Translating the Untranslatable: Katoh Ikuya and the Language of Pure Signs

[Translating the Untranslatable was originally presented at the Association for Asian Studies conference in 2008]

“…that the poem can only fulfill itself in its own untranslatability.”
– Dennis Schmidt, “Thought and Poetry” , Word Traces

“As soon as there is language, there is interpretation, that is translation.”
– Kearney, introduction to Paul Ricoeur’s On Translation

Prologue: In a sense, to be a translator, to live ones life daily “in translation,” means to speak outside language. And in this same sense, translation is poetry itself at its most originary point.

The poems comprising Katoh Ikuya’s Kyutai Kankaku (Spherical Sense), published in 1959, could be described as a kind of illusion of sorts, a play of mirrors. The title of the first series of sequences is in itself a puzzle. The word ‘Kaishi’ is made up of the Chinese characters for ‘ocean’ and ‘city’. Simple enough, but this is not a common word. It is part of a meta-language, the language of seasonal words in haiku, having their own complex history of allusions and rigid rules (if one is orthodox) dictating their use. As a seasonal word ‘kaishi’ is associated with spring, and has still another meaning hidden below its literal surface – that of ‘mirage’. It is this layered quality, a mirage as it were, that perhaps keys us in to what Katoh is up to. Schooled in Japan’s new experimental poetry deriving primarily from French models, Katoh brings the influence of experimental Modernism to haiku. Yet he chooses to work from within the form, by employing the seasonal words and the proper syllabic structure, while at the same time emptying the seasonal word of its meaning, and shifting the haiku somewhat off-kilter through an unconventional parsing of the syllables, something like making use of enjambment in an English poem. Katoh also uses foreign words, sometimes even in Romanized script in the original, something that was both surprising and innovative in the 1950s.
The word is central in Katoh. Nouns – sometimes a seasonal word, or an archaic term quoted from the classics, even foreign words – have an iconic quality. Take for instance the following poem: Whistling wind / Leaves a bird / In Havana
The literal rendering is Tiger-wind-flute / Havana bird / Left behind.
The first line in the poem is comprised of one word made up of three Chinese characters whose literal reading is tiger-wind-flute. This is a seasonal word representing winter and a direct borrowing from the Chinese. The word is used in classical Chinese poetry to express the sound of the wind blowing through the bamboo in a winter storm. The Japanese reading of the characters, which gives us the five syllables required for the first line of the haiku, is mogaribue, literally mourning-flute (mogari actually being a very old word used to render the Chinese character for “lying in state”). Hence the poem is introduced with a noun having many layers of hidden meanings, so much so as to become completely opaque. This noun is then followed by another noun, the name of a foreign city, written in the rigidly rectangular katakana script. Finally, as if an afterthought, we are given a verb in the last line and a “cutting word” or kireji (the word keru in this case) which supplies us with the sense of something final and in the past tense. It is only the verb at the end of the poem, along with two sentence particles appearing in the second line, which give us any idea at all how to put together this collection of words and images.
In another instance, a phrase from the classics and its aural effects become the center of the poem: The circle of the moon / Plays on a reed / Of ancient Japan
Here Katoh employs the technique of vowel echoing in a sonorous repetition of open vowels more associated with Modernist poets such as Yoshioka Minoru than with haiku. The phrase in Japanese is Toyoashihara no ashi o fuku. The word translated here as “ancient Japan” literally means Land-of-abundant-reed-plains, a word taken from a passage in the Kojiki, it is one of the names given to the ancient kingdom of Yamato. Here Katoh relies not only on rhythm and sound for the central theme of this poem, but on the vast network of cultural meanings and images associated with the classical language itself. In other words, the poem relies on the archetypal nature of the word, its quality as a sign.
In Benveniste, language is understood as taking place on two separate planes – the semiotic and the semantic. The semiotic (the sign) is recognized, but it is only the semantic (discourse) that is understood. “We cannot transpose the semiotics of one language into that of another – this is the non-potential for Translation.” [Benveniste]
Katoh’s poetry plays in the margins between the semiotic and semantic fields, between the spoken and the written (graphic) sign. It constitutes a gesture which Agamben refers to as “the fall back into pure language,” in which discourse becomes a dictionary of mute signs.
To read Katoh’s text at all (in what we normally consider to be its “original” language) is itself a process of translation. Beneath surface meanings are the coded meanings of seasonal words, and yet knowing this is like opening a door to nowhere, for Katoh’s intent is to subvert haiku conventions. The translation of this work creates a host of problems, bringing all concepts of meaning, interpretation and accuracy into question. In a sense, like the veiled nature of Katoh’s poetry itself, the translation must always remain somehow incomplete, always underway toward a possible meaning or form. Perhaps Nabokov’s radically literal approach to translation would give the reader a better sense of their real difficulty, or a complete exposition of all the alternate approaches to their translation (in some cases as much as seven versions were made before deciding on a final one). For the problem of translation, particularly poetic translation, is not merely a linguistic problem – it is a question of interpretation. In other words, we are inevitably drawn to hermeneutics, the philosophy of meaning and interpretation, as a means of finding an approach to translation. Ultimately, the argument of fidelity versus freedom misses the point. Translation can never be complete, or completely accurate. It is an unending dialogue with the Other, in which the missing parts must be supplied in what amounts to an act of faith, the poetic act itself.


1. Katoh Ikuya Kushuu, Jinbunshoin 1975
2. Katoh Ikuya Shishuu, Gendaishi Bunkou 45, Shichousha 1990
3. Infancy and History, Giorgio Agamben, Verso 2007
4. Potentialities, Giorgio Agamben, Stanford University press 1999
5. On Translation, Paul Ricoeur, Routledge 2006
6. Interpretation Theory: Discourse and the Surplus of Meaning, Paul Ricoeur, Texas Christian University Press 1976
7. Translating Heidegger, Miles Groth, Humanity Books 2004

Other Readings

Martin Heidegger:
On the Way to Language
Poetry, Language and Thought

Walter Benjamin:
The Task of the Translator
On Language as such and the Language of Man
(see the collected works)

Word Traces: Readings of Paul Celan, Edited by Aris Fioretos


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