Basho: The Complete Haiku

[If you came to this post looking for information on Haiku – scansion, kigos, form and technique – take a look at my Guide to Haiku. Then take a look around and if you find more that you like, let me know and let others know.]

I generally don’t read translations of poetry.

No matter what language or country the poets come from, the poet’s original voice, stylistically, always seems indistinguishable from the general tenor of the times. While most readers, it seems, read poetry for its content and are satisfied with that, the beauty of the language matters to me – the style. Frost’s tone and sound must be impossible to translate into another language. Capturing Shakespeare’s genius for manipulating Elizabethan English must be devilishly difficult in most languages and impossible in most. How does one translate Shakespeare’s coinages?

Haiku surely present their own challenges. The rich cultural associations with which Japanese Haiku are laden must be impossible to translate. The forms very brevity constrains the translator’s ability to alter, for example, word order and the progression of thought for the sake of the adopted language. And yet the Haiku’s self-same brevity is, to me, what makes it the most translatable. Whereas the translator of Ovid can’t dote over the meaning of each and every line, (without quadrupling the size of the book & commensurately diminishing its readability) the translator of Haiku, because of the form’s brevity, has much greater latitude for dotage. The Japanese themselves developed a rich tradition of Haiku (and poetic) commentary – colophons – which deepen the original poems — sometimes amounting to pages and pages of insight and conversation & all for the sake of a single line of poetry (Haiku, in Japanese, are written as a single line). Read “Basho and his Interpreters”, by Makoto Ueda for a taste of this tradition.

That said, there are bad, good and transcendent translations of Haiku. Reichhold’s translations are some of the best I have ever read. I can’t read Japanese but here’s why I think so. The most famous Haiku by Basho is about the old pond and the frog. As many translations as I have read, I have never understood why this poem was so famous. As it turns out, very few translators understood the poem! To give an idea of just how few, visit the following website, a collection of thirty translations of the same Haiku. By my count, only four of the translators actually understood the poem. Most interestingly, Robert Aitken, whose commentary is featured at the end of this site, also gets it wrong!

Here is the poem as translated by Reichhold.

old pond
a frog jumps into
the sound of water.

Get it?

It’s not that the frog is jumping into the pond.

The frog is jumping into “the sound of water”. And it is with this understanding that the profundity of this poem finally makes sense. The Zen oneness that is so frequently mentioned (but apparently seldom understood even by those who describe it) becomes comprehensible & profound. The real genius of this Haiku can finally be appreciated.

Reichhold calls this technique “sense switching”. She writes: “Here, the frog not only jumps into the water, but also into the sound of water. The mind-puzzle that this haiku creates is how to seperate the frog from the water, the sound of water from the water, the frog from the sound it will make entering water, and the sound from the old pond. It cannot be done because all these factors are one…”

This explanation is found in the breif but informative and useful appendix 1 – a list of Haiku techniques practiced by the various Japanese Hakuists.

This is a beautiful translation of all of Basho’s known Haiku. For each Haiku, the original Japanese is provided along with a romanized reading and brief notes explaining what is untranslatable but relevent to an understanding of the poem. If you like Basho’s Haiku, get this book. Hopefully, the translator will move on to Buson and, my favorite, Issa.

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