Have you ever come across such a perfect line while reading translated literature that you just have to go check it out in the source language, comprehension be damned?
I found one such line in the Konjaku Monogatari Shu, a collection of hundreds of late Heian-period Japanese short stories, 90 of which appear in English inJapanese Tales from Times Past (trans. Naoshi Koriyama and Bruce Allen). It was a Christmas present, but I’ve already hit volume 19, tale 21 in the Buddhist moral tales section, titled “Snakes are seen in a vat of sake made from rice cake offerings.” In the context of its most delightful line though, I think I might want to rechristen the story “Buddha and the Boozer.”
But first, a quick synopsis of the barely two-page tale for context:
[Since I don’t have access to an English-language library out in rural Japan, I found all of the translations online so it’s a mix of serious academic efforts and maybe some more casual ones. I’ve included links, though a couple of the websites are absolute fossils that are difficult to search, so sorry about that. I didn’t realize how much I would miss Inter-Library Loan when I left university…]
Last week at my adult English conversation class (“eikaiwa”), I thought I would shock and sensationalize by presenting a bunch of middle-to-old-aged Japanese ladies with haiku in English via some of Jack Kerouac’s American “pops.” They found the idea of haiku outside of the Japanese language hilarious (seriously, they laughed at me!) and accused Kerouac of writing senryu (“no season word!”), but their surprise at the topic triggered some of the best discussion I’ve had since I started the class almost two years ago.
But better yet, after class one of my students emailed me an early 19th century poem from the haiku master Kobayashi Issa with the message “Tonight’s moon is good. Do you think so? This haiku is famous” (too bad I had already gone to sleep!). She sent me the text in Japanese, which I have transliterated and lazily translated below:
Meigetsu o (5) / totte kurero to (7) / naku ko kana (5)
harvest moon / get (bring) it! / child that cries…
You can break down the literal sentence like this: “harvest moon” is the grammatical object (を particle) of “get / bring,” an imperative verb (ろ ending) in indirect statement (と particle) to “cries,” which then modifies “child.” The last two beats with “kana” modify the whole sentence to mark uncertain thinking like an ellipsis… I suppose here you could take it as something like a gentle, thinking-out-loud observation along the lines of “Hmm…” or “Oh” or, if you want to sound fancy, a sighing lamentation like “How!” or “Alas!” As I first read it, I came up with this unpoetic line translation:
Oh child that cries… bring (me) the harvest moon!
In terms of the rules of haiku, harvest moon (meigetsu) is the season word (kigo), recalling the autumn, while that “kana” I discussed before is the formal cutting word (kireji). As I imagine it though, I like to think of “to” as an informal cutting word as well, splitting the poem into two voices: a young child making an impossible, maybe humorous demand (“gimme the moon!”) and an adult then quoting the child to make a melancholy or frustrated reply (“oh kiddo…”). But before revising my line translation to account for the haiku features, let’s see how a few other translators have rendered the poem in English: