Musings on Buson

Landscape, ca. 1870
(Ink and light color on paper,
124.5 x 53.3 cm)
BY Yosa Buson
Brooklyn Museum

Translator’s Note

It’s easy to get seduced by brushed concrete or polished wood. I do it all the time. I walk down a certain street and see a new restaurant with shiny chrome and clean surfaces, and like a magnet it draws me toward the door. But after I’ve finished my frilly salad and poached salmon and cappuccino with its bunny face imprinted in the foam, I often as not go away unfulfilled. It’s the homey, hole-in-the-wall places, the ones with chipped table edges and battered serving trays, with their conviviality, sense of history, and good home cooking that keep me coming back.

Haiku cannot be read ahistorically and should really not be viewed simply as vignettes.

Haiku in translation can be as equally seductive as those polished places. Sometimes I see a fine-looking specimen, all of its articles and punctuation and capital letters stripped out, and I want to hold it in my hand like the little bauble that it is and run my fingers over its perfect surface.

But later, when I look at the source haiku, I see that something is missing, some essential emotional bit has been lost. Now I realize that it’s almost an inevitability when translating to lose something — but it should never be the meat. For my own translations, what must usually be scrapped is the 5-7-5 syllable count and — and this is a far greater loss — the repeated sound patterns. These ka-ki-ku-ke-ko kinds of sounds are almost always impossible to recreate in English without saddling the haiku with distortions in meaning. (In the haiku below about the autumn wind, the words of the haiku in the original sound like the song of a howling or buffeting wind. In English there is no such feeling.)

I think we sometimes get a false sense of what haiku is in translation. Some polished bauble translations are quite good as far as they go — but for me they don’t go far enough, and don’t acknowledge the original’s sharp edges and reflective surfaces. Rather they are an understandable reaction to certain “poetic” translations from the middle of the last century which added filler and fluff in order to achieve certain rhymes or meters, or subtracted some essential meaning to preserve syllable count.

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