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Volume 36.2
Summer 2005

book review:

Straw Hat
by Tateo Fukutomi

 

Reviewed by David Lanoue

Straw Hat, by Tateo Fukutomi (Mortagne-au-Perche, France: Imprimerie, 2004). ISBN 2-9521344-0-5. 52 pages, 9 x51/2, perfectbound. $20.00 postpaid. From the author at 80 Yanosaki-Cho, Miyazaki-shi Japan, 880-0034.

Matters order word. Oops. I should have said: “Word order matters” — a truth about most languages, certainly true of Japanese and English, that most speakers learn at an early age. Twisting, bending, inverting a sequence of words almost always twists, bends, and inverts ... meaning.

Why, then, do so many translators of haiku feel that they have carte blanche privileges vis-à-vis the ordering of words and the images evoked by them? Of course, slavishly literal translations are inadvisable, since, to cite just one structural difference between Japanese and English, the Japanese equivalent of “of” (no) is postpositional, coming after a noun or noun phrase, whereas
the English “of,” as we all remember from elementary school, is prepositional. Mizu no oto or, literally, “water of sound,” idiomatically translates as “sound of water,” or even better, as Alan Watts rendered Bashô’s famous use of the phrase: “plop ! ”

Anyone who has stayed with me thus far may have noticed that I have yet to write a word about the book being reviewed. Some might have possibly deduced that I take issue with some of the translation choices in Tateo Fukutomi’s haiku collection, Straw Hat. Especially attentive readers will suspect that my objection has to do, at least in part, with the willy-nilly rearranging
of images as these fifty-two contemporary Japanese haiku have made their treacherous passage into English.

In my view, a poet of haiku — or any poet, for that matter — has his or her pretty good reasons for beginning with Image A and ending with Image B. Bashô could have easily written: “Sound of water — the frog jumps in the old pond” ... but he didn’t. He chose, of course, to cap this particular haiku with mizu no oto (Watts’s “plop !”), following the image of the old pond, not preced- ing it. If a haiku is a little journey of mind and spirit from an old pond to a frog’s splash in the water, the translator who capriciously turns this around is writing a completely different poem, and a bad one at that. Matters order image!

Now, to show you from whence my tirade is coming, consider this haiku in Fukutomi’s volume:

A cow lying down
with piled up mandarin oranges
in its pupils

In the original text of this strikingly visual verse, the poet begins oppositely with “in its pupils” and ends with the “lying down cow.” Reshuffling the English to better match the Japanese, we have:

In its pupils
piled up mandarin oranges ...
a lying down cow

This, I think, is a great haiku.

The translation missteps in this collection would not be worth mentioning if Fukutomi’s original texts were not as finely constructed as they happen to be, a situation that places this reviewer in the awkward position of attacking the book to defend its author. I could go on and on, like a Grand Inquisitor, citing a litany of translation sins — like the unforgivable mutation of Japanese
present-tense verbs into English past tense —but being a translator myself, living in a glass house as I do in the middle of a field of handy-sized rocks, I’ll shut up now.

I admire this poet. I especially like the fluidity with which he glides from one image to another, the space between the two creating a sometimes dizzying, sometimes funny, sometimes deeply troubling effect. Here’s a little sampling:

Grape clusters coloring in spots
the bosses
talk together

Desolate hills in all directions
an oily-faced man
plays with his gun

A Japanese poem
a stunned beetle
coming round

According to an author’s note that accompanied my review copy, the poems were translated by “Mrs. Kate van Houten and Mrs. Shelley Dauvillier,” described as Americans living in France. For his next book, I hope that Fukotomi, a student of the renowned poet and haiku scholar, Tohta Kaneko, insists on a translator who not only knows English, but knows haiku. He is much better than he appears to be in the present book. This imaginative, introspective, wildly fanciful, quirky, enigmatic, and brilliantly unpredictable poet, I predict, will one day find an English translator who will do him justice. In the meantime, we have this.

 

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