Poetry Lost in Translation

To add or not to add? The challenge of translating for a Western audience.

In order to truly understand the power of Basho’s poetry, I believe we must first tackle issues of translation.  Perhaps translators such as Keene and Yuasa (who are quite well renowned in their own right so perhaps I’m shooting myself in the foot here) thought it necessary to elaborate imagery for western palatability. Let us take, for example, a very famous poem from Matsuo Basho’s Oku no Hosomichi. In order to convey the feeling of transience and mortality in his translation, Yuasa has painted a melancholic scene of lonesome darkness. The integrity and intimacy of the poem, I would argue however, is ruined. Makoto Ueda offers the following breakdown of the poem:

むざんやな甲の下のきりぎりす
muzan |ya|na|kabuto|no|shita|no|kirigirisu
piteous |!|!|helmet|’s|underside|’s|cricket

(Ueda, 265).

I am awe-struck
To hear a cricket singing
Underneath the dark cavity
Of an old helmet

(Yuasa, 134)

Yuasa’s superfluous descriptors, coupled with his take on the word muzan (cruelty, tragedy, misery)—“I am awestruck”—turns a humble and fleeting rumination into a sweeping blockbuster moment. The richness of the added imagery creates a tasteless rift between the text and the humble nature of his journey as a poor poet-monk. Basho’s imagery is consistently simple and nuanced; it need not be embellished. By describing the helmet as old, Yuasa negates the importance of the poem within the journal’s context. Basho prefaces the poem with a sad tale of heroic death. The oldness of the helmet is therefore is implied, just as the cricket’s presence implies its sound, and the word “underneath” implies darkness (the overly poetic phrase “the dark cavity of an old helmet” is nothing short of saccharine—this is how I might write prose with a glass of wine in my hand, but it is certainly not how Basho wrote his hokku on the back roads to far away places.) My point is this: Basho was not indulgent. That is the true power of his work. From this poem, in its humble brevity, sing themes of impermanence and mortality. If we take the term muzan for its feeling of tragedy, the reader instantly becomes connected to Basho’s words, for to be human is to know misery and to fear death. In this connection, Basho is able to lift the burden of mortality—or rather, lighten the darkness of death—by presenting a feeling that speaks to all mankind: A hero’s existence has long since faded (muzan! cruelty!) yet the world continues and the sun will rise again. The poem is a hopeful tragedy (a subtle one!); an oxymoron that perfectly embodies the Buddhist concept of transience and the cyclical nature of existence.


works cited

Bashō, Matsuo, The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches (Oku no
Hosomichi). Trans., Nobuyuki Yuasa. Penguin, 1972.

Ueda, Makoto, and Matsuo Bashō. Bashō and His Interpreters: Selected Hokku with
Commentary. Stanford UP, 1991.

© 2016 Devon Lois Duncan. All rights reserved.

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