Dreaming of Haiku

Last week I talked about the fun time we had in doing the Dreaming Spies poster. I thought you might like to hear the view from the technical side. Friends, meet Evelyn Thompson—who, fortunately for me, found the challenge of translation “a most delicious undertaking”.

Evelyn photo

Naturally my first step was a session in the library. I’m afraid the commute to the Bodleian was too inconvenient, but the local “toshokan” had what I needed to brush up on the rules and conventions of haiku. They can be tricky little nuggets; one of the first concessions I had to make was to dispense with the “kigo,” or seasonal word that anchors the poem in time and space, in the second poem (“Foreign boots hit hard…”). The “falling petals” of the first serve well to ground the first poem in late spring, but neither “moss” nor “rising sun” fit the right season for the second. However, I figured that being about “foreign boots,” the poem was sufficiently modern and exotic enough not to need the full traditional treatment.

Next I had to wrest the text from English and re-work it into Japanese. Translators generally work into their native language, not out of it, but how hard could these simple clusters of sentences be?

Ha! My notebook was soon filled with scratched-out attempts, random kanji characters I thought I might need, and disparate phrases or lines that worked on their own but not in a whole poem. It was time for expert advice. I sent my first clumsy drafts to two experts I knew from graduate school, and their advice (including that fact that the character I had chosen for “pilgrim” would be nearly universally read as “hospital patients,” for reasons that remain unexplained) improved the work immeasurably but left me with a dilemma: should I craft more “authentic” poems that are less related to the originals, or more literal versions that ignore the conventions of the style? Ultimately I chose the former, on the grounds that just as one’s speaking voice sometimes changes pitch or timbre in a different language, so might one’s written voice. The translator’s prerogative!

On to the calligraphy. Five years of daily penmanship classes in elementary school do not a calligrapher make, especially not with a brush. I found some examples of contemporary calligraphy to use as a guide, reacquainted myself with the basic motions, and started in. The stack of rice paper and the (sizeable) bottle of ink I acquired for the purpose dwindled steadily; my husband and visiting parents picked carefully around the dozens of damp attempts strewn across our tatami floors. Infuriatingly, I would often produce a perfect kanji or two amidst a sheet of dross, but copy-pasting doesn’t work nearly so well in real life as on a computer! I realized I would have to lose myself in the creation by concentrating on the process rather than the outcome, and accept the fact that my hand was never going to resemble the dedicated professionals and devoted amateurs here.




Luckily, exotic Western-ness was the name of the game in the Taisho period, and rice paper is cheap. Sifting through dozens of copies after a marathon session one evening, I found a version of each haiku that struck the best balance between form and expression and sent them off. I hope they do the exquisite painting in which they are framed, and their creator, justice.

Dreaming Spies low Res JPEG copy

Win your own copy of the poster, here.

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13 days until Dreaming Spies! Other posts about writing and researching the book can be seen here, or you can read a long excerpt here

You can pre-order a signed copy from Poisoned Pen Books or Bookshop Santa Cruz, and unsigned or e-books from IndiebooksAmazon/Kindle, or Barnes & Noble/Nook.

My upcoming events are here.

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  1. Merrily Taylor on February 4, 2015 at 11:15 am

    What an interesting account! At least most translators are spared the additional challenge of creating a visual artwork along with capturing content, tone and (if a poem) rhythm and (perhaps) rhyme. Evelyn did a superb job of all!

  2. Sara on February 4, 2015 at 5:25 pm

    It’s lovely work- and looks beautiful as a part of the new poster. Always a global experience, these Russell books!

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