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    The little cuckoo
is crying, ah!, and sweet-flags
    in the Fifth Month --
alas, feeling this longing
whose sweet cause I do not know.

—6 November 2013

Original author unknown. Enough word games -- on to a more heartfelt topic with this start of the first (of five) book of love poetry. Just as the seasonal books are organized chronologically, so are these poems, following the phases of an idealized love affair -- beginning here with the first intimations of love. The poem is very much in the traditional manner and would not have been out of place in the Man'yoshu. And speaking of traditions, back in book III we saw the summertime cuckoo used as an occasion for pensiveness, an association created with love poems such as this. Pivot-doublet {see below}: ayame = "sweet flag" (an early summer lily that resembles and is often confused with a common iris, used at the time as decorations during the festival of the Fifth of the Fifth Month) / "(logical) reason/source." I translate the latter loosely to reproduce the repetition. (And now I'm imaging a visual novel context that allows rendering it as a "sweet event flag." Ah, technology -- you change us so little.) Commentaries debate whether to understand this as the onset of ever being in love -- a first love ever.

{Digression: I need to declare my personal terminology, all the more so given there's no consensus in English or Japanese criticism on what to call these figures. A pivot-word is when sounds are used in two meanings at once, typically one sense with the phrase before and one with the phrase after, though more complicated patterns are possible. Example: "with you gone I pine trees moan in the wind" understood as "with you gone I pine -- pine trees moan in the wind." The effect is sometimes an implied comparison but more commonly it's two separate statements, and because the two senses can rarely be made the same sound in English I usually double-translate the pivot. A singular pivot-word is similar, only the word is used in the same sense with both phrases: "I am a lonely pine trees moan in the wind" understood as "I am a lonely pine -- pine trees moan in the wind." The effect is often an implied comparison that can be rendered as something like "I am lonely like pine trees that moan in the wind." A pivot-doublet is also similar to a pivot-word, only (as in this poem) with the sound repeated instead of collapsed together into a pivot-word: "with you gone I pine; the pine trees moan in the wind." The effect is typically associative -- the sound and often also the sense of one word reminding the speaker of the other.}


hototogisu
naku ya satsuki no
ayamegusa
ayame mo shiranu
koi mo suru ka na


---L.

About

Warning: contents contain line-breaks.

As language practice, I was translating classical Japanese poetry -- most recently, book 11 (love part 1) of the Kokinshu anthology. This project is, however, on hiatus. Past translations are archived here. Suggestions, corrections, and questions always welcome.

There's also original pomes in the journal archives.

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