Saturday, November 25, 2006

Beneath a Single Moon 4: Cultural Translation

The question is asked:

As English-speaking poets, we write in English, a poetic tradition grounded in the West. When we adopt a form such as haiku from another language, do we also adopt the aesthetics, philosophy and religion behind it, or do we adapt it to our Greco-Roman, Judao-Christian, Western tradition? The sonnet is a classic case of migration through cultures; how does the history of the sonnet's assimilation augur for Eastern forms in Western languages?

These questions lie at the heart of any attempt to move a poetic form from one cultural context, and language, to another. They are relevant questions for translation, in general, between language and culture. Isn't adopting a poetic form that's originally from another culture itself an act of translation? Ceratinly.

Yet I don't think it's required, in any rigid way, to either adopt the philosophy or belief system of the original, or to abandon it entirely. I think one can do a "both/and" here and include the original's aesthetic—gods know, we see plenty of critical ink regarding English haiku discussing the haiku aesthetic, tone, and technical aspects that pertain to aesthetic, such as kigo (season word)—and also reflect the subject matter and tone of one's birth culture too. A lot of the better new haiku and tanka I see in English do just that.

I think there's room in English haiku to do everything from explicit imitation of tone, subject matter, setting, and philosophy—Zen and Buddhism have found fertile ground in the West, I don't think one can argue with the fact of its happening, even if one wants to argue about the why or wherefores of it—all the way to "purely" American poems on American themes such as baseball and apple pie, with American colloquial speech and attitudes. Examples abound in published English haiku journals and anthologies of this whole broad spectrum.

It's how good the poem is, not imitative it is, that matters in the end. A great poem will often break at least as many poetic "rules" as it follows.

So, I think both adoption or acceptance of the original aesthetic, and adaptation or assimilation of the borrowed form to the borrower's cultural tropes, are both legitimate approaches, and both certainly occur. One must remember, whenever one is dealing with translation, that poetry functions on a universal (archetypal) level, too, regardless of its contextual critical theory and linguistic patterns and tropes: that universal level is the shared human experience of life, death, love, loss, mourning, and other experiences, expressed poetically. The root of borrowing a poetic form must lie, in part, in a recognition that other humans made this form, and since we are still human together, we can understand it and assimilate it, even if it is otherwise a completely foreign mindset and attitude. The range of human mythopoetic expression is diverse and broad, stunningly so; but it is all still human, so far. It's a bit of a paradox, but it's a rich paradox to contemplate.

There is room, at another corner of the matrix, for avant-garde experimentation, even when it breaks poetic and philsophical "rules." After all, most things stated in literary criticism (not only re: haiku) as rules are rather closer to personal opinions; as things get translated, one notices the filtering effect of people paying closer attention to what appeals to their own personalities, amidst the accrued constellations of existing meanings available for the adopting. Thus, you can get different people sorting and emphasizing different rule-sets from the same source material; and who is to say which is the more "correct"? No one: they are equally valid, and equally arbitrary, too. One can see just this process occurring in English-language haiku, depending on what sourcebook one wants to follow, which educator, which period of influx, and which matter of taste. I think the fact that there is no One True Way, in this regard, is a healthy state of affairs; all the gods forbid we should have to write within an autocratic totalitarian rule-set that left no room to breathe; that's sets up a perfect pre-condition for artistic revolution.

The migration of the sonnet is not a parallel example, really, because the sonnet migrated within European cuitures, within European languages, all of whom have ultimately the same cultural and historical roots, the same Judeo-Christian and Greco-Roman (and Egyptian) symbol-sets, and all of whom have rather similar worldviews. Furthermore, the sonnet migration that occurred in Europe stayed within the same linguistic group, the family of Indo-European languages of Latinate and Germanic descent. This can hardly be compared to the haiku's migration across language root-groups, from the non-Indo-European Japanese, into the Indo-European. The sonnet has not really migrated outside its root culture, and when it has, it has often brought both its symbol-set and worldview with it; thus, the variances are relatively small. As far as I know, there has not been a parallel adoption of the sonnet form by as many international writers as there has been the haiku; and if there has been, it has still largely remained within the Indo-European language group. Do Japanese second-graders write sonnets in a parallel way to the way American second-graders write haiku? Nope; they too write haiku.

Therefore, I don't think the history of the sonnet's migration augurs anything at all with regard to the adoption within Western poetry of originally Eastern forms. This is an unprecedented occurrence, a peri-phenomenon of the shrinking global village, and could not really have happened before in history. The interest in haiku overseas occurred almost simultaneously with Shiki's revival in Japan, and for some similar reasons: looking elsewhere for the revivification of stagnant creativity. "Elsewhere" can be one's own past as readily as it can be a foreign place. (There's a marvelous book collection of anthropological essays on just this topic, The Past is a Foriegn Country, by David Lowenthal.) Two of the first experimenters in haiku forms in European languages were Blaise Cendrars and Paul Celan, and they were part of that whole wave of Western artists who discovered a new world within the newly-available materials from Asian cultures, as they were first becoming known in Europe in the late 19th century.

The trans-location of haiku remains a work in progress. It seems to me that haiku and its related forms have taken root in Western culture, in a way parallel to the rooting of Buddhism in America, wherein there are still many versions of Zen floating around, as Alan Watts so brilliantly outlined in his classic essay, Beat Zen, Square Zen, Zen. There is a parallel pattern in haiku studies of the form being at first only dimly understood, with successive waves of teaching refining and re-balancing the material. I think that's an ongoing process, and may continue for some time.

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