Five areas I focus on:
1) Interpersonal messages
2) Realization of ordinary words
3) Lively, active verbs
4) Opposition and coherence
5) Syllables, beats, and a musical quality
Background: Haruo Shirane says
Modern readers have tended to read Basho’s poem monologically, in isolation… as an expression of the speaker’s subjective state… or as a reflection of the external world as perceived by the speaker. This tendency overlooks the crucial fact that much of Basho’s prose and poetry… functioned dialogically, in a communal context… complimenting a host, expressing gratitude, bidding farewell…
In other words, modern readers have assumed a Basho poem was a monologue, Basho speaking to himself of his own experience, missing the “crucial fact” that Basho wrote the poem to express a message to another person or people. Based on this misinterpretation, they have concluded that Basho was “impersonal, detached” when in reality many of his poems are not only personal, but inter-personal.
Difficulty: To have the translation convey the same interpersonal meaning, as Basho had in composing the original. Unfortunately, for many Basho haiku, the background information is not available in English,
Solution: I translate the background information as well the poem itself. then use the personal pronouns and grammatical number appropriate to this information.
Jane Reichhold in her Complete Basho Haiku translates this haiku as a monolog:
tired of Kyoto
this withering wind
and winter life
In her commentary Reichhold says the verse “ties together the three things Basho is tired of: Kyoto, the cold winds, winter life.” When I first read this, “I thought something is wrong; Basho would never write a verse of so much complaint.” Upon looking at the verse in Japanese and studying Kon’s commentary, I quickly recognized four things:
1) there is a cut word after “withering wind,” so only two things are “tired together” – the “winter life” is separate;
2) Basho has just left the Kyoto area traveling on foot back to Edo; here he is the countryside around Nagoya.
3) this is a greeting verse to the follower who gave him a place to stay the night, so the point is to convey a positive message to his host;
4) -zumai means "winter home" and in this case, "your home in winter"
based on these points, I translate this haiku:
Basho is not saying he is tired of winter life; he is complimenting his host for having so fine a refuge away from the uptight sophistication of Kyoto and from the miserable winter wind. His complaints about Kyoto and the withering gusts are only in opposition to his praise of his follower’s home as a refuge from winter. Basho writes the verse on a poetry card as a present to his host who will keep it as a memento of Basho’s visit. Many times through the years the host will look at Basho’s message, or merely think about it. We can imagine how Basho’s gift will enhance his appreciation for his home in the country.
The crucial difference between Reichhold’s translation and mine is that personal pronoun “your.” Some translators avoid personal pronouns because they are not in the original – however we need to remember that in this context, Basho clearly meant “your winter home” – the personal pronoun is implied, even though it is not stated in words. Basho, the poet of positive messages – if the message is translated with necessary pronouns so the English reader can get the positive meaning Basho intended.
For my second example, let us consider this haiku Basho wrote to begin a linked verse at his follower Bokusetsu’s tea hut in Otsu; with him and the host were Shiko and Izen. Four-and-a-half tatami mats (about ten feet square) is the size of a one-room tea hut. As usual in Japanese, singular or plural are not indicated.
The late Zen priest Robert Aitken translated:
Inclination of my mind!
A four-and-a-half-mat room
We see Aitken took kokoro to be singular: “my mind,” although in reality Basho was together with three other poet-friends. Also, his translation suggests that the four-and-a-half-mat room is the “inclination of my mind.” Tea-room represents Tea Ceremony which represents the philosophy of Zen Buddhism. So the monolog of Aitken’s translation means that with autumn near, I am drawn to a profound consciousness of Zen.
The Japanese have an altogether different way of seeing this haiku. Basho wrote it to express his togetherness with Bokusetsu, Shiko, and Izen; the point of the verse is the group consciousness Japan seek in their society. So “our hearts draw close” to each other on the four and a half mats. I translate:
The Western interpretation focuses on individual consciousness and Zen philosophy; The Japanese interpretation reflects the actual situation and focuses on group consciousness. The singular interpretation allows us to say Basho is austere and aloof from people, and leads into Zen. The plural interpretation affirms his warmth and affection for humanity; instead of Zen philosophy, he offers a philosophy of friendship: rather than self-absorption, absorption in a group of friends.
Background: I am one who reveres William J. Strunk’s classic guide to writing, The Elements of Style, and especially appreciate the section titled “Use definite, specific, concrete language.” Strunk says
“The surest way to arouse and hold the reader’s attention is by being specific, definite, and concrete. The greatest writers – Homer, Dante, Shakespeare – are effective largely because… their words call up pictures.”
People use fancy academic words to show off their higher education but actually the grade school words carry the power. Strunk illustrates:
He showed satisfaction He grinned as
as he took possession he pocketed the coin
of his well-earned reward
Ordinarily “pocket” is a noun, but by converting it into an active verb, Strunk gives it vigor and life.
Strunk points to the vigor in the short, simple words of Ecclesiastics:
Almost every word is a vigorous one-syllable Old English word which calls up pictures,
Three hundred years before Strunk, Basho foretold the Elements of Style in these words spoken to his follower Doho:
In his 1681 letter to his follower Biji, Basho elaborates:
Basho advises us to speak the verse out loud to insure that the phrase does not “stagnate” in the mouth -- like water in a stream stuck behind a wad of fallen leaves, old and heavy -- but rather emerges to resonate (hibiki) naturally in the minds of readers, to “call up pictures.” He tells us to “scrutinize” (ginmi) the expression, searching for ways to make the words “resonate.”
Difficulty; to make the translation as vigorous as is the original
Solution: Use ordinary words and scrutinize them by speaking them out loud to insure that they are natural spoken English.
Here is a Basho haiku, written in 1688, which illustrates his mastery of the use of ordinary words:
The words are completely, utterly simple. No complications: seven ordinary words with the most basic grammar possible in Japanese and likewise in English. Basho’s verse says absolutely nothing new about cherry blossoms or memories – instead he ‘sums up and conceals’ a thousand years of poetic expression on these blossoms and the memories that pass from one cherry blossom season to the next. The words so plain and ordinary are “realized” through the thousand years of associations of Japanese life with cherry blossoms.
In all the years I have known this blossom-viewing haiku, the phrase “things come to mind” has always satisfied me – but a while ago, I decided to try an alternative: “things brought to mind.” -- however when I spoke the phrase out loud, I realized that it “stagnates” in my mouth because thus simply is not natural. “Things come to mind” is natural and easy to say, so it “resonates.”
In my countless hours of observing how Basho uses words in Japanese, I have discovered one vital point:
his exceptional use of lively active verbs. Consider the phrase “when Elizabeth was queen: the inactive verb “was” has no power to give the phrase, so it falls flat. Change to “when Elizabeth reigned” and feel the glory and dignity coming from the active verb “reigns.” Enjoy the parade of lively active verbs in Basho’s description of the islands in Matsushima Bay:
Difficulty: To capture the vigor of Basho’s verbs in English
Solution: Use active verbs in the order Basho used them
The rain that fell high in the mountains is now flowing in the river. The upper segment is a commonly used seasonal reference, and lower segment simply the name of this river. So the art of Basho is entirely in the middle segment. Here he uses the –te form of atsumaru, allowing him to combine this verb with another action word, in a single powerful phrase: gathering, rushing. These two dynamic words pile up, “pressing forward” with the intensity of a raging mountain river swollen by day after days of heavy rain. I believe it a mistake to separate the two action words as most translators do:
The summer rains, how swift it is
Donald Keene (1996)
the summer rains, swift
David Barnhill (2005)
Instead keep the activity and power together in the middle segment.
Here is a renku stanza-pair in which the verbs in both the first stanza and Basho’s stanza are particularly lively:
The children are scattered about the room, so mother has to “glare about” (nume-mawashi) – stare fiercely in one direction then another – to address them all -- not that they listen. The stanza abounds with human activity in its three lively verbs: “glaring about” and “ordering” and her spoken command “behave!” In addition to all the activity of the mother, we see the activity of the children: arguing, fighting, climbing, breaking or swallowing things, crawling or running about, this winter day in 17th century Japan.
The Japanese suffix –tsutsu, indicating that “puffs the ash” is occurring along with all that mother and child action, so is like the English “while. I had to ask my former research assistant Shoko -- a native Japanese woman with two young daughters, as well as a certified instructor in Japanese language --. to gain an understanding of what is going on here. Shoko helped me understand that the verb here is “broil” rather than “fry” or “bake.” Shoko has lots of experience in cooking for a family, and lots of experience with miso and the many ways it is eaten in Japan, – so she was able to identify the specific action here: broiling balls of soybean paste on wooden skewers to make a side dish. A bit of ash from the fire has gotten on the sticky miso. In the same time when she orders her kids to behave, we see her lift her arm to and hand to bring the skewer close to her mouth and purse her lips and exhale an short burst of air at the ash to propel it off the sticky miso.
The astonishing delicacy of this action even the fingers of elves could not perform is the polar opposite of her glaring and shouting at her kids. Both ordering and puffing are her breath, her life force. According to Yoga, prana – the life force or cosmic energy – enters the body through inhalation and returns to the universe through exhalation; as Mother gave birth to these children, now she gives breath to the food that will nourish them. Basho’s speck of ash on miso resembles the Shinto metaphor of sins as being dust on a mirror. To restore the original purity, we simply wipe off the dust. Likewise the mother’s anger is not inherent; she can restore her inner peace by puffing away the ash from her spirit. Because the words are so ordinary and natural, the verbs so lively and active, her situation with her kids so common in our own world, we feel her reality. We connect with this mother, and as we breathe, we transcend space and time to be with her, to share prana with her, to remove anger and restore harmony within.
Opposition is a powerful tool in Basho’s repertoire: placing two opposing images one after the other, so the difference between them reveals the nature of each image. Here is the nature of family life, of mothering and childhood, and also the nature of cooking with miso over an open fire. Yet along with opposition, there is also harmony between the two stanzas. Basho – who was a teacher of linked verse -- told his followers about composing renku
Basho is speaking about what I will call “coherency”; the second stanza must “suit” (soeru) the first stanza and express the “same heart’s connection.” Basho advises us to “see from practice” how to write coherent stanza-pairs.
Difficulty: To translate the coherency in Basho’s vision into English:
Solution: Research Basho’s words, and check with other sources, for a slight mistranslation can send you off into a completely unwarranted direction.
I did not have to look up hata in the dictionary; I already knew it means “loom.” Tatamu is “to fold,” but looms did not fold up – so how can the upper segment make any sense? Without really reading the commentary in the Complete Basho Renku Anthhology, I decided that weaving -- passing the longitudinal yearn over and under the crosswise yarn could be described as “folding.” So I translated:
Weaving on loom,
at back door she burns
I accepted “weaving on loom” for two years, but never felt it quite right. I felt something wrong because this translation it suggests that the weaving occurs in the same time as the burning of incense. There should be some closure to the weaving -- so she can move onto the incense. Also I felt “burns” was wrong because this word suggests a ongoing action of burning, as if she stayed there for the entire burning, where in reality she momentarily sets the incense on fire then moves on to other work. The translation with “weaving on loom” and “burns” serves as a model of how a translation can be “okay” without being fully and completely coherent.
One day I typed out the commentary in the Complete Basho Renku Anthology: and in that action realized that my mind had done it again, misdirecting me into a false assumption: The commentary says:
She folds up the cloth she has finished weaving with no mention of the loom.
So I looked in a large Japanese-English dictionary, and discovered that hata can also be the fabric woven on the loom. Once I changed from “weaving on loom” to “weaving folded,” I decided it was time to change “burns” to the word for setting something on fire: “to light”
Here is my current translation of Basho’s stanza along with the one that preceded it:
A young woman goes to the Big City to live, work, and marry. Pregnant, she returns to her natal home where her mother can care for her before and during birth, then help out with the newborn. Basho fulfills the theme of pregnancy with the specific actions of this woman. Every item of clothing the family wears must be made from plant fibers, first spinning into thread, next weaving thread into fabric on a loom, then cutting and sewing the fabric. The kitchen in a wooden and wood-burning farmhouse produces and contains many odors. Without chemicals or plastics – so no air fresheners --, without electric appliances, a woman does what she can to keep the place from smelling. Weaving fabric for baby clothes, spreading sweet aroma throughout the kitchen, she generates positive energy for the new life: the ordinary but eternal work of women to keep children warm and house fragrant. How Basho must have watched his mother and four sisters to absorb their consciousness.
Between the action of her hands folding the fabric neatly to set aside, so later she can sew it, and the action of her bringing a bit of flame from the hearth fire to the cone of incense, what coherency can we discover? Both stanzas are certainly life-giving. The first stanza is about a woman “here to have her baby.” Pregnancy is when the cells of the embryo are woven together to form tissues, then the fetus folds into a head-on-knees position, so later the child can be born and sewn together into the world and family. “Burning incense” would be coherent with a funeral, but “lighting the incense” suggests a beginning -- the bringing of consciousness from the continuum to the individual, the “lighting” of synaptic activity in the fetal and infant brain to produce consciousness which is like the fragrance of incense.
Whether or not Basho saw this particular link between the two stanzas, we can. No one can tell us we cannot interpret the link this way because scholars in the past did not see it that way. So long as we follow the original words accurately, we are free to receive the ball and run with it in an entirely different direction than they imagined.
Background: Japanese for a thousand years before Basho wrote poetry in alternating stanzas of 17 and 14 “syllables,” the former in three segments of 5 – 7 – 5, the latter in two segments of 7 – 7. I put “syllables” in quotes because in Japanese these are merely single sounds; usually two of them form what English calls a “syllable” – as in the Japanese word ramen which is two syllables (ra-men) with four sounds: ra-a me-n. The Japanese sound unit would better be called a “half-syllable.” In the 20th century it was widely assumed that a haiku translation should have 17 syllables because the Japanese has 17 sound-units. 21st century translators have realized that 17 syllables are longer in sound duration than 17 sound-units, so abandoned the 5-7-5 syllable pattern, but also abandoned all fixed form, so every line of every translation can have whatever syllable count is convenient. I say let go of the 5 – 7 - 5 pattern, but maintain a fixed form.
My dictionary defines “verse” as “a sequence of words arranged metrically, in accordance with some rule or design” Through the years I have found that if I reproduce Basho’s Japanese directly into English, using the same nouns and verbs and adjectives he uses, adding nothing and removing nothing, however smoothing out the grammar, the segments of five Japanese sounds usually come out easily and naturally to three syllables in English, while the Japanese sevens become four or five English syllables. Most of my translations have a syllable pattern of 3 – 5 – 3 with a few more or less unaccented syllables. While the syllable count varies slightly, what remains consistent throughout my translations is the rhythm of beats. Basho poems are musical compositions with measures alternating between three-beats-and-a-pause and four beats.
The 20th century novelist and haiku poet Akutagawa Ryunosuke (author of Rashomon) said about a Basho verse
(荘重 = souchou = solemnity, gravity, impressiveness)
Basho himself said:
To be graceful, there must be a consistant rhythm, and fourbeats to a measure is most graceful. .
Basho also used musical terminology in this bit of spoken word
“Make renku ride the energy.
If you chime in incorrectly , you ruin the rhythm.”
Haikai wa ki ni nosete subeshi. Aizuchi ashiku hyoushi o sokonau.
To see and hear how syllables expand or contract to form a consistent four beat rhythm, how pauses regulate the rhythm, how the lyrics ride the energy of music, and how they chime in correctly, consider the iconic chorus of We are the World.
( ) (We) (are) (the)
(wor)(ld) ( )
( ) (We) (are) (the)
(chil) (dr) (re) (en)
According to the score, the first measure begins with a pause then three words each taking a beat, then the “world” and a two-beat pause fills the second measure. “Children” takes a full four beats, yet the “dren” part is three times longer than the “chil.” If you listen to the original, notice how Bruce Springsteen clearly draws out the “dren” to three beats.
( ) (We) (are) (the)
(ones) (who) (make) (a brighter)
(day) (so) (let’s) (start)
(giv) (ing) ( )
The six syllables of “ones who make a brighter” compress to four beats, then “giv-ing” stretches out to two beats plus a long pause. “Day so let’s start” is clearly four beats. Notice the three words that take a full measure: “world” “children” and “giving” – the focal points in the song.
Searching to understand the “solemn verbal music of Basho’s Japanese, I asked my research assistant Shoko, who played piano for many years, how haiku are scored by Japanese musicians:
The haiku has three measures. Two sound-units pair off to form one beat, the odd sound stretches out to a beat, and there are silent pauses in the upper and lower measures.
The duration and rhythm is exactly the same. Although the pauses are silent, they are definitely present. (Laura-Mae’s grade school piano teacher slapped her hand when she ignored them.) Shoko from her years of experience on the piano says that the pauses “regulate the rhythm” choshi o totonoeru. 調子を整える
3 – 4 – 3 in spoken beats; 4 – 4 – 4 with spoken and silent beats. This is the “rule or design” which makes the words poetry. Japanese score a haiku with all notes on the same pitch, so the haiku is a sort of chant or mantra. The four beats per measure strike with perfect regularity to calm and steady the mind.
To illustrate the points I have made in this lecture, here is a tanka by the 10th century poet Ki no Tsurayuki in his semi-fictional Tosa Diary; A government official and his family are returning to their home in the Capital after a five year absence in which his little daughter died: Although this tanka is not by Basho, it could well be, for Tsurayuki uses ordinary words, simple concrete verbs, to express profound feelings.
Compare the lyrical and academic translation on the left versus my ordinary words on the right:
What sadness to see She was born
how young pines have sprung up but shall not return
inside the garden to our home
Of one who is bereft where the young pines
even of a child once born we watch in sadness
Helen Craig McCullough has gone to great trouble to make her translation “poetic” and so lost the simple unadorned beauty of the original. Her refusal to use pronouns (because the Japanese has no pronouns) and her requirement for five and seven syllables, makes the English grammar especially difficult (“even of a child once born”). She challenges us to figure out “bereft,” the past-participle of ‘bereave,’ although the original simply says miru ga kanashisa, “watching is sadness.” There are too many words for us to find a
beat or to feel the grief of losing a child.
The form of the first two lines in Japanese highlight the opposition of two verbs: she “was born” in our home but shall “not return” to our home – and my translation reproduces that opposition; whereas McCullough relegates “born” to the final word in her translation, and does not use “return” at all. My translation has exactly the same ordinary words as the original, in essentially the same order; both have “sadness” (kanashimi) as the final word. All I have added are the personal pronouns which allow the English to flow smoothly and the future tense “shall.” The pauses which occur naturally after “born” and “home” are crucial; here is where the feeling emerges and resonates. The words and pauses naturally take on a 4 – 4 – 4 – 4 – 4 pattern of beats, as does the original. They ride the energy.