I recently bought a very handsome Kodansha (Tokyo) edition of Basho: complete haiku, translated by Jane Reichhold. As well as the poems, it contains original artwork by Shiro Tsujimura. Jane’s notes at the end include the transliteration of the Japanese characters, then word-for-word translations with explanations For example, Basho’s most famous poem is rendered as:
furu ike ya / kawazu tobikomu / mizu no oto
old-pond /frog jump into / water’s sound
In the main text, she renders the poem as:
a frog jumps into
the sound of water
which is much the best translation of the poem I’ve read to date.
One of the Notes sections is on haiku technique, and it’s extremely interesting. Many haiku poets will be familiar with some of them, such as association, comparison and contrast. Others may be less familiar. She describes Basho’s technique in the old frog poem as ‘sense shifting’, moving from the visual to the auditory, in a kind of synesthetic way. Shiki’s shasei, or ‘sketch from life’, is one frequently found in haiku, where things are described as they are – Das Ding an sich! as the philosopher would have it. Paradox, pun, neologisms and wordplay are among the language techniques that can be used; twisting and pivoting take the reader by surprise, and ‘hiding the author’ is common. Three almost untranslatable conceptual features of Japanese culture are also used – sabi, wabi, and yugen. The cop-out route would be to say that these terms have no equivalents in English, and that’s true but unhelpful. Let me hint then, that sabi has some parallels in the blues, or feeling blue – a kind of beauty in melancholic loneliness. Wabi is to do with finding beauty in underlying simplicity, and yugen relates to the unknowable, the mysterious depths of the ordinary which we ultimately cannot fathom.