Whenever I have to bang out a bunch of haiku, I like to read from the masters for inspiration. I’ve been avoiding translations which I suspect to be very good, such as Robert Hass’ The Essential Haiku, because I’m afraid they will make me lazy. The best way to read Japanese haiku, as far as I’m concerned, is with the aid of a literal English translation by someone like Harold G. Henderson or R. H. Blyth, so I’ll be forced to refer to the Japanese text and, if present, the syllable-by-syllable interpretation. I’ve forgotten most of the Japanese I studied in college, but at least I remember the basics, such as how the grammar works and how to use a kanji dictionary. Attempting to translate poetry is one of the best ways I know to fully engage with it. Today I thought I’d preserve not just my attempts, but also some of the thoughts that got me there.
Yosa Buson (1716-1783) is generally considered one of the four greatest writers of what we now call haiku (the others being Basho, Issa, and Shiki), and he was a brilliant painter and sketch artist to boot. Though ambiguity has always been prized in Japanese poetry, Buson took it to the limit in some of his haiku. Others, of course, are entirely straightforward. Here are a few of each.
Nashi no hana tsuki no fumiyomu onna ari
The blossoming pear—
a woman reads a letter
in the moonlight.
Is it live, or is it metaphor? Other translators tend to make this a bit more instrumental and say “by moonlight,” but the grammatical structure suggests that letter-reading woman is to moon as blossom is to pear tree.
Shigi tôku kuwa sugusu mizu no uneri kana
A distant snipe.
Rinsing off the hoe,
how the water quakes!
The association here may be with the circling, diving courtship display of a common snipe (Gallinago gallinago) at dusk, or simply its zig-zag flight when flushed. The verb uneru means to undulate, meander, surge, swell, roll, etc.
Kura narabu ura wa tsubame no kayoi michi
Behind the warehouse row,
a road busy with the back-and-forth
of barn swallows.
This is Hirundo rustica gutturalis, a different subspecies but substantially the same bird familiar to Europeans and North Americans.
Yado kase to katan nage dasu fubuki kana
“A night’s lodging!”
and the sword thrown down—
a gust of snow.
Buson really makes the little words work hard. The Japanese particle to attributes the opening phrase to someone — we’re left to imagine who — while at the same time introducing the down-thrown-sword gust of snow.
Me ni ureshi koi gimi no sen mashiro nari
As utterly blank as it is,
I can’t stop looking
at my lover’s fan.
The archaic mashiro means “pure white,” but the contrast with the norm — brightly painted fans — is clearly in play here. And though we might not share the premodern Japanese attraction to pure white skin, our fashion photography suggests we still understand the sexiness of a blank expression.
Enma-Ô no kuchi ya botan o hakan to su
The King of Hell’s mouth:
peony petals ready
to be spat out.
The King of Hell in popular East Asian Buddhist iconography is always shown with an angry, open mouth. Is Buson looking at a statue of Enma-Ô and imagining a peony, or vice versa? I picture an aged, pink peony blossom in a state of partial collapse.
Kujira ochite iyo-iyo takaki o age kana
The diving whale—
how its tail keeps going
Iyo-iyo means both “increasingly” and “at last.” There’s probably a better way of conveying that dual sense in English than what I’ve gone with here.
Kari yoroi ware ni najimaru samusa kana
Fitting the borrowed
armor to my body—
Christ it’s cold!
The last line is not, of course, a literal translation of samusa kana, but in modern colloquial American English, it’s hard to imagine exclaiming about the cold without deploying at least a mild curse.
Sakura chiru nawashiro mizu ya hoshizuki yo
in the rice-seedling water,
moon and stars.
Another conjunction that’s not entirely a metaphor, but could be if you wanted.
Ichi gyô no kari ya hayama ni tsuki o in su
All in one line, the wild geese,
and the moon in the foothills
for a seal.
Nature as calligraphic painting.
Asa giri ya e ni kaku yume no hito dôri
the road full of people from
a painter’s dream.
Fog, mist, haze: the East Asian landscape painter’s way of collapsing time and distance.
Tsurigane ni tomarite nemuru kochô kana
On the temple’s
a butterfly sleeps.
“Bell” is of course entirely inadequate. The English word conjures up a clanging or tolling thing with a clapper, nothing like the booming bronze behemoth meant here. Tomarite — “stopping,” “lodging” — seems redundant in translation.
This butterfly is the Buson equivalent of Basho’s ancient ponderous frog. So many interpretations, so much weighty critical analysis! How can it possibly sleep?
Utsutsu naki tsumami gokoro no kochô kana
Not quite real,
this sensation of pinching—
This haiku is notoriously hard to pin down: is the sensation one that a human feels, holding a butterfly by the wings, or is it — as the grammar seems to suggest — the butterfly who feels this not-quite-real sensation? Personally, I favor a third view: that the sensation is the experience of a human on whose finger a butterfly has landed. Butterflies can cling quite tightly — I don’t think it would be a stretch to use the verb tsumamu for that — and when they then begin to mine the grooves in your finger for salt with their long proboscis, the sensation is very strange indeed.
Asa kaze no ka o fukimiyoru kemushi kana
play in the hair
of a caterpillar.
As with the temple-bell butterfly haiku, there’s an extra verb here (miyoru, “can be seen”) that really doesn’t need to be translated. Even without it, the poem is all about perspective.
Kin byô no usu mono wa dare ka aki no kaze
Whose thin clothes
still decorate the gold screen?
Painted on the screen, one wonders, or draped over it? I think this is another haiku that merges world and painting. Autumn wind typically conveys loneliness in Japanese poetry.
Shira ume ni akuru yo bakari to nari ni keri
(final deathbed poem)
The night almost past,
through the white plum blossoms
a glimpse of dawn.
Buson in fact died before dawn, so this glimpse, too, is an artist’s vision, poised between dream and metaphor.