I have written before about the telegraphic brevity of old hokku, which often comes as a surprise to those who are accustomed to seeing it in English translations or to seeing modern English-language hokku.

Here, for example, is R. H. Blyth’s excellent rendition of a spring hokku by Hyakuchi, (1748-1836), whose name always amuses me; it always makes me hear someone sneezing.  But the Chinese characters composing it mean literally “Hundred Ponds”:

The cow I sold,
Leaving the village
Through the haze. 

If we look at the original, however, it is literally:

Sold cow’s village leaving; haze —

As you see, there is no “I” who sold the cow, there is no “through” the haze.  But Blyth, in his usual superb manner, has supplied what the Japanese reader would have intuitively added to that scanty framework.

Of course that did not always work.  Some old hokku are so vague that people still argue over what a writer may have intended.  To me those are simply bad hokku, and we need not bother with them.

In English we have no such problems of interpretation, because the English-language hokku — like the English language itself — is more precise than “hokku” Japanese, and the telegraphic method of old hokku is simply not adequate either for our language or our culture.  So Blyth did precisely the right thing in expanding the verse to clarify it for Western readers.  If there is arguing over what an English-language hokku signifies, then it means the hokku is poorly written.

If I were to translate the same verse, I would be slightly more literal than Blyth, with only one clarifying expansion:

The sold cow
Leaving the village;
Spring haze.

That is a bit more like the Japanese — more faithful to the original — and also it reflects a common characteristic of hokku writing — that we often are not told whether it is the writer himself who is involved in what is happening, or whether he is observing someone else.  So in this verse the cow might be one another person has sold, or it might be one the writer has sold.  It is up to the reader to supply which understanding gives the right effect for that particular person.

Nonetheless, Blyth’s reading of it is quite effective, because when the seller is made explicit — “The cow I sold” — one identifies and feels the sad sense of having lost something, a sense that is only magnified as the cow slowly vanishes into the spring haze.

In my translation, the one expansion I made is the addition of the word “spring.”  To a Japanese reader, the presence of the word “haze” automatically means a hokku is a spring hokku.  Of course in modern English-language hokku, every verse is marked by the writer with the season in which it is written.  But actually putting the word “spring” — missing in the Japanese original — into the verse is effective in this particular case.

Who knew that the after-effect of selling a cow could be so poetic?  Obviously, Hyakuchi — Gesundheit!


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