Rice Paddies in Autumn: A note on faking translation

I really don’t know why it makes me feel happy and stimulated to sit and  look up words in 5 different types of dictionaries while trying to formulate a composition. There is something soothing in the precision I can attain in attempting to balance the rhetoric. Being fastidious like this, of course can be frustrating in it’s own right. It’s an odd feeling to say, “I just want to write one paragraph,” and then when I am almost satisfied,  see that one hour had just passed by. (I don’t do this with all of my work of course. You would not even see one blog a month from me if that were the case.)

Onwards, I went to a 100 yen shop the other day, and a particular poem card game caught my eye. The box claimed to have “romaji with commentary” of the classic poem collection “Hyakunin Isshu.” I foolishly figured that meant the poems were translated or there would at least be some cultural notes since the game directions were translated. I was wrong. I should have taken a note from the warning which included, “Do not place this product close to naked flames.” (a poetic act on it’s own.) and the rockier “The thing which collected one poem of each 100…” (Really?)

Needless to say, I was a little bit disappointed to find that the translations would not be quite so readily available. I thought for a moment, with my limited language and cultural knowledge, what kind of translation can I come to? Can I do a similar service to the Engrish I see in Japan every day?

I took all the words I didn’t know, and looked them up. I took the grammar and discarded it. (Like I do with English, but more so.) How did the collection of pure words make me feel? What images did it bring to mind? It turns out they were dramatically different from what anybody who knows what they are talking about would probably translate the poem as.

The first poem in the collection is by Emperor Tenji:


This is my translation:

In the autumn field-
amongst the hermitage of harvested rice
chaff carpets the ground wildly
while my sleeves become soaked with dew

A literal translation by people who probably know what they are talking about involves a house with thatched roofing. Well, you can look that up if you want.

Of course the next thing on the translation agenda comes to the cultural and grammatical interpretation of the poem rather than an artistic spin on vocabulary and my liberal addition of inferred vocabulary. It’ll probably take me a “few” months to come to level with the grammar. The culture will be even more challenging. There is a process of disillusionment that I must now walk through, allowing the poem to return to what the author may have intended it to be. This is the most frustrating thing about learning a language for me. Interpreting what someone is saying as they meant it, not in the way I want them to mean it.

I keep on thinking of a particular bilingual edition of Basho’s Oku no hosomichi (The narrow roads through the back country) which illustrated 5 different translator’s versions of one poem. All are accurate to a capacity, but no one translation can carry all the nuances and weight that the poem had in it’s original language.


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