Ransetsu wrote a spring hokku about the flowering shrub called yamabuki —山吹 — which is generally translated into English as “mountain rose.” That is, however, rather confusing for Westerners, who generally think it looks little like the roses they know.
Technically, however, the yamabuki is in the rose family; its botanical name is Kerria japonica. The single form is rarely seen in Western gardens, though the double-flowered form is rather common.
The kerria has flowers of very bright yellow, which no doubt is what inspired Ransetsu in composing this verse:
Has turned it yellow —
That is quite clear in Japanese, which does not have the same word for the season and for water bubbling out of the ground, as we do in English. The original verse, in fact, uses the Chinese character 泉, which in Japanese is pronounced izumi, and means a spring of water.
Blyth attempted to deal with the problem by translating it quite loosely:
Catching the reflection
Of the yamabuki,
The spring is yellow.
Though it gives the spirit of the verse, it does not really solve the problem if the verse is given without explanation.
The original is simply:
Yamabuki no utsurite ki naru izumi kana
Yamabuki is of course the Japanese name of the shrub.
No is a particle with somewhat the effect of the possessive “‘s.”
Utsurite ki naru means essentially “changed-yellow-has.”
Izumi as already mentioned, means “spring” in the sense of a spring of water.
Kana is a word said to give a slight emphasis to what is said, but actually it was often just used to pad out the required number of phonetic units in a hokku, so it is generally just indicated by a period in English.
So we could say that translated literally and woodenly, the original reads:
Yamabuki’s changed-yellow-has spring kana
My own translation for clarity would be:
It has turned
The spring water yellow —
R. H. Blyth’s purpose in writing was not to teach Westerners how to write hokku or to translate in a completely literal fashion, but rather to convey the overall meaning of a verse. And in this, he was quite correct to make sure his readers understood that Ransetsu was seeing the bright yellow reflected in the water, though the word is nowhere in the original. But if you have been reading my postings on hokku for some time, you should be at the point where, like Ransetsu’s Japanese readers, you can intuit what he meant, without the need for explaining it as Blyth has done.
Now quite by chance, I happened to take some photos of a blooming yamabuki within the last couple of days, so here is what it looks like:
Here is a closer view: