Confessions of a Translator, part 2

Vol 1-2, August 2001

Confessions of a Translator, part 2

David G. Lanoue
Louisiana, USA

Kobayashi Issa (1763-1827) was one of the most prolific of Japan’s haiku poets, leaving thousands of one-breath masterpieces for the world to enjoy. Only a small fraction of his life’s work has been translated into English. Translator, David G. Lanoue’s interactive website, The Haiku of Kobayashi Issa, offers an archive of over 2,400 of Issa’s haiku. Readers can search the archives by keyword, read the texts in English and see original Japanese texts and comments on Issa’s haiku. A biography of Issa is provided, and recently, interactive lessons have been added.

David’s translations are based on Issa zenshû (Nagano: Shinano Mainichi Shimbunsha, 1979. Vol. 1). Some of the translations first appeared in the book, Issa, Cup-of-Tea Poems, Tran. David G. Lanoue (Asian Humanities Press, 1991). Others are taken from his light-hearted novel, Haiku Guy (Red Moon Press, 2000).

David is currently a full professor of English at Xavier University of Louisiana in New Orleans. Since 1984, he has have published his original haiku, translations, and haiku-related essays in various magazines and anthologies, and he conducted research in Japan from 1987 – 1988. Read more about David at his website, but first, enjoy the second episode in his essay series, Confessions of a Translator!

Confessions of a Haiku Translator: Episode 2
To Comment or Not to Comment?

David G. Lanoue

As a one-breath burst of language, a haiku must say everything in that one breath. A haiku is immediate and experiential:

ore to shite niramekura suru kawazu kana

locked in a staring
with a frog

This well-known verse by Issa doesn’t seem to need explication for a reader, even a child, to “get” it. Yet one’s appreciation deepens when one reads it in the context of Issa’s diary.  The haiku appears in two journals: Hachiban nikki (“Eighth Diary”) and Oraga haru (“My Spring”).  In the first text, it is prefaced simply with the phrase, “Sitting alone” (4.236), but in Oraga haru, a lengthy anecdote about the drowning of an eleven year-old boy precedes it. Issa attended the child’s cremation and was so moved that he composed a waka in which he compares the boy to fresh, new grass turned to smoke so soon after it has sprouted. He then wonders out loud,

Will not even the trees and plants one day become Buddhas?

He immediately answers his own question:

They, too, will acquire Buddha nature” (6.137).

And then, as if continuing a single thought, he writes the phrase,

Sitting alone,” and inserts the haiku:

locked in a staring
with a frog

In the context of Oraga haru, then, this humorous verse about a frog and a poet has a distinctly Buddhist flavour. Issa reminds the reader that all beings, including plants, are on a karmic path toward enlightenment. Thus, when he engages in a staring contest with a frog, he is communing with an ancient fellow traveller. Buddhist truth lurks inside the comedy of the moment. Issa and the frog are peers.
He referred to himself as issa-bo haikaiji, Priest Issa of Haiku Temple. His Buddhist way of life, and way of thinking about that life, profoundly influenced his art. He lived and professed the precepts of the popular Jodoshinshu (True Teaching Pure Land) sect. To translate Issa with sensitivity, one must become familiar with key concepts of this school of Buddhism, as the Japanese critics Murata Shocho and Kaneko Tohta suggest. Issa’s haiku are often predicated on Jodoshinshu concepts of sin, grace, faith, and salvation, as in the following example.

hana oke ni cho mo kiku ka yo ichi daiji

on the flower pot
does the butterfly also hear
Buddha’s promise?

The key phrase is the third: ichi daiji.  Literally, it denotes, “one great thing.” Yet if a translator leaves it at that, the reader is presented with a technically correct but baffling poem:

on the flower pot
does the butterfly, too,
hear One Great Thing?

In the context of Buddhist belief, the “one great thing” that the haiku refers to is Amida Buddha’s promise to rescue all sentient beings who invoke his name, ensuring their rebirth in his Western Paradise, the Pure Land. Here, Issa wonders if the butterfly also hears the good news of salvation-a universal salvation that applies to it as much as it does to the human poet and his readers. Its stillness, to Issa, implies attentiveness. The butterfly thus embodies innocent, natural piety and serves as a role model for all.
The French translator, Titus-Carmel, renders the third phrase of this haiku, “la Grande Unité” (31), transforming “one great thing” into “the Great Unity.” It’s a brilliant solution, given the fact that she chooses to present Issa’s poems without critical comment. However, a vague notion of cosmic unity is not really the focus of this poem.  Issa and his butterfly are contemplating a quite specific “great thing”: Amida Buddha’s vow to allow their rebirth in the Pure Land-a metaphor for enlightenment.
According to its prescript in the two texts in which it appears, this haiku was inspired by a memorial service that Issa attended (Issa zenshu 2.467; 9.222), suggesting a temple scene wherein the faithful congregation might be chanting the nembutsu (“Namu Amida Butsu”), the Pure Land prayer invoking the name of Amida Buddha and celebrating his “causal vow” to save sentient beings. Or, as R. H. Blyth visualizes the scene, a priest might be preaching a sermon before an image of Amida (2.552). Either way, the haiku’s prescript evokes a religious setting in which a butterfly clings to a vase, and the poet asks, “Does it hear the Great News too?”
The poem happens to be a revision of an earlier piece:

aka tana ni cho mo kikuka yo ichi daiji

on the red shelf
does the butterfly also hear
Buddha’s promise?

In the original version, the butterfly rests on a red shelf, a shrine that contains an image of the Buddha along with offerings such as water and flowers (Issa zenshu 2.426, note 3). Without intent or calculation, it has landed in the lap of Buddha’s mercy. The question in the haiku is purely rhetorical-for Issa. Of course the butterfly hears Buddha’s promise!
Wittgenstein showed a long time ago that language never occurs in a vacuum but always as part of human activity or “a form of life” (11). To participate in a language game-haiku, sonnet, limerick, novel-one must learn its rules. One must never play badminton as if it were tennis. “Haiku Priest Issa” creates an enlightened poetry that describes not an escape from the world, but an escape into it. According to Shinran, the founder of Issa’s sect, once one has reached enlightenment, he or she returns to this world of suffering as a new bodhisattva-a living saint-with the loving purpose of awakening others still trapped in their self-made hells of craving, paranoia, and hopeless calculation.  Issa urges us to trust simply and utterly in the saving grace of Amida: to sit quietly with eyes and ears open-like an unblinking frog or a frozen butterfly. We must pay attention to what silence is telling us.
Critical commentary would have been superfluous for Issa’s original readers, but I think it’s essential today. The translator of haiku, like it or not, must also become a critic, revealing cultural contexts and linguistic rules of game that Issa and other masters would have taken for granted. As a critic, the ultimate goal is to become useless. Once a reader grasps the key concepts that shape haiku, he or she can throw out the notes and enjoy each poem, one breath at a time, on its own terms.


Blyth, R. H.  Haiku. Tokyo: Hokuseido, 1949-1952; rpt. 1981-1982 [reset paperback edition].  4 vols.

Issa (Kobayashi Issa). Issa zenshu.  Nagano: Shinano Mainichi Shimbunsha, 1976-1979.  9 vols.

Murata Shocho. Haikai-ji Issa no geijutsu. Shimonoseki: Genshashin, 1969.

Titus-Carmel, Joan. Issa: Haiku.  Vendome: Éditions Verdier, 1994.

Kaneko Tohta. Issa kushu. Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 1983; rpt.1984.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophical Investigations. Tran. G. E. M. Anscombe. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1953.

Read: Confessions of a Translator -Episode 1  – Volume 1- Issue 1;  May 2001 

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