Frank Watson: Touching the Poem

Frank Watson is a poet and translator of poetry, born in California and now based in New York. He is known to many as Blue Flute, and tweets under that name.

tpe: Rather mindbogglingly, you translate poetry from Japanese, Chinese, Spanish, French, Italian, and Latin. I’m wondering whether some of these languages lend themselves more readily to a more literal kind of translation, while others require that you deviate from the original text in order to remain faithful to the rhythm or sound. I know, for example, that Welsh-language poetry has always been very sound-based on the whole, which I’m sure has presented a few headaches for translators.

FW: Translating poetry is very difficult, regardless of the language, and requires trade-offs no matter what you do. Generally the more you succeed in one area, the worse you’ll do in another area. For example, having the same rhyme and meter as the original will rarely result in an accurate literal translation. Likewise, having a perfectly accurate literal translation will rarely sound beautiful once it’s been translated.

The trade-off I usually go for is to be as accurate as possible with the literal meaning while attempting to write beautiful poems in English. My compromise is that I will ignore the original rhyme and meter for the most part and sometimes I will use similar words, but not exactly equivalent, in order to convey the meaning beautifully in English. Generally I have been happy with the results in capturing both the meaning and beauty in English, but sticklers for either the form or exact meaning would have grounds for complaint.

I find the European languages easier to get closer to a literal translation, especially Spanish. On the other hand, Japanese poems use many puns that are impossible to translate because many Japanese words have the same pronunciation, leading to rich wordplay.

Chinese poems, perhaps surprisingly, are fairly easy to translate literally because of the simple grammar and concrete vocabulary. For example, a recent poem I translated has the following verse: 春風吹又生 (literally, “spring wind blows again life,” which I translated as “spring winds blow it back to life again”). The hard part of translating Chinese poems is that they tend to have extensive allusions to history and literature that the original educated readers would understand but modern readers would not. Rather than incorporate the allusions into the translations, I like to leave them as literal as possible to preserve the power of the imagery and explain the allusions in commentary.

In most cases, I believe that it is quite possible for a poetry translator to achieve both a beautiful poem in English and a pretty accurate literal translation if he or she uses a little creativity. English is a rich language with a huge vocabulary and there are often synonyms that can be used to convey the poem more beautifully while staying true to the meaning. Allusions and wordplay are best explained in notes and commentary in my opinion. On my blog I try to find an audio version in the original language when available so readers can hear the original sounds. I also always include the original poem and the romanization when necessary.

I view translations that attempt to imitate the sounds, rhyme, and meter at the expense of meaning as more of a new poem that needs to be judged in its own right. Some of those types of translations are very beautiful, but their success in terms of a translation as opposed to a work of poetry is only in encouraging the reader to study the original to hear the original sound.

tpe: What’s the most difficult part of translating a traditional Japanese Haiku into English for a Western audience?

FW: The most difficult part is in dealing with the wordplay. Many Japanese words are pronounced alike, distinguished only by the context or the kanji (Chinese characters) when written. However, in addition to using kanji, Japanese has a sound-based alphabet system. Poetry often provides less context than a conversation, so when a Japanese poet wants to be vague about the meaning of the word, he or she uses the alphabet rather than the kanji, thus giving the word two or more possible meanings.

The style of Japanese poetry is not particularly difficult to translate, but readers who are not used to it often find it too brief to be satisfying. Most classical Japanese poetry is only five lines in 31 syllables (the tanka) and, more recently, only three lines in 17 syllables (the haiku). As a result, the poems are intensely concentrated on a single image, adding to the emotion by the season, time of day, symbolism, wordplay, etc. When done well, it creates a really powerful impact. However, it does not have the rhyme or flowing verse that readers of traditional Western poetry would expect.

Although true to a lesser degree than in Chinese poetry, classical Japanese poetry also alludes to history and literature. When these are particularly relevant, I try to explain what the poet is doing in the notes.

tpe: Tell us about your books.

FW: My first book, Fragments, is an anthology of poems, juxtaposing classical poems from around the world with contemporary poems from around the world. The idea was to give a flavor of how people are fundamentally the same, regardless of the time or cultural they live in. Thus, we can share the feelings of someone living in Germany or China in modern society just as well as we can share the feelings of someone from ancient Greece or Rome thousands of years ago.

My second book, One Hundred Leaves, has a translation of the classic Japanese poetry anthology, Hyakunin Isshu. It contains one poem each from one hundred poems, all following the tanka form. Many of the poems are about love or loss, how fleeting life is, or the power of nature. Some of them convey these feelings in images that are quite striking. Each poem is accompanies by beautiful artwork from 19th century Japan that illustrates the artist’s interpretation of the poem’s theme.

I am working on several books right now, including 300 Tang Dynasty Poems, a classic Chinese poetry anthology, Gustavo Adolfo Becquér‘s complete poetry, and a collection of original poetry. Periodically I do other translations that will eventually go into books as well.

tpe: Have you ever been surprised by how well any of your poems have been received? If so, which one(s)?

FW: I always find it impossible to predict which ones will be well received and which ones will not. Often I think a poem or translation came out well but then it does not get much attention. Sometimes I have felt unhappy about how a poem came out and it turned out to be quite popular. One example was my translation of Du Fu’s “Song of an Old Cypress”. This was a long poem and very difficult to translate due to having a story within the story. I spent many frustrating hours trying to understand it well and figure out how to convey it. After all that work I felt it was too long and complicated to be popular, but it ended up being in the top 10 most viewed of all the poems and translations I’ve done (over 600 so far).

tpe: Which is more magical in your view: a poem printed irreversibly in a good old-fashioned book, or a poem sent out to the world within seconds of being conceived?

FW: I prefer reading poetry in a paper book. I like the feel and smell of the paper, being able to hold and touch the poem, underline things, and write notes by hand.

That said, I love to publish all my work on my blog first. It is a great way of interacting with the reader and gauging what works and what doesn’t work. Later on I collect the material, polish it a bit more, and put it into a book. There are also some real advantages to e-book devices like Kindle. For example, One Hundred Leaves has color artwork. However, adding color to the paperback increases the cost a lot whereas there is no additional cost for people who have color readers. E-readers are also great for trips so you do not need to carry around a lot of books.

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