Featured in MPT Dream Colours: Focus on Japan
‘Hearing Beyond the Darkness’, Polly Barton
A screenshot of ‘Kawa mata wa su’ by Seiichi Niikuni, which is referenced in this essay (source video)
Last year, I was asked to co-translate a poem by the contemporary poet Kei Okamoto. Opening the attachment, I found myself immediately drawn in: its weaving together of simplicity and mystery as it recorded the dissolution of (what passes for) a normal relationship between self, language and world made me think, amongst other things, of T.S. Eliot and Japanese concrete poetry. And yet I was aware, even as I dashed off a breathy ‘yes please!’ email, that this poem was not going to be easy to translate. The tortured nature of the speaker’s connection with the world, which is evident from the beginning, intensifies throughout the poem, ultimately disintegrating entirely so the last few lines of the Japanese read as a scattering of single characters: constituent elements of words and phrases used previously, some words in their own right, others not, but now resembling seedlets drifting free of a dandelion clock.
This was my first experience of translating poetry with a strong visual element, and it left me with lots to mull over. In particular, the final section, where the poem breaks down into single glyphs: some in katakana, but most of them Chinese characters. As a literary translator, I’m used to feeling cowed by the possibilities of the Japanese toolkit, the tonal range offered by its three alphabets. A Japanese writer can, for example, cram a text with Chinese characters to make it more academic sounding, use words derived from English to make it trendy or pretentious, defamiliarise and poeticise words that are standardly written in Chinese characters, opt for katakana – the script used for foreign words, product names and so on – to create an emphatic or humorous effect, all functions which have no easy analogue in English. But now I was thinking about the characters in a more reductive way, which I rarely did when dealing with prose. Specifically, about how much more versatile they were as building blocks than the ones with which English is built. A letter of the alphabet is mostly just a letter, whereas every member of the katakana or hiragana is already readable as a syllable, a sound. Then there were the Chinese characters, or logographs, which had not only associated sounds, but also meanings. How best to render an atomic unit of this kind, one of Okamoto’s single seedlets, in English?
This train of thought led me to concrete poetry, and how well-suited Japanese is to it as a language. In particular, I recalled my first encounter with the work of Seiichi Niikuni, the birth mother of Japanese concrete poetry – the sense of delight that bubbled up when I saw his poem ‘Kawa mata wa su’ (River/Sandbank). It takes the form of a square split diagonally in half, the left-hand triangle made up of tight rows of the character for river, which is itself composed of three lines in a row: 川. The other diagonal half is made up of the character for sandbank, similar to river but with dashes in between to represent terrain: 州. (In fact, it can also mean ‘country’ or ‘state’, which has the reading ‘shū’.) The genius comes from the texture that it generates: the density of the sandbank character in comparison to the river one means that, when all these characters are lined up, they take on an entirely different textural quality to the smoother, less hectic flowing lines of the water. It is hard to envisage how one could ever hope to ‘translate’ this poem. It is writ large on the side of a building in Leiden, the Netherlands, which features a ‘key’ in Dutch and English, and indeed this seems like the only solution which could maintain the textural impact of the original – although, of course, the experience of the viewer unused to dealing with these characters as elements of their writing system is likely to be less rich than someone who handles them on a daily basis.
Another favourite of mine from Niikuni’s oeuvre focuses on the character for darkness (闇; yami), composed of the radical for gate (門; mon) with the character for sound (音; oto) sheltering inside it.
In Niikuni’s poem Yami, we have a broad horizontal strip of the character for ‘gate’, with a large wall of ‘sound’ underneath it. Only a single middle row combines the two: a band of dense darkness, yami, that separates the gates from the sound.
I would like to go on, describing more of Niikuni’s concrete poems; to speak of how they are simultaneously playful and profound. Concrete poetry plies language in the way a sculptor plies his material; I would like to talk about how the textural qualities of the script the concrete poet uses as their material impacts on their work. How here, the sheer impossibility of the task of translation feels somehow at its greatest, or at least raises its head in a new guise – and that this was the same sense present to me in diluted form in the Okamoto poem.
But as I do, I’m confronted by a sense of growing discomfort. Because here’s the thing: the act of focusing on, fetishising, romanticising the visual elements of Japanese poetry is a practice that lies at the heart of the exoticising gaze. It is a way of thinking whose exaggerated expression we find in Ernest Fenollosa, whose work on Chinese poetry formed the basis for Ezra Pound’s Cathay. ‘You will ask,’ Fenollosa addresses his reader, ‘how could the Chinese have built up a great intellectual fabric from mere picture writing?’ ‘In what sense can verse, written in terms of visible hieroglyphics, be reckoned true Poetry?’ To the questions he places in his reader’s mouth, Fenollosa, as sinologist, provides answers. Lamenting the way Western culture has overlooked the potentiality of Japanese and Chinese poetry, he waxes lyrical about the rich imagistic resources that they have to offer, in a manner that now reads questionably. Further, in homing in on the grammatical, typographical elements of his subject, Fenollosa appears to forget that this poetry forms part of a language which has always been spoken, which has sound – that the characters he is dealing with, while not phonetic in the same sense as the Roman alphabet, are still, nonetheless, the written expression of a living, spoken culture.
Over a century has passed since Fenollosa’s essay, and we in the translation field consider ourselves more aware of the dangers of the orientalising impulse and colonising gaze. Yet to my shame, it was only recently that a linguist friend reminded me, while I talked of this essay, that not only is the use of ‘ideogram’ and ‘ideograph’ as catch-all terms to describe Chinese characters incorrect, it is also indicative of this same orientalising gaze. For while Chinese characters do include pictograms (characters depicting the objects they describe) and ideograms (those representing their concepts), a majority of them are compounds of other elements, most often phono-semantic compounds which combine an ideographic element with a phonographic one. They are not, in other words, reducible to ideographic constituents; their visual formation is caught up with their pronunciation. Of course, linguistic terms are easy enough to muddle for those not well-versed in the terrain, but this particular mistake seems entrenched in a certain mentality: it buys in, once again, to the ‘mere pictures’ view of logographic languages.
Honestly, at that stage, I think about giving up on this essay, mostly out of fear. Fear of fetishising, which is the last thing I want to do; fear of being the person at the party talking about ‘little pictures’. What saves me in the end is my books of poetry in translation, into which I retreat. It’s the work of Sawako Nayakasu, her experiments with scripts in her translations and anti-translations of modernist poet Chika Sagawa. It’s the translation of Yoshimasu Gozo’s book, Alice Iris Red Horse, where a plethora of different creative techniques are called upon by a host of translators to recreate the wildly experimental visual and sonic aspects of Gozo’s work. It’s their common sense of wonder and committed experimentation around typographical, visual and many other aspects, in the hope of delivering to readers glimmers of associations that the original poems spark off.
In fact, the thing that gives me most courage is an essay by poet and novelist Yoko Tawada which narrates her feeling upon encountering the German poet Paul Celan that he was ‘peering into Japanese’. Tawada is fascinated by the Japanese translation of his volume Von Schwelle zu Schwelle (From Threshold to Threshold), and the way that a certain pictographic element pops up over and over: ‘how is it possible that in this thin volume of poems, ideograms using the radical gate keep turning up at all the most crucial junctures?’ The miraculous fact that, writing in German, Celan seemed to anticipate his translation into Japanese – to anticipate the ‘decisive role’ that would be played by the radical gate – Tawada finds in this serendipitous occurrence not only joy, but also understanding. A particular Celan poem, ‘Von Dunkel Zu Dunkel’ (From Darkness to Darkness), gives her the following insight into the composition of the character for darkness, yami – the same character to which Niikuni dedicated his poem:
After reading this poem, I explain to myself the puzzling character 闇 as follows: That which can no longer be represented by language, the darkness, presumably lies behind the gate, but it isn’t possible to peer through this gate because a sound is standing in the way [i.e. directly beneath the gate]. At the same time, there is a fear that it would be impossible to gain access to the darkness at all if this sound were no longer to exist. The sound is blocking the gate, but it is also the medium connecting this side of the gate with the other side. One must hear it, then it will no longer impede one’s vision.
There could be no better introduction than Tawada’s to the kinds of small miracles that translation can occasion: the new connections and understandings that you would never have thought possible before they happen. It seems to me, also, that Tawada’s discovery about yami – ‘one must hear it, then it will no longer impede one’s vision’ – also provides a perfect manifesto of how it is that we are to navigate the terrain of visual poetry. ‘My poems are not to be read like traditional poetry,’ stated Niikuni. ‘You can read them from wherever you like, and think about them however you like.’ Yet he was clear that he didn’t want his poems to be thought of as art: they were not pictures, they were poems. His 1963 collection, Zero-on (Zero Sound), was split into two sections: the former containing visual poetry and the latter aural, but the former came accompanied by the instruction to read the poems aloud. Yes, the concrete poets may have treated words like matter, plying them with an awareness of their visual dimension, but they didn’t do away with the sound.
In fact, I want to go further and say this: in concrete poetry, in any poetry with a visual element, the magic of the visual aspect exists in part because of language’s phonic function. The reader or viewer of ‘River/Sandbank’ derives joy from seeing its elements pass from being meaningful words that can be enunciated, to being lines in a picture, and then back again, a bit like Wittgenstein’s duck/rabbit. For most of us, reading is an activity inextricable from the act of hearing, of voicing – from the potentiality of being able to read something aloud. Yes, some concrete poetry – for example some of Niikuni’s, which pulls the characters apart into elements that are no longer speakable – seems to drag the written words away from the spoken realm, but this is thrilling at least in part because of how they sit upon that cusp between being words and being other things, because the reader/viewer is watching this shift as it happens.
Now, thanks to Tawada, I think of the translator standing by the gate, in the darkness. The darkness is the impossibility of our task, the impossibility of representing one thing in a different way. And yet, as translators often declare, that site of impossibility is in fact a site of intense creative fertility. We need to work hard. To deal with difference, to fully absorb all of its potential for revolutionary suggestion without othering it takes constant work – the legwork of creativity, and also of listening. We work so that we can translate better. Which means: listen better, see better, play better.
Yoko Tawada, ‘Celan Reads Japanese’, trans. Susan Bernofsky, in The White Review
Ernest Fenollosa, ‘The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry’ in The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry, with a foreword and notes by Ezra Pound, ed. Saussy, Stalling, and Klein, Fordham University Press, 2008.
Seiichi Niikuni, as quoted in the Seiichi Niikuni Edge Special, http://edgeofart.jp/コンクリート·ポエトリー 新 國 誠 一の楽しみ方 / [link]
The Niikuni poem refered to in the essay can be seen in situ in Leiden at: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Seiichi_Niikuni_-_Rivier- zandbank_-_Pieterskerkgracht_17,_Leiden.JPG [link]