A couple of days ago I completed an odyssey that began for me around this time last year: I finished reading Bashō: The Complete Haiku. Translator Jane Reichhold has done a wonderful job with the 1012 haiku collected here, as well as with her introduction describing the nature and impact of Bashō’s work, her more biographical introductions to the seven “chapters” of Bashō’s life and practice, and her illuminating notes, which offer commentary, literal translations, Romanized versions, and the original Japanese texts. She also provides some very useful back matter: two appendices (one dealing with Haiku techniques, the other presenting a chronology of Bashō’s life), a glossary of literary terms, and an extensive bibliography of Bashō in English. Reichhold’s translations alone would make this book significant (she is a widely published haiku poet in her own right), but her scholarly contribution makes it indispensable.
Reichhold’s approach to Bashō’s work is to render each haiku as clearly and directly as possible. She does not attempt to reproduce formal characteristics like sound patterns and syllable counts, so the poems feel spare and light (“lightness” being a quality Bashō especially prized), free from the padding so common in translations that attempt to mirror the 5-7-5 sound unit structure of haiku. I may as well begin with Bashō’s most famous haiku (# 153) as an example:
I’ve read translations that try to inflate the first line by replacing “old” with “ancient”—exactly the kind of change Reichhold avoids throughout. Her note to the poem makes this clear*:
Notice that Reichhold uses the sign “<>” to indicate a Japanese “cutting-word”—a word that typically has no semantic value (although it can indicate the heightened intensity of an exclamation) but marks a break in the flow of the poem; these words are usually “translated” into English as long dashes or colons. Also note that Reichhold does take advantage of the fact that “the sound of water” consists of five English syllables and expands the original “water’s sound” to match the five Japanese sound units. The point being that while her aim is English poems that are “spare and light,” she’s usually flexible in following that principle.
Sometimes, though, “spare and light” can’t do the original poem justice. Haiku # 440, for example, leaves out a crucial element (the introductory text that follows is Bashō’s):
At the renga party held at Chikuyō and hosted by Chōkō on July 29, 1688
The original, as given in Reichhold’s note, illustrates the inadequacy of this rendering. The Japanese reads, awe hie in / toboshiku mo ara zu / kusa no io, the literal meaning of which is “foxtail millet Japanese millet in / meager also to be not / grass of house.” I can’t imagine this working into 17 English syllables—and in any case I’m unsure how to read it.
The habit of mind required for reading haiku as the Japanese do is sophisticated and very much embedded in cultural and linguistic relationships that are often beyond the reach of translation. Reading Reichhold’s notes as one reads her translations brings this home again and again. One example is haiku # 493:
a skylark sings
The final phrase, “instrumental music,” translates the Japanese term hyōshi—”a technical term used in Nō theater to designate the passages of the performance played by the flute and drums,” as Reichhold notes. But this information can’t substitute for the culturally triggered response the haiku must have for a Japanese reader.
Occasionally (not very often) one gets the impression that Reichhold’s “spare and light” aims force her notes to carry too much weight. Haiku # 502, from Bashō’s masterpiece Oku no Hosomichi— which Reichhold translates as Journey to the Interior—is one example:
1689—spring. The city of Nikkō is about 90 miles (150 km) north of Tokyo. The The Chinese characters that designate the name of the city and the area have the same meaning as “flashing sunshine.” Many societies have trouble distinguishing between green and blue. Here Bashō uses the word for blue even though the leaves are green.