Thursday, October 08, 2015


Translation is a tricky little task.  Consider this haiku submitted to the Economist for a competition:

With newfound passion,
Leaves burn at nature's call as
Summer fades to fall.

Consider the double meaning of “nature’s call.”  Very often the funniest and sneakiest puns are euphemisms for something not said bluntly in polite company, so they tend to have that little overtone of naughtiness.  Like “tricks”.  If you’ve ever taught junior high school you’ll know that the English language is packed with double-meanings, every writer has his packages.  (At least the males.)  But beyond that, fall is not a synonym for autumn in every language.

Since so much of the flavor of haiku is related to seasonal shift, a kind of mingled sadness and new beauty, it’s a challenge for a poet in the tropics or the Arctic.  I suppose one would have to turn away from vegetation and depend upon day length.

But meaning is only one dimension of sophisticated writing.  The “rhetoric,” the choice of actual words carries tone and cultural dimensions, so that some people will like a haiku that has a rhyme in it, and others will feel it is succumbing to a nursery habit, a sing-song, call/fall.  What about the rhythm in haiku?  To my ear, this one is a little rocky, maybe because the author has a Chinese name which suggests a Chinese ear for rhythm, QUITE different from English which is different from American.

The tension between spoken sounds and marks on paper only approximate the words out loud, though the latter has breath breaks, pronunciation variants, some of which change the syllable emphasis -- tomato/tomahto. Body language, facial expression and pauses are like diacritical marks and punctuation on a page, but a page has no “mirror cells” that will pick up emotion from faces.  Thus the invention of emoticons, which also seem babyish.  Then there’s uppercase that is taken to be shouting in an emotional way, not just a way to emphasize or formalize.

But now there is a new language, for the eye rather than the ear.  I just spent a couple of hours trying to proof an article to be published in England for an international readership.  “Proofing” a final copy is a practice that arose with a paper copy that is physically sent to the printer with any corrections added by hand with a pen or pencil.  But now I send in the copy through the computer.  I can no longer use indicators that I habitually use when blogging.  (Use of bolding and italics for instance, or changing the color or size of the font or even using a different font for an interval).

What’s worse is that the computer itself had opinions about spelling or punctuation even what word I’m using and automatically changes it to suit whichever code writer wrote its original standards.  Not only that, but it changes in transit while sending, so that what I write is different from what I sent, but I don’t know it.  This is especially true when translating between Macintosh and Windows, which means going from one code to another.  

The editor of the magazine I’m sending to is extremely literate in print but evidently farms out (consider the implications of that phrase) all questions about code and other mysteries of computers to a little cadre of females, much younger.  So he, captain of the ship, says, “Make it so!”  If the translators try to explain why some change won’t work, his response is something like “that’s too far beneath my pay grade for me to waste time on it.”  There are a lot of modern computer operations that will work a lot better when the oldest people die so that everyone is computer-literate.  The trouble is that by then the computers will have changed so much that the problem will only have moved along the time-line.

For people working with immigrants problems might be more global.


Con pasión recién descubierta,
Las hojas se queman a la llamada de la naturaleza como
Verano se desvanece a caer.


With newfound passion,
The leaves are burned to the call of nature as
Summer fades to fall.


Na ọhụrụ ahuhu,
Epupụta ọkụ na ọdịdị oku dị ka
Summer dịghị-ada


And a new passion,
Leaves and nature as calls
Summer does not fall.

Here’s another machine retranslation which reports accurately that in that place summer does not fall.  So are any trees there deciduous?  Leaves suddenly can depart, a new metaphor different from falling.  Maybe something about wind, which is right now tearing leaves off the poplars in my yard.


With newfound passion,
Leaves burn at nature's call as
Summer fades to fall.

The leaves are personified, as though they have emotions, as though they were little persons.  They are said to burn, which means that the changing of the colors of the leaves when the chlorophyll dies goes from what we consider a “cool” color (green) to what we think is a “hot” color (red or yellow).  Color-metaphors are always tricky.  In English “Blue” is sadness, but no leaves turn blue.  A blue flame is perceptibly hotter than a red or yellow flame -- but we’re talking about emotion (passion) rather than temperature.

“Nature” is also a personification, but treating a season as a call is a little deceptive in part because the original concept of “season” and the original idea of “nature” as in Mother Nature have been culturally portrayed so much that seasonal change has separated from the scientific realities.  Jack Frost is realer to us than temperature dropping causing leaves to color change.  Anyway, sometimes the leaves are responding to day length more than temperature.  The concentration (the computer changed this to condensation three times before I could get concentration to stick) necessary to a haiku is harder than in prose, where you could go on to say elk bugling is calling the leaves off the trees, a fantasy.  There are no elk where there are no deciduous trees.  This is the kind of quibbling that I was taught in high school in the Fifties.  


With newfound passion,
Leaves burn at nature's call as
Summer fades to fall.

So leaves as persons -- okay.  Hot colors equal passion -- okay.  Nature’s call does not mean having to pee -- okay.  Does summer “fade” to fall?  Is a riot of green that becomes a riot of red a “fade”?  Could you make anything of the film term of “fade”?   How does it feel to assume that the passion of fall colors is “newfound”?  Was it lost?  Or is it recurrent?  What makes it new?  

Poets think about such things but they are usually not aware that they are doing it.  In fact, if you think about this stuff consciously, it will probably kill the haiku.  The best strategy is to think about it, do a bit of research, walk around outside while leaves drift down, and so on.  Then wait 24 hours before jotting it out as fast as you can.  Let yourself be “called” with “newfound passion.”  You might even take a leaf home to be a bookmark or put into a scanner for an illustration.  Scanner.  Scan a line of poetry.  Scanner that reports all calls for police action like crimes of passion . . .

Big thanks to the original poet!  If you're interested in this sort of thing, I recommend the Video linked below.  I hadn't read it when I wrote the above.  The gimmick of marking words with color goes back to my interpretation classes in the Fifties.  I used colored pencils then.

bLina Reinsbakken

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