sound of sleet


音は時雨 か
oto wa shigure ka

Santoka Santooka 山頭火

the sound, oh,
it's sleet !

WKD Rain in various Kigo


Comment from Larry Bole:

Here is what Burton Watson says in the introduction to his book of translations of Santoka's haiku, "For All My Walking:"

"Modern Japanese in nearly all cases requires more syllables or sound symbols to express a given idea or image than does modern English and so English translations of Japanese haiku, if not deliberately padded, will almost inevitably turn out to be briefer in wording than the originals. And when confronted with a poem such as Santoka's haiku 'oto wa shigure ka,' one comes out with something looking like this:

that sound
the rain?

Can an utterance as brief as this be called a poem? I leave it to readers to decide."


p.s. I'm not sure I agree with Watson, since he seems to be comparing the number of Japanese syllables or sound symbols in a Japanese haiku to the number of syllables in the English words in a translation of that haiku into English. I don't understand why he isn't comparing the number of Japanese words in a given Japanese haiku to the number of words in the English translation of that haiku.

Aren't there situations where you may have fewer Japanese words, in spite of the larger total number of syllables they contain, but need more English words to make the haiku read well in English, even if the English words combined contain fewer total syllables than does the Japanese original?

In the appendix in Henderson's "An Introduction to Haiku," he defines "ka" as: "A verbal question mark."And Higginson, in the glossary in "The Haiku Handbook," defines "ka"as:"--emphasis; at the end of a phrase, makes a question."

Translating Haiku

... ... ...

Gabi writes:

Normally, ka is of course the question mark in written and spoken Japanese, but from my long experience with the living language, I come to notice many uses where it feels a lot more like an exclamation mark.

in a typical question, it comes with a ... desu ka?

but in a spoken statement like this

ara .. ame ka

I feel it is a lot more like ... oh look it's raining!

as a statement, not a question like . ... Is this rain?

I saw a beautiful hiragana rendering of this prase, making it in three lines

oto wa
shi gu re

with a very large KA compared to the smaller longish shi.. gu.. re line.

saaa, iku ka ..... means basically

let's go !

By the way, ... aaa, kyoo mo ame ka , ... was my first thought this morning, with the sound on the roof and it means simply

oh gosh, rain again today !


to translate SHIGURE simply as RAIN, as Watson does, does not make much sense, since he then misses the kigo of this KU.
The sound of sleet for example on a Japanese temple roof is something you must have heared to believe its impression ...
I often go to our local shrine during sleet just to listen to this sound !
And I can easily imagine Santoka and Ryokan san sitting right next to me for this enjoyment!

... ... ...

Norman writes:

Hi Gabi, Larry and all

As you know my Japanese is too meagre to offer any worthwhile comment directly on the Japanese usage here, but having studied a rather broad range (in both space and time) of languages, I have been struck by how commmon is and has been for millennia the usage of a question-formula to make an emphatic statement, such as, "Isn't it a beautiful day, today [with optional ?]" which in usage is not a question at all, and hardly needs a response.

It occurs to me that Santoka's haiku in question may use a similar mechanism, though I freely own I may be completely wrong.


... ... ...

Larry writes:

Dear Gabi, Norman, and all,

Since my knowledge of Japanese is virtually non-existant, I defer to all experts, even when the experts have differing opinions.

Is it possible that certain words might have a literary usage that is different from their everyday usage?

Gabi, I agree with your example of seeing the phrase written out. The emphasis you describe regarding how "ka" is written certainly supports your contention.

And Norman, your point is certainly plausible. In English, what you describe is called a 'rhetorical question', which is when a question is used more as a statement than a question.

Here is a definition of 'rhetorical question' from Wikipedia:

"A rhetorical question is a figure of speech in the form of a question posed for rhetorical effect rather than for the purpose of getting an answer. ("How many times do I have to tell you to stop walking into the house with mud on your shoes?").

"A rhetorical question seeks to encourage reflection within the listener as to what the answer to the question (at least, the answer implied by the questioner) must be. When a speaker declaims, "How much longer must our people endure this injustice?" or "Will our company grow or shrink?", no formal answer is expected. Rather, it is
a device used by the speaker to assert or deny something."


and one more from Larry:

Dear Gabi,

It's interesting to consider whether Santoka meant sleet.

In Watson's book of translations, he includes dated exerpts from Santoka's diaries, and haiku/poems written therein as well.

If Watson's chronology is accurate, he puts "oto wa shigure ka" at the end of a group of twelve haiku/poems he translates which appear between a diary entry dated August 9, 1932, and one dated September 19, 1932. In fact, the first haiku in this group is the recently discussed

utsurikite ohiganbana no hanazakan
(moving in / higan lilies / at their best).

Watson says in his introduction (in fact in the paragraph that precedes the one I quoted previously):

"My.. .interest in Santoka's work centers... on the poetry itself [contrasting this with John Stevens' book of translations, "Mountain Tasting: Zen Haiku by Santoka Taneda," which focuses on the Zen aspects of Santoka's haiku], particularly the manner in which it experiments with different poem lengths and syntactic patterns, and the challenge that these present to the translator.

Since free-style haiku do not adhere to the conventional 5-7-5 sound pattern, the translator is free to break them more or less wherever he or she wants or, like Hiroaki Sato in his translation of Ozaki Hosai's free-style haiku, to translate them as a single line of English [and, as a matter of fact, Sato has published a book of single-line translations of Santoka's haiku, "Santoka :: Grass and Tree Cairn"].

I have regularly broken my own translations into two or three lines in the hope that this division will help readers grasp the syntax of the poem and slow down the reading."

One thing I like about this brief Santoka haiku under discussion, is the rhyme between "wa" and "ka." I can't help but think that this is part of why Santoka evidently found this phrase so pleasing.

Higginson doesn't have anything to say about "wa"; while Henderson says:

A particle which is usually followed by a noticable pause. It is much like an English 'as for' so-and-so, in that it not only marks what we are talking about, but also suggests a comparison with other things not mentioned."

I am guessing that Santoka wanted his readers to think about what the sound he heard might be. I know I have woken up during an early autumn night, when it's cool enough for a blanket but we still have the bedroom windows open, and thought I heard it raining, and thought that I would have to get up and close the windows, but then discovered the sound was only the wind rustling the early autumn leaves.

Given the time of year in which Santoka seems to have written this haiku (again, based on Watson's chronology), it is surprising to me that Santoka would use "shigure" rather than "akisame," "aki no ame," or even "akishigure." So maybe he did indeed mean "sleet."

Perhaps there was an unseasonably early sleet shower, for which he felt the best word was "shigure." Or perhaps he heard autumn rain, but decided he liked setting the experience in winter better!

Anyway, I like imagining you, Gabi, going to a temple just to hear the sound of sleet on the roof!


p.s.  Speaking of Santoka translations, Blyth, sounding surprised at himself, devotes a whole chapter (Chapter XXXII) to Santoka in "A History of Haiku, Volume Two." Blyth begins the chapter this way:

"To give a modern poet a whole chapter to himself, albeit a short one, may seem strange..."

All the more strange, considering that Blyth has a generally low opinion of haiku written between Issa and Shiki, and an even lower opinion overall of post-Shiki haiku. However, he gives Santoka a chapter to himself because he is a 'modern' representative of "the small group of beggar-like haiku poets; Rotsuu is another example, and Basho and Issa are not dissimilar."

... ... ...

Thanks to all for their contributions !

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1 comment:

anonymous poet said...

Open your ears to nature's rainbow of sound

In Japan, autumn fills nature, not only with visual colors, but also with “colorful” sounds: blowing wind, birdsong, the chirping of insects and the crunching of leaves.

It is no wonder, then, that many Japanese haiku about autumn are painted with these aural “colors.”

suzushisa no katamari nare ya yowa no tsuki — Yasuhara Teishitsu (1610-73) night moon: a mass of coolness

This haiku contains two subjects: a tangible one — a pale moon — and an intangible one — the cool air. The writer experiences these as through the sense of touch, the moon embodying coolness as it pours its rays onto the Earth.

inazuma ya yami no kata yuku goi no koe — Matsuo Basho (1644-94) lightning — into darkness a heron’s scream melts

The interaction of lightning, which is both visual and acoustic, combined with a heron’s scream, creates an unsettling scene in the autumn darkness. Both landscape and soundscape are one, creating a striking word-picture that lays bare the heart of loneliness.

mushi horo horo kusa ni koboruru neiro kana — Miura Chora (1929-80) insects chirp: upon the leaves of grass sound color falls in drops

This poem is a synesthetic combination of the sense of sound with a tactile sense of fluidity. The chirping of insects seeps into the withering leaves of grass.

On most of the Japanese archipelago, winter sets forth its own intense beauty. The season abounds with sensual impressions, rich in sound, which resonate in a variety of haiku images.

patto hi ni naritaru kumo ya kusa o yaku — Takahama Kyoshi (1874-1959) in a flash a spider turns into a flame: withered grass on fire

The poet visually grasps the combustion of life in a single moment of time. In the flames of the grass fire, another burns still brighter — the strong image of a spider’s life being completely consumed.

This haiku is as aural as it is visual, as we conjure the sharp, momentary sound when the tiny living thing burns up. The sudden flash and crackle of flame is perhaps the last sound of the creature’s life.

fuyugare ya yo wa hito iro ni kaze no oto — Matsuo Basho a desolate winter: in a one-colored world wind resounds

In this poem, the tone of the wind emphasizes the desolation of the winter world. Visual sensation (the one-colored winter world), auditory sensation (the sound of the wind) and tactile sensation (coldness of the air) all unite in a complete whole. This is as it should be, every connection of the senses defined yet intertwined.

inochi tsukite yakuko samuku hanare keri — Iida Dakotsu (1885-1962) life is gone — smell of medicineleaves the body cold

Dakotsu “smells” coldness as the odor of medicine fades from a lifeless body, a superimposition that strongly evokes the writer’s grief and emotional chill.

This poem seemingly contains no sound, yet is there perhaps the sound of ice forming within the poet’s heart? Sometimes, deep meaning or feeling may lurk between lines.

The human senses do not work independently of one another, but are closely interconnected. By making a connection, these senses cooperate, like our two eyes seeing as one.

This close cooperation of the senses — heard soundscapes blending with seen landscapes — offers the opportunity to create richly textured poetic metaphors.

Toshimi Horiuchi
Japan Times