Zen and the Art of Translating Poetry: Stephen Berg and Ikkyu, the world’s most lascivious monk


Literary translation is an art, not a science; the act of bringing a story or poem into another language is a creative act, first and foremost, and can’t be fully systematized. And yet there are rules (or, better yet, standard operating procedures) for how one produces a translation that is faithful to the original while standing as an independent work of art. The most traditional of these procedures, developed systematically by Russian and French theorists in the 1950’s, concerns equivalence: that is, the translator’s choice of the best word or phrase in the new language to correspond with each original word or phrase. (One might imagine the best version of a machine translation: Google Translate as omniscient being.)

Other theoretical frameworks are less prescriptive on the sentence level; Skopos theory, for example, stresses that the goal of translation is the transmission of the purpose of the original work—to entertain, to inform, to warn—as opposed to its line-by-line linguistic form. This concept can feel nebulous; how is a translator to define the true purpose of a poem? And yet it does seem to reflect why a reader turns to language in the first place: to learn, to gain wisdom. If a translator achieves grammatical fidelity but fails to transmit the underlying purpose of the work, are they truly successful? What if they produce the linguistically equivalent version of a joke, but the reader doesn’t laugh?

But how far can the concept of purpose be taken? Or, in terms slightly less abstract, how loose can a translation be? Some of the most interesting answers to this question come from poet/translators who work at the edges of these rules, producing work which might not technically be considered translation, yet which brings something of a literary text (a sense, a flavor, if not always a “purpose”) into English. Sometimes these poets use the term “translation” for their own work; other times they use the term “versions,” to make the differences from standard translation theory more obvious.

One such poet/translator was Stephen Berg, noted Philadelphia literary figure and founder of the American Poetry Review. As I processed his collection last month, I came across several volumes of such “versions.” In Berg’s case, he primarily used the term “version” when he wasn’t fluent in the source language, a fact which invites further questions. What does it mean when a poet attempts a translation of a work they cannot read in the original? Certainly anyone who subscribes to a traditional theory of equivalence would find the idea irresponsible. Even a casual reader might take issue with the idea on first glance, trained as we are, in this digital age, to think of translation as the product of a machine-like transfer between words.

But if one thinks of translation as a transmission of purpose, not a matter of equivalence, then the issues with Berg’s versions begin to seem more complex, and worthy of investigation.

At Kislak, our Berg archive has a particularly rich file on Crow With No Mouth, a series of versions Berg made of poems by the 15th century Japanese poet and Zen master Ikkyu. Ikkyu’s work can be difficult to decipher, even for experts. Most of his poems were written, not in Japanese, but in a formalized Chinese script which was the literary language for many upper-class Japanese writers at the time. In addition, Ikkyu’s training as a Zen Buddhist monk gives his poems a dense referential quality. During the preparation of his “versions,” Berg leaned heavily on the work of Sonja Arntzen, who produced annotated, literal translations of Ikkyu’s work, one of which is included below. Reading, you can see how a short poem contains a wealth of Zen history.


And yet, for all his deep scholastic training, Ikkyu could also be iconoclastic and erotic, especially in a series of poems written to his young blind lover, Shin – also called Mori.


As Arntzen writes, these Shin poems are ardent in their passion, direct, sometimes even naïve. The source of fascination in Ikkyu’s poetry is the combination of these two seemingly polarized forces: the austere learning and the sudden displays of passionate eroticism.


All of this provides a formidable task for the translator. On a technical level, Ikkyu can’t be translated with an eye toward pure equivalence. For one thing, the character-based concision inherent in the pictographic line can’t be rendered in English without destroying the grammatical flow of the resulting poem. For another, the kinds of referential work Ikkyu weaves into his work would require so many words to elucidate that the result would be more scholarly gloss than translation. (One can see how Arntzen’s literal translations, while fascinating and illuminating on a socio-historical level, don’t provide the pleasure or burst of compressed enlightenment a reader looks for in poetry.)

Berg’s solution is fascinating. In place of the four line format of the original poems, he creates a highly compressed two-line English structure of varied meter, into which he attempts, as best he can, to render the underlying purpose of each poem. Here is his version of “Praising Monk Hsu-t’ang.”


Immediately one is struck by how much has been excised, compared to the literal translation. Berg seems to have decided that the purpose of the poem is to reproduce Monk Hsu-Tang’s original praiseworthy perspective—but not the Monk himself! Perhaps he’s making the calculated decision that American readers won’t be interested in the historical transmission, so crucial in Ikkyu’s time, of Zen wisdom, and will prefer Berg’s rendering of the wisdom, cut loose from history and cultural context.

If equivalence is what you’re looking for, the erotic poems fare better; though even here, Berg fashions a voice for Ikkyu in English that feels remarkably different than Arntzen’s rendering. In Arntzen’s hand, Ikkyu sounds formal, even slightly coy; sexual images receive a metaphorical gloss: “cloud-rain,” “the jeweled stem.” As the footnote to “Calling My Hand Shin’s Hand” shows, this has to do with the nature of the original Chinese. It’s only natural that sexual innuendos would have aged enough over five hundred years that they would seem formal to American readers.

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Berg’s rendering, however, strips away the old metaphors and replaces them with contemporary, direct language. Not only that: he unifies the poem with an internal logic, rearranging the diffuse references around a sustained discussion of personal desire. Again, it seems that Berg has decided that the purpose of the poem is to express the poet’s joy at his erotic union with Shin/Mori, and has excised the referential character of the poem. Does it matter to American readers that the metaphorical “jeweled stem” has been excised? Or that Arntzen’s final line (one of the more successful of all her translations, both lyrically and metrically) has been completely transfigured, the monks subordinated to mere “followers” – “followers,” it must be mentioned, who no longer make a great deal of syntactical sense within the resulting poem.

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But perhaps all of Berg’s stylization and excision is about more than simple aesthetics; perhaps his radical decisions are in service to the larger aim of presenting Ikkyu’s radical natural in contemporary English. The combination of Zen asceticism and eroticism made him a powerful iconoclast within the Rinzai Zen tradition. How is Berg to get this iconoclasm across? American readers, faced with the armature of Zen reference, may see Ikkyu as an establishment figure, without realizing his deep ambivalence over “official” Buddhism. Or, worse, a straightforward rendering of his formal style might cause readers to see him as old-fashioned, mistakenly conflating the form of the transmission (metrically formal Chinese poetry) with its content.

Instead, Berg strives to bring forth the personality he feels he sees in Ikkyu’s poems, as he says below:

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He prizes frankness and sincerity: two aspects of Ikkyu’s work that make him more relevant to the average contemporary reader (and which, not coincidentally, are present in Berg’s original work as well). Presenting this voice is the core of his purpose, as Skopos theory might define it. He wants the reader to know Ikkyu as Berg feels he has known him, as he met him, “immediately, in his deep fund of passion.”

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Despite some obvious reservations concerning lost context and occasionally baffling word choices, there is something fascinating about comparing the original Chinese, with its constellation of symbols arranged on a bare page and its combination of tradition and iconoclasm, with Berg’s version. Knowing he would never be able to do justice to Ikkyu’s strange combinations, he strove, instead, to present him so that he would be shocking now. The explicit sexuality, the nihilism, the lower-case persistence and lack of clear punctuation, serve to puncture cultural and rhetorical norms. Perhaps the result is more radical than Ikkyu would have intended. But, knowing what we know about the monk’s wild life, this seems rather unlikely.



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