Brief bio sketch

Lloyd Haft (1946- ) was born in Sheboygan, Wisconsin USA and lived as a boy in Wisconsin, Louisiana and Kansas. In 1968 he graduated from Harvard College and went to Leiden, The Netherlands for graduate study in Chinese (M. A. 1973, Ph. D. 1981). From 1973 to 2004 he taught Chinese language and literature, mostly poetry, at Leiden. His sinological publications include Pien Chih-lin: A Study in Modern Chinese Poetry (1983/2011; published in Chinese translation as 发现卞之琳: 一位西方学者的探索之旅 in 2010) and Zhou Mengdie’s Poetry of Consciousness (2006).

He has translated extensively into English from the Dutch of Herman Gorter and Willem Hussem, and from the Chinese of various poets including Lo Fu, Yang Lingye, Bian Zhilin and Zhou Mengdie.

Since the 1980s he has also been active as a poet writing in Dutch and English. He was awarded the Jan Campert Prize for his 1993 bilingual volume Atlantis and the Ida Gerhardt Prize for his 2003 Dutch free-verse readings of the Psalms (republished by Uitgeverij Vesuvius in 2011). His most recent book of poems (in Dutch) is Deze poelen, deze geest (2008). His newer poems are published (some republished) on this blog.

After early retirement in 2004, for a number of years Lloyd Haft spent much of his time in Taiwan with his wife Katie Su. In addition to writing and translating, his interests include Song-dynasty philosophy and taiji quan. He sings in the choir of a Roman Catholic church of the Eastern Rite in The Hague.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Me and the Japanese Language

(Scraps from a Sinological Scrapbook 漢齋閒情異誌, fragment 29)

Not long ago, one day my wife and I both woke up before dawn.
            ‘What time is it?’ she asked.
            Question and answer were both in Japanese.
            Trivial as that little exchange may sound, to me it was a watershed. It meant that I had finally resumed a focus, picked up a thread, that had been waiting in the margins of my life for sixty years. By having a Japanese-speaking wife and by saying a few words to her in that language, I was fulfilling a wish that I had expressed on another continent at the age of seven.
            My first contact with Japanese was in the mid-1950s in Wisconsin. My parents and I were living in a wooded neighborhood next door to an American scholar, his Japanese wife, and their toddler son. One summer afternoon in their back yard, I was terrifically impressed to hear this American guy suddenly talking Japanese. What he was saying to his wife Akiko might have been no more than ‘Should I take the clothes in now?’ – but to me it was a magical formula, a language of the gods, transforming a banal situation into a scene of timeless color and romance.
            Akiko was the first person to bring me into contact with Chinese characters.[1] One day she sat down with me and read me a story out of a Japanese children’s book, sight-translating from those beautifully illustrated pages with their long vertical lines of exotic script. I felt a terrific envy for her toddler son Karl, who was being brought up to speak and understand Japanese. I suddenly decided to start coming over as often as possible. I actually asked Akiko if she would teach me Japanese ‘together with Karl.’
            Soon afterward, my family moved out of the woods in Wisconsin and into a city in Louisiana. The ambient foreign language became French, and we actually had some awfully superficial French lessons in school, but I soon discovered I was more interested in playing baseball than in studying. Domination by the instincts had begun. Competition. The ‘school of hard knocks.’ The playing field with its straight lines and uniforms. Slugging and scrapping for a place as a ‘big man’ in society. And so it would continue for half a century. But the seeds of timeless fascination, and their association with Japanese, had been sown.
            Perhaps it was, in retrospect, not surprising that the field of study which eventually became my profession – Chinese, has the reputation of being the most difficult of all. Maybe part of my attraction to Chinese – aside from the beautiful poetry and beautiful women – was that it was the intellectual equivalent of a Bowl Game, an arena in which brain could knock heads with brain and only an All-Star had a chance. Physically, I knew I would never be a Babe Ruth. But mentally...
            Some years later, when I was just finishing up as a graduate student at Leiden University in The Netherlands, there was a sudden vacancy in the Chinese Department and I was offered a teaching job. Nobody was more amazed than myself. It had never occurred to me that someday I would ‘use’ my Chinese for anything so worldly as to earn money. I had always assumed someday I would teach Dutch children English for a livelihood and then go home at night to do what I really wanted to do, which was to learn more Chinese.
            I had to decide right away, and I said yes. I have never really regretted that decision, but in the long run it did change my feelings toward the Chinese language. Starting in 1973, I was a full-time staff member in Leiden. In my new job, the pressures that were on me could not have been called serious, but being a perfectionist, I felt under pressure nevertheless. Before long I began to associate the Chinese language itself with the tensions and obligations of the ‘on-the-job’ situation. If I glanced at a Chinese newspaper and could not understand a headline, rather than this being just another interesting challenge, it became a threat. I started to feel guilty for not knowing the language perfectly. After all, I was now a professional, paid teacher! Soon I began, like every bourgeois office clerk or shopgirl, to look forward to the weekend and to be glad when five o’clock rolled around. What I had first loved to do, I now ‘had to’ do.
In the case of Japanese, there never was such a division between my ‘life’ and my ‘self.’ The language itself was never wrenched away from my personal realm of musings and meanings into an alien area of Philistine worries. It remained in a still-possible, still-to-come state, and there it waited for sixty years.
Even that phrase, ‘sixty years,’ is significant here. In Japan as well as China, there   is an ancient tradition of sixty being considered the number of years in one full human life cycle. Not so long ago in Japan, a person celebrating their sixtieth birthday would actually wear clothes or colors symbolically suggesting a baby’s clothes – the idea being that you were being born all over again.
In my own life as I now look back on it, ‘sixty years’ was the period during which I was continually being forced to adapt to society and its demands. When I was about seven, my family moved out of the woods and into the town with its herd and its hedges. When I was sixty-seven, my wife joined me in retirement and there was no longer any definite ‘public’ pressure in either of our lives. Surely it was no coincidence that right after turning sixty-eight, I suddenly felt a mighty impulse to get back to learning Japanese.
Is Japanese difficult to learn? According to Arthur Waley, one of the most famous translators from Oriental literature, not so very. In the introduction to his little-known Japanese Poetry: The ‘Uta,’ he writes: ‘The translations in this book are chiefly intended to facilitate the study of the Japanese text; for Japanese poetry can only be rightly enjoyed in the original. And since the classical language has an easy grammar and limited vocabulary, a few months should suffice for the mastering of it.’[2]
Well, that sounds easy enough! But as other contexts show, Arthur Waley was not above indulging in a bit of intellectual show-offery. In his preface toThe Secret History of the Mongols and Other Pieces, he actually says: ‘Despite the fact that in this book I translate from Chinese, Japanese, Ainu, Mongol and Syriac, I do not want to give the impression that I am a master of many languages. Chinese and Japanese I do know fairly well...’[3]
For a different and perhaps more plausible opinion, we may turn to the wise words of Arthur Rose-Innes, whose dictionary and textbooks have guided generations of students. In the ‘introductory remarks’ to Part II of his five-part First Steps in Japanese Reading, he writes: ‘As many of the characters and combinations of the characters may be read in more than one way the beginner may be surprised at the amount of guessing that has to be done: but it is well that he should exercise from the very beginning that faculty of guessing aright which, as Chamberlain says, is a sine qua non to the student of Japanese all through his career...Before going very far the student may come to the conclusion that the Japanese written language, though very interesting, is one immense muddle; and that, in the absence of logic, the only way to learn it, is by the process known as muddling through. Be that as it may, let him be sure that he will not make much progress except by hard work and perseverance.’
In short: ‘Not fare well, but fare forward, voyagers!’ This is a far cry from Waley’s suggestion that one need only ‘learn the Japanese syllabary and some (perhaps about 600) of the commoner Chinese characters’ to be able to ‘use the native texts.’[4] By the way, a Japanese schoolchild would be well into the fifth grade of elementary school before being officially required to know as many as 600 characters. Let me just add in passing that ‘the Japanese syllabary,’ an alphabet-like series of phonetic signs used to spell words or parts of words, itself comprises more than a hundred symbols which must be learned by rote...
As for grammar and syntax, I think few students would disagree with the description, laid down in 1928 by G. B. Sansom in his Historical Grammar of Japanese, of ‘...some obscure characteristic in Japanese speech which impels those who use it to pile one redundant verb upon another. It is a feature which will not have escaped the notice of those who listen to orations where sentence after sentence ends with some phrase like de aru de arimasu, which literally stands for “being-is-being-is-is,” and can be adequately rendered by the one word “is” in English.’[5]
Sometimes the grammar seems difficult not because it is a ‘muddle’ but for the opposite reason: that it is somehow burdensomely logical and over-analytical, as when ‘I’ve been to Kyoto’ comes out as ‘the fact of having gone to Kyoto exists,’ or at the table when ‘please pass me the salt’ becomes ‘do bestow getting the salt.’
And what about the phenomenally complex problem of the so-called polite forms, such that not only the choice of words but even the grammatical forms constantly depend on one’s judgment as to the status relations between oneself and the interlocutor? In all the Japanese textbooks I have used or browsed, my favorite quote on this is: ‘Another common honorific verb is irassharu, which has more honorific value than precise verbal meaning. It expresses the vague idea of the existence of a person either in motion or at rest and consequently can be translated “to go,” “to come,” or “to be”.’[6]
On the other hand, some of the difficulties students complain about really are rather exaggerated. For example: remembering the Japanese names of the days of the week. True, at first sight kayoobi and suiyoobi don’t seem inherently very suggestive of ‘Tuesday’ and ‘Wednesday.’ But this can be overcome by simply carrying out a few simple steps. First, take a course in French and stick with it until you know the days of the week by heart. This will give you the information that Tuesday, mardi, has the mythological or astrological association of being ‘Mars day’ while Wednesday, mercredi, is associated with Mercury, etc. Knowing these links between the ancient European gods and the successive days will turn out to be crucial in getting the Japanese weekdays right.
Next, go to your local university library, check out the second volume of Joseph Needham’s Science and Civilization in China, make a photocopy of page 262, ignore the top half of the chart, and memorize the table of associations of the Ancient Chinese ‘elements’ with the ‘planets.’ Keep in mind that the English name of each ‘planet’ corresponds to the ancient Roman god of the same name, which you now have learned in French. From there, you can easily work out that in ancient East Asian tradition, Mars is associated with ‘fire’ and Mercury with ‘water,’ and so on.
After that, every time you see the Japanese days of the week written in Chinese characters, you will plainly see that kayoobi is the ‘fire’ or ‘Mars’ day, hence mardi or Tuesday; suiyoobi is the ‘water’ or ‘Mercury’ day, thus mercredi or Wednesday, and so on. It remains true that in spoken Japanese ka is not the ordinary word for ‘fire,’ nor sui for ‘water’; these are actually ancient Chinese words in an archaic Japanese transcription, but this is nit-picking. Ignore it. Ignore also the fact that the element yoo in these words is written with a distinct Chinese character which Japanese-English dictionaries define simply as ‘part of the names of the days of the week.’ Actually, historically it means ‘bright,’ so that Tuesday is actually ‘fire’s bright day’ and so on.
A breeze, isn’t it?
            Another problem, this time definitely a real one, is how to read Japanese names aloud when they are written, as they usually are, in Chinese characters. Since characters ordinarily have more than one possible pronunciation depending on meaning, custom and who knows what can you be sure you are reading a person’s name correctly?
            The bad news here is that quite often you simply can’t. The good news is that neither can the Japanese. Basically, you just have to know, whether by being tipped off by an insider or...though this is not looking the name up in one of the special name dictionaries giving attested readings of attested names.
            Traditionally in Europe, the advice given to students of Japanese was to first learn enough Russian to be familiar with the Cyrillic alphabet, then find a way to buy a copy of the 1207-page Slovar’ Yaponskikh Imyon i Famil’yiy (Dictionary of Japanese names and surnames) published in Moscow in 1958, and then...look up to your heart’s content!
            English-speaking readers got what seemed like a big break in 1972 with the publication of P. G. O’Neill’s Japanese Names: A Comprehensive Index by Characters and Readings. But the author himself in his preface says: ‘There is no final or complete solution to the problems of reading Japanese names written in Chinese characters. Such characters usually have special name readings which...have to be learned separately. Virtually all these characters have more than one recognized name reading, and may have other unpredictable ones as well...It is therefore not surprising that, faced with such complexity, the Japanese should regard possible but mistaken readings with equanimity. It is usually only in speech, however, that they have to commit themselves to a particular reading of a name, for, when writing in their own language, they can leave the name in the obscurity of its characters.’[7]
            O’Neill’s dictionary is ‘only’ 359 fine-print pages long. So far I have never been disappointed in using it, but still, I keep the Russian tome at hand just in case.
            Well, to sum up after all these by-ways...yes, Japanese really is difficult!
            Then the question is, at least in some people’s minds...I know because they have asked me...why do you want to spend your retirement working at anything so difficult?
            The answer is that in studying Japanese, I am pursuing my own dream. I am not straining to fulfill someone else’s. Undoubtedly, by ordinary academic standards my knowledge of the language is still ludicrously inadequate, but my dream is not subject to limitation by other people’s notions of ‘adequacy.’ There is no particular level that I need to attain. If I can say ‘Should I take the clothes in now,’ I am already doing fine. If I can say ‘four-ten in the morning’ to my wife now, I am back where I was with Akiko sixty years ago. I am back home in the realm of the timeless...

--Lloyd Haft
August 2015

[1] Akiko and her esoteric or ‘archetypical’ role in my life have already figured in a previous post on this blog called ‘When Is Bamboo Where?’ – see

[2] London : George Allen and Unwin, 1976, p. 12. Originally published in 1919.
[3] London : George Allen and Unwin, 1963, p. 8.
[4] Introduction to Japanese Poetry, p. 12.
[5] G. B. Sansom, An Historical Grammar of Japanese. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1928, p. 208.
[6] Serge Elisséef, Edwin O. Reischauer and Takehiko Yoshihashi, Elementary Japanese for College Students, Part II: Vocabularies, grammar and notes. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1963, p. 63.
[7] New York and Tokyo: Weatherhill, 1972/1979, p. vii.