Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Autumn Deepens

Yesterday was a blustery, but clear, day.  The overall impression was golden:  gold trees against the sky-blue sky and against the dark-blue waters of Puget Sound; gold leaves swirling around my feet, following me down the lane.

And then a black serpent crossed my path.  But this was no ominous serpent:  ten inches long and a quarter-inch in diameter, it was only out to bask in the sun.  As I crouched down to have a closer look, its tiny tongue flicked as it proceeded on its way.

I felt that this was just the sort of incident one could write a haiku about. The components might be:  autumn wind; yellow leaves; a path; a black snake.  However, because I believe that haiku is best left to the Japanese, for whom it reflects over 400 years of tradition and practice, I do not feel qualified to attempt one.

Instead, I offer an autumn haiku by Basho.  Basho may be described, in terms of stature, as the Shakespeare of Japanese literature.  And, to be fair and accurate, I should also say that Shakespeare may be described, in terms of stature, as the Basho of English literature.

                  Paul Maitland, "Autumn, Kensington Gardens" (c. 1906)

     Deep autumn;
My neighbor, --
     How does he live?

Basho (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 3: Summer-Autumn (Hokuseido Press 1952).

The English transliteration (i.e., romaji) of the original Japanese is:

aki fukaki
tonari wa nani o
suru hito zo

Aki is "autumn."  Fukaki is "deep."  Tonari is "beside; next to; next-door." Wa is a grammatical particle that serves to identify tonari as the subject (after a fashion).  Nani is "what."  Suru is the verb "to do."  Hito is "person."  O is a particle that serves to identify nani as the object (after a fashion) of suru/suru hito.  Zo is a particle of emphasis (something along the lines of "!", but perhaps not as emphatic).  Please note that these glosses are based upon my inexpert and limited knowledge of the Japanese language.

                                       Paul Maitland, "Hyacinth" (c. 1883)

Two alternative translations follow.

Autumn has deepened,
I wonder what he does,
The man living next door!

Translation by Toshiharu Oseko, in Basho's Haiku (1990).

In this late autumn,
my next-door neighbor --
how does he get by?

Translation by Sam Hamill, in The Essential Basho (Shambhala 1999).

If I had my druthers, I would opt for "what does he do?" or "what is he doing?"  With a meaning that embodies both a literal/external sense and an emotional/internal sense.  The gist might be:  "How is he or she -- like me -- making it through these deepening days of autumn?"  The problem is that "nani o suru hito" is -- no surprise here -- hard to bring over into English.

         Paul Maitland, "Fall of the Leaves, Kensington Gardens" (c. 1900)


Fred said...


Here's a snake haiku:

"The snake departed
But the little eyes that glared...
Dew, shining in the grass"
-- Kyoshi --
from A Little Treasury of Haiku
trans. Peter Beilenson

From the same collection is this version of the haiku you presented:

In my dark winter
Lying ill . . .at last I ask
How fares my neighbor?
-- Basho --

I also have _Basho: The Complete Haiku_, edited and translated by Jane Reichhold. It's a valuable resource tool because it provides the Japanese haiku as well as a serviceable English translation, and notes about whatever is known about that haiku.

The following is the note for the haiku:

"aki fukaki / to nari wa nani o / suru hito zo
autumn deep / door next as-for what [object] / to do man

1694--autumn. This starting verse was sent to the renga party on October 15 at the home of Negoro Shihaku (d. 1713) because Basho was too ill to attend."

Basho died on November 28, 1694, about six weeks after this haiku.

Beilenson obviously took some liberties with the translation, incorporating the idea that he was ill,

zmkc said...

I was just wondering today why I like learning languages. Although I've never attempted Japanese and am too old now to embark on such a complex new enterprise, this post has reminded me of exactly why I do enjoy the lengthy - indeed, unending - task of foreign language acquisition. Only a knowledge of Japanese could reveal the true beauty of Haiku, I suspect - I like the first version, by the way.

Stephen Pentz said...

Fred: thank you for the snake haiku, and for the background information provided by Reichhold.

Yes, I agree that Beilenson has taken "some liberties" in his translation -- too many, I would say! I can't see how "autumn" becomes "dark winter," and, as you say, there is nothing at all about Basho being ill in the original.

It seems to me that Beilenson has tried to "Westernize" the poem by making it more "personal." I'm not an expert on haiku by any means, but I don't think that you will ever find a good haiku poet writing something like "MY dark winter": "dark winter" perhaps, but never "MY dark winter."

As always, thanks for stopping by, and for your thoughts.

Stephen Pentz said...

zmkc: it's good to hear from you again.

I know what you mean. I studied Japanese full-time for a year in Tokyo long ago, and I only scratched the proverbial surface. Moreover, I concentrated on conversational Japanese, and thus hardly became conversant with kanji, the Chinese characters. (As you know, they are a whole world in themselves: as I recall (don't quote me, please), a college-educated person is expected to know about 2,000 kanji!) But even my quick dip has helped to give me a bit of insight into haiku that I might not have otherwise had. Which in turn shows me what I am missing in translations from languages other than Japanese.

I agree with you: I prefer Blyth's translation as well. If you are interested in seeing the Japanese original next to a translation, I highly recommended Blyth's four-volume "Haiku." Whenever he translates a haiku, he includes both the Japanese original and a transliteration into romaji. In addition, it is a delightful book in and of itself. For instance, Blyth sprinkles in references to English poetry and literature, and there is an entire chapter in which he takes lines from well-known English poems and converts them into haiku-like three-line images. More importantly, he provides an authoritative treatment of the cultural and historical origins of haiku.

As ever, I appreciate having you stop by.