Friday, June 11, 2010

Scott Watson: On Translating

I am privileged to be on a list of email recipents of the thoughts, poems, and translations of Scott Watson. Back in Lilliput issues numbering in the 120's and 130's, I published a number of Scott's renderings of haiku masters Taneda Santoka and Basho. In a recent mailing, Scott shared his thoughts on the art of translation. I was struck by them and thought you might be, too, so I requested permission to post his musings here. He graciously acceded to my request and, in addition, has allowed me to reprint the 5 translations of Santoka that were published in Lillie. I hope you enjoy this and the translations; I'm happy to say that I will be publishing two more Santoka renderings by Scott in a future issue.


Translator’s Words

Ten years ago I wrote: “There is neither rhyme nor
reason to my method here. Just that each poem I take
--from wherever I take it--one at a time and follow
wherever it takes me, and if feels like it is two lines I
put it in two lines; if it feels like two words, two words
are what it is. Some go to four lines, some three. It
depends on how I sense each poem with, as, and in my
life-and-death, my breath, words.”

Ten years later all that can be added is that continuing
along with Santoka the poems his poems start in me at
times feel as if there is a trickling as with the flow of a
brook only downward. A small and gentle waterfall.

Others seem to call for a single ink brush stroke across
the page. These are the ones with what I call the Zen
grammar, which is a label I use for lack of a better one
to describe his poems that use a possessive to modify
a possessive to modify a possessive and how such a
poem retraces itself to a beginningless beginning.

Some choose to call this simple ungrammaticality that
may be a result of Santoka being a lubricated with drink
when composingor editing his work, but I think not.
Drunk or sober, the challenge is to respond to those
poems as my own wordlife. That requires letting go of
whatever protocol or accepted language behavior one
may have picked up over the years at home or at schools.
One must be uninhibited. One has to go with the flow.

Back in the USA sisters Clara Wright and Marsha Benson
at elementary school class parties used to complain that
white boys can’t dance. But they’d dance with me. It’s not
just a matter of knowing the right steps. The words
eventually appear and feel to me as if they are the ones
needed, the words that seem to best respond as Santoka’s
poem lives through me. Dance to the music beyond

Much is intuition. A sense of things that comes out of the
blue. Though I can live, sense things, through the Japanese
language I can’t say that I’m an official expert. No
certificates adorn my walls. At times I need a dictionary
and at times, with Santoka, even a dictionary does not help.
I ask Morie. Sometimes she can help, other times she can't.
I’m not out to make versions that are grammatically or
technically correct. If Santoka’s original has a present
progressive verb form it doesn’t mean my version will.
Anyway no linguist to my knowledge has ever proved that
a progressive verb in Japanese is exactly the same as a
progressive verb in English. They’re just labels anyway.

English is not Japanese, Japanese is not English. I am not
Santoka, Santoka is not me. I don’t accept translation in
the sense that this is equivalent to that. I do what I can.

Scott Watson
Sendai, Japan
June 3, 2010


5 poems by Taneda Santoka as rendered by Scott Watson

falling leaves
deep deep seeing

air raid sirens
one after another
persimmons are red

with the crowd around
a dead body
a sky without clouds

no matter news is
good or bad
spring snow



For some further thoughts on Santoka, check out my review Mountain Tasting here. And now, one from a third master, Issa:

dying to the beat
of the prayer to Buddha...
one leaf falls
translated by David G. Lanoue



Ed Baker said...

thanks for this from Scott...

he has most assuredly "pinned 'it' down"

an old Chinese saying:

"a little wine makes wise men of us all"

Charles Gramlich said...

I recognize that picture of the persimmons. We had them all over our farm growing up and had fun with them. We used to put firecrackers through them and throw them as miniature splatter bombs. The cows liked 'em so much we'd have to quash 'em or they'd overeat and bloat.

Lyle Daggett said...

As it happens, earlier this evening I read a few translations (by John Stevens) of Santoka, sampled from Mountain Tasting, in the anthology Finding the Way Home published this year by White Pine Press, which is also the publisher of Stevens's translation of Mountain Tasting.

I'd come across mention of Santoka here and there, though hadn't specifically sought out his work. I'll need to go do that.

I followed the link to your review of Mountain Tasting, and enjoyed your comments. I also have observed that haiku in English (whether original English or translations from Japanese) tend to work best in the range of 10 to 14 syllables. (I actually arrived at this, years ago, when I went through a couple dozen of Rexroth's haiku translations and counted the syllables -- nearly all of them were between 10 and 14 syllables.)

In general, by my count, I've found that when Japanese haiku are translated into English, -- when they're translated well -- the English translations usually have more words than than the original Japanese, but fewer syllables. This I suppose having to do with various differences between the two languages.

Really liked Scott Watson's translations that you've given here, especially the last one:


What he said in his comments about a single brushstroke. Two words. Just amazing.

Thanks for posting this.

Michael Dylan Welch said...

Isn't Scott Watson from Sendai? I do hope he's okay.

Issa's Untidy Hut said...

Indeed, Michael, Scott is from Sendai and I've received a few emails from him and he is ok. More to you via email.