One has to be really careful with the hokku of Buson, because he can often be quite contrived and artificial. Now as you know, I favor objective hokku, and to find that in Buson one must carefully pick and choose among his verses. You will recall that Buson was a painter as well as a writer of hokku, and often his desire to create a certain effect wins out over realism.
Today we will look at a winter hokku of Buson.
Shigururu ya nezumi no wataru koto no ue
Cold-rain ya mouse ‘s crossing koto ‘s on
A mouse walks across
Shigeruru is winter rain falling, thus cold rain. Technically, nezumi could be translated either as “mouse” or “rat,” because Japanese did not make a clear distinction, but in this case a mouse — because of its size — is more appropriate. A koto is of course a quite long stringed instrument placed on the floor.
This hokku gives us a sense of being in an interior as cold rain falls outside. We hear the rain, and along with it, we hear sudden, faint musical sounds as a mouse walks or scurries across the strings of the koto.
We could emphasize the sound by translating it as;
A mouse creeps across
That way we hear the mouse making “k”- “k”-“k” sounds as he moves — formed by the “c” in creeps, in across, and the same sound in the “k” of koto. That rendering makes the movement of the mouse across the koto rather slow.
Some of you may have seen the translation of this verse by W. S. Merwin. He makes the hokku into a question — asking “Is it a winter shower / or a mouse running / across the koto strings?” But that, in my view is doing damage to the verse through mistranslation, because it is not at all written as a question, and the writer is not asking a question. Instead, the original hokku gives us the chill of the air in the room as cold rain falls in the background, and against that background, we hear the faint sound of the friction of the mouse disturbing the strings (unmentioned but implied in the original) of the koto as he passes over them.
Notice that in the original, the sound (like the strings) of the koto is not even mentioned, nor is that of the rain — but they are understood by implication.