Jane Reichhold claims to have translated ALL of Basho’s haiku, however some of her “translations” contain blatant misreadings of Chinese characters and misunderstandings of Japanese language so deviant that the meaning of the original is lost – so we can say the verse has not really been translated. Among the verses she has mangled are some of Basho’s most humane haiku – yet from her “translations” no reader can appreciate his life-affirming message. In this chapter I will examine ten of these train wrecks.
These are not mere differences of opinion between Reichhold and myself – there are plenty of those, but here I will look only at actual mistakes – and Japanese Language Instructor Shoko confirms that these are real whoppers. I am not criticizing just to criticize; I believe that by exploring these distortions, we gain a better sense of the profound humanity in the original.
We begin with verses of appreciation for women, here the verse Basho wrote at the memorial service for the mother of Kikaku, his friend and follower for 15 years:
The many petaled clusters of white blossoms on the deutzia tree appear in the abundance of May. Kon Eizo, pre-eminent Basho scholar of the late 20th century, interprets the verse:
Having lost mother familiar with these flowers for so a long time, at her memorial service, they seem so meaningless and chilly floating in the evening darkness. From the white desolation of the flowers comes the feeling of the person who has lost the warmth (nukumori) of mother.”
This is why I love Kon-sensei’s commentaries: he always brings into focus the warm, positive feelings in Basho’s vision. With his flower image, Basho beautifully captures the ‘chill’ any of us feels when the mother of a friend dies. It is important to remember that the verse is a “greeting verse”; its purpose is to express the feeling in Basho’s heart to another person.
Reichhold however renders the verse as:
without a mother in the house
U no hana, the name of this flower, is also used for the pulp left over from making soy milk and tofu, a cheap but nutritious food – though not one eaten at memorial services. Reichhold makes the bizarre assumption that Basho means that the tofu pulp is dreary because mother is gone -- which makes no sense at all. She offers no explanation for why Basho would refer to tofu pulp instead of flowers at the memorial service for his friend’s mother who has died.
What does the Western reader who cannot speak or read Japanese get from Reichhold’s translation? Unable to make any sense out of “tofu pulp,” you may think this not a good poem, never imagining that the original could be altogether different, quite sensible, and appropriate to the situation. Reichhold’s “translation” is an insult to Basho, to Kikaku, as well as to every reader; it deprives the reader of Basho’s eloquent message –though by examining her misreading, we can more deeply appreciate Basho’s expression of humanity.
My daughter Jean says that my translations “take the stress out of me,” while Reichhold’s “give me more stress.” Maybe a haiku that makes no sense upsets us, whereas a verse that is coherent – even if it says nothing especially interesting - reduces stress. Basho, if we go to the trouble to find out what his words actually mean in Japanese, always makes sense.
Kaka is a rustic word for “old mother.” The word is “vulgar,” meaning “of the common people,” but not derogatory; most Japanese consider it a term of affection. I used to use "maw" for this old woman, but now am experimenting with “crone” which may have negative connotations to some people, however inwoman's studies is considered to suggest a wise old woman.
Chiso is literally ‘a treat’ but every Japanese knows this word as part of go-chiso sama deshita, the common everyday expression of gratitude to the one who prepared food. Kon tells us the meaning he sees hidden in this verse:
“Maw waves her round paper fan over the hot food to cool it off. This is an impoverished home, so we see Paw has returned from the fields, (taken off his sweaty cloths) and sits in his loincloth. Watching his beloved wife (aisai) bestow her heart (kokoro tsukai) on the food, he enjoys the evening cool and waits for the food.”
Kon recognizes the psychic energy the wife bestows on the food as she waves her fan over it. The scholar reveals that this is a love poem, not the love of young people at the beginning of their search, but the love of an old couple near the end. In the poetry of sabi, we would grieve over their poverty and misery. However, with Lightness, we forget all that, and focus on peaceful feelings of wholeness, of love and gratitude, even in old and impoverished country folk.
Through Kon’s interpretation of Basho, we see into one part of humanity: old people living in the boonies, aged and decrepit, without education or culture, yet Basho says something extraordinary about them: after all the decades of hard work and poverty, they still love each other. Reichhold, who obviously does not understand the gratitude in the word chisō and does not approve of Basho’s “concept of Lightness,” renders this verse as,
Boiled rice slop
his old lady fans the treat
with evening coolness
The crude, ugly words (“rice slop” and “his old lady”) destroy the peaceful feeling of wholeness. Reichhold claims that meshi is “the most low-class way of describing eating.” Kitteridge Cherry says that kaka is a “nasty” word offensive to women. NOT SO! Shoko, who is native Japanese and a Japanese Language Instructor, assures us that meshi and kaka are informal words suitable for this rustic scene. She also affirms that CRONE WAVES A FAN is a love poem.
From Reichhold’s use of “boiled rice slop” and “his old lady,” I guess that she does not feel much respect for this couple; they eat “rice slop” and are barely human. Some readers will find her translation gross and ugly, and others will like it that way, however without knowing the Japanese, none will realize that the original - according to Kon Eizo, a true scholar of Basho - is an eloquent expression of love in old country people, a couple just as alive and humane as modern cultured people.
Next we look at another verse of gratitude. Visiting his follower Hanasetsu, Basho climbed a mountain and took sick. At the inn where he stayed, Hanasetsu arranged for the inn to provide a yogi or ‘night robe’ -- a thick padded blanket sewn into a robe with sleeves. This robe gave Basho such a nice warm sleep that he felt better in the morning. He wrote this greeting verse to Hanasetsu:
Basho prayed to the gods for healing, and they answered through Hanasetsu. Basho praises Hanasetsu for doing the work of the kamisama – this is high praise. The verse conveys the information that a deep warm night’s sleep can overcome disease and restore health. It is a fine example of humanity in Basho. Reichhold, however, “translates”:
gotten by praying
on a journey
This may, or may not, confuse you, dear reader, however it becomes altogether ridiculous when we look in Reichhold’s endnotes and find that she thinks yogi in this verse is a Sanskrit yogi, a male practitioner of yoga. Reichhold says that Hakusetsu “made arrangements for a yogi healer to come to Basho, but Basho jokes that since this temple was a holy place, the yogi healer came in answer to his prayers.” Say what?!
Now, yogi is an ancient word in India, found in the oldest extant commentary (4th century CE) on the Yoga Sutra. And healing disease is part of yoga. It is true that Indian Buddhism did enter Japan (through China) centuries before Basho, and was an important part of Japanese life, but the Japanese used Sino-Japanese words for everything in Buddhism – not the original Indian words. Also, there is no record of Indian yogis wandering about 17th century Japan healing folks. (Yoga first entered the country in the 1920s). It should be noted that yogi is not difficult Japanese; it is simply the character for “night” (yo) together with the character for “wear” (gi) -- and many non-speakers of Japanese will recognize this as the second sound in dogi, the uniforms of Japanese martial arts. To think that this simple Japanese word equals an esoteric term in an entirely different language is beyond all absurdity.
The reader who does not look to Reichhold’s endnotes will probably not notice that something is out of whack – probably thinking that the translator knows something about healers in olden Japan, maybe thinking it pretty cool that Basho prayed for a healer and the healer cured him, never realizing that this fine idea is based on pure nonsense.
To understand a haiku such as this, we must know its situation and intention, in this case, to express gratitude for a night robe which gave his old body a warm comfortable sleep. The warmth from the night robe is the essence of this verse. Any translation which prevents the reader from getting the warmth and gratitude in Basho’s original message is not really a translation.
Next are verses of appreciation for children - although Reichhold misses this:
In Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book, she lists what she finds utsukushi, “adorable”. First on her list is “the face of a child drawn on a melon.” In this era it was a custom in summer for little girls to draw a face with black ink or face-powder on a melon and attach to a stick with mizu hiki (two color strings) to make a hanging toy. The melon used was a hime-uri, ‘princess-melon’, a type of musk melon. The lower segment kisaki-zane is literally ‘empress kernel’, the ‘seed’ who grows up to become Empress. Basho draws the connection between the name of the melon and the ‘little princess’ who will someday marry the Crown Prince. He shows us a little girl’s plaything, a picture she drew of her idol, the little girl of royal blood whose fairytale dream comes true. She feels about it the way little girls today feel about pictures of their idols in music, movies and royal families.
The verse is a special one, for it is the only haiku Basho wrote in his first three years in Edo, after leaving his hometown at age 28. The first time he is so far from his home, he writes a verse about a little girl’s toy – and so we wonder if the haiku is a memory of one of his three younger sisters, probably the youngest, Oyoshi, whose name appears in four Basho letters, where no other sister’s name ever appears.
Reichhold however “translates” the verse:
the core of the princess melon
is already a queen
Even with her commentary in the endnotes, I cannot see what she thinks Basho is saying – however it has something to do with her altogether bizarre notion, given in the endnotes, that zane here refers to a “clitoris”: The “core” of the princess is her clitoris which is already a queen? Or something like that?
Shoko, who actually knows Japanese, notes that sane can be used as slang for “clitoris,” but thousands of ordinary words – banana, cigar, gun, pickle, sword, snake, et al -- can be sexual slang; but we do not take the slang meaning every time we see or hear the word. If (IF!) we insert “clitoris” into Basho’s verse, it becomes a ‘sketch’ of the clitoris of the Empress of Japan. Even on LSD Basho would not write a poem about that particular clitoris. Also the slang meaning turns the verse into child porn. Possibly there are Japanese who come to this interpretation (pun intentional), but they are (I hope) few and far between. We are shocked that the publisher, Kodansha, allowed this nonsense into print.
Basho is the poet of children. To understand him we have to realize the child-like perceptions in his actual words— not the bizarre meanings a translator adds to them to make them sound adult.
The large pink-and-white flower is a fine ornament for the hair of a tiny peasant girl naked in the August heat. The child stands there innocent and charming, the ideal human form, Michelangelo’s David in a five-year-old girl. Shoko, with daughters this age, sees in the verse an “expression of the warmth in Basho’s heart.”
Reichhold however “translates”
naked I wear one
in my hair.
In Japanese the character for ‘child’, 童, is given with the furigana reading, warawa, to the right, so there is absolutely no way for this not to be a child. Reichold however seems to have ignored the Chinese character and misread warawa to ware wa which would mean “I” (as the subject): so we have Basho himself naked and wearing a flower in his hair!! Now that is a bizarre image. Confusing warawa to ware wa shows an abysmal lack of Japanese Language knowledge, or an astonishing carelessness – and yet this gross error, and several others of similar magnitude, are published, confusing readers worldwide.
The heavy rains of June fall on and on, day after day, so Basho stays inside his gloomy damp hut, depressed, not shaving his chin and jaw, so the hair grows unkempt (as in the cover picture of this book). After days without exercise or sunlight, his face in the mirror looks pale and unhealthy. Here is a photograph of Basho’s – or any man’s -- unshaven, sallow, bored face – a sketch of humanity.
hair grown long
a pale bluish face
in rainy season rain
She does not understand that the meaning of the Japanese ao depends on the word it modifies: for the sky ao is “light blue,” for leaves and traffic lights “green,” for faces, “pale.” In her endnotes, she continues with her notion that Basho sees his face as “bluish,” and further confuses the issue with the remark that this face “looks the same as, or even is, the face of the continuous rain.” (Huh?)
Although this is a haiku, not a linked verse, there must be a ‘link’ between the face and the rain. I, following Kon, say the rain keeps him inside without shaving or activity. Reichhold, following nobody, says his bluish face resembles the face of the rain. Which makes more sense?
In the mountains of Kai (north-west of Mount Fuji) Basho meets an old guy, a wood cutter or someone like that. Basho tries to start a conversation but the man, being of rather limited intellect and verbal skills, just stands there staring blankly. Basho imagines that the wireweed all over the fence beside the road has grown up around the man’s jaw to lock it shut.
In MOUNTAIN HICK’S we see Basho’s comic genius. He blends together three elements:
1) Real situation: the hick standing there silent for some time.
2) Seasonal awareness: the nature of wireweed in the summer.
3) Fantasy image: the many months the man would have to stand in that place for wireweed to actually surround his jaw.
Reichhold learned that another weed of the same family is so soft it is used to stuff mattresses, so she translates this verse:
keeps his mouth closed
tall bed-straw grass
What happened to the humor? The softness of “bed-straw grass” instead of the horrible-sounding “wireweed” leads us away from the point of this haiku: to be funny.
For my next example, I will start with Reichhold’s version, for this how I began my exploration of this haiku:
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 Kon’s commentary, I quickly recognized four things: 1) there is a cut word after “withering wind,” so only two things are “tied together” – the “winter life” is separate; 2) Basho has just left the Kyoto area on his way 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; and 4) –zumai means “home” (not “living”).
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. Basho writes the verse on fine paper as a present to his host who will keep it as a memento of Basho’s visit. Many times through the years he will look at it, or merely think about it. We can imagine how Basho’s gift will enhance his appreciation for his home. Basho, the poet of positive messages – if the message is translated with necessary pronouns so the English reader can get the positive meaning.
Doho tells us Basho said about this verse:
This “little monk” is an ordinary kid whose head has been shaved close; his bald round head on a child’s body “stands out” on the horse, high above the horizontal field, watching his elders at work.
Kon explains the verse:
There is nothing to fear and all is calm and mild. Here is a candid photograph of peaceful daikon gathering in a simple farm village, its focal point, the little boy. A fine example of Lightness.
Notice Kon‘s words: “nothing to fear…calm and mild… peaceful…simple farm village…little boy”.
Such is the material for Lightness. From Kon’s commentary I define ‘Lightness’ as ‘a peaceful feeling of wholeness.’ Basho has known the sabi of classical Japanese poetry, the desolation of a lonely soul meeting the vast impersonal universe, but here he extends his poetic vision beyond sabi to the Lightness in the ordinary activities of his neighbors, their peaceful family life. Peace and harmony rarely appear in the newspapers or history books. People prefer to know about war and disruption. Reichhold discusses the antagonism of Basho‘s followers to Basho‘s ‘concept of Lightness’. She herself makes several derogatory remarks about Lightness, and renders this masterpiece of Basho’s ideal as:
In the saddle
a small boy rides
an uprooted radish
She eliminates all peaceful feelings of wholeness. Reichhold obviously has no idea of what daikon-gathering was in Japanese consciousness: an enjoyable family excursion. In her endnotes, she claims that the verse has a “sexual innuendo” -- so I guess she means paedophilia. She sees the long thick radish as a “phallic symbol” which the boy is “riding.” I rather see it the way Japanese see it, as a tasty food and source of nutrition. The verse only has sexual connotations because she added them into it.
Haiku are like soup—the ingredients determine the flavor. Because ‘daikon gathering’ traditionally suggests a happy family excursion, I have added in the word “their” – we feel this is not just any little boy, but “their little monk”— the youngest son loved by the whole family. Instead of encouraging you to think about paedophilia, my translation encourages you to think about peaceful family life. (Certainly there are families who are not happy and do not love their children -- however I do not add these ingredients to this soup.)
Many people today do not expect a poem to make sense, to have a definite and explainable meaning. As with modern art, there is no such “meaning” and it is a waste of time to search for one. We just look at the piece, and take whatever impressions we get. For people who see haiku in this way, Reichhold’s translations may be fine. I, however, search for a meaning that fits every word, a meaning that fits physical, biological, anthropological, and sociological reality as well as Basho biography. His poetry is Truth, not fiction.