attractive book from Gnomon Press is a new edition of a
much smaller collection of translations brought out in 1984
by the same publisher. The previous volume was subtitled:
50 Haiku by Bashô, Buson, Issa, Hakuin, Shiki,
Santôka. The current volume has fourteen poets
and at least three times as many poems. Most of the poems
are haiku, although there are some tanka. The poems are
arranged by author in chronological order. Most of the poets
are from the Tokugawa period (16001868) with two older
poets and three poets from the modern era. The poems are
presented with four haiku or three tanka per page. Only
the English versions of each poem are provided. In a few
cases titles or notes are given with the translations.
the title page of both this book and the earlier edition
the author statement is: Versions by Cid Corman.
There is nothing in the introduction to indicate why Corman
uses versions rather than translations
to describe his book. Perhaps he intends to produce his
own poems in English that take their inspiration
from the Japanese rather than producing a technically accurate
Corman, for those not familiar with his work, is a well-known
poet in English who has lived in Japan for many years. With
Kamaike Susumu, a professor at Doshisha University, Corman
did translations of Bashôs travel diary,
Back Roads to Far Towns, short stories by Akutagawa
Ryûnosuke, and works by the modern poet Kusano Shimpei.
On his own he has produced numerous volumes of English poetry,
collections of essays, and translations of a number of Japanese
poets. Corman went to school at Tufts College and graduate
school at the University of Michigan. Before coming to Japan
he lived in France and Italy and has done translations from
often do translations. One of the best known examples from
Oriental verse is Ezra Pounds translations of Chinese.
The Pulitzer Prize winning American poet Gary Snyder has
translated both Japanese and Chinese verse. Common wisdom
would say that the poet might produce a somewhat freer translation
than a scholar. I once had occasion to look carefully at
translations of one of the most beloved and difficult to
translate modern Japanese poet, Miyazawa Kenji. One translation
was by Gary Snyder and the other by one of the most respected
scholars of Japanese literature in this country, Makoto
Ueda. Miyazawa presents special problems since he freely
uses coined onomatopoeia words, technical terms from religion
and science, and other personal vocabulary far beyond the
comprehension of the ordinary reader. In the case of Miyazawas
more difficult poetry, the average Japanese reader may have
only a vague sense of the meaning from sound, context, and
is impossible to fault the translations by Makoto Ueda.
Again and again he renders difficult passages with remarkable
accuracy. On the other hand, there are seemingly wild departures
from the original in Snyders renditions of Miyazawas
poems. A good example is a line from the poem Snow
of Saddle Mountain. The line in Japanese reads: Poshaposha
shitari kusundari shite
may be either coined or dialect. It is not in any standard
dictionary. From the sound and from its resemblance to other
onomatopoeia words it gives a sense of being soft, or, applied
to snow, perhaps slushy. Ueda uses fuzzy
which captures the idea of softness. He uses dusky
for kusundari shite which might also
be rendered as dirty (Ueda, Modern, 207).
Snyder translates the line as thawing, freezing, and
(Snyder, 115). This is not the kind
of translation that would result from simply translating
the words. It does, however, capture both the active and
verbal nature of the line while giving the picture of the
dirty or slushy snow. Snyder goes beyond what a normal translator
might do to produce a version of the poem in
English that captures both the sense and the poetic language
of the original.
assume this is also what Cid Corman intends in his collection
of versions of well-known Japanese haiku and
tanka. Corman, like most poets, has a sense of the magical
power of words. In his essay on Gary Snyders book
of poetry Regarding Wave, he quotes Lafcadio Hearns
words to Basil Hall Chamberlain, one of the first Westerners
to translate Japanese poetry. For me words have color,
form, character; they have faces, ports, manners, gesticulations;
they are mood, humors, eccentricities;they have tints,
(Corman, At Their Word,
156). A sense of this comes through in Cormans translations
in this volume.
example is the second poem by Bashô that Corman translates.
His version reads:
muddy melon. (13)
uri no doro
are actually three versions of this haiku by Bashô.
The Japanese that I have supplied above is from the last
version found in Oi nikki (The Satchel Diary).
I am guessing that Corman may have used this version because
of the word muddy. The two earlier versions
end with the word tsuchi or soil (Imoto,
257). The grammar of the poem is relatively simple. Covered
with morning dew, mud on a cool melon.
Ueda in his Bashô and His Interpreters, translates
the version found in the Zoku sarumino (The
Monkeys Cloak, Continued). The two versions
are the same except for the last word.
the morning dew
spotted with mud, and how cool
melons on the soil (388)
is also commentary on the poem in Uedas book. One
interpreter sees the poem as allegorical. The melon is really
the face of a person who, although he may have a soiled
appearance, is pure at heart. The other commentaries seem
more to the point. The season word is melon
for summer. One commentator simply says: The poem
makes me want to get up early in the morning. Another
finds the visual image of the melon spattered with mud and
morning dew to be particularly appealing.
translation is remarkable for the economy of words. It is
a line-by-line and practically word-for-word translation.
This kind of translation makes for fractured English grammar.
Morning-dewed, and streaked cool
both modify melon. The sound of the poem is also worth noting
with multiple words beginning with m. Overall
this seems a somewhat eccentric but very pleasant and effective
translation of what most commentators agree is a simple
of the translations, however, depart much more drastically
from the original poems. On the next page of Cormans
book is the famous poem about Bashô seeing his shadow
in the rice paddies on a cold winter day as he rides along
is winters day
upon a horse frozen stiff
a monkish shadow. (14)
are again a number of variants for this poem, one of Bashôs
most famous. The Shogakkan edition of Bashôs
collected haiku has four versions (Imoto, 315). None of
the variations differ significantly in their imagery. Corman
probably used the best known, which appears in the travel
diary, Oi no kobumi (Manuscript in My Knapsack).
This is also the version used in Uedas Bashô
and His Interpreters (170):
on the horses back
my frozen shadow
no hi ya
bajô ni koru
are significant differences in the imagery between the two
translations. In Cormans translation there is a shadowy
figure of a monk (or someone who looks like a monk) riding
a horse on a cold winter day. In Uedas translation,
Bashô sees his own shadow cast by the winter sun while
he rides on horse back. The problem here has to do with
the nature of the Japanese writing system. The same Chinese
character is used for both day and sun.
That Bashô means the winter sun rather
than a winter day comes merely from the context.
Kagebôshi, the last line, is more
problematic. The word is made up of three Chinese characters.
The first character is shadow. The second two
characters literally mean a follower of the law
(hoshi) and are often used for a Buddhist monk or
priest. The three characters taken together mean the shadow
of a person, not the shadow of a priest.
this case Corman has produced an attractive haiku in English;
however, it is clearly a version or variation
on a poem by Bashô rather than a translation. It differs
from all of the variations that Bashô produced because
it changes the basic imagery of the poem.
is also the problem that occurs with all collections of
this type. The poems lack context. Much of traditional Japanese
poetry is occasional verse where the circumstances of composition
are important for an understanding of the poem. In Bashôs
case many of his best known poems are from the travel diaries.
For example, Corman translates the poem from the Narrow
Road to the Deep North composed when Bashô visited
the mightiest warriors
dreams consequences. (16)
the translation reflects an extreme economy of words. Although
it is actually longer than the version by Corman and Kamaike
in their translation of the complete diary:
dreams ruins (87)
of Cormans translations capture the tone and meaning
of the poem. The problem is context. Bashôs
poem echoes lines from one of Chinas greatest poets
Tu Fu. It refers to one of Japans most famous and
tragic warriors, Yoshitsune, and also to the Fujiwara clan
that flourished at Hiraizumi where the poem was composed.
Much of this information is provided in the notes of the
Corman and Kamaike translation, but there is nothing at
all in the present volume.
in his brief introduction to One Mans Moon
talks about Bashôs haiku as essentially
songs composed on the move rather than written
at a desk. Clearly many of Bashôs poems
are based on experience, but they are also the product of
countless hours of revision at a desk. The travel
diary, Narrow Road to the Deep North, was not
published until years after his death. With the publication
of the diary of Bashôs traveling companion,
Sora, it became evident that much of Bashôs
account differs significantly from what actually took place.
The diary is a carefully crafted work of art that went through
countless revisions. I would also quibble with Cormans
assertion that Bashôs life was that of an itinerant
Buddhist priest. Kenneth Yasuda, who taught classical
Japanese literature for many years at Indiana University,
was always a bit of an iconoclast. Yasuda delighted in painting
a portrait of Bashô as the dandy. Bashô, of
necessity, carried few possessions on his journeys, but
what he carried was, according to Yasuda, the very best
that money could buy. Certainly Bashô traveled for
various reasons and travel in those days could be fraught
with hardship. Romantic wanderlust or the quest for spiritual
enlightenment were not the only reasons for Bashôs
travels, however. There was also a wealthy provincial class
out in the countryside who were eager to pay handsomely
for an evening of elegant diversion.
do not think this book of translations would be a good choice
as an introduction to the poets for those unfamiliar with
premodern Japanese poetry, but, I would recommend this volume
for a number of other reasons. One Mans Moon
presents numerous translations of well-known haiku and some
tanka by an English poet who obviously loves language and
has a genuine talent for producing unique, striking, and
often insightful translations. Many of the translations
are nearly word-for-word. This is certainly no small feat
with two languages as different as Japanese and English.
Cormans love of language and his love of poetry come
through clearly in these translations. Anyone interest in
haiku or the art of translation will enjoy this often delightful
and well put together book.
Cid. At Their Word: Essays on the Arts of Language.
Volume II. Santa Barbara: Black Sparrow Press, 1978.
Cid. One Mans Moon: 50 Haiku by Bashô,
Buson, Issa, Hakuin, Shiki, Santôka. Frankfort,
Ky.: Gnomon Press, 1984.
Nôichi, Hori Nobuo, and Muramatsu Tomotsugu, eds.
Matsuo Bashô shû. Nihon koten bungaku zenshô
41. Tokyo: Shogakkan, 1972.
Bashô. Back Roads to Far Towns. Translated
by Cid Corman and Kamaike Susumu. New York: Grossman,
Gary. The Back Country. New York: New Directions,
Makoto. Modern Japanese Poets and the Nature of Literature.
Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1983.
Makoto. Bashô and His Interpreters.
Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1992.