‘In another world’
Our literal translator, Alan Cummings, began by explaining the tanka form to us – one so successful in Japan that for much of literary history it ‘obliterated’ other forms, and from which the haiku derives. We decided for our first attempt at a translation we would have a go at emulating the syllables, usually rendered in English as a 5/7/5/7/7 pattern. It was actually extremely difficult! Even the word potentate, for example, which we chose partly for its three syllables, had to be unpacked slightly (we added ‘grand’) in order to make it up to five syllables.
We soon became fascinated by the layers of reality in this seemingly slight poem though. It contains a shock, the first three lines sounding classical, then the gaudy ‘ferris wheel’ intruding. Which world is ours – the one in which ‘he’ is an overlord? The one with the fairground? Neither? Karan Kurose is the chief priest of Gannenji Buddhist temple, Toyama, and we felt that the turning wheel is perhaps a Buddhist image – on this wheel of life everyone is equal. ‘Upon’ is our subtle allusion to King Lear too (‘Thou art a soul in bliss; but I am bound. Upon a wheel of fire….’)
Please note: this tanka does not have a title so we have used the first line as a title.