September 13, 2004

Translation and analysis

Jonathan Mayhew at Bemsha Swing has posted 14 different translations of a Basho haiku, under the heading "the wisdom of crowds in translation".

A few of the examples:

Britton: A mound of summer grass:
Are warriors' heroic deeds
Only dreams that pass?
Sato: Summer grass: where the warriors used to dream
Hamill: Summer grasses:
all that remains of great soldiers'
imperial dreams
Rexroth:     Summer Grass
where warriors dream.

Jonathan comments that

We might prefer or despise [a] particular version, but the best version is probably the sum total or average of all these. The more you have, the better. Any eccentricity or redundancy simply drops away. You don't need a mound of grass or a thicket of grass, just plain old natsugusa is fine.

I very much like the idea of looking at a large number of alternative translations, but as a linguist, I want to be able to see an interlinear analysis of the original as well. I don't know any Japanese, but Bill Poser knows a lot, so I asked him, and he was kind enough to supply one (with the Japanese written in romaji):

natsu	kusa	ya
summer	grass	lo!

tsuwa	mono	domo	ga
strong	person	PLURAL	GEN

yume	no	ato
dream	GEN	remains

Bill pointed out that the /k/ of /kusa/ becomes voiced in the compound, so the unparsed original is /natsugusa/. He also observed that

... two different genitive particles are used, /ga/ and /no/. In Modern Standard Japanese /ga/ no longer has this genitive usage, but it used to. The distribution is imperfectly understood but arguably is /ga/ with a human possessor, /no/ with non-human.

and he ended by mentioning that

The word /ato/ is interesting. Its most common usage is probably with the meaning "after", as in /ato de/ "later". It is however a noun and "after" clauses are nominal. As a noun it has the meaning "remains, relics" as in /shiroato/ "remains of a castle". Interestingly, it need not refer to physical remains in the usual sense. /ashiato/ are "tracks, footprints".

For people with even a minimal linguistic education, this kind of transcription, analysis and commentary is easy to assimilate, and adds a great deal to the appreciation of the work, even for those who don't know the original language at all.

Someone like Bill could also present an equally simple and equally interesting set of observations about the characters used in the original orthography, the calligraphy of a notable presentation, and the sound of a reading.

I don't know any sites on the web that offer this sort of access to poetry in other languages, but such things must exist at least in embryo. And there should be more of them, in my opinion. Haiku would a particularly good subject for such analyses, since the originals are so short. However, you could do the same for famous selections from Sappho or Petrarch or Akhmatova. Or writers in less accessible languages, like the 19th-century Somali poet Raage Ugaas.


Posted by Mark Liberman at September 13, 2004 12:56 PM