A Hundred Gourds 3:2 March 2014

current issue : haiku : tanka : haiga : haibun : renku : expositions : feature : submissions : editors : search : archives

page 3    

| Introduction | page 2 | page 3 | page 4 | page 5 |



Photo by Stephen Swan

As part of a survival strategy perhaps, John worked on the European continent while still a young man. There he acquired a proficiency in languages adequate to earn a quid (or lira, or franc, as the case may be), enough to pay the rent while translating advertising copy. Returned to his home region, he came to the aid of the minority community, translating relatively obscure texts, some of which would gain national attention. Finally, the thrall of Basho's influence proved too much, leading John down an enlightening path. His discoveries have advanced the ever-expanding popularity of haikai no renga worldwide.

One of John Carley's greatest achievements was to show and compare language with the utmost acuity. He became capable of critiquing even the Master himself.

“I've just finished another two kasen, Ume Wakana no Maki and Shimotsuki ya no Maki. That's Plum Flowers, Fresh Greens and November Frost respectively.

The first is really interesting because it's an absolute dog's breakfast – cobbled together after extensive edits by what were effectively three separate writing teams. And yet it very nearly works. Some passages are excellent.

The second is really pretty good throughout but notable for the maudlin sentimentality and general bogosity of Basho's religious verses. Of which there are too many. Each horrid in a different way.”

As for the enjoyment of literature, the reader's interpretation always plays a role in the meanings, mood and metaphor of any language. Translation, however, may be a horse of a different color. How best to convey the author’s intent? To paraphrase John: if difficulties should arise then choices must be made, and bargains of compromise agreed to. The aim is to find the “single correct meaning which reflects the poet's concerted purpose” and relay that content as accurately as possible.

The purpose was not just to create a canon of translated literature, but to render knowledge that informed and inspired students of haikai no renga as well. John's intent was to address the similarities of the human condition between diverse cultures and individuals, describing them with the utmost care and understanding.

“Anyway, talking of renku, here’s some internal verses from a kasen called Spying Maiden Grass

pine boughs
purpled with the
last blooms of wisteria

crying out nenbutsu
there is but to die

in these mountains
we recall
imperial sojourns of old

the crane I await is flown
never to return

Chora, Buson, Kito, Chora

“The universality of that last sentiment gives me the shivers. Or maybe that’s because it’s November, in the northern hemisphere, and I’m too mean to turn the heating up!”

Another concern was to relay concepts initiated in the past and apply them to the new:

“… here’s the last six from Plum Flowers, Fresh Greens (Ume Wakana). Some of the linkage is so modern it’s scary, but what is Ukō doing in that last verse? Shades of Basho’s ‘voices of ducks faintly white'.

a nearby porch,
the next door neighbour
heard to clear his throat


should I draw too close
husband grows po-faced


abstract designs
we learn to master them,
Aizu lacquer


a patina of snow
coats my bamboo clogs


once more in bloom
but this year’s party
as yet to be settled


the doll’s long sleeves
tinted by spring wind


The kanji stem is: 染 - dye, color, paint, stain, print. It can be found in compounds that mean ‘infection’ and ‘contagion’ in the sense of ‘infiltrate’ and ‘seep into’ – but it is always the secondary modifier. On its own it means ‘to dye’. I was so taken aback that my original draft used ‘stippled’ – but that’s stretching a point so far that it really qualifies as a mistranslation.”

John took the greatest care to reveal the full meaning of the source text in the best light possible. Here, more recently, from John's translation of Withering Winds , which can be viewed in this issue's renku section.

“Here’s Boncho, Basho and Kyorai riffing on the plebeians – great opening. The next few of ‘ha’ don’t make it so readily, but that’s mainly because there’s references to Buddhism and a couple of place names that readers need an automatic ‘in’ on.”

these city streets
they smack of many things —
the summer moon

sultry, so sultry
a voice at every gate

second weeding
still to do yet
ears of rice poke out

pit-a-patting ash
from a thin strip of sardine

a place like this
and silver coin's unknown,
how troublesome!

his rather long short-sword
worn at a slant

“There’s a lot of synonym, and cognate stuff going on in quite a lot of the Japanese that doesn’t necessarily show up at first sight. As you’ll see, Shirane is a little more interpretive than suits me – he’s including ‘facts’ in his text that have more to do with the commentaries5 than with the actual source. Not that to do so is illegitimate, and it’s inevitable to a degree, it’s just a question how and when.”