What am I missing ?



What am I missing ?

too-yama ni hi no atari taru kareno kana

Takahama Kyoshi 高浜虚子

the mountains afar
lit by sunshine -
and withered fields

Tr. Gabi Greve

Read this first and then come back !
More translations and background about this haiku !

Many of my haiku friends who do not speak Japanese think this is a rather mediocre haiku, whereas in Japan it is highly praized.

They ask frequently:

What am I missing ?

It is one of the most difficult questions, and I do not have a simple answer for you.

This haiku can stand on its own for the Japanese to understand it; you do not have to know who composed it or when or why in order to evaluate its power.

Wheather you think the translation is mediocre or marvellous is entirely your own opinion, but on what information do you base your opinion?

Trying to understand a Japanese haiku in an American/European (add your country) environment, somehow, is like taking a fish out of its water. You can see the dead fish, but not what gives real LIFE to the fish in its own environment.

I may eat my sashimi raw fish, tell you it tastes superb, even give you the recipie how it is prepared and a knife and all the background of Japanese quisine, the details on the special sashimi soy sauce to go with it and the plates used to serve it, the time between when the fish should be caught and served, a hundred and one details that make up Japanese culture ...


this will never change the hunger YOU feel yourself.
You have to eat for yourself to get a full stomach.
If you really want to know what you are missing, I suggest you learn Japanese and live in Japan until you really GET IT.

Even after 30 years, I do feel the hunger from time to time ...

I hope you do not seriously expect me to tell you what you are "missing" within the space of a simple entry here.
If I could, if it was that easy, we would not be sitting here ...

Here is another example to show you my point:

Imagine watching a Japanese movie, with beautiful landscape and calligraphy, with the original language so you can get the intonation of poetry recitals,
and with subtitles in English sized to fit the screen ...

and then

suddenly the pictures and the voice are turned OFF and you are left with a black screen, no sound and only the English subtitles ...

what are you missing now?

Or try this Buddhist story about understanding :

You are holding on to the tail and think you got the ELEPHANT !

I am holding on to the four legs and the nose, and try to tell you there is more to the elephant than just a tail ...

My Japanese haiku sensei holds on to all of this and the belly and the head and the heart ... and tries to tell me there is a bit more to the Elephant than I see at the moment ...

SO ... what am I missing ?


Here is how David Lanoue put it with his ISSA translations:

a little help from my friends:
confessions of a translator

In his novel, Snow Country (Yukiguni), Yasunari Kawabata's protagonist, Mr. Shimamura, has a strange hobby.
Though he has never in his life attended a Western ballet, he decides to start doing research on this art form. He begins a long, laborious study of ballet without ever attempting or even wanting actually to see one. He collects photographs, foreign books, programs, posters...and on this basis alone starts to write about Western ballet.

Kawabata notes wryly, "Nothing could be more comfortable than writing about the ballet from books. A ballet he had never seen was an art in another world. It was unrivaled armchair reverie, a lyric from some paradise. He called his work research, but it was actually free, uncontrolled fantasy".

As a Westerner who has taken upon himself the study and translation of Japanese haiku, I find myself in an embarrassingly similar position to that of the absurd Mr. Shimamura.

Sitting at my desk with my dog-eared dictionaries and nine volumes of Issa's collected works, I have wondered from time to time: Are my translations and proclamations mere "armchair reverie" and "uncontrolled fantasy"? After all, I wasn't born in Japan; I'm not a native speaker. Much of Japan's culture lies beyond my experience and grasp, no matter how many dictionaries I consult or summers I spend traveling there.

How, then, can I translate with confidence the words of a poet like Issa—
words packed with rich cultural resonances of the sort that non-Japanese readers on their own simply can't "get"?

© David Lanoue


Here is a note from an American friend living in Japan for a short time:

I just wanted to extend a big thank you for your generosity of spirit, translations from Japanese sights, googling in behalf of our discussions.. not to mention blood, sweat and time. I'm sorry I can't come to your rescue in helping to translate the Japanese (not good enough, yet) but I am so inspired by your example.
You've enriched the way I think about haiku.

We know how inscrutable the Japanese are by living here. So many things are impossible to translate. I have to be honest. I've gotten used to living in the intermediary zone between understanding language and just not bothering. There are so many paralinguistic qualities which we can't put into words which saturate life in Japan- body language, gesture, facial expression, tone of voice, unspoken projection of emotion, to name a few. Sometimes I think that my hara has become highly-sensitized in direct proportion to the loss of my native English.


Two years later we are still discussing the eternal question

Haiku in English, should they be called HAIKU ? or something else?

Why does it matter, my friend?
I ask myself the same.
It seems to me it matters a lot to american writers to want to have their poems fall into the HAIKU category, as if that would give it more status and maybe add a "spiritual ZEN quality" to an otherwise simple poem.

Here in Japan, I never see this kind of intent aruguments for or against a poem being called HAIKU, so I guess it must come with the different languages which try to come to grips with this special Japanese form of formal poetry with respect to the seasonal changes in human life.

Here in Japan ZEN and HAIKU are usually not mentioned in one breath, so to speak ...

But then, 30 years doing Japanes Archery, pursuing the way of the bow, has me wobbeling along with words on my own "Way of the Haiku", my Haiku Doo, as I usually call it.
Sincere Cross-cultural understanding is very difficult if you do not live with one leg firmly in each culture - this is my facit after the first 30 years, now heading into the second cycle ... which might change my views again.

As one friend pointed out, it is not the walls, because they do exist and we can not wish them away, but it is the gates, especially the ones with no doors (mumon) ... grin again ...

Trying to open a gate with the Kigo Database, for anyone willing to walk through it and into the beautiful and exciting world of "Traditional Japanese Haiku", brought to you by a crazy daruma ... grin



I do not get it ...

This is usually a complaint from another native speaker. It has nothing to do with the lack of knowledge of a different culture.

It usually relates to a cryptic wording in the haiku, someone trying to be too subtle or too clever or too poetic (insert your definition ) .. and this leads to some sort of

Riddles and Haiku


more pizza
The Pizza example

You can see the pizza and its ingredients.
It is round and has cheese on it and can be described in many other ways.
But you only know it second-hand, so to say,
via a translation or explanation, from the picture.

But you miss
the fragrance, the taste ... of the real thing.

5 - 7 - 5
this is "the heartbeat of the Japanese language", as they say, and sounds "poetic" all by itself ... and here again, it is hardly possible to translate it into proper or natural-sounding English.

It reminds me of the rhythm and rhyme we have with poems of the German Wilhelm Bush about a bird and a frog in a tree
... they are a bit better to translate into English ...

wenn einer der
mit Mühe kaum
gekrochen ist
auf einen Baum

schon meint dass er
ein Vöglein wär ...
so irrt sich der !

. . . . . . . . . . ( Wilhelm Bush )

Finch & Frog

If someone climbs laboriously
Into the branches of a tree
And thinks himself a bird to be:
Wrong is he.
source : © Dave Fogg. www.rivertext.com

Reference words

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1 comment:

Gabi Greve said...

Here is an interesting comment from a friend:

simmplyhaiku group