Dying in spring

Full moon overhead
In the waning days of March.
Yes, dying in spring
Beneath a blossoming tree
That would be the choice I’d make.

This is my translation of a famed waka by Saigyo (see picture), the 12th-century Japanese poet/monk:


The knowledgeable reader will notice that I’ve completely reversed the order of the lines, although I’ve maintained the 5-7-5-7-7 meter. It turns out when translating from Japanese into English, reversing the order is often the key to a more compelling, readable, or understandable rendition—not only for poems, but computer manuals as well.

This technique applies to everything from two-word pairs, to clauses in a parallel construction, to phrases in sentences, to sentences within paragraphs. Even entire sections can often be usefully reconstructed by moving the last paragraph in the Japanese to the top, and vice versa. I haven’t yet experimented with reorganizing the chapters of a book along these lines, but it seems worth a try.

Perhaps we should try this with Dogen’s Shobo Genzo as well—moving Genjo Koan from the very front to the very back, where it would serve as a thundering conclusion to the masterpiece, rather than a mere introduction.

For extra credit, I’ll accept reader hypotheses, involving your favorite theories of evolutionary linguistics or neuropsychology, as to why Japanese should exhibit such a radically reversed order from English at all levels.

Saigyo’s wish was granted: he died on the 16th day of Kisaragi (translated as “March” above).

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