Rashomon for Basho


So, how does one translate Japanese poetry. In the column to the left there is a link to Basho's most famous work variously translated Narrow Road to the Deep North or Narrow Road to Oku. I have selected stop 26 on the journey to look at the translations offered of a single haiku.

Station 26 - Ryushakuji

[translation by Nobuyuki Yuasa]

In the utter silence
Of a temple,
A cicada's voice alone
Penetrates the rocks.

[translation by Dorothy Britton]
In this hush profound,
Into the very rocks it seeps -
The cicada sound.

[translation by Cid Corman and Kamaike Susume]
into rock absorbing
cicada sounds

[translation by Helen Craig McCullough]
shizukesa ya Ah, tranquility!
iwa ni shimiiru Penetrating the very rock,
semi no keo a cicada's voice.

[translation by Helen Craig McCullough]
In seclusion, silence.
Shrilling into the mountain boulder,
The cicada's rasp.

You can see that all five give us a sense of the main elements--the quiet or stillness, the cicada's voice (which by the way, if it's anything like the cicadas I've heard precludes any sense whatsoever of quiet) and some sort of rock. In the first translation, the translator introduces the notion of a temple which is nowhere present elsewhere, Britton gives us rocks rather than rock, McCullough gives us a mountain boulder.

The difficulty of most haiku is that the fourteen syllables of the poem may never be united. They may remain fourteen syllables that have little relations to one another. For example, it might be like saying in English,

clock dripping water deathwatch beetle Huxley's surprise

It is up to the translator to have these seemingly random elements make sense. Britton chooses to do so through rhyme, Korman and Susume seem to wish to give the closest sense of the original, in doing so it is the sparest and probably least appealing to American ears.

Which translation do you prefer and why?

(Tip for homeschoolers seeking to inject some diversity of culture--this is one of the most famous and most translated books of Japanese Poetry available. In addition, it is a rather interesting travelogue. With some of the prints of Hokusai illustrating some of the places referred to in Basho, this can make a pretty neat lesson. In addition, Hokusai has some very appealing prints of things like cat and butterfly. His masterpiece--One-Hundred Views of Mount Fuji includes one of the most often reprinted images--"The Great Wave of Kanagawa." Finally, the haiku, like the diamante is kind of a school-figure for the writing of poetry. Most kids enjoy them and most adults can help guide them. This book gives a sense of how profound and beautiful a haiku can be.

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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on November 16, 2002 8:43 AM.

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