Confessions of a Haiku Translator 3

Vol 1-3, November 2001

  WHCessay – David G. Lanoue

Confessions of a Haiku Translator: Episode 3

A Little Help From My Friends
David G. Lanoue
Louisiana, USA

In his novel, Snow Country (Yukiguni), Yasunari Kawabata’s protagonist, Mr. Shimamura, has a strange hobby. Though he has never in his life attended a Western ballet, he decides to start doing research on this art form. He begins a long, laborious study of ballet without ever attempting or even wanting actually to see one; he collects photographs, foreign books, programs, posters…and on this basis alone starts to write about Western ballet. Kawabata notes wryly.

Nothing could be more comfortable than writing about the ballet from books. A ballet he had never seen was an art in another world. It was unrivaled armchair reverie, a lyric from some paradise. He called his work research, but it was actually free, uncontrolled fantasy. (25)

As a Westerner who has taken upon himself the study and translation of Japanese haiku, I find myself in an embarrassingly similar position to that of the absurd Mr. Shimamura. Sitting at my desk with my dog-eared dictionaries and nine volumes of Issa’s collected works, I have wondered from time to time: Are my translations and proclamations mere “armchair reverie” and “uncontrolled fantasy”? After all, I wasn’t born in Japan; I’m not a native speaker. Much of Japan’s culture lies beyond my experience and grasp, no matter how many dictionaries I consult or summers I spend traveling there. How, then, can I translate with confidence the words of a poet like Issa–words packed with rich cultural resonances of the sort that non-Japanese readers on their own simply can’t “get”?

I used to think I could do it alone, but my Shimamura days are over. Thank God I have friends!

Some of these friends I have not physically met. During my visits to Japan, I’ve made it a ritual to buy every book about Issa that I can lay my hands on. In these books, simple footnotes or passing comments by Japanese scholars can bring crystal clarity to otherwise fuzzy, obscure, or opaque haiku. For example, a few months ago I translated this one by Issa:

binzuru no me bakari hikaru kesa no yuki

Binzuru’s eyes

glittering…

this morning’s snow

Obviously, this meant something to Issa and to his audience, but what? Who is this Binzuru person? Why are his/her eyes glittering? Without a contextual understanding of Binzuru, the haiku falls flat. For an answer, I turned to my pile of books. Two of them proved to be helpful. Maruyama Kazuhiko comments that Binzuru is a Buddhist saint, one of the “16 Enlightened Ones.” Folk custom dictates that if one prayerfully rubs his image, he or she will recover from illness (223, note 1169). Another Japanese scholar, Yoshida Miwako, says this about the haiku: inside a dark temple, votive lamps darken Binzuru’s image with soot, but his glass eyes still glitter. It’s a pitiful feeling, Yoshida adds, those lonely, glittering eyes in the gloom (186). On this gray winter day, then, the first big snow of the year twinkles much like Saint Binzuru’s eyes. Armed with this information, I emended my translation thusly:

binzuru no me bakari hikaru kesa no yuki

like Saint Binzuru’s

eyes glittering…

this morning’s snow

More aggravating than allusions to obscure saints, sometimes a haiku can seem a garbled mess even when its individual words are plainly understood, as in this example:

hana-geshi no fuwakku yô na maeba kana

the poppy looks

past forty…

front teeth

The words lie on the page lifelessly. What on earth does the poppy looking “past forty” have to do with “front teeth”? Again, I turned to Yoshida for an answer. When Issa wrote this haiku in 1812, he was 50. Yoshida believes that the poem alludes to the poet’s own aging process, including the loss of teeth (188). The poppy, with petals missing, looks old and bedraggled. Based on Yoshida’s commentary, I emended my translation:

hana-geshi no fuwakku yô na maeba kana

the poppy looks

past forty…

missing teeth

Here’s another case where a merely literal translation appears meaningless:

ikubaku no hito no abura yo ine no hana

how many people’s

oil!

rice blossoms

What does “oil” have to do with a rice field laden with blossoming heads of grain? According to Maruyama, “oil” (abura) is used as a euphemism for labor and its results (314, note 1691). As Issa gazes upon the rice field ready for harvest, he is reminded of all the hard work, all year, that went into it. Thanks to my good friend Maruyama, I accordingly revised:

ikubaku no hito no abura yo ine no hana

how many people

sweated and toiled!

rice blossoms

Sometimes Japanese scholars have helped me directly. Last summer I visited the Shiki Museum in Matsuyama. Its president, Hasegawa Takashi, was kind enough to meet with me and exchange views on Issa. He showed me this early poem by Issa written in 1795, when the poet toured the island of Shikoku and Matsuyama:

ne-koronde chô tomaraseru soto yu kana

lying down

with a visiting butterfly…

outdoors hotspring

This poem has the prescript, “Aiming for Dogo Hot Spring.” Mr. Hasegawa explained: the hot spring Issa enjoyed that day was an open air pool of overflow water to the west of Dogo Spa in Matsuyama. Issa didn’t realize that the pool was intended for horses and cows, not people. Without Mr. Hasegawa’s helpful comments, I would not have grasped the humor of Issa’s situation: the blithely unaware out-of-towner soaking in cow water. This is the kind of “being there,” contextual humor not found in the haiku itself or in its prescript. Thanks to Mr. Hasegawa, I have added this poem to my online archive along with an explanatory note, crediting his help.

Last summer I met another Japanese scholar, Kobori Hiroshi–a quiet, gentle man who shares my passion for Issa. Hiroshi-san has assisted me with several translations and annotations, for which I give due credit on my website. For instance, this haiku made absolutely no sense to me until Hiroshi stepped in to help:

sena misei sakubei-dana no ume danbee

It has the prescript, “Kasai speech,” an eastern dialect of Japanese spoken in the region between the Nakagawa and Edogawa rivers. In this dialect, according to Hiroshi, sena means “older brother” and danbee is the equivalent of de arou (“I guess”). With this information, I managed my own English version:

sena misei sakubei-dana no ume danbee

brother, look!

Sakubei’s shop has

plums

Hiroshi also brought to my attention, and lent a hand with, this one:

tabi-bito ya no ni sashite yuku nagare nae

the traveler fixes

the farmer’s floating

rice stalks

As we rode the train from Nara to Kyoto one rainy afternoon, he described how he visualized the scene: a traveler, walking along, notices rice stalks floating loosely in a flooded field. In an act of spontaneous kindness, he stops to stick them back into the mud so that they can grow. Issa uses the word no (field) instead of ta (rice field) because the mention of nae (rice stalk) already plainly indicates that it is a rice paddy. To use both ta and nae in the haiku would be “too much,” Hiroshi said with a smile.

Without the insights of my Japanese comrades in their books, email messages, and in face-to-face conversations, my understanding of Issa would much spottier. I have said this in an earlier installment of this series, but it bears repeating: the Internet with its interactivity provides an especially powerful tool for scholars and readers of haiku to come together and collaborate. Because you, dear reader, are “out there”–checking my work, questioning, challenging, sharing–I trust that together we will achieve something more substantial than Kawabata’s nutty ballet “expert” in his lonely study. For that, I am grateful.


Works Cited

Kawabata Yasunari. Snow Country, Tran. Edward G. Seidensticker. New York: Perigee, 1981.

Kobayashi Issa, Tran. David G. Lanoue. http://webusers.xula.edu/dlanoue/issa/

Maruyama Kazuhiko, Issa haiku shû),  Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 1990; rpt. 1993.

Yoshida Miwako (Issa burai. Nagano): Shinano Mainichi Shimbunsha, 1996.


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. New to the site are a “Random Haiku” button for reading Issa’s poetry, and also a “Flash Search” program in which you can view the haiku in the archive while a nature scene slowly changes colors–according to each poem’s season. This function was designed by David’s son, Bryan Godfrey-Lanoue.

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 had published his original haiku, translations, and haiku-related essays in various magazines and anthologies. He conducted research in Japan from 1987 – 1988. Read more about David at his website, but first, enjoy the third episode in his essay series, Confessions of a Translator!


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

Read: Confessions of a Translator – Episode 2 – Volume 1 – Issue 2; August 2001

Visit David G. Lanoue’s website: The Haiku of Kobayashi Issa


Works Cited

Kawabata Yasunari. Snow Country, Tran. Edward G. Seidensticker. New York: Perigee, 1981.

Kobayashi Issa, Tran. David G. Lanoue. http://webusers.xula.edu/dlanoue/issa

Maruyama Kazuhiko, Issa haiku shû),  Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 1990; rpt. 1993.

Yoshida Miwako (Issa burai. Nagano): Shinano Mainichi Shimbunsha, 1996.


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. New to the site are a “Random Haiku” button for reading Issa’s poetry, and also a “Flash Search” program in which you can view the haiku in the archive while a nature scene slowly changes colors–according to each poem’s season. This function was designed by David’s son, Bryan Godfrey-Lanoue.

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 had published his original haiku, translations, and haiku-related essays in various magazines and anthologies. He conducted research in Japan from 1987 – 1988. Read more about David at his website, but first, enjoy the third episode in his essay series, Confessions of a Translator!


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

Read: Confessions of a Translator – Episode 2 – Volume 1 – Issue 2; August 2001

Visit David G. Lanoue’s website: The Haiku of Kobayashi Issa

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