Bringing beauty to all through surprisingly unrefined language

BASHO: The Complete Haiku, translated, annotated and with an introduction by Jane Reichhold; artwork by Shiro Tsujimura. Kodansha International, 2008, 432 pp., ¥2,600 (cloth)

Matsuo Basho (1644-1694) is not only Japan’s most revered poet, he is also the one most translated into other languages. Yet, until now, no one has gathered into one volume, translated into English, the complete works.

Having spent a decade at her task, the American poet Jane Reichhold here presents 1012 haiku, complete with much of the relevant historical material surrounding them and some indication as to how each is to be appreciated.

Makoto Ueda has defined the haiku as “a comparison between the finite and the infinite which are brought together in the one experience which is the poem.” This presumes that it is not only the writer but also the reader who creates this experience.

In her introduction Reichhold indicates how this works: “Instead of saying ‘autumn dusk settles around us like a crow landing on a bare branch,’ Basho would write: ‘on a bare branch / a crow settled down / autumn evening.’ The simplicity and economy of the words demand that the reader goes into his mind and experiences the darkness of bird and night, autumn and bareness, and even how a branch could move as the dark weight of a crow presses it down. The reader is writing the rest of the verse and making it poetry.”

This is explicated not only by the finished translation but also (in the note accompanying the poem) by the original Japanese, its Romaji transliteration, and a literal translation of this. Added is the known history of the verse, and the reasons the translator chose as she did: the use of the past tense, the use of a single crow when the original did not specify, etc.

It is often maintained that poetry is untranslatable. While this is probably so, it is equally true that some kind of parallel structure can be erected alongside a poem that will at least indicate the nature and approximate the effect of the original. This is something that relies on the skill and discretion of the translator.

Such are various. Take, for example, Basho’s well known haiku: “nomi shirami / uma no shitosuru / makura moto.” This is romanized by Reichhold as, “fleas lice / horse’s pissing / pillow close by” and is translated as, “fleas and lice / now a horse pisses / by my pillow.”

This lyric seems to communicate all that a haiku ought — a salient shift of observation, a seasonal sensibility, an open-ended experience. The translator is to communicate this as economically as did the poet. Here are some attempts.

Nobuyuki Yuasa translates it as: “Bitten by fleas and lice, / I slept in a bed, / A horse urinating all the time / Close by my pillow.” Dorothy Britten gives it as: “Fleas and lice did bite; / and I’d hear the horse pass water / Near my bed at night.” Donald Keene has versified it as: “Plagued by fleas and lice I hear the horses staling — / What a place to sleep!” Toshiharu Oseki gives it as : “Plagued by fleas and lice, / Still worse, hearing the horse urinating / Close by my pillow!” and David Bamhill recently translates the haiku as: “Fleas, lice, / a horse peeing / by my pillow.”

The original “story” is the same in all these translations but its “treatment” varies with the translator. Reichhold and Bamhill are among the more literal, giving the reader what is necessary and nothing else. In addition Reichhold uses more colloquial language, indicating that this is also what Basho did. He, says his translator, “experimented with common words and words considered too vulgar for poetry.”

Most modern translators, she says, “have hesitated, or even refused, to use the words ‘piss’ or ‘shit,’ as Basho did.” Yet he could be direct without coarseness and in so doing he could approach each reader on a common level.

This is something approximated by Reichhold who uses plain, direct language to echo Basho’s effects. Her approach is also seen in the notes, the glossary, and the valuable section on haiku techniques. Here is her definition of the aesthetic term “wabi.” It is “the result of living simply . . . frayed, faded, and worn Levis have the wabi that bleached designer jeans can never achieve.”

Basho was a major influence on the democratization of poetry. His ability to be both up to date and ageless distinguishes him from the poets of his day and many in our own times. Readers join him in the experience of the haiku because they trust him.

Coronavirus banner