exercise.
Book reviews on Indian fiction and non-fiction from 2018, covering history, literature, sociology, art, culture and international relations.
Ha Jin may be known for his award-winning fiction, in particular Waiting which won the National Book Award for Fiction (1999) and PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction (2000), but his poetry collection is an ambitious and original volume that explores the irreplaceable significance of home, the honesty of writing, and the language for freedom.