HAPPY HALLOWEEN FROM KOBAYASHI ISSA

English: Susuki (Miscanthus sinensis) in Japan

Issa wrote:

Withered pampas grass;
“Now once there was
an old witch….”

That verse does not come off quite the same in English, because of the term “pampas grass” that we must use for what Issa knew as susuki — a kind of wild, grassy plant with a whitish-silver tall plume that is found on the uncultivated fields and hills of Japan.  It is Miscanthus sinensis, whereas what we know as pampas grass in the West and use as a tall ornamental is Cortaderia selloana.  And also, the word “pampas” tends to remind us of Argentina, which leads us astray.  The plumes at the top of susuki are thinner than those of the pampas grass we know, and they give a picturesque look to pathways through the Japanese hills, particularly in the late autumn.

As a late autumn verse, this hokku fits very well with our Halloween.  The withered grasses set the stage with a certain atmosphere, and then we hear the voice of the old granny (well, it has to be an old granny, doesn’t it?)  begin a scary story.

The point of the verse for English speakers is the feeling it creates in us — the late autumn feeling combined with that slightly “spooky” feeling of the beginning of a scary story.

It is unfortunate that we must know all about susuki in order to “see” this verse correctly.  There is really no way to transfer it to English without transferring the setting to something “Western,” and that inevitably changes the verse.

We could say,

Withered cornfields;
“Now once there was
An old witch….”

That does not, however, have the “wild” implications that susuki has, where we see it growing along a pathway in the hills, perhaps with a rising moon in the background.

We could also say,

Withered grasses;
“Now once there was
An old witch….”

That is getting there, but still does not have quite the same effect.

We could try,

Withered fields;
“Now once there was
An old witch….”

There are lots of possibilities, but none convey the original just right.  So this one I will just leave with “pampas grass” and the necessary explanation.

I cannot resist throwing in an image of the Russian witch, Baba Yaga, as visualized by Ivan Bilibin.

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