I was, it seemed, standing in my garden, gazing through shifting silvery curtains of mist at the muted yellow of a flowering forsythia. Somehow I knew it was only a little past dawn. I might have gone inside after a moment had I not heard the garden gate behind me swinging on its steel hinges and then the soft click of its latch. When I turned to look, I could see nothing through the haze; but after a moment a small figure appeared, at first like a wavering phantom, then assuming the solid, mottled, familiar form of my dog, Roland. Dangling from his mouth by a thick silken cord was what after some seconds I recognized as a Japanese koto, though one of unusually small design. On seeing me, he started back slightly, furrowed his brow, then strolled over to the low wooden deck of the house and gently set the instrument down. Returning, he stared at me thoughtfully and said (in a voice curiously similar to Laurence Harvey’s), “You never rise this early. Is all well?”
“Yes,” I said, in an unexpectedly hoarse voice, “I think so. I don’t recall . . .”
But now Roland was energetically sniffing at my left hand.
“Honestly,” I said, “nothing’s wrong.”
He sighed, gazed intently upward into my eyes for a long, uncertain moment, and then said, “Very well.” Then he began to turn away.
“Wait,” I said. “Where have you been, with . . . that?” I pointed at the koto.
Roland smiled and sat down upon his haunches. “I was afraid you’d ask.” He shrugged. “It’s something I occasionally do. I spent the night in the hall of the local daimyo performing passages from the Heike Monogatari . . . the battle of Dan-no-ura . . . and . . .”—he lowered his eyes somewhat bashfully—“declaiming some of my own verse.”
“There’s a local daimyo?” I began.
He raised his snout, his head at a quizzical tilt. “Of course. Who do you think makes sure the local peasantry plants enough glutinous rice for wine . . . or protects them from the depredations of the yakuza?”
“Your verse?” My drowsy wits had only just caught up to his words. “You write poetry?”
Again he looked away, almost shyly, another faint smile on his lips. “I keep that side of my life quiet. Actually, last night was a celebration of my most recent volume of haiku.”
“Just a hundred poems, one to a page, each with an English gloss at the foot.”
“You wrote them in Japanese?”
Roland met my eyes again, now with his customary expression of longanimous affection. “Of course. It’s not a form that suits other tongues.”
“What are they, um, about?” I asked feebly.
“Transience,” he replied mildly. “The evanescent moment, the fading day, the ephemeral blossom. I try merely to capture the delicate essence of a passing moment—its tone, its texture, its exquisite impermanence—and something of that anguished yearning for eternity that’s expressible, mysteriously enough, only in images of transitoriness.” He sighed deeply and shook his head. “Who knows if I succeed? How can any artist share more than a distant, dying echo of his inspirations?” He paused for a moment, met my eyes searchingly, and then dropped his gaze again. “I could recite one for you . . . if you’d like. There’s one perfect for this setting.”
A thrill of sentiment passed through me; I felt genuinely touched. “Yes, please,” I said, “if you would.”
He smiled that gentle smile once more, straightened his back, stared away into the pearl-hued emptiness, and spoke in a clear, measured voice: “Cool mists at morning, / Trembling leaves gleam with dew—Ah!— / An earthworm’s fragrance.”
He fell silent, continued gazing away for several moments, then bowed his head meditatively. “Well?” he asked.
“Yes,” I replied, a bit uncomfortably, “I see what you mean about . . . it suiting the scene.”
After a moment Roland raised his head and, with a suspicious scowl, asked, “Nothing else?”
“I don’t know,” I replied. “I mean, for me that last line . . . isn’t so evocative.”
“Don’t be absurd,” he said with a curt laugh. “It’s the piquant master-stroke. What captures the feel of the morning more than the fragrance of earthworms—that strange, sharp, vinegar-and-musk pungency, those hints of clay and minerals, that faint soupçon of scorched saltiness . . .?”
“You see, I don’t have your nose.”
Roland shrugged wearily. “No, I suppose not. Describing a sunset to someone blind from birth.” He sighed again. “The translation detracts from the effect as well.”
“I imagine,” I said.
“But that’s a perennial problem—mediating between tongues, cultures, sensibilities . . . souls. Certainly my translation work often feels like trying to change iron into satin, or butter into wine.”
“Do you do much translating?”
“I’m divulging all my little secrets today,” he said with a snort. Then he sniffed at the grass at his feet, bit off a few blades, chewed slowly, and swallowed. “In my small way, yes. I’m working on certain unjustly neglected epics: the Punica of Silius Italicus and the Dionysiaca of Nonnus. Though in the former case, the neglect is more understandable: the enormous length . . . and some of the same aesthetic oddity as Camões, with that uneven mix of historical and mythical materials. Nonnus is more important. I mean, where would the best poets of late antiquity have been without him—Dracontius, Musaeus, Colluthus—or the Byzantines—Planudes, Genesius? But how to render his language into another tongue? It’s so rich, diverse, gorgeously involved and imbricated—he was the greatest virtuoso of poikilia—and his . . . well, his Gongorism is more perversely complicated than the most bombastic Alexandrian grammarian’s allegory on the alphabet . . . or whatever. How to capture that wild polyphony?” He shook his head, perhaps a little morosely. “That’s why there’s no good translation of Virgil—so much is in the pure music of the verse.”
“But the problem’s deeper than that,” he continued. “If translation were just a system of mechanical correspondences, one sign for another, for which one could devise non-semeiotic algorithms . . . But, no, it’s about meanings, and it’s all dependent on spiritual tact—or spiritual senses, really, able to perceive implications, atmospheres, nuances . . . not only what an author expresses, but also what he doesn’t need to express. One renders the words, but one translates the text as the product of an intentionality, with a purposive dimension that one has to share in to understand the work at all. That’s why there’ll never be a computer program for real translation. One has to know the whole before understanding the parts, and more than the whole before understanding the whole. One has to intend the author’s intention, and that means, in part, retreating to a level of consciousness prior to individual identity.”
“I’m not sure . . .”
But Roland was too preoccupied with his own thoughts to notice me. “We’ve talked before about the irreducibility of intentional consciousness to material forces—its teleological orientation toward a transcendental horizon beyond nature and its origination in a pure awareness prior to empirical identity—and about how the whole world of nature is constituted only in the relation between these two poles outside of physical nature . . .”
“I believe . . .”
“That’s where the real work of translation is done: that original pure act of consciousness, more inward than our inmost, higher than our utmost, to which the mystics ascend by going inward . . . oh, you know, Eckhart’s Seelesburg, in whose heart dwells the Fünklein Gottes. Or the atman that is more original than the jiva in its individuality. Do you know the Sufi idea of the seven layers of the soul?”
“Yes, I do. I . . .”
“The more one descends into the nafs, the higher one rises, the nearer to the hidden garden, till one reaches the secret soul, the ruh sirr, which remembers God, and beyond that—more inward yet—one draws near to the secret of secrets, the sirr-ul-asrar, where the divine spark shines. Or think of Teresa of Ávila’s interior castle, with its seven chambers, and the divine throne at the center. . . . Well, it’s somewhere in those inner realms that translation occurs because the more deeply one enters in, the more expansive one becomes, the more the veils of our small, exclusive, empirical egos fall away before the naked light of that original and ultimate truth. That’s also where all art is born, violating the boundary between the calculating mind and that purer dimension of consciousness, where one finds the transcendent ground and end of mind not as a concept, but almost as an immediate intuition. That’s why the true artist is to the philosopher as an angel to a worm . . . and why a true translator is someone who drinks from that same spring.”
Roland fell silent. I stared at him for several seconds through the slowly drifting mists, and then said, “You’re a very unusual dog.”
He raised his eyes and looked at me with an expression somewhere between disappointment and indulgent fondness. “You know,” he said, “remarks of that sort are well-intended, but they also reveal some unreflective and distasteful prejudices.” He sighed yet again. Then he rose, bestowed a mollifying lick upon my hand, trotted over to the deck, retrieved his koto, and continued on toward the back door of the house.