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Volume 38.3
Summer 2007

book review:

Santôka: A Translation with Photographic Images
Photographs by Hakudô Inoue by English
text by Emiko Miyashita and Paul Watsky

Reviewed by Charles Trumbull

Santôka: A Translation with Photographic Images. Photographs by Hakudô Inoue; book and cover design by Kazuya Takaoka; English text by Emiko Miyashita and Paul Watsky. (Tokyo: Pie Books, 2007). 400 pages; 15 cm  x  ?23 cm. ISBN 4-89444-545-C C0072. ¥3,800 from the publisher at <http://www.piebooks.com/english/buy/index.php>.

Among the Japanese haiku poets most translated into English, Santôka Taneda (1882–1940) is in third place, right after Bashô and Issa. He seems an unlikely candidate for such high placement, for he is on the fringes of early twentieth century Japanese haiku; he was among the first to abandon syllable count and strict adherence to seasonality. More to the point, he was a chronic drunk never far from a state of depression, a shiftless wanderer, and apparently a bit of a con man to boot. For these reasons Santôka has been an embarrassment to the Japanese haiku establishment, a sort of funny uncle who is best spoken of only softly. That makes the publication of this volume in Japan something of a watershed.

Of the 90 haiku offered up in Santôka, several have not previously been published in English, including the following:

hirahira chô wa utaenai

fluttery but a butterfly can't sing

ochitsuite kaki mo urete kuru

I'm composed
the persimmons are mellowing, too

anata o matte iru hi no yô moeru

awaiting you
the fire burns well

konnanimo yowatte shimatta ochiba fumu sae

so badly weakened
even when I step on fallen leaves

Accordingly, this volume represents a nice addition to modern Japanese haiku in English.

How do the translations of Miyashita and Watsky stack up with the earlier work? Rather well, all in all. Of the poems selected for translation, Miyashita and Watsky's greatest overlap is with Hiroaki Sato's Grass and Tree Cairn (Red Moon Press, 2002), and, like Burton Watson's For All My Walking: Free-Verse Haiku of Taneda Santôka (Columbia University Press, 2003), they select few of the haiku translated by John Stevens in his landmark Mountain Tasting: Zen Haiku by Santôka Taneda (Weatherhill, 1980). In the haiku

kasari kosori otosasete nakanu mushi ga kita

rustling rustling
a mute cricket has come      (130)

Miyashita and Watsky opt for a straightforward rendering that makes Sato's version (22)

Rustling stirring a non-chirping insect has come

seem a bit fussy, but they miss the "kasari–kosori" wordplay that Sato at least makes a stab at conveying in English. Most of their translations seem straightforward, with only minor differences from others:

yoi yado de dochira mo yama de mae wa sakaya de

a good inn
mountains on both sides
and facing a sake shop     (278)

nice inn
mountains all around
sake store in front           (Watson #145)

In several cases Miyashita and Watsky choose plurals where other translators use singulars or vice versa:

itsumo hitori de akatonbo

I'm used to being alone
the red dragonflies      (138)

Always alone —
A red dragonfly.

Hisashi Miura and James Green, "Selected Haiku from Sômokutô" (1974)

Pie Books, the publisher of Santôka, is a graphic design house, however, and it gives top billing on the title page to the photographer and graphic artist. One can assume that it sees this hefty tome as more of a coffee table book than a work of scholarship. Each haiku is presented on a two-page spread, with the English and rômaji on the left-hand page and the Japanese, vertically, on the right-hand page. The following spread is given over to one or more images. The photographs by Hakudô Inoue are unquestionably beautiful, and they are done justice by reproduction on heavy matte paper. One has to wonder, however, about the selection of the photos and their ultimate relationship to the haiku. Page 37, for example, bears a glorious full-spread image of a dahlia with two buds in the background to illustrate "the last dahlia / about to wither / and beautiful as it is"—that is, the haiku is about a dying dahlia while the photo is of a dahlia in the pink of life. The next haiku + photo shows a (rather suggestive) close-up of two daikon radishes to illustrate the haiku "washed / the daikon absolutely white."

Throughout, the photos are illustrative of the text, not suggestive, as we have come to expect in our photo-haiga. Overall, one gets the queasy feeling that the graphics are the focus, the text is an afterthought, and the twain do not sit well together. More serious for me are doubts about the wisdom of putting extravagant, National-Geographic-style photos together with the earthy wisdom of a shabby monk-mendicant.

Haiku afficionados and Santôka fans will have to decide whether they are willing to pay about $33.00 plus postage for a softcover picture book in order to get some good new translations of Santôka's work. I am a Santôka fan, and it would be worth it for me.

 

© 2007 Modern Haiku • PO Box 930 • Portsmouth, RI 02871-0930