Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Of Starch, Lily Corms, and Potatoes Are Memories Made

This post is dedicated to the day I spent with my then high-school classmate on Ponpon-yama, where the katakuri lilies were in full bloom, looking for eggs of the Japanese Luehdorfia on wild ginger plants.

One of the most charming poems in the first imperially-commissioned anthology—the 8th-Century Manyoshu— a tanka penned by Ōtomo no Yakamochi, one of the greatest and most innovative poets in Japanese history:
Mono no fu no/ yaso-otome-ra ga/ kumimagou/ terai no ue no/ katakago no hana.
A bustling throng of young women drawing water from the temple well, where bloom the katakuri lilies. (my translation)
I regret that I do not have the literary skills to give you any sense of how Yakamochi deftly uses grammatical features of the Japanese language and the 5-7-5, 7-7 syllabic structure of the tanka (as well as its literary conventions) to create an visual and aural tableau of fleeting, timeless, beauty. It’s been so many years since I first came across the poem, but I can never remember it without seeing the dappled sunlight falling on the girls and the flowers and the well, hearing the chatter and splashing—all of it implied, in the best tradition of Japanese poetry. The sensations that come back to me are as vivid and real as any of my best (and worst) memories from my real life.

So what caused me to relive my memories of the katakuri lily? The fact that the katakuri-ko, a starch so convenient in making Chinese dishes (it soaks up the liquid escaping from the meat and vegetable and wraps it around the latter as a savory sauce of your preferred texture) and tatsuta-age, the Japanese-style fried chicken—it works for fish too—that retains its deliciousness long after it has cooled, is no longer produced for general consumption from the katakuri lily corm. Instead, the katakuri-ko sold in stores today consists solely of potato starch.

Of which I was reminded of when I read the news report to which I refer to in this post.


William said...

Very nice poem and very nice translation. One might be tempted to replace "throng" with "army", in a slight nod to the (I admit, possibly irrelevant) background military nuance of the makurakotoba "mononofu no". Also adds a bit more contrast between the bustling maidens and the demure lilies. But if one did that one might be accused of being a stickler.

Jun Okumura said...

William: Thank you for your kind words. You rightly point to a couple of defects in my translation. On the first point, I wrestled with the problem of what to do with mono-no-fu, or armed man, the makura-kotoba for yaso, or many (figuratively; literally, eighty), and decided to leave it out all together. Your solution is tempting, but I fear that the word “army” may distort the mood of the poem somewhat (these are, after all, girls) and would require an explanation. A makura-kotoba is, after all, just a makura-kotoba, and I prefer not to give it much weight unless I am doing a word-for-word, literal translation. Let’s just say there’s a hint of its sense of the physical in the words “bustling” and “throng”?

I understand your second point, but I don’t see any kind of a solution here except maybe a footnote (God forbid) explaining that the katakuri lily is a small, short-stemmed lily that grows in fairly large groups. In any case, I really don’t like adding verbs, adjectives and adverbs words. Even the addition of the word “bloom” comes across as excessive and the inversion looks a little odd, but I saw no other way to retain the original structure—which is really what makes the poem work—as much as possible and still make it passable English.

Jun Okumura said...

William: I googled mono-no-fu (“もののふ*枕詞”, actually) and came up with this highly informative entry on this delightful website. I was astounded to learn that mo-no-fu at the time referred to all officials, military and civilian, presumably male fu though the entry does not explicitly say so. Perhaps because of this, of the twenty-one poems in the Manyo-shu that employs this word, ten use it in conjunction with yaso-tomo-no-wo (many officials), and one each with oh-mae-tsu-kimi (Minister), omi no wotoko (male lieges?), yaso-ujibito (many clan members), otoko omina (men and women) and of course yaso-otomera. Four use it in conjunction with Yaso-Uji-gawa (The Uji River), and one each with Uji-kawa watari (Uji River crossing), and Iwase no mori (the woods of Iwase).

It is not unreasonable to conjecture, then, that this particular makura-kotoba carried an undeniable air of masculinity and officialdom. Add to this the fact that Otomo no Yakamochi, who elsewhere gives more overt displays of a well-developed sense of ironic humor, is the author of nine of these twenty-one poems, using it always in conjunction with humans, including the other one that refers to female, as in “men and women,” and the poem takes on a somewhat different cast. Specifically, I now see a stately, practiced order, not quite Pre-Raphaelite, in the girls’ movements and a subtle sense of irony permeating this tableau. My translation clearly needs more work.

(Incidentally, Yakamochi’s poem that includes “men and women” depicts people going to see the flowers. Some things never change here.)