In Japan, Issa’s hokku have always been remarkably popular.  And they are popular in the West as well — at least the better known verses, among which one finds this:

The brushwood gate;
Instead of a lock,
A snail.

But of course that is not the popular translation, which is, following Blyth,

A brushwood gate;
For a lock,
This snail.

There is a subtle distinction between the two, and for me it makes the difference between an acceptable verse and one that is just “too cute for words.”  It is the difference between “acting as” and “instead of.”

To say,

For a lock,
This snail.

is to put the verse into the childish mind — which we do indeed often find in Issa — but in an adult it comes off as mawkish.  This is all the more dangerous in hokku because in the West, people eat “mawkish” with a spoon.  They cannot get enough of it, and as I discovered long ago, one of the worst failings of some beginning students of hokku is that they go for the “cute” and sentimental like flies to dead flesh, particularly female writers, but males too are not immune.

The difference can be seen in the two translations of this verse.  We can put that difference into prose like this, so that it may better be understood:

In the first translation, the writer shows us a brushwood gate — a gate made of roughly cut sticks, the bark left on.  And he tells us that there is no lock on the gate, and that where one would expect to find one, there is only — at the moment — a snail.  A snail instead of a lock.

In the second translation, the writer shows us a brushwood gate, and says that he has a snail acting as a lock; the snail takes the place of and serves the function of a lock.  That, of course, is just childish fancy; a snail cannot serve the purpose of a lock.  It is in this incongruity that we find the “cuteness” of the verse.  It reminds one of children playing “bank” with leaves as money.  But what is cute in children is just sentimentality in an adult’s hokku.

Now in his commentary on this verse, Blyth remarks that “The snail is used both as an absurd-looking creature and to point to the ridiculousness of all locks and bolts and gates and doors.”

It is a brave effort, but I do not quite buy it.  To me, as good hokku,  the verse is simply expressing the writer’s poverty — that he really has nothing worth stealing, so a snail where one would expect a lock really does not much matter.  If one understands the verse that way, it loses some of its sentimentality, but it is hard to read it that way in the second translation, which tends instead to fall into mere sentimentality.

That is why I prefer the first translation, which prevents us from confusing lock and snail, and tells us quite plainly that there is no lock on the gate — just a snail where a lock would ordinarily be.  “Instead of” rather than “acting as.”

Now as to what Issa actually intended, we can only say that either translation is possible.  I suspect, however, that Issa intended the more mawkish reading, knowing Issa’s way of thinking and reacting, which is why I seldom use his verses as models, and when I do, it is only those free of such personal peculiarities.


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