Weightless Fireworks

By Scott Pack

A collection of haiku

Saturday, 21 May 2016

Lost in Translation?

In the same way that it is generally accepted that Shakespeare is the greatest playwright to have ever picked up a quill — he may not be your favourite playwright, and others may have written better individual plays, but his work has endured better, is studied more intensely and is performed more widely than any other — the finest haiku poet to ever pick up an inkbrush is Bashō.

Matsuo Bashō was born in Japan, in the small village of Ueono, in 1644. As a young man he had a passion for verse and had successfully published some poems before the age of twenty. As he matured, he became renowned across Japan as a master of the haiku, the short, three-line poem with a 5/7/5 syllable structure.

The strict structure was not the only restriction Bashō, and other haiku poets, placed themselves under. Tradition dictated that haiku should, in some way, comment upon the season, usually by referencing nature. They would also contain a philosophical element, or a pause for thought. And to further complicate matters, they should also contain a 'cutting word', a word placed towards the middle of the poem which interrupts, or cuts, the stream of thought.

And, of course, they were doing all this in Japanese, a language I do not speak, so I am reliant on the skills of translators in order to read and appreciate their work.

I own a copy of Bashō's complete haiku translated by Jane Reichhold. It was published back in 2008, more than 300 years after the death of the author, but represents the first time his entire works have appeared in English under one volume. Dipping into the book enables the reader to enjoy and appreciate the finest haiku ever written, hundreds of perfect poems in miniature. Here are just a few of my favourites:

the old woman
a cherry tree blooming in old age
is something to remember


the voice of reeds
sounds like the autumn wind
from another mouth


spring winds
hoping the flowers burst
out in laughter


inside the temple
visitors cannot know
cherries are blooming


As you can see, they each share an image associated with a particular season, and each offer an element of philosophical reflection. I particularly like the last example, the idea that the devout inside a temple are missing out on the greater spiritual experience outside its walls. But you may also notice that they do not follow the 5/7/5 syllable structure. The original Japanese versions do, of course, but it is nigh on impossible to render them into English while retaining the syllable count and the meaning or intent of the poem.

If we take that last one again. At the back of the complete Basho collection, Reichhold has provided notes on each and every haiku, and there are over 1,000 in the book. Here's the original Japanese, albeit a romanised version as I am not sure using Japanese characters will help many of us here:

Uchiyama ya
tozama shira zu no
hana zakari

Reichhold offers a literal translation:

visitors cannot know of
flowering cherry trees

Uchiyama is the name of a temple in Nara but is is also a pun, there are lots of puns in haiku, as 'uchi' can also mean 'inside' and 'yama' can mean 'mountain' or 'temple grounds'. So you can perhaps see how a) it would be madness to try to translate this within the 5/7/5 rules and b) that Reichhold has managed to convey the original meaning very well. So although we lose the form, we keep the emotion, the philosophy, the sense.

But with lots of other poems in the book it is hard for an English reader, at least it is for me, to get close to the original poetry. Take Basho's most famous poem for example:

old pond
a frog jumps into
the sound of water

In Japan this is considered the ultimate Basho haiku. The perfect haiku. But I think it loses much in translation. I have always been somewhat underwhelmed by it. It is pleasant enough, and conveys a image reasonably effectively, but it doesn't stir me emotionally or imaginatively, something I am reliably informed it would do if I read it in the original.

And that is always the problem with translation - how to present the words in a new language while still conveying the meaning even though the reader may not understand the history, context or poetry of the original. A problem than is exacerbated in haiku because there are so few words to play with.

The upshot of all this is that I find Basho's poems rather hit and miss in English. For every:

an early winter shower
a rice paddy with new stubble
darkens just a bit

there is a:

coolness appears
in the plan
of this house

I can feel the poetry of the first one, but the second one just leaves me cold, no pun intended.

I cannot imagine anyone ever trying to translate any of the poems in Weightless Fireworks. I suspect they won't travel particularly well, especially the one about ready salted crisps. Neither can I imagine that anyone will be reading them in 300 years time. And it is, of course, remarkable that any of Basho's haiku have survived three centuries and two languages to reach me today. The fact that so many of them still have the power to move and inspire me is really quite something.

I shall now sully the memory of the greatest haiku poet the world has ever seen by ending this shed post with one of my own, something I have written recently for the book:

the red in your hair
catches in the dawn sunlight
canonising you


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Janet Colley
 Janet Colley says:

Interesting. Thanks for sharing. I see a Basho translation in my future.

posted 23rd May 2016

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