At one time I was fascinated by foreign languages, but frustrated by my lack of talent in learning them. What I should have done, while I still had the intellect, was to have learned them in a more structured way. I had a friend who wanted to do languages at University and he used to give himself a target to memorise a list of words each week. If only I had learnt then what it took me another forty years to realise – talent isn’t necessary, and hard work will always beat it.
At the back of my mind, since looking at haiku in translation, I have become convinced that writing haiku in foreign languages isn’t difficult. It can’t be, because there aren’t many worlds and there are no complicated ideas. This is strange, as I make hard work of them in English, so really can’t imagine they are less difficult in a foreign language. Such thoughts are often born from a position of ignorance, so I’m probably going to alter my position on that subject.
Also at the back of my mind, in that portion where the world is a strange place and reality has little to do with my thoughts, is a vague thought that even if you are a native English speaker, that isn’t enough to enable you to write haiku for Americans.
For one thing, the guidelines generally given fro writing haiku are often ignored by American editors so I don’t have a clue what they really want.
And for another, you have the “two nations divided by a common language” problem.Take birds, for instance. As I look out of my window, I see Blue Tits and Great Tits in reasonable numbers. This is not a family of birds familiar to the American reader. They have chickadees. In any case, I tend to steer clear of tits in poetry, as the ambiguity of the word tends to encourage smutty levity and the proliferation of limerick type verses.
Until the Great War they were known as titmice, if you look in older bird books. This is just one more area where the war encouraged the decline of society – the others being votes for women and the popularity of the wrist watch. Life was much easier when women let us think we were in charge and where watches were commonly worn in waistcoats. The decline in standards can, I am convinced, be blamed on the decline of the waistcoat. You don’t need a watch pocket if you have the infernal device strapped to your wrist, and without a waistcoat all you are left with is a gravy-stained shirt. No waistcoat, no gravitas.
Back at the poetry/ornithology interface, how do you get round the chickadee/tit problem? Tits have one syllable, chickadees have three. You can’t just slip in one word as a substitute for another. In haiku syllables are important. In a poem limited to 17 syllables, adding two is a difficult task. Three syllables are a sixth of the poem. Do that calculation for a sonnet and it’s over two lines. That is significant length. At least with the goldcrest/kinglet translation there is no syllable problem. You might be OK translating chickadee and long-tailed tit, but who in his right mind is going to try to get long-tailed tit into a haiku?
Anyway, Julia is 125 miles away, visiting Number One Son in his new Norwich home, and I am already thinking about a Chinese takeaway. Or possibly a curry. One thing I’m definitely not thinking about is salad. So, I’m going to leave it here, and start behaving like a bachelor. Loads of TV featuring archaeology and machinery and no diet. And definitely no washing up until it’s twenty minutes from Julia’s estimated return.