Sunday, April 18, 2010

Gettin' Academic. (学究的になってる。)

Well, I did say I'd dabble in a few academic things, didn't I? I am, after all, still an academic myself, and will always be one at heart (despite the fact that the potential for tenure at a decent school nowadays has somewhat knocked me from my professorial track.)

Ergo, you get academia. Expand your minds, kids. It's good for you.

And today isn't just any old academia. Oh, no. Today, my friends, we delve into 和歌 (waka), or the classical form of Japanese poetry built upon the syllable format 5-7-5-7-7. You simply don't get much more academic than that. (Ok, sure, we could get into 漢文 and Confucianism, I suppose, but you need to quit being so ornery.)

We will, in fact, be discussing my favorite 和歌, which is, coincidentally (or not so, based on what you know of me), one of the more confusing and difficult to interpret 和歌 that modern scholars know of. Oh ho ho.

As you may guess from the labels below, this 和歌 is from the 伊勢物語 (Ise Monogatari), a collection of Heian period tales bound together in some semblance of plot (but not really.) I admit the only part I remember in detail is when Narihira sleeps with that shrine maiden... (And, of course, the part we read in Classical, wherein the travelers re-hydrated their dried rice with their tears. You can't get any more Heian than THAT, my friends.)

The basic back story to this 和歌, as taken from a handout we received in class (thank Helen McCullough) is as follows:

Once when the ex-empress was living in the eastern Fifth Ward, a certain lady occupied the western wing of her house. Quite without intending it, a man fell deeply in love with the lady and began to visit her; but around the Tenth of the First Month she moved away without a word, and though he learned where she ad gone, it was not a place where ordinary people could come and go. [Edo's note: This means that she went to a convent. A Buddhist one, mind you, but she was a nun nevertheless.] He could do nothing but brood over the wretchedness of life. When the plum blossoms were at their height in the next First Month [Edo's note again: Remember kids, lunar calendar!], poignant memories of the year before drew him back to her old apartments. He stared at the flowers from every conceivable standing and sitting position, but it was quite hopeless to try to recapture the past. Bursting into tears, he flung himself on the floor of the bare room and lay there until the moon sank low in the sky. As he thought of the year before, he composed this poem:


He went home at dawn still weeping.

Tragic and beautiful, yes? That, my friends, is Heian literature. The men sob, the women are bitchy, and everyone composes poetry--for seducing, for lamenting, and sometimes just for shits and giggles.

However, while could discuss the merits and flaws of Heian literature for hours (including how Genji is, in fact, a total creeper), what we're here for today is that 和歌. While those of you who don't read Classical Japanese may not notice, the poem is... how shall we say... vague. It's almost ungrammatical. Even other Heian era poets called him out on this one, like Ki no Tsurayuki: "The poetry of Ariwara no Narihira tries to express too much content in too few words. It resembles a faded flower with a lingering fragrance." Ooh, Heian snap.

While I may disagree, it is very difficult to interpret and translate. A number of people have tackled it, and most of them have just plain failed; I'm looking at you, H. H. Honda. The best translation, in my opinion (and that of my classical professor, Peter Flueckiger), is Helen McCullough's:

Is this not the moon?
And is this not the springtime,
The springtime of old?
Only this body of mine
the same as before...

Notice TWO things:
(1) She maintained the trailing ending. The original poem does not end grammatically, it trails off. McCullough is the only one (at least in the list of translations I have) who maintains this sense of unfinished-ness.
(2) She freaking maintained the 和歌 format. 5-7-5-7-7. Count 'em. Normally, I frown upon this, as I find it prosaic and stupid, considering the fact that English is not broken up as neatly as Japanese is and does NOT work well with this sort of poetry. Translators wind up butchering the original to make the English nice and neat. However, when the translation is that good AND maintains the format? I am floored.

I was going to offer you my own translation, but frankly... I can't top that. And after seeing it, all of my translations will be somewhat influenced by it. We did translate in class before reading the English versions, but I have no idea what I came up with all those weeks ago.

Well, dear readers, how did you enjoy your very atypical cultural lesson? Never thought you'd learn about Heian literature from this blog, did you? Oh, I am simply full of surprises, ah ha ha.

This is Edo, signing off while considering her odds of being a decent Heian aristocrat. (Not good.)

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