June 10, 2009

Translating poetry

After a long series of polemical and political posts, our friend John Hobbins has begun examining Biblical poetry again.

John’s argument in brief is that poetry is best read in the original (not so easy to do when the original, Classical Hebrew, is a dead language).  Drawing apparently on a commentary (I notice a striking similarity with several recent multi-volume commentaries on the psalms, but John did not share his reference sources.  The good news is that several major commentaries share similar features – and I am able to especially recommend the Jerusalem Commentary on the Psalms, which covers all the points that John presents and more.)

John points to additional meanings of words, speculation (with varying degrees of support) about nuances associated with words, and about literary references.  It’s all a bit dazzling, but I hardly think John has succeeded in his goal of “thoroughly discredit[ing] KJV.”  John himself ends up showing how close the KJV is to many of the meanings he indicates; and he further asserts that other translations (he explicitly mentions the ESV, NLT, and the TNIV – all popular translations amongst Evangelicals) have equally serious problems (here, perhaps, I would disagree – those translations have worse problems).  John intriguingly asserts that “It remains possible to produce better Bible translations than those that currently exist,” but he has yet to put forth a candidate.

John’s article reminds of about John Skelton, a contemporary of Tyndale, a character, according to N. Dale, who was happy, in his translation of Poggio’s Bibliotecha Historica, to expand eight words in his original into a paragraph of nearly two hundred words.

I would say that concision is a key element of translation:  to reflect the original precisely, literally, but with stylistic features (including length) that match the original.

It is against this approach towards understanding poetry that I read with interest Jane Reichhold’s recent new translation:  Basho:  The Complete Haiku.  This edition is handsome – it is typeset beautifully, and illustrated with elegant line drawings by Shiro Tsujimura.  Tsujimura is a major artist; his work appears in a local Asian Art Museum as well as at the Metropolitan Museum in New York.  The book is beautifully laid out, with plenty of white space and sexy black end papers. 

As befits the material, the presentation is unrushed, with plenty of white space.  For the first time, all 1012 of Basho’s contributions are translated, together with a brief description if it is given by Basho in his original work.  In the second major section, Notes (still beautifully laid out) give the poems in Japanese, romanized Japanese, and using a word-for-word precise translation of each Japanese word, along with the date of composition, and notes explaining the poems. 

What a beautiful layout.  The aesthetic experience of reading the poems in translation is presented to the audience directly – the reader understands and appreciates the poems.  As he wishes to delve deeper, he turns to a later section to read the Japanese, and if is confused by a word, a word-for-word translation is apparent.  Then, any necessary factual information is given.  What is missing here is that insidious style of Bible teachers everywhere:  “I am going to explain this poem to you and then you will understand it.”  Different people may pick up on different aspects with poems as sublime as these (or of the psalter.)  If you are explaining poetry, it is no longer poetry.  The primary reaction here is that the poem speaks to something to in our intellect, or in our soul.  Such a touching feeling disappears when the pedant shows up eager to explain each word by itself. 

What would you rather do – go to a fun movie or listen to a lecture where someone points out all the points you may have missed in a fun movie?

Should you wish to learn more, the volume also contains nice stylistic and historical essays on Basho; the classic list of 33 different techniques that can be used by Haiku; a life chronology of Basho; a glossary with more 300 technical terms defined, an English bibliography, and an index of first lines.

This book, while not expensive, is a book of art (much like a beautifully typeset edition of the Hebrew Bible is, much as a few very elegantly typeset editions of the KJV are.)

The advantage is that one can enjoy the poems as poems (without footnotes or commentary) or change the page and dig deeper.  This is really the best of both worlds.

I cannot imagine a reader of this blog who would not be delighted by this book of Basho’s poetry.  I give it a strong recommendation.

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