Once again the text is transcribed below for searching, screen readers, and so on. It is astonishing to note that Google’s OCR can now transcribe this script type from Dr. Boli’s Hermes 3000 with no errors, except for one that is a borderline case: it mistook the opening parenthesis in the sixth paragraph for a T, and since the word above it is underlined, it does rather look like the T in this script face (compare “Tokyo” on the line below).
Yesterday we mentioned that the usual 5-7-5 form of haiku does not strike English ears as poetry. That is hardly surprising. “Language is all about rhythm,” said the philosopher and linguist Trevor Noah, and because they have different rhythms, different languages have different characteristic forms of poetry.
Ancient Greeks, when they spoke, heard the difference between long and short syllables clearly, and for them that made the beat of poetry. We have nothing similar in English: it is true that the monosyllable “thwart” takes longer to pronounce than “it,” but there is no regularity in these differences, so we cannot use them as the basis of poetic form. We hear accent as the rhythm of language. Thus when translators tackle the works of Homer, for example, they have to deal with the biggest difficulty of all before they even get started: how can Homer’s hexameters be rendered in English verse?
Some translators have tried English hexameter, and not entirely without success. But we are not duplicating Homer’s rhythm if we do that: we may count the same number of beats and put the same macrons and breves over the syllables, but there is a big difference between rhythm based on long and short syllables and rhythm based on rising and falling pitch. Since a long syllable in Greek poetry is supposed to count for two short ones, dactyllic hexameter moves along in 4/4 time in Greek, whereas it dances in triplets in English.
Most translators of Homer have tried to find a native English equivalent to the Greek hexameters. Iambic pentameter has been the most usual choice by far, either as blank verse or in rhymed couplets. To Dr. Boli’s ear, though, the most successful adaptation will always be Chapman’s fourteeners; and we see Mr. Keats over there nodding his concurrence.
We have taken this long digression into Greek because more of our readers are familiar with the forms of Greek and Latin verse than with the characteristic forms of Japanese, which Dr. Boli regrets to admit are a closed book to him. It does not take a great imaginative leap, however, to see that, if two Indo-European languages can have such an unbridgeable poetic gap between them, Japanese poetry is hardly likely to be easier to translate.
In his book Japanese Poetry, Basil Hall Chamberlain (who was Professor of Japanese at the Imperial University of Tokyo) uses unrhymed tetrameter couplets to translate these Japanese “epigrams.”
A lucky find,—the peaks of cloud,—
For countries that no mountains see
This is perhaps not great poetry, but it does immediately strike us as poetic. It sings; it has a rhythm to it, which is exactly what the usual 5-7-5 haiku lacks in English.
But Professor Chamberlain also mentioned the word “epigram,” and that reminds us that the Japanese are not alone in finding short forms for short subjects. Let us see where that word “epigram” takes us tomorrow.