JOK Notebook

Stars and Dandelions: More from Misuzu Kaneko

When I watch movies made in a foreign language that I know somewhat well, I like to test myself with the subtitles, doing a reverse translation. Because subtitles tend to flash on the screen before an actor speaks, there's usually time to think about how one might say any given line. 

In that spirit, I offer you the English version of a poem by Misuzu Kaneko, whom I introduced last week while telling you that David Jacobson has just published a stellar book about her:

How would you translate any of these lines into Japanese? I'll block the "answers" with a preview of the newest essay:

Okay, here's the same poem in Japanese, followed by the English again for an easy comparison:

I like this exercise because it makes me engage with the lines in a way I wouldn't otherwise do. And the more I engage, the more I see that I could study this poem infinitely and never extract all that it has to teach me about Japanese, about kanji, and about the art of translation. Here's just a taste of what jumps out at me:

• The 底 (そこ: bottom) follows 青いお空 (あおいおそら: blue sky), even though "bottom" actually relates to the 海の小石 ("sea pebbles").

• I was surprised to see 沈む (しずむ: to sink) and couldn't grasp how it connected to the discussion. It turns out that this verb is for the 昼のお星 (stars during the day), in which んでいる figuratively means “to be invisible.” Often, when something sinks, it becomes invisible.

• The stars are unseen in daylight. The poet says that this way: 


I never would have guessed at that possibility! Although 昼 (ひる) primarily means "noon" or "midday," it can also mean "daytime"—or in this case "daylight."

• Apparently, the 散ってすがれた translates as "withered, seedless." The 散る (ちる) means "flowers (die, fall)" and implies "scattered seeds" here.

I see in Breen that すがれる (末枯れる) means "withered." This intrigues me because I know that 枯 has that meaning, but I've never seen 末 (end, tip) and 枯 together. Looking into that duo further, I find this lovely word:

末枯れ (うらがれ: dying of the little twigs and branches)

That sounds like an event Kaneko would have chronicled! This noun corresponds to a verb with a less poetic definition:

末枯れる or うら枯れる (うらがれる: to die (esp. foliage as winter approaches))

Note that すがれる has turned into うらがれ here, even though you can also read 末枯れる as すがれる, as we've seen. There are actually multiple ways of representing すがれる in kanji (though hiragana is the most common rendering):

すがれる (尽れる or 末枯れる or 闌れる: (1) to wither (esp. plants as winter draws near); fade; shrivel; (2) pass one's prime; start deteriorating; begin to decline)

The 闌 is non-Joyo. And oh, my. What definitions! 

• The すき corresponds to 隙 or 透き (gap, space), translated here as "crack."

• The だァまって certainly looks odd! That word corresponds to 黙る (だまる: to be silent). The ァ (which could just as easily have been ぁ) is there to provide an extra syllable and to keep with the meter of the poem. That word needed to be five syllables. Because だまって has just four, the poet had to add one. For the same reason the かくれてる cannot be かくれている, which is synonymous but has six syllables. 

• In the line starting with 春 (はる: spring), かくれてる is the hiragana version of 隠れてる (hidden). Because of the location of that word in the poem, I would have taken かくれてる to be syntactically related to 春. But the spring isn't hidden. Rather, the たんぽぽ (dandelions) mentioned two lines earlier are hidden. Tricky!

Speaking of what's hidden, I'm amazed at the sheer quantity of rich information tucked into a poem that purports to be simple in every sense. When Kaneko wrote, "You can't see them, but they are there," perhaps she meant all these tidbits that are just waiting for learners to discover!

If you happen to be in Seattle on Thursday, September 29, don't miss the launch party for this fantastic book! It's at Queen Anne Book Company (1811 Queen Anne Ave. N., Seattle) at 7 p.m. Jacobson will give a short talk about Kaneko, and his colleagues Cali Kopczick and Yuko Enomoto will read a few of her poems in English and Japanese respectively. There will be time for questions, and you can look at the book, buy it, and have it signed by the esteemed author. There's a Facebook page about the event.

Have a great weekend!


And now for a special postscript. Author David Jacobson and translators Sally Ito and Michiko Tsuboi have weighed in on the discussion above! They've been kind enough to share their thoughts. 

 I think what Kaneko is doing in the first two lines is to compare the stars in the sky with pebbles in the sea. The 底 does actually refer grammatically to the sky, not the sea, but our translators Sally Ito and Michiko Tsuboi chose to translate it in reference to the sea instead. I think that clarifies the metaphor for the English reader. Moreover, the word "deep" also implies a depth in the sky, and "pebbles at the bottom of the sea" would definitely be "unseen" as opposed to "like pebbles in the sea" if one were to translate more literally. 

The metaphor also explains why Kaneko uses 沈む (to sink) to extend the metaphor, though in the translation we only touch on it as “lies.” This is a good example of the choices one has to make when translating poetry—and the richness one leaves behind in the language of the original.  
One of the tricky things about the first stanza is that the subject “stars” comes on the very last line, with a string of modifying phrases before it. That is hard to put into English, as English tends to prefer the subject coming earlier in the sentence.  

 Michiko says that 昼 as used in the first stanza would be understood as "daytime" or the more poetic "daylight" rather than strictly referring to noon or midday. 

 In the second stanza, 散ってすがれた refers first to the falling or dispersal of the seeds (散って) and then their withered state (すがれた). David thinks Sally and Michiko may mean here that the seeds have been dispersed and therefore the dandelion is now seedless. Another interesting use of 枯れ is in 枯山水 (かれさんすい), which is the name often used to describe dry (waterless) Japanese gardens, such as the famous one at Ryoanji Temple in Kyoto.
 Also in the second stanza, like the first, the subject (根 or “roots”) is in the last line. It’s even more confusing in this stanza because the immediate modifier of “roots”—the “dandelion” roots—comes in the first line. We elected to make “dandelions” the subject and to render “roots” in a short adjectival phrase at the end. Because the subject has shifted, the translators decided to make "hiding until spring" (rendered here as “wait … for spring”) the main verb in the passage, rather than “cannot be seen.” In the original, however, the first line, and the second and third lines together, each modify “roots."
 The katakana lengthening of the word だァまってand かくれてる are the cute, childlike way the words would sound in a children’s song. That would be immediately understandable to a native Japanese reader. In other words, these words are singsong versions of the word.

It's not often that one has a chance to hear such information right from the horse's mouth, so this is indeed a treat! Thanks to all involved for the commentary! 


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