As many of you are surely aware, a chap by the name of Matsuo Basho is widely considered to be one of Japan’s greatest poets, and, in particular, a master of the haiku. Getting above myself somewhat, I’ve recently been reading some of his work.
You see, on wandering around the Internet I stumbled upon a publication in which Basho’s haiku poems have been translated into English and I began to read through them. They are the perfect literary form for the Internet generation, being so short that you needn’t concentrate very long to read one. I read one after another and I realised a couple of things. The first was that I quite like them; they are nice; they convey an image or tell a small tale in very few words. Take this, for example:
Chilling autumn rains
curtain Mount Fuji, then make it
more beautiful to see
I like this because it is beautifully simple yet perfect, for nothing is surer than the fact that after a good rainfall on a chilly day down on the ground, Mount Fuji will soon appear in a blue sky blessed with a fresh crown of snow. The miserable weather allows her to touch up her make-up.
But the other thing I realised when reading Basho’s work was that I am missing something. Or at least, I think I am. I know the vagaries of translation can play their part in the impact of a piece, but still, there are times when I have to wonder why something is considered to be so wonderful. One such haiku, so revered, is perhaps Basho’s most famous creation. You know the one – the one about the frog and the old pond.
In Japanese it reads:
Furu ike ya
mizu no oto
You see, when I read that I begin to feel my ignorance. I can’t help but think I must be missing something. There must be some subtleties in the Japanese choice of words that escape me, and which continue to escape me no matter which of the myriad English translations I choose to read.
The esteemed Japan scholar Donald Keene has translated it fairly straightforwardly thus:
The ancient pond
A frog leaps in
The sound of the water.
I mean, it is nice. It does convey an image. But I’m still not sure why it is the genius everybody seems to say it is. And it doesn’t get any easier to appreciate when reading other translations. Allen Ginsberg’s effort is,
The old pond
A frog jumped in,
while, that of philosopher and writer Alan Watts is,
The old pond,
A frog jumps in:
Now, at the risk of being scoffed at by intellectuals, let me tell you something. I am quite certain that if I ever came running out of my study, pen in hand, sweat on brow and demanded, ‘Stop what you are doing and listen! I’ve done it!’ and then proudly said, ‘The old pond, a frog jumps in: Plop’ nobody would put down a cup of tea, stare at me in open-mouthed awe for a moment, and declare ‘By jove! You, sir, are a poetic genius.’ Even were I to give a delicious enunciation to the word ‘Plop’ that reaction would seem unlikely.
Now, some have apparently said that it is the very fact that Basho focused on the sound of water, not the sound of a croak that lends his work its majesty, but is a plop that much more intriguing than a croak? Were his readers chuckling at his genius, muttering, ‘I so thought that would be a ribbit!’?
Who knows? As I said, I like it, but perhaps it reveals more about my character that this one speaks much more to me personally:
but while the cherries bloom,
what of it?
Indeed. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I think I shall try and compose my own, for the cicadas are humming and the beer bottle is sweating and that seems like a splendid combination for a summer effort.