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On “Fish Variations”

By Angus Turvill

Fish Variations has a very particular phonetic structure that throws up special challenges for the translator. Here are a few comments on these challenges and how I addressed them.

Both original poem and translation have seven verses. The first four verses and the final verse are linked by vowel patterns, while verses 5 and 6 are linked to each other, and to verse 1, by consonant patterns. 

The first four verses of the original poem mirror each other in the vowel of every syllable.

Ippiki no sakana ga (verse 1-line 1) / Gisshiri no banana ga (verse 2-line 1))

One-line examples of similar patterning in English might be:

The cat sat on the mat / A man ran off to Chad

(both sentences sharing the vowel sequence: ə æ æ ɒ ə æ)

To be or not to be / A wee port on the sea

(sharing the vowel sequence:  ə iː ɔː ɒ ə iː)

Since these four verses each contain over eighty syllables, I felt that the phonetic restrictions would have to be eased if meaning was to be maintained to any extent. So in the translation the mirroring of the vowels between the different verses is less comprehensive. The main vocalic similarities in the English are seen in:

1. The first two syllables of the first lines:

A fish (ə; ɪ)

The dish (ə; ɪ)

A scribbler (ə; ɪ)

Bereavement  ( ə; iː)

2. The first three syllables of the second line.

Swims its way (ɪ; ɪ; eɪ)

Brings again to mind (ɪ; ə; eɪ/e)

Trips one day and falls (ɪ; ʌ; eɪ)

I shall say nothing foolish (aɪ/a; ə; eɪ)

There are also echoes between each fourth and sixth line respectively.

Just as the first four verses share their vowels, verses 5 and 6 share almost every consonant, both with each other and with the first verse.

To get a feeling for this, readers may like to develop a variation of the lines used above, this time retaining all the consonants, but changing the vowels.

The cat sat on the mat (ð k t s t n ð m t)

To be or not to be (t b n t b)

Again, absolute mirroring of the consonant patterns between verses 5, 6, and 1 would, I think, have been impossible, at least without jettisoning meaning. However, with regard to verses 5 and 6 alone I have tried to get at least partial phonetic parallels in all but the last lines.

Thus in the first lines similarities are seen as follows: f s d s p/b v/w m t.

The face of despotic government

A forced disembowelment

Links to verse 1 are found at the start of both verse 5 and verse 6, as well as at the end of verse 6. Thus there are phonetic echoes in

1. the fricative consonants of the second words of the verses:

Fish (verse 1)

Face (verse 5)

Forced (verse 6)

2. the final lines of verse 6 and verse 1—     

Fields of cotton wool (verse 1)

Flay a kitten whale (verse 6)

I wanted to make this final line of verse 6 link both semantically and phonetically to the first verse. In the process the line, which might be translated literally as "Bully a dolphin," has become "Flay a kitten whale."

The final verse (verse 7) consists in Japanese of the vowels of the first four verses without any consonants. (The title of this section of the translation, "Interlingual Variations," is my addition.) The translation consists of these vowels plus, in brackets, the English vowels that are shared in the equivalent English lines.

i  i  i    o    a  a  a  a                               (a  i) (Line 1)

I felt that the Japanese vowels alone would have little meaning in the context of the translation. So I juxtaposed them with English vowels. I hope that this highlights clearly one aspect of how the translation changes the text. As shown above the first line in Japanese has eight shared vowels, whereas English has two.

Where there is no shared vowel in a line I have written (mm). This is intended as a representation of thought—perhaps on the part of the translator (doubt or satisfaction . . . ?), or again on the part of the reader (horror at the loss in translation . . . ?).

Published Jul 2, 2012   Copyright 2012 Angus Turvill

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