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Volume 36.1
Spring 2005

book review:

Basho’s Haiku: Selected Poems of Matsuo Basho
translated and with an introduction by David Landis Barnhill

reviewed by Jon LaCure

Basho’s Haiku: Selected Poems of Matsuo Basho, translated and with an in-troduction by David Landis Barnhill (Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 2004). 331 pages; 5.5 x 8.75. ISBN 0-791461-65-3 $71.50 (hardcover); 0-791461-66-1 $23.95 (paper). Available from booksellers.

According to the back cover of this new translation of the poetry of Matsuo Bashô, this is the most comprehensive translation yet of Bashô’s haiku. The book contains translations of 724 poems. By contrast Makoto Ueda’s Bashô and His Interpreters has a little over 250 poems. Lucien Stryk’s On Love and Barley: Haiku of Basho has about the same number of poems as Ueda, as does Sam Hamill’s The Essential Bashô, reviewed in the winter-spring 2000 issue of Modern Haiku. There is also a two-volume translation titled Bashô’s Haiku by Toshiharu Oseko, distributed by Maruzen. I have not seen a copy, but it is my understanding that it claims to cover all of Bashô’s known haiku. Unfortunately, these volumes are not readily available in the United States.

The preface of Barnhill’s book mentions a companion volume to be called: Bashô’s Journey: The Literary Prose of Matsuo Bashô. The next volume is due out in April of 2005 according to the publisher’s web site. If this second volume is as substantial as the first, it will mean that a significant portion of Bashô’s poetry and prose will be available in an easily available and affordable two-volume set.

The book begins with a brief chronology of Bashô’s life and a short introduction. The poems are arranged chronologically with the romanized text and a translation of the headnotes accompanying each poem. The notes section at the end of the book takes up approximately as much space as the translations. Because it follows the translation section, the reader must constantly flip back and forth to read any commentary. I imagine most readers would rather have the notes with the poems, but I also realize this sort of thing is often an editorial decision. It is, after all, only a minor inconvenience. Following the notes there are a number of indexes and a short glossary of haiku terminology. There is one index for the translations, a second index for the romanized poems, and a third for names (mostly other poets). There is also a list of some of the major images. Clearly this book goes far beyond the minimalist approach to transla-tion of both Stryk and Hamill.

In the introduction, Barnhill mentions some of the problems involved in translating haiku. Two obvious problems that have beset many translations are the insertion of unnecessary English adjectives into the poetry and revers-ing the order of the imagery. In general Barnhill does not introduce himself too much into the translation nor do the interpretations stray far from what the average reader might expect. Here is an example of one of Bashô’s best-known poems:

Winter sun—
frozen on horseback,
my shadow


To use this poem to compare translation is somewhat problematical because, as Barnhill points out in his notes, there are several versions. Since many trans-lations do not include the Japanese text it can be hard to tell which version they are translating. Hamill translated a slightly different version of the haiku that appears in The Knapsack Notebook (Oi no kobumi). Ueda in Bashô and His Interpreters gives a scholarly translation of fuyu no hi ya bajô ni koru kage-bôshi, the same version as Barnhill’s:

the winter sun—
on the horse’s back
my frozen shadow


A version by Cid Corman is a good example of translation that strays significantly from the normal interpretation:

This is winter’s day
upon a horse frozen stiff
a monkish shadow.


Barnhill in his notes mentions that the first line can mean either sun or day. The usual interpretation of sun comes from the shadow in the last line. Cor-man’s insertion of “monkish” comes from taking the literal meaning of the Chinese characters used to write the Japanese word for a person’s shadow.

With some poems it is virtually impossible to do a line-by-line translation into English because of the differences between Japanese and English syntax. A good example is the famous poem about Bashô’s horse eating a flower that grows along the side the road. Barnhill provides a line-by-line and word-by-word literal rendering of each poem in the notes section. For this poem he has “roadside’s / rose of sharon as-for horse by / eaten” (175). It would be extremely diffcult to preserve the original order of “horse” and “eaten” in the last two lines. Barnhill in his translation, however, keeps the basic order of the original haiku:

roadside rose of
sharon devoured
by my horse


Ueda’s translation is very close:

by the road
a rose mallow ... it has been
eaten by my horse!


Hass drifts significantly from the order of imagery in Bashô’s haiku:

As for the hibiscus
on the roadside—
my horse ate it.


I would agree with Barnhill about the English translation of mukuge as rose of Sharon but it does look somewhat strange not to capitalize the proper name “Sharon.” The book has some annoying typographical er-rors. In the first poem quoted above the romanization for “on horseback” should be bajô. Instead it is rendered bashô (63). This seems excusable since it is romanized Japanese; however, the English word “morning glory,” rendered as “monrning glory” (176) should have been caught by a spell-checker.

In general these seem to be very competent translations by someone who is, according to the short blurb on the back cover, a professor of English and director of environmental studies at the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh. His previous efforts have been editing and contributing to several anthologies of writings on the environment. If the second volume of Bashô’s prose works fulfills the promise of this volume, the two together will give us an excellent source for a significant portion of Bashô’s works in English.

Works mentioned

[Bashô]. The Essential Bashô. Translated by Sam Hamill. Boston and London: Shambhala, 1999.

Corman, Cid. One Man’s Moon: 50 Haiku by Bashô, Buson, Issa, Hakuin, Shiki, Santôka. Versions by Cid Corman. Frankfort, Ky.: Gnomon Press, 1984.

Hass, Robert, editor. The Essential Haiku: Versions of Bashô, Buson, and Issa. Hopewell, N.J.: Ecco Press, 1994.

Oseko, Toshiharu. Basho’s Haiku: Literal Translations for Those Who Wish To Read the Origi-nal Japanese Text, with Grammatical Analysis and Explanatory Notes. 2 vols. Tokyo: Maruzen, 1990, 1996.

Ueda, Makoto, compiler and translator. Bashô and His Interpreters: Selected Hokku with Commentary. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1992.




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