The Sound of Water (I): Springs and Fountains

Let me begin with the famous poem, traditionally ascribed to Saigyo, in which the poet describes the sound of a spring.

Ceaselessly swelling
Out of a crack in the rocks
A spring trickles down,
Whose water is more ample
Than I can use in my hut.

In the original poem, the poet uses the onomatopoeic expression, ‘toku toku’, which I translated as ‘ceaselessly’ above. Admittedly, this is a very feeble translation. The closest to this expression in English would be ‘drip drip’, but ‘toku toku’ has more force. It conveys the power of nature behind the birth of a spring.

I have seen many different types of springs in the mountains. Some of them just drip down from wet moss and grass. They make a subtle music like the strings of a harp touched lightly. Others swell out of the earth with a heavy sound like the throbbing of a heart. In a way, it is an awe-inspiring sound, for we feel that some mysterious being is pushing up the water. It announces the birth of a river.

A Chinese hermit
Washed his ears in cold water
To forget the world.

Let me vitalize
My whole being with a sip
From this icy spring.

Fountains in Italian cities are completely different. Water gushes from the mouth of animals or some mysterious beings. For example, the Fontana di Trevi has Neptune at its center under a triumphant arch, led by Pegasus and two Tritons, and water spouts out of the animals that follow him. I have also seen a fountain where an ugly human face is pouring out water from a pipe in its mouth. Perhaps, the most extreme case is the Pissing Cupid. No one, I think, wants to drink from him. I suppose his role is purely ornamental. What does all this mean? In my view, it means that fountains in Italy are used as a symbol of civilization. Italian fountains are not at the beginning, but at the end of a long duct which stretches many miles through mountains and valleys. Their position signifies they have been installed for the service of man.

Fontana di Trevi,
Fully dressed women come and go
Chatting and laughing.

In a hot piazza,
The splashing water comes down
With a pleasant noise

7 responses to “The Sound of Water (I): Springs and Fountains

  1. I enjoyed the spring contrast, though the timing — in Japan, the spring associates with cooling-off, a summer thing — is off. Thinking of those h2o gardens reminded me of something else pertaining to a different season and only that took place only 15 yrears ago by my bamboo-grove-surrounded apartment when my live-in friend, Yoko, had her co-workers over, and they went out to look for shoots.

    A shriek, then, laughter —
    the shoot she stepped on
    shot her back!

    Yoko told me the delighted victim was the girl (she was in her 20’s) she occasionally told me about who regularly showed off her collection of interesting undies to co-workers in a large library in Tokyo and, like the French who were sometimes surprised from below, on that day, happened to be wearing none. As the sun fell on that area of the ground, the sap sprayed upward like a bottle of shaken warm beer and . . . enough already.

    To return to cooling — they always mention the feet and neck. I now think of a third place, we are not told to pour ice water on.

  2. I fail to see what the preceding comment has to do with Sosui’s piece, except perhaps the fleeting reference to ‘fully-dressed women’ in its penultimate haiku.
    What I find most striking in this haibun is an echo of the zuihitsu essay style of Sei Shonagon’s ‘Pillow Book’. It is a very Japanese thing to do to group things together for their size, form, sound, or seasonal feeling. It is interesting to think about springs and fountains in the same short piece, linked as they are by their gurgling or splashing sounds. I particularly enjoyed the Chinese hermit washing his ears to forget the world.

    • Tito, the playful water coming from various orifices including the puti ‘s putz = forgive my missspellings = are such) was mentioned in the essay — I was indirectly noting/adding Versailles’ water play and mentioning an odd instance where nature provided the same. When it comes to grouping things together, the practice is quintessential Chinese, but Sei Shonagon with her mono-wa-tsukushi diversified and improved it as an exercise in literary aesthetics.

  3. Japanese onomatopoeia is indeed tricky to translate. A word like ‘tokutoku’ conveys both a sound and an action, so it is difficult to capture both.

    I like the contrast made between East and West, natural source and manmade outlet, modestly presented primeval power and flashy opulence. But I wondered about “fully dressed”. Should one think the women are oblivious to the summer heat, more evidence of Western ambivalence to nature? In any case, I enjoyed the piece.

    • Richard, most translation is tricky, but English does well with most Japanese sound+action onomatopoeia so long as we remember English has far more onomatopoetic verbs than Japanese — i.e., often has built-in mimesis, while Japanese has plain verb modified with obvious adverbial onomatopoeia. The same can be said for the non-sound variety, the pychological mimesis Japanese call gitai-go (vs gisei-go), though I find they are often trickier to translate. In West Europe, the summer air is drier than in Japan, but in Japan, too, upper-class women suffered form excessive clothing.

  4. Dear friends,
    It has been very interesting to follow your discussions about onomatopoeia in English and Japanese. Most Japanese believe that their language is especially rich in onomatopoeic expressions, but I am convinced that English does not fall behind. Japanese onomatopoeic expressions are rather obvious representation of the actual sounds, but English onomatopoeic expressions are more distant with the actual sounds deeply couched in words. Poetically, the latter kind is more interesting, I think. When I translateed ‘toku toku’ as ‘ceaselessly’ in my haibun, I had Coleridge’s description of Alf, the sacred river, which he describes as ‘with ceaseless turmoil seething’. There is no question that this is strongly onomatopoeic. Of course, Saigyo’s spring is not so dramatic as Coleridge’s Alp, but I thought I could use the word ‘ceaselessly’ to express the vital force of the spring.
    As for ‘fully dressed’, I must admit this was a rather careless translation of the Japanese word, ‘seiso’. What I saw in Rome was a contrast between the rather casual dresses of the tourists and the rather conventional dresses of Italian women. However, as Richard Donovan has pointed out, the English espression, ‘fully dressed’ does not go so well with the summer season. So here is a revised version of my poem.

    Fontana di Trevi,
    Women wearing bright colours
    Come and go laughing.

  5. Interesting beginning; presenting a poem about a spring, and highlighting how the onomatopoeic expression within that poem “conveys the power of nature behind the birth of a spring”.

    I particularly enjoyed the second paragraph, which talks about the nature of two different types of springs. I feel like this is the heart of this piece. However, I wonder if “drip” and “swell” (also in the Saigyo poem) are the best words to use here? For me, these images, or onomatopoeic-like words, didn’t quite match up to their wonderful similes. I like how the two poems that follow this section offer almost contrasting aspects of human interaction with springs.

    Finally, does the section on fountains want to be a separate piece?