The Ultimate Gift

November 2001

 WHC Celebrations – Shiki Masaoka Centenary

WHC Translation Project of Haiku Poems by Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902)
Part 2

Masaoka Shiki Haiku Poems: Project (2)

The Ultimate Gift – ototoi no hechima no mizu mo torazariki
On-line Joint Translation Project of Masaoka Shiki Haiku Poems

Compiled and Edited by John E. Carley
Pennines, UK

If the first translation project ended with pleasant peregrinations in the land of persimmons, it seemed unlikely that the second would. On the 26th of June 2001, Susumu Takiguchi posted a new proposal: the group might like to examine one of the famous ‘Death Haiku’, Shiki’s third, and last:

ototoi no hechima no mizu mo torazariki

Masaoka Shiki, 18/09/1902

ototoi -the day before yesterday   no -possessive particle   hechima – gourd   no – possessive particle   mizu – water   mo – too, also   torazariki – did not collect/gather
since the day
before yesterday, not even gourd water
has been collected

(Version by Sususmu Takiguchi) (1)

they didn’t gather
gourd water
day before yesterday either

(translation by Janine Beichman) (2)

Read Shiki Essay #3: The Moment When Shiki Breathed His Last
Susumu Takiguchi

The importance of cultural context had been noted in the earlier project: how was the bell struck; how might persimmons be prepared for a respected guest? Here there could be little doubt that an understanding of ‘gourd water’ would be crucial. But what exactly was ‘hechima no mizu’, and why was it so important to the poet?

A direct quote from Hoffmann’s Japanese Death Poems (3) was posted:

” – The poems given here are the last Shiki wrote. All three contain references to the loofah (hechima), a climbing vine with various practical uses. Loofah sap (hechima no mizu, lit. ‘loofah water’ is taken as a cough remedy, and it was given for this reason to tuberculosis patients. The sap is customarily pressed from the stalks on the fifteenth of the ninth month so we can tell that the third poem was written two days before the poet’s death. Shiki, knowing that medicine will be of no avail, does not bother to take it. ”

Those of a forensic disposition will already have noted a discrepancy here. The medicinal sap, according to Hoffmann, would normally have been collected on the fifteenth of September, which was – according to the poem –  ‘the day before yesterday’. So the poem was written on the seventeenth. Yet the attribution supplied by Susumu Takiguchi, as reproduced above, was the eighteenth. Why?

Equal measures of mystification and enlightenment were also on offer, this time from Blyth, quoted from Haiku, Volume 4 (4):

” – three death poems which Shiki wrote on his death-bed. Just at this time, the 19th of September, 1902, a snake-gourd was in bloom. The juice of this plant is used for stopping the formation of phlegm, and this is the painful relation between him and the flowers.”

Confirmation then, of the nature of the medication, and an alternative name for the plant: ‘snake gourd’. The date given – the 19th – is intended in a generic sense, and is that of Shiki’s death. But what of the ‘painful relationship’? Shiki’s three death poems, as found in Hoffmann’s translation, were posted for examination as a set:

“(1) Hechima saite tan no tsumarishi hotoke kana

The loofah blooms and
I, full of phlegm,
become a Buddha.

(2) Tan itto hechima no mizu mo ma ni awazu

A barrelful of phlegm–
even loofah water
will not avail me now.

(3) ototoi no hechima no mizu mo torazariki

Loofah water
from two days ago
left still untouched.

(translations byHoffmann, Japanese Death Poems) (3)
Clearly, Shiki did indeed consider there to be a relationship between the loofah and himself. The precise nature of that relationship though was not so immediately apparent. A commentary from Noboyuki Yuasa (5) referring to the first of the three poems was posted for consideration:

“Shiki died of tuberculosis at the age of thirty-six. He had been using the juice of the snake gourd as a cure for coughing, but in his last days, he became too weak to take it any longer. So the snake gourd flourished and bore some flowers. Shiki’s respiratory problems worsened until he realized that he had become virtually a dead man. What is amazing about this poem is that Shiki describes his own impending death with a touch of humour.

And Yuasa in turn goes on to quote Shiki himself on the subject of death – this from the previous year, 1901, when the poet would have been fully aware of his own, inevitable, extremity:

” . . . There are two different ways of thinking about death: subjective and objective . . . The subjective feeling is terrible, painful, sorrowful, so hateful that you cannot bear it even for a moment. The objective feeling, however, sees death with perfect indifference, so that in spite of some degree of sorrow and misery, it provokes laughter, and one finds oneself smiling from time to time.”        (5)
Laughter in the face of death? Perhaps not, for such might seem undignified, but Yuasa is clear: there is, at least in the first of the three poems, ‘a touch of humour’. Might this ‘smile’ also underpin some part of the third and final poem?
Eiko Yachimoto was also aware of the need to see the poem in its sequence of the three, and had prepared a snap draft of all three. First though she wanted to comment on tone, her words echoing those of Yuasa.

“What captures me most is Shiki’s witty, pleasant , likeable soul at the moment of his death. He meant to make the last verse […] to show the integrity and self-control in the crucial moment. […] Three verses [that] report to us ‘the flow of consciousness
our loofah is blooming
here’s a dead man
totally clogged with phlegm

a barrel of phlegm
way beyond
what loofah water can do”

And, for the final poem:

the loofah water
from even two days before
was not collected

(versions by Eiko Yachimoto)

Commenting on the last line, Eiko noted that ‘torazariki’ is not modern Japanese and that ‘ki’ is a very strong auxiliary verb to indicate the past tense. She was minded to reconsider the merits of the idea ‘since’ used by Susumu in his initial draft.

It was clear to all concerned that something was missing. Perhaps if we examined Shiki’s domestic circumstances…Eiko Yachimoto:

“His mother, his younger sister (Ritsu) and his young disciple-like friends, Kyoshi and Hekigotoo were in charge of watching Shiki […] For nearly 7 years of his futon-ridden days Ritsu had worked as his nurse, cook, secretary, laundry woman, go-foer and everything else. […]  When Shiki became critically ill, the routine naturally must have changed. In regular days forgetting this chore of loofah water collection must have been unthinkable.”

If the loofah water wasn’t being collected for several days in a row, was did Shiki mean that it was not collected specifically on the 15th, or that there was a better time for its gathering?

The present author had something to say about that; well, two things, actually:

“it seems to me the word “ototoi” is crucial here […] the literal equivalent, ‘the day before yesterday’, is […] innately graceless. Be that as it may, ‘ototoi’ seems a pretty specific observation in any language”

And, on the puzzling question of ‘mo’:

“I note that Susumu treats the element ‘mo’ as the temporal comparative ‘since’. Eiko employs the word ‘even’ as an alternative temporal comparative. Janine Beichman’s use of the word ‘either’ can be construed as a temporal or a substantive comparative, the same being true, depending on context, of ‘also’ and ‘too’ (supplied by Susumu in the notes).”

Lots of words, as usual, and the point?

”So, is Shiki using ‘mo’ as a substantive comparative, the true comparison/juxtaposition of the poem being between two things: the medicine and the sufferer? If so there’s a rather fine dark irony – the poet wondering, disapprovingly, why he’s still there.

two days on….and the loofah water
………….still…remains ungathered

(version by John Carley)
In dealing with the earlier poem – Horyuji (6) – Dina E. Cox had used the memorable phrase: ‘augmented by the ambiguities of translation’. Now Eiko Yachimoto had a similar observation to make:
” we can not ask him whether or not he was talking of the particular loofah water taken on the full moon. Most likely he did. Would we want, however, the translation to remain open-ended in terms of interpretation as the Japanese original?”
Eiko had already remarked on the fact that ‘ki’ was not modern usage; she had been researching:

“Another thing I looked up is my ‘old Japanese dictionary’. […] ki——used when expressing the direct experience in rather spontaneous or emotional way [therefore] There is no written subject in this haiku and yet this is clearly written in active mode, not passive.”

And, on the subject of ‘mo’

“The little word ‘mo’ is quite powerful to show the speaker’s tone, here we sense the emphasis [a] very literal translation is:

The day before yesterday’s (5) ototoi no
loofah’s water either (7) hechima no mizu mo
(no subject) did not gather! (5) torazariki

I know this does not make an English verse. How do you see the following though?

two days!
we did not gather
the loofah water”

(versions by Eiko Yachiimoto)
In this new literal translation Eiko had given ‘mo’ as ‘either’. On that point James Karkoski was in complete agreement.
“No matter what context ‘mo’ is used in Japanese, it translates into either ‘also’, ‘as well as’, or ‘too’ in English […] If you take any of the translations above and change the modifier in them to ‘too’, ‘as well’,  or ‘also’ you’ll get a reading close to the Japanese. Of course, it changes the haiku into being something which isn’t really like what we are accustomed to. For now it really isn’t an image, nor is it a direct statement that isn’t colored with any ‘poetry’. Rather, there is something going on because we now have to decide what exactly the thing implied by ‘too’ is.

“If Shiki was taking ‘loofah water’, which clears up phlegm, then we know that he was having problems with it. And if he hasn’t taken the water since the day before yesterday, then he was pretty stuffed up. And, if his condition is at the point where he can’t ingest the water anymore, then the end is near. Of course, like any terminal patient who is at the point where the pain is such that it means death, then the sufferer wants to end the agony. Shiki knew the end was near and was waiting for it.

“But he had to wait two days before it came. So, Shiki was stuffed up like the loofah which he was taking medicine from. Because he wasn’t taking any water from them, the loofah gourds were full too. His spirit, like the loofah gourds, is waiting to be taken.”
From the day
before yesterday
the water from
the loofah gourd too;
neither has been taken.

(version by James Karkoski )

. . . this haiku is about him in a metaphorical relationship with the symbol of the loofah gourd which these three death haiku use.”
This proposition was strongly supported by this author: John Carley:

“My instinct leads me to support James’ contention […] Which being the case, an active voice in first, second or third person (I, we, they) has to be a misdirection – limiting the poem to a complaint about an unfulfilled task by persons known or unknown . Further, in channelling the poem in this one direction, the note of reproach becomes very dominant.”

Sheila Windsor:

“seeing the full gourds as a metaphor for the dying poet’s condition has been a welcome revelation.”

And Carmen Sterba:

“In my mind, you have found the missing element that gives it the depth that makes it a great haiku. As you say, it is both Shiki’s spirit and the loofah water that has not been gathered up in those last two days. The key word is ‘mo’. Let me choose the word ‘also’ to take its place in English, and try adding that to one of the other translations.”

two days on and the loofah water also remains ungathered
(version by Carmen Sterba)
Eiko Yachimoto too supported the adoption of ‘also’ or ‘either’, as well as posting a draft which proposed the emotive ‘alas, two days -‘ as the first line. In short, a large degree of consensus had been reached. At least in the reading of the poet’s intention.

But how to capture that in English? A series of exchanges followed, principally between James Karkoski and another member, which examined in very close detail the properties of ‘mo’ and ‘ki’ in particular, and the related question of differing juxtapositional techniques in Japanese and English in general.

Susumu Takiguchi posted his essay on the poet’s last days: a tender tribute and a vital source of accurate background material which appears elsewhere in this magazine. Reading Takiguchi there can be little doubt that Shiki bequeathed these three poems to us as a parting gift, the very conscious last act of an individual of impressive dignity and fortitude.

And reading the different interpretations, from translators both professional and occasional, another thing becomes clear, if every it were in doubt: Shiki was a writer of consummate skill. His poetry is rich and multiplex; no sooner is it dissected than it regenerates, and all the while shades of meaning are determined by the reader: a type of quantum aesthetics.

In this regard, of all the commentary that the Joint Translation Project has generated, two observations in particular stand out: ‘the ambiguities of translation’ – Dina E Cox, and: ‘open-ended as the Japanese original’ – Eiko Yachimoto. Which in turn suggests a solution to the mysterious ‘mo’: it doesn’t mean either, neither, too, also, even, as well or yet. It means all of them, depending on the mood of the reader as much as the poet.

So, dropping the spurious voice of reportage, I hope you will bear with me if I make an observation of my own before offering one final, personal, interpretation of the poem:

Reading back through these notes it will be seen that one, two, three and five line forms have been adopted by various authors for their draft translations. This is not the place to raise questions of which format might be ‘better’, or ‘more true’. But it can be observed that form and content are not entirely separate entities.

And my own final draft? Thanks are due to James for his comments on the metrical qualities of ‘no… no… mo’, and to the members who gave their extensive and fascinating analysis of how strongly and where the poem might employ kireji:
     the snake gourd sap…from two days back
……….is still left here…ungathered

(version by John Carley)

ototoi no hechima no mizu mo torazariki

Masaoka Shiki, 18/09/1902

The members’ versions:

since the day before yesterday,
not even gourd water
has been collected

(Version by Sususmu Takiguchi)

our loofah is blooming
here’s a dead man
totally clogged with phlegm

a barrel of phlegm
way beyond
what loofah water can do”

(3) two days!
we did not gather
the loofah water

literal version:

(4) the day before yesterday’s
loofah’s water either
did not gather

final  version:

(5) the loofah water
from even two days before
was not collected

(versions by Eiko Yachimoto)

two days on…and the loofah water
…………still…remains ungathered

final version:

the snake gourd sap…from two days back
…….is still left here…ungathered

(versions by John Carley)

From the day
before yesterday
the water from
the loofah gourd too;
neither has been taken.

(version by James Karkoski )


two days on.and the loofah water also remains ungathered

(version by Carmen Sterba)

(1) The Moment When Shiki Breathed His Last,  Susumu Takiguchi, World Haiku Review,
Volume 1, Issue 2, August 2001

(2) Masaoka Shiki, Jane Beichman, 1982, Boston, Twane Publishers, a division
of G.K. Hall & Co., ISBN 0-8057-6504-2.

(3) Japanese Death Poems, Written by Zen Monks and Haiku Poets on the Verge
of Death, Yoel Hoffman (Compiler), 1998, Tuttle Publishing, ISBN: 0804831793

(4) Haiku, Volume 4 (Autumn Winter), 8 R.H. Blyth, Tokyo, The Hokuseido Press.

(5) Laughter in Haiku, Noboyuki Yuasa, haijinx, Volume 1, Issue 1, Vernal Equinox
2001, reprinted from Rediscovering Basho – A 300th Anniversary Celebration,
Stephen Henry Gill & C. Andrew Gerstle ed., Global Oriental, 1999, ISBN

(6) Using Same Themes, a study of Shiki’s Haiku, and WHC Shiki Translation
Project 1, Susumu Takiguchi, World Haiku Review, Volume 1, Issue 1 May 2001.

Read Shiki Essay 1: Using Numbers in Haiku by Susumu Takiguchi

Read WHC Translation Project (Persimmons & Bells) by Susumu Takiguchi

Read Shiki Essay 2:  Using Same Themes (persimmons) by Susumu Takiguchi

Read Member Translation Project: Of Persimmons and Bells (persimmons)
Compiled & Edited by John E. Carley

Read Shiki Essay 3 : The Moment When Shiki Breathed His Last (death haiku) by Susumu Takiguchi

Read Member Translation Project: A Question of Interpretation (death haiku) Compiled & Edited by John E. Carley

Read Shiki Essay 4: Enquiring Mind and the Collapsing Body (snow haiku) by Susumu Takiguchi

Read Shiki Translation Project : The Ultimate Gift (snow haiku) Compiled & Edited by John E. Carley

  Read Member Project: Awe and Anxiety (snow haiku)
Compiled & Edited by John E. Carley



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1 Response to The Ultimate Gift

  1. Pingback: The Ultimate Gift | Rohini Gupta's Blog

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