Art, Science, and Ste. Emilie's Sunsets: A Haj-Inspired Cognitive Approach to Translating an Emily Dickinson Poem into Japanese

Article excerpt

In the spring semester of 1983, each Wednesday would see Haj taking a late morning flight from Logan to La Guardia, where I would meet him to drive out to the State University of New York College at Old Westbury, where I was teaching at the time. As a nontraditional college founded by Nelson Rockefeller in the 1960s to be the social sciences sister to SUNY/Purchase's arts focus, SUNY/COW did not have formal departments. I taught in a program called Comparative History, Ideas, and Cultures (CHIC), and, in the spring of 1983, we were fortunately able to find funding to bring Haj to the college each week for a seminar course called Art and Science in a Society at the Turning Point, loosely based on Fritjof Capra's recently published book on that subject. In addition to the regular seminars, three public lectures were offered--"Science in Search of Humanity," "Language in Search of Meaning," and "Poetry and the Power of Words." While students were able to take the course for credit, all the lectures and seminar sessions were open to the public and the college community without charge. The three-hour long seminars started at 7:30 p.m. and drew upwards of forty people each week, students, faculty, and staff alike.

Accompanying Haj on his weekly visits was his beloved carpetbag, crammed with manuscripts, articles, and juggling balls. Students, faculty, and staff learned to find Haj on his arrival at Old Westbury by the CHIC Xerox machine, where they could engage him in conversation while he ran off innumerable copies of all kinds of material that be thought everyone should know about. The seminars themselves were magical, as all Haj's friends would suppose: the room was large enough to seat everyone in a circle, and halfway through, Haj would produce enough juggling balls from his bag of tricks for everyone to stand and stretch and juggle. As the lecture titles indicate, seminar topics focused on Haj's interests and concerns on the nature of linguistics, art, humanity, science, and poetry, and the increasing influence of Eastern on Western thought, all of which still engage him and us to this day. Haj's energy was prodigious. After the seminar, we would drive home to Brooklyn for a late supper and talk into the early morning hours with my husband Don, who had known Haj since their days at MIT in the 1960s. I would then drop Haj off at La Guardia for his return trip to Cambridge on my way to the college the next morning. An indelible memory in my brain is the sight of sandy-haired Haj and his carpetbag on the sidewalk at La Guardia each Wednesday morning, as I arrived to pick him up.

Many years later, I find myself engaged in a natural development from these seminar exchanges and Haj's influence in my work with an Emily Dickinson colleague, Masako Takeda, from Osaka, Japan, who has translated many of Dickinson's poems into Japanese. We are collaborating on her translation of a short poem by Dickinson, whom Haj invariably refers to as "Saint Emily" or "Ste. Emilie" (either a nod to what he thinks is my attitude or a reflection of his own--or perhaps both). One manuscript text (there are three) is accompanied by a note that says: "Please accept a sunset--." What follows are my comments on how a cognitive analysis could possibly help in translation, together with Masako's discussion of the poem as she has translated it.

Dickinson's poetry, as all who read her know, is challenging in its obscurity, an obscurity compounded by the complexities of her language. If Dickinson's poetry is difficult for the native speaker to understand, how much more so is it to translate her poetry into another language? Whatever theoretical stance a translator takes, whether that of Nabokov's literal (word-for-word) translation, von Humboldt's theory of adequate equivalencies, or the reception theory of twentieth-century approaches, the translator is still very much seen as one who first and foremost must deal with "experiencing and defining the boundaries of meanings and associations surrounding each word" (Biguenet and Schulte xiii). …


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