Friday, November 2, 2012


In my previous post, I made an amateur attempt to gloss a poem by Basho. In addition, I posted three different versions of the haiku, hoping to show that translating a mere seventeen syllables is a very tricky thing.  This is especially true when the seventeen syllables are capable of containing Life, the World, and the Universe.   The following poem by John Hewitt sheds some light on the process of translation.

                                                         Gilbert Spencer
                                              "Air Raid Warning" (1940)

     Gloss, on the Difficulties of Translation

Across Loch Laig
the yellow-billed blackbird
whistles from the blossomed whin.

Not, as you might expect,
a Japanese poem, although
it has the seventeen
syllables of the haiku.
Ninth-century Irish, in fact,
from a handbook on metrics,
the first written reference
to my native place.

In forty years of verse
I have not inched much further.
I may have matched the images;
but the intricate wordplay
of the original -- assonance,
rime, alliteration --
is beyond my grasp.

To begin with, I should
have to substitute
golden for yellow
and gorse for whin,
this last is the word we use
on both sides of Belfast Lough.

John Hewitt, Collected Poems (Blackstaff Press 1991).

I think that it is best to concede that no translation can ever capture the original.  We delude ourselves if we think otherwise.  But does that mean that reading translations is not worth our while?  Speaking for myself, I am not willing to give up the poetry of, for example, Basho, Po Chu-i, Wang Wei, or C. P. Cavafy because I do not know Japanese, Chinese, or Greek.  I realize that I will inevitably be missing something in the absence of the original, but I can only hope that something of the heart of the original is conveyed in a good translation.

                                                        Gilbert Spencer
                           "The School on Peggy Hill, Ambleside" (c. 1952)

No comments: