AS THOUGH A HUNDRED YEARS OLD: BASHO’S FALLEN LEAVES

There is a hokku attributed to Bashō that is brief in Japanese but requires considerably more words in English to make sense. You can see why if I translate it literally:

Hyakunen no keshiki wo niwa no ochiba kana
Hundred-years ‘s scene wo garden ‘s fallen-leaves kana

Given that wo is a grammatical particle and kana is just a filler word indicating at best a pause for reflection, the actual content of the verse comes down to this:

hundred-year’s scene garden’s fallen leaves

How do we translate such a verse into English? Perhaps

A scene
A hundred years old:
The garden in fallen leaves.

Or one could do it like this, translating the meaning rather than being very literal:

It looks to be
A hundred years old —
The garden of fallen leaves.

Or perhaps, varying that slightly,

It looks as though
A hundred years old —
The garden of fallen leaves.

Blyth, as usual, does a superb job of conveying the meaning, though his translation adds a word (“temple”) not in the original:

A hundred years old it looks,
This temple garden,
With its fallen leaves.

The significance of the verse conveys the feeling of early winter after the leaves have nearly all fallen. You will recall, if you read regularly here, that aesthetically and in terms of Yin and Yang, winter corresponds to very old age and death. We feel in it a sense of time and age, and that is what Bashō is saying — that the garden with its near-bare branches and ground covered with dry leaves gives the feeling of something very old, of something in which a sense of life and energy seem long to have departed.

It is a feeling akin to that in the poem L’infinito (The Infinite) of Giacomo Leopardi, when he says,

…e mi sovvien l’eterno,
e le morte stagioni…

“And I recall the eternal, and the dead seasons…”

David

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