Someone recently kindly asked me to participate in an online group project to translate — or at least present Englished versions of — all the hokku of Bashō. I declined for a number of reasons, among them the fact that it is stretching it a bit to say that even 20% of the approximately 1,000 verses attributed to Bashō are either worthwhile or transfer well from culture to culture.
But another reason I could have given is that some of Bashō’s hokku are so obscure in the originals that they defy definite translation, like this autumn verse:
Kumo to hedatsu tomo ka ya kari no ikiwakare
Cloud as separate friend ka ya wild-geese ‘s live-parting
It is devilishly difficult to understand precisely how Bashō intended this to be read. Does it mean, as David Landis Barnhill has it (I have changed his format, not his words),
Like clouds drifting apart,
A wild goose separates, for now,
From his friend.
Or does it mean, as Oseko presents it,
Friend beyond the clouds!
Just as wild geese
Might it mean
Clouds will separate
The two friends, after migrating
Wild goose’s departure.
…as Makoto Ueda has it,
Or perhaps does it mean, as Russian translator Dmitri Smirnov gives it,
Облака разделят нас друг с другом навсегда, словно двух гусей.
Which I would translate as:
Clouds separate us,
Friend from friend forever,
Like two wild geese.
Should it begin,
Just as clouds…
Making a simile (which most hokku do not use, as I have pointed out previously), or does the apparent simile apply not to the clouds, but rather to the wild geese, as others would have it?
This is the kind of stew into which one jumps when one takes on translating the entire body of Bashō’s verse. Really, life is too short to spend it on this kind of thing, particularly when the result will inevitably be inconclusive and colored by the personal aesthetics of the translator.
Of course such problems have not deterred others from giving it a try, yet even David Landis Barnhill stops at translating about 725 of the near 1,000 extant hokku. Toshiharu Oseko earlier went farther, coming out with two large hardcover volumes of Bashō translations, with extensive notes. And they are not the only ones to take on the task — just the most useful authors so far, in my view.
So how would I translate the verse in question? First, I would just openly admit its obscurity. and then I would probably come up with some “amended” version like this:
Like passing clouds;
Wild geese leaving.
Quite honestly, it makes a terrible hokku, because it does not do what a hokku should do, which is to avoid simile and too much comparison. I do not think any translation I have seen of this verse of Bashō makes a good hokku. And of course what Bashō really intended remains unclear even to native Japanese readers, so what you just read in my “translation” is a mixture of Bashō and Coomler.
The reason for difficulty in this verse, no doubt, is that Bashō was mixing images from old Chinese poetry — parting friends, clouds, and wild geese — and he poured the result into the very tiny mold of hokku, and in this case it just did not work. Instead he should have written it in another and more expansive verse form, leaving hokku for what works well in hokku.
Blyth once said with affectionate hyperbole that a bad verse of Bashō is better than the best of lesser writers of hokku, but I do not find that to be literally the case. Many of Bashō’s verses make poor models for modern hokku, but we need not dwell on those when we have the best of his hokku given us in the translations of Blyth. As students of hokku it is best to concentrate on those that are good, using the mediocre and the bad only as examples of what to avoid.
And for those who do want to dwell on those numerous, lesser attempts of Bashō, there is always the large selection offered in paperback by David Landis Barnhill and the two very useful volumes (outrageously expensive now that they are out of print) of Toshiharu Oseko. If you are budget-minded, go with David Landis Barnhill. If you are interested in “popular” personal interpretations by someone who is a lover of poetry though not a real translator, you might like to peruse Jane Reichhold’s “complete” versions of Bashō’s verses, but keep in mind that it will be hard to distinguish what is Reichhold with her “modern haiku” aesthetics from what is legitimately Bashō. Those looking for deeper insight and accuracy will prefer Barnhill and Oseko.
As for me, I will leave the translating of the complete works of Bashō to others. My view is that modern hokku is legitimately based on the best of all writers of hokku prior to the beginning of the 20th century, and there is no need to spend much time on inferior or confusing old examples that contribute little or nothing to the building of modern hokku in English and other languages.
As for which of the many translations of the verse given above is really the best, one can only say that the best verse as a poem is that of Dmitri Smirnov, followed by that of Barnhill. But in doing so, one must separate what is good as a poem from what is good as a hokku. Something may be good as poetry yet bad as hokku.