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Volume 36.2
Summer 2005

book review:

Back Roads to Far Towns: Bashô’s Travel Journal
Translated by
Cid Corman & Kamaike Susumu


Reviewed by William J. Higginson

Back Roads to Far Towns: Bashô’s Travel Journal. Translated by Cid Corman ’s Journal and Kamaike Susumu, illustrated by Hide Oshiro. Companions for the Journey Series, number 5 (Buffalo, N.Y.: White Pine Press, 2004). ISBN 1-893996-31-X. 93 pages, 5 x 7; paperback. $13.00

The first complete English translation of Bashô’s most famous travel journal, Oku no hosomichi, that I know of, Yaichiro Isobe’s The Poetical Journey in Old Japan—Bashô, Tokyo 1933, begins this way:

Time is a passenger through eons of eons, as months and years are everlasting travellers.

And, while Isobe presents the Japanese text and romanized versions of the hokku throughout, he eschews the task of actually translating the hokku, instead offering a “paraphrase” of each. Here is the first:

Like ever-changing human life, the thatched cottage too has changed hands, to be a house in which Imperial dolls will be set out at the Girl’s Festival.

While this certainly delivers a decent version of the basic meaning of Bashô’s hokku, it hardly resembles poetry in either Japanese or English. That would take a while to come.

More than thirty years passed before the next full English translation, also by a Japanese, and the first to be popularly available outside Japan. (There may have been an earlier complete translation in one or another academic or literary journal, but I am not aware of any.) Nobuyuki Yuasa’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches, Hammondsworth, UK, 1966, and still available in an inexpensive paperback from Penguin, includes translations of five of Bashô’s “travel sketches”; his version of Oku no hosomichi begins thus, followed by his translation of that first hokku:

Days and months are travellers of eternity. So are the years that pass by. […]

Behind this door
Now buried in deep grass,
A different generation will celebrate
The Festival of Dolls.

Aside from adding material not in the original, this hardly seems like an advance over Isobe’s paraphrase. Wisely, Yuasa does not include any of the original. Close on the heels of Yuasa’s version, Cid Corman and the Japanese scholar Susumu Kamaike’s attempt, called Back Roads to Far Towns: Bashô’s Okuno-hosomichi, came out from Mushinsha / Grossman in 1968. This edition, sumptuously illustrated by Ikutada Hayakawa, includes the entire original text, with plenty of furigana to aid the student in figuring out the pronuncia tions. The same opening line and first hokku in their version appear thus:

Moon & sun are passing figures of countless generations, and years coming or
going wanderers too. […]

the grass door too
turning into
a doll’s house

From then on, new editions of the Corman / Kamaike version would appear from time to time, including a slightly defective paperback, also from Mushinsha / Grossman, in 1971; a revised edition in which the translated hokku expand to 5–7–5 (see below), from White Pine Press, 1986; a reprint of the first paperback edition, with a new introduction by Robert Hass (who would become the American poet laureate the following year), from Ecco Press, 1996; and now the present reprint of the White Pine edition, 2004. Before looking at this most recent printing, let’s continue our excursion through other popular editions.

The year after the Corman / Kamaike edition first appeared, a valuable book by Earl Miner, Japanese Poetic Diaries, came out from Columbia University Press. Miner had, among other things, collaborated on the foundation work Japanese Court Poetry with Robert Brower (Stanford University Press, 1961), and was one of the first major scholars writing in English to develop a serious interest in Bashô’s writings, following Donald Keene’s lead in Anthology of Japanese Literature (1955). In his 1969 Japanese Poetic Diaries, Miner includes a complete translation of Oku no hosomichi, which he calls “The Narrow Road through the Provinces,” with the opening and
first hokku presented as:

The months and days are the wayfarers of the centuries, and as yet another year
comes round, it, too, turns traveler. […]

My old grasshut,
Lived in now by another generation,
Is decked out with dolls.

This at least seems to walk the line between paraphrase and incomprehensibility; “grasshut” is the translator’s word, not the poet’s. No Japanese text is included, though there are ample notes.

In 1974, Dorothy Britton, also known as Lady Bouchier and primarily trained as a musical composer—who grew up in Japan, Britain, and America—published her version as A Haiku Journey: Bashô’s “the narrow road to the far north” and selected haiku in a large-format book of photographs by Dennis Stock (Kodansha International). The text of just the Oku no hosomichi
translation was later issued by the same publisher in paperback under the title A Haiku Journey: Bashô’s Narrow Road to a Far Province (1980). Our sample ’s passage goes as follows in both editions:

The passing days and months are eternal travellers in time. The years that come
and go are travellers too. […]

This rude hermit cell
Will be different now, knowing Doll’s
Festival as well.

…except that the apostrophe in “Doll’s” moved to the correct position following the letter s
in the paperback. Neither edition includes any Japanese. After a lapse of fifteen years or more—aside from the Corman / Kamaike White Pine reprint mentioned above—a new decade of Oku no hosomichi translations began with a complete version included in Helen Craig McCullough’s Classical Japanese Prose, a massive collection from Stanford University Press with the usual scholarly apparatus and romanized Japanese for the verses. She begins “The Narrow Road of the Interior”—the first time Bashô’s title is rendered literally in English—this way:

The sun and the moon are eternal voyagers; the years that come and go are
travelers too. […]

Even my grass-thatched hut
will have new occupants now:
a display of dolls.

The following year, 1991, Sam Hamill’s version, called Narrow Road to the Interior, appeared in a pocket-sized format from Shambhala. Our key sample:

The moon and sun are eternal travelers. Even the years wander on. […]

Even this grass hut
may be transformed
into a doll’s house

This same version heads up Hamill’s more substantial volume of 1998, The Essential Bashô, also from Shambhala. To the Oku no hosomichi he adds translations of more travel diaries and several haiku. As one might expect in a pocket-sized edition, there is no Japanese, though adding it for the larger volume would have been helpful.

Two new versions of the Oku no hosomichi appeared in 1996. Donald Keene, the dean of Japanese literature studies in English, offered The Narrow Road to Oku, published by Kodansha International in a glossy trade paperback with striking illustrations by Masayuki Miyata and the complete Japanese text. Our opening passage in his version:

The months and days are the travellers of eternity. The years that come and go
are also voyagers. […]

Even a thatched hut
May change with a new owner
Into a doll’s house.

Hiroaki Sato, a well-known translator who has specialized in modern Japanese poetry but also done substantial work with classical poetry, brought out a book with the complex title Bashô’s Narrow Road: Spring and Autumn Passages—Narrow Road to the Interior and the renga sequence A Farewell Gift to Sora—Two Works by Matsuo Bashô, from Stone Bridge Press. Despite the title’s whiff of 18th century prolixity and sounding as though only portions of the cited works are included, this complete translation of the Oku no hosomichi is not excessively wordy, and includes the most extensive (one might almost say pedantic) set of notes available in English. Our sample passage:

The months and days are wayfarers of a hundred generations, and the years that
come and go are also travelers. […]

In my grass hut the residents change: now a dolls’ house

Sato presents each hokku in one line, with romanized text. His versions of the hokku are also among the most literal. The inclusion of an important Bashô-school haikai no renga —the only one surviving with Bashô’s corrections—makes this a doubly-valuable work, touching at some depth the two kinds of writing for which Bashô was justly regarded as a great master in his
own generation, diary literature and linked poetry.

And now we have a fresh reprint of the second Corman / Kamaike version, in the handy pocket-sized format of White Pine’s Companions for the Journey Series. This edition is their first without the Japanese, which was eliminated to keep the size small and the type comfortably readable. While the prose of the revised edition was not much reworked, the first hokku has been drastically altered from the version in the first edition. Here they are:

First Corman / Kamaike version

the grass door too
turning into
a doll’s house

Later Corman / Kamaike version

the grass door also
turning and turning into
a doll’s household

So far as I know, this reworking is entirely at Corman’s hands. While I generally feel that a 5–7–5 approach to translating Japanese haiku results in wordy, slack language, Corman seems to be one of the few master mechanics of English who can pull it off reasonably well. This first hokku in the Oku no hosomichi, as I hope readers grasp by now, is extremely difficult to convey in anything like the condensed wording of the original Japanese, of which the romaji and a literal trot might read:

kusa no to mo sumikawaru yo zo hina no ie
grass’s door too changed-resident(s) time ! doll’s house

My fairly literal translation, taking into account the idiomatic expression at the beginning, would be:

even my grass cottage
changes residents over time—
a house of dolls

which hardly makes sense without the accompanying prose and a knowledge of the Festival of Dolls and the representation of the ancient Imperial court that these dolls embody.

Two more examples may give some insight into Corman’s intentions in these new, longer, more “interior” translations. These poems are both well known, so I will not review the introductory material with which Bashô supplies them. The earlier Corman / Kamaike versions are more literal; the new version may be found in the new reprint.

First Corman/Kamaike version

summer grass
dreams’ ruins

Later Corman/Kamaike version

the summer grasses
the mightiest warriors’
dreams’ consequences

First Corman/Kamaike version

into rock
cicada sounds

Later Corman/Kamaike version

silence itself is
absorbing in the rock absorbing
cicada sounds

Like all translations, these are diverse interpretations of the two poems. The first set, done in the 1960s when Corman was in his forties, reads as one would hope, quite literally. The hints of his deeper readings show up only in diction, in words like “ruins” and “absorbing.” But the heaviness of Bashô’s verse in the warriors’ dreams poem and the increasing intensity of Bashô’s several extant rewrites of the cicada poem over four years suggest that Corman’s readings almost two decades later in his own life bring out a depth that may be quite justified in the heart and mind of an aging Bashô.

This story, of course, will go on. I know of at least one new translation of Oku no hosomichi about to appear, and another that I expect to see in a few years. But I cannot recommend waiting for them before buying one for shelf, bedside table, or pocket, for it seems unlikely that a really new interpretation will appear any time soon. For a straightforward translation with plenty of scholarly assistance to aid understanding, Hiroaki Sato’s is probably the best. For a quality literary translation with the original en face, I would still recommend the original Corman/Kamaike version, which should be available through libraries in either of the Mushinsha/Grossman editions or the Ecco Press edition. For a companion to travel with in pocket, purse, or backpack, the newly reprinted Corman/Kamaike version, even with its somewhat wordy and abstract treatment of the hokku, certainly recommends itself. Reading these, one may well get closer to the “interior” of Bashô the person than is otherwise possible, though Bashô the poet would probably have preferred the earlier, tighter versions. Reading Corman’s earlier and later versions side-byside, or the later Corman versions beside Sato’s eminently clean and relatively literal versions, would provide the best of all possible worlds, in the world of the Oku no hosomichi in English.



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