The Essential Haiku: Versions of Basho, Buson, and Issa / Sun under Wood

By Rathmann, Andrew | Chicago Review, Winter 1997 | Go to article overview

The Essential Haiku: Versions of Basho, Buson, and Issa / Sun under Wood


Rathmann, Andrew, Chicago Review


The Essential Haiku: Versions of Basho, Buson, and Issa. Ed. and trans. by Robert Hass. Hopewell, N.J.: The Ecco Press, 1994.

Robert Hass. Sun Under Wood. Hopewell, N.J.: The Ecco Press, 1996.

By strict count, Sun Under Wood is Robert Hass's fourth book of poetry. The translations in The Essential Haiku: Versions of Basho, Busan, and Issa, however, must by anyone's standard be considered remarkable poetic achievements in themselves, comparable-in terms of sheer written fluency-to the best poems in his three previous books: Field Guide (1973), Praise (1979), and Human Wishes (1989):

it's not like anything they compare it to the summer moon. (23)

Critics say it is difficult to judge the quality of English verse translation when one doesn't know the original language. This is a potentially arrogant statement, since it verges on implying that the same critics have no trouble at all grasping the particular accomplishments of works in their own language-always a questionable assumption. Be that as it may, it is true that when the original text is not in a European language, then the question of accuracy becomes pressing, because dictionaries are unlikely to provide Western speakers enough guidance with regard to syntax and the overall sense of a given text. Hass, who speaks no Japanese, addresses this familiar issue in the book's notes; one can only assume that his "versions" are accurate (and he is generous in citing the opinions of leading specialists in Japanese literature). Certainly some of the poems are so simple that their originals must be difficult to misconstrue:

Lighting one candle with another candle -spring evening. (85)

Accuracy aside, reading many of the haiku, one hears that Hass has managed to utter the words of long-dead poets in his own, characteristically amiable tone:

New Year's Dayeverything is in blossom! I feel about average. (153)

To appropriate a poem in this way is, paradoxically, the only means a translator has of restoring to it a distinctive voice. Otherwise his or her version will sound merely "literal," as though a dictionary were speaking. There is a poem by the great 17th-century Japanese, Basho, for example, whose literal English translation, according to Hass, runs: "I feel sorrow (uki) / make me feel loneliness (sabishi) or solitariness / cuckoo!" (260). What to make of that? In Hass's finished version, we read:

Not this human sadness, cuckoo, bUt your solitary cry. (31)

I suspect that Keats's "Ode to a Nightingale" was somewhere in the vicinity of Hass's conscious mind as he worked on this translation. It is hard to say which poem is more affecting.

The Essential Haiku makes clear that Hass's own most characteristic concerns as a poet derive as much from his interest in Buddhist art and culture as they do from his wide-ranging knowledge of Western literary, religious, and scientific traditions. For a California poet of Hass's generation-particularly one with strong roots in the Bay Area-this is perhaps an unsurprising convergence of influences. It is to Hass's credit, however, that in his commentary on the translations he resists a facile reconciliation of Buddhist and Western religious worldviews under some more encompassing rubric of contemporary, multicultural "spirituality." One surmises that American readers of shopping-mall-marketed Buddhist poetry would be attracted to such a reconciliation, but Hass instead presents a lucid, toughminded, and serious commentary on cultural and artistic dissimilarities. In the Introduction, he points out that motifs that are common both to Japanese and English poets nonetheless presume quite different worldviews:

Though the melancholy of autumn is as traditional an experience in European poetry as it is Japanese, it is not fundamentally assimilated into the European system of thought. English poets had a word for these feelings, they called them "moods. …

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