mjj (flemmings) wrote,
mjj
flemmings

Recherché Ryokan

Reading Sky Above, Great Wind, a translation of the poetry of Ryōkan. Nice enough, but sort of wished the translator had given the texts of at least the Japanese poetry. (Ryōkan also wrote kanshi, all-kanji poetry modelled on classical Chinese verse. Even in translation you can usually tell kanshi poems, because they read exactly like translations of real Chinese poems.)

Then the end essay says that Ryōkan, who lived into the 19th century fer heaven's sake, used the ancient writing system Man'yōgana for a lot of his poems. That's kanji used for their phonetic value alone, not their meaning. OK, fine: that's how many place names work, out in the boonies, not to mention ateji like 素敵, 'basic enemy', for suteki meaning neato cool. Except-- there are a dozen different kanji for writing, say, ni-- 二人日仁爾迩尼耳柔丹荷似煮煎, or your choice among 25 kanji to write shi. Also, as in classical Japanese, voiced consonants aren't. Guess whether that's shi or ji, depending on whether it makes a comprehensible word as ji or as shi. And so to make sense of a Man'yōgana text, you must basically say these syllables aloud and hope they resolve into words.

At this point one wonders if Ryōkan really wanted anyone to read his poetry at all. Possibly not. He was perverse that way.

Now a subvocalizer like me should have fewer problems with a phonetic script like Man'yōgana than a whole-word reader might. But no, I have a hate-on for phonic spelling in not-purely-phonic writing systems. Something about the sacredness of The Form of the Word, I guess, and the indignities it suffers from being phoneticized. This goes double for kanji, which have an inherent meaning that's blithely set aside for phonetic purposes. (Except when it isn't. Apparently the original man'yōgana has all sorts of neat tricks like 'maybe this 日 is the hi of hime or maybe here it means day.' My idea of hell.)

Of course I mostly encounter phonetic spelling amongst texters, where it is indeed a distortion of The Word. Maybe I should have a crack at Trainspotting or, god help us, A Clockwork Orange, to see how it works at a literary level. (Like dialect, I'd assume. But dialect doesn't bother me because there's no other way of rendering it.) I can't even imagine doing this in a foreign language. But... Sky Above, Great Wind does give the text of one Man'yōgana poem, and I'm mightily tempted to write it out just to see what sense I can make of it. It's at least shorter than the sutras I'm also tempted to copy, just for calligraphy's sake, you know.
Tags: chinese, japanese, reading_13, religion, verse
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