Bug Music

So I'm reading David Rothenberg's Bug Music. It's good! I like it. But the quotations of Japanese poetry are pretty badly askew.

For example, as an epigraph we have:

Mushi kiku to
Honashi na kiku to
Betsu no mimi

Some hear bug music
Some hear people music
All depends on your ears

—Wâfu, 1866, Kyoto

Rothenberg cites another source for this (Land of the Locusts part 4, vol. 1, by Keith Kevan and Vernon Vickery), so these errors might not be due to him-or-his-editor, but...

  1. It should be "Hanashi wo", not "Honashi na"
  2. It should be "Wafû", not "Wâfu" (the poem is by Andō Harukaze 安藤和風, poet name Wafū 和風)
  3. The year definitely should not be 1866, as that was the year Wafū was born.

The closest thing to this haiku that I've been able to find was published in 1931, in a collection called Adabana (page 205):

Mushi kiku to/ hanashi kiku/ betsu-betsu no mimi
insects hear AND/ speech hear/ separate ears

This is a bit different from the cited version, but not in any way that matters. And it wouldn't be unusual for there to be multiple versions of the poem floating around, anyway.

The translation in the epigram is Rothenberg's, and I'm of two minds about it. There's nothing corresponding to "music" in the source, but this is clearly a bit of poetic license to match the title (and theme) of his book. Matching "bug music" with "people music," where the referent of the latter is just talking (hanashi), is a nice, sly joke.

On the other hand I have my doubts about "some... some... all depends on your ears". I don't think that Wafū was trying to divide humanity into refined bug-appreciators and anthropocentric brutes; I think his point was just that one listens to insects and speech in different ways. (Which is kind of ironic given the idea that later arose about Japanese speakers hearing insects, animals, bubbling brooks, etc. with the language-y part of their brain.)

Whatever, though: awkward misprint, difference of interpretation. On page 34 though we have this:

The voice "ta-te-te":
How do you produce the call?
The cicada's husk—
How can I leave my body?
I do not believe I know!
   —Fusatai Susume, c. 1186

This one appears in the Eikyū Hyakushu 永久百首, published in Eikyū 4, or 1116 CE. It's credited to 大進, "Daijin", full name given as 女房大臣 — "Nyōbō Daijin", or "Lady Daijin". I assume that "Fusatai Susume" is a misreading of the characters. The original is:

こゑたてて いかになくらむ うつせみの わか身からとは おもひしらすや
Koe tatete/ ika ni naku ramu/ utsusemi no/ wa ga migara to wa/ omoisirazu ya
How can it raise its voice and sing? Does it not realize that its being is in vain?

I don't claim to have produced the definitive translation there, but, for example, tatete in the first line is definitely "raise", not any sort of onomatopoeia. The call of the cicada (this poem is in the "cicada" section of the collection) was never written tatete, and the phrasing koe tatete is used for all kinds of animals, from frogs to deer. Similarly, it looks like "leave my body" comes from a misreading of migara (body, self) as mi kara (from the/my body). And so on.

Kevan's Land of the Locusts is cited for this one, too (vol. 2 this time), but there's no note about where the translation comes from. It may not be Rothenberg's. Still, it would have been nice if someone during the editing process had done a quick check through for issues like this. There isn't exactly a shortage of Japanese entomologists willing to talk about the long and proud history of their subject.

Nitpicking (ha!) aside, though, I do like this book. As a student of Japanese literature I dutifully noted the beauty of insect song, but this is the best book I've read on appreciating it as music.

Popularity factor: 5


Dude. I feel your pain, but trust me, nobody at any publisher ever does "a quick check through for issues like this." They don't care. Nobody cares except you and a few other people who actually read Japanese and know something about Japanese poetry. For everyone else, it's just a cute epigraph. Rothenberg got his hands on Land of the Locusts at some point, put little stars in the margin next to some bits he liked, and used a couple of them for his book. Nobody at any point knew or cared about whatever the Japanese originals might be. I say this not to be harsh, but to remind you that all specialists have to suck up stuff like this on a regular basis.

And never mind epigraphs -- publishers, even academic ones, now officially take the view that fact-checking is the author's responsibility. They literally tell editors not to do it. It's a sad, decayed world we live in.


I know, I know. I think Rothenberg himself might care because he also has a thing for Zen. But really I'm writing for the sake of anyone else who might look up from this book wondering what the hell kind of name "Fusatai Susume" is for a Heian courtier.


Comfort yourself with the knowledge that in 200 years, some scholar will be tracking down the work of Fusatai Susume and come across this blog post on whatever Archive.org turns into and then put a (?) next to the name to signal that it's disputed.

Chris S.:

Hmm, on first blush I would read Wafū's poem as satirical: "To some ears this is actually a conversation, to others it's just the droning of insects." I can imagine it being about a particularly boring party or a conversation with pompous guests. But I don't know enough about Wafū or the context of the poem to say that with confidence.


cicada-raising-voice poem reminds me of 居直りりんご (http://www.geocities.co.jp/Bookend-Kenji/5120/syosai1.htm down the page)

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