From the beginning I want to point out that, because there are various English versions of Basho's masterpiece, each with its own title, I'm going to refer to it in its original Japanese, Oku no Hosomichi.

I'll begin by telling you a little about my reasons and intentions for undertaking a translation of that. Then I'll mention a few points about the translation itself, and, finally, I will offer a personal response to Basho's poetry.

How many here have read Basho in his original Japanese? If you  have,  you  may  have  experienced  some  degree  of difficulty. The text I used was brought out by a publisher called Shogakukan. In the middle of each page were Basho's own words. At the bottom there was a modern Japanese easy-read explanatory text, and at the top there were notes teaching readers about various people, places, and things Basho mentions. It was rough going for me. It took me three years to read it.

I was in no way prepared. One might say I cut my teeth on Basho's masterpiece. In no way qualified, not a graduate of any Japanese language program, not a student of any famous scholar, without a university degree in Japanese literature, and without any guidance at all, I dove into the deep sea of Oku no Hosomichi.

In my early days teaching at my university, a senior professor called me a "young Turk." According to him, I was angry at everything, criticized everything. Maybe that was my attitude when I took it upon myself to read Basho in the original while looking at someone's English version. By measure of reason, it was not a reasonable thing for me to do, but I was younger, and maybe because I am American, or maybe just because of the way I am, stubborn, I thought I could do it.

What was it moved me to undertake such an activity? I had seen  an  English  translation  of  the  work  way  back  when  I arrived in Japan in 1980. At the time, I was unable to see why Basho is such an important poet. The English seemed nondescript; it did not inspire me in any way. Maybe ten years after that, a man I’d become friends with, an American poet living in Kyoto, advised me to read his version of Oku no Hosomichi. I got that book, published by a small press in America. On one page was the original Basho text. On the facing page was my friend’s English version. Although his Japanese was limited, he had a Japanese university professor working with him, so it didn’t seem that there would be any issue with the essential accuracy of the translation.

But it was my first look at the original. While struggling to read Basho in his own words, I realized that there is much that had not been brought over into that English language presentation. It was the glory of that first page of the original that inspired me to devote three years of my life to reading the rest. I’m not trying to fault my dear friend’s translation. (RIP). But it doesn’t get near the original. Nor does my own. No one can. Nor can an easy-to-read Japanese version; compared with the original, it lacks vitality or energy.

Oku no Hosomichi is a magnificent complex organism in which everything connects with everything else, in which each word resonates with homophonous possibility. The haiku are organically connected with the haibun prose. And vice versa.

So that now, 25 years later, if I hear the Yamadera haiku 閑さや岩にしみ入る蝉の声 I am reminded of his haibun. If I hear the haibun. I'm reminded of the haiku. But it also brings back the  entire  tapestry  that  is  Oku  no  Hosomichi. One  thread contains the entire creation. A universe in a grain of sand. All I can do is sigh, in awe. There are no words. It is a text that, like a Japanese garden, points beyond itself, a finger pointing at a moon, it points a way to, a way of, that mystery that is the Great Beyond, 生と死の源, the source of all our living and dying. But to get to that stage of literary samadhi, one has to put in the work, one has to read the original. No translation will do. If you want the vibes you have "hit the libes" (which is slang from my college days that means go to a library. "Vibes" is short for vibrations, such as in the old Beach Boys' song "Good Vibrations." ). Or you can write your own life's journey at depth, using language that resonates with your original universality.

As mentioned, I was young and angry. I was angry because it seemed that some of the English versions were purposely deceiving readers—they weren't, but it didn't seem that way to me then—and, like a small child, I felt sorry for the readers who had no way of telling the translations were so different from the original. I'd fume to myself in my room, and then I'd fume in print: "What is this translator doing?! Basho never wrote that!" "What is this plain, worn out, stale, flat, English style!? Wake up!" I look back now and laugh.

That was my attitude. That's why my version does not appear through any mainstream publisher. That's why no one has ever heard of me. Mine is a mountain hermit's version.

I'm older now. Maybe wiser. Maybe not. Still angry. But now that anger has mellowed.

Now I realize what I was too stubborn to see back then, which is that, like different conductors performing the same piece of music, each translator has her or his individual way to bring out  the  original.  Each,  hopefully,  has  something special  to offer.

I think it is important that everyone understand that I am not a Basho  expert.  I  undertook  that  one  task  because  I  was following my spirit, and, after completing Oku no Hosomichi, while that spirit was still with me I translated some 50 or more Basho haiku. After that my spirit took me elsewhere. Just to give you a brief example of what following my spirit means in my life, in my background studies for translating Basho, I was thrilled to read Zhuangzi, the Chinese Daoist sage. Through reading about Daoism I was moved to begin lessons in Tai Chi, and through Tai Chi I became interested in acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine.  And, eventually, I brought out a book called Dreaming Zhuangzi. Sometime after the Basho spirit, a student brought some poems by Santoka to class, and I've been involved with Santoka for 20 years.

Here, because it connects with what I was attempting with my own translation, I'd like to quote a passage about Basho from Ueda Makoto's book about him. In his chapter about haibun, readers are told that "... the word haibun means haiku prose, a prose piece written in the spirit of haiku. ... A haibun has... the same sort of brevity and conciseness as a haiku. ...Because of this brevity, the writer is as concise as possible, avoiding unnecessary words; in fact, he often omits words that would be necessary in normal syntax. Although this is not evident in English translation, the predicate verb of a sentence is sometimes  left  out,  leaving  the  reader  to  supply  it  by himself." [121~122]

Let me repeat what was the most important part for me: "Although this is not evident in English translation." What I wanted to do is make what is not evident evident.

It was my thinking that, since there were already translations that attempted to find that happy middle ground between a literal translation and a literary translation, a more literal translation might be appreciated by some offbeat reader somewhere. My version has been criticized as a word for word translation. Someone else said that my translation needs a translation.  My  purpose  was  to  make  an  English  haibun version complete with the gaps and leaps Ueda Makoto mentions, an English haibun that doesn't read like the English prose style we might find in a newspaper article. And I wanted to present Basho in an English that was as rough as Basho's journey. I wanted words through which readers can feel the steps and breathe the physical exertion.

As far as the haiku, instead of explanatory translation, my own tended to use less words and so less syllables than a haiku, and they are in fact not intended as haiku—with the various conditions to be satisfied—but rather they seek to release the spirit of haiku, which is of course inexpressible. Here again, as example, is the one at Yamadera with my English version:

Stone distills stillness cicada chant

My efforts succeeded: my version is not a smooth read. It's rough going. And in being a success, it's also a failure. No matter how choppy, distorted, and disconnected my English haibun might seem, it still doesn't capture Basho's magnificence.

To give you an example of what the difference is, my version does not use the word "I." Ever. That is in keeping with the original. Another translator's version has the word "I" a dozen times, and that's only on the first page. "I this," "I that," and so on.

So, having described my reasons and intentions, let me give you a brief and easy example of the great difficulty in trying to translate Basho. Let's start at the beginning, with the very first haiku.

Let's take the Japanese hina no ie from the first section of Oku no Hosomichi.

草の戸も  住みかはる世ぞ   雛の家
Kusa no to mo    sumikawaru yo zo   hina no ie

For the last segment of that haiku, most English versions leave a reader with "a doll's house" or a reference to a "doll festival." Stubborn me, I tried to find a word that might have some connections similar to the Japanese word hina, which brings in "small," "cute," "endearment," and, like the word hina, also connotes a baby chickens, or chicks. So, after a painstaking search  through  one  dictionary  after  another,  mulling  over words such as teeny weeny, itty bitty, and so on, I found what seemed just the right word:   "chickabiddy." So, here is my version:

Thatched hut too, changes with the world to a home for chickabiddy dolls

Having given just a small sample of the difficulty of translation, let's go to my personal response to Basho.

325 years have passed since Basho breathed his last poem. His words speak still, speak the stillness. More than three hundred years, and Basho's words are all the brighter. Here we are, more modernly civilized than ever, ever more technologically equipped, though sliding into various modes of collapse and taking, as the United Nations recently tells us, the rest of nature with us.

Basho's poems are guiding lights, natural landmarks bespeaking the commonality of all life. They shine like stars, and this is so relevant to our times, because the world we live in has become so much darker.

Why read Basho now? To ask “why read Basho?” is the same as asking “why breathe?” To stay alive is the only answer I can come up with.  In order to survive.

Ours are lives that are given order by flowers, by moon, each imparting to everything else its nature, its spirit, all coming together as one. A harmony.

月華の是やまことのあるじ達 つきはなの これやまことの あるじたち
Moon, flowers: these are true masters’ masters

These “beings”--moon, stars, flowers, mountains, grasses--are true masters. We, our knowing selves, do not make a sense of order, no more than do we grow our own hands. We can only experience an order within us, simply by being as we are.

Had Basho lived longer, how would he have changed? (And he would have changed, as is the way of nature.) He had been looking to poetry as a way of enlightenment, as a way to settle his heart/mind. Towards the end of his life, he tells of being pestered by the need to make a poem. Poetry would not afford him the tranquility he desired. Had he lived a bit longer, would he have realized that being just as he is is enlightenment, that being  just  as  he  is  means,  for  him,  being  a  poet,  that enlightenment is not a stage attained through poetry, but, as Zen priest Dogen tells us, in the act of seated meditation itself? "Seated  meditation"  meaning,  for  Basho,  the  making  of  a poem. But Basho seems to have thought tranquility is something else, some stage that he could not attain because he could not put down his brush.

The true "masters," the moon, flowers, mountains, and stars, are as they are because they are as they are. Their substance—to break it down for comprehension by a mind that wants things broken down—is one with their function. They "have their act together." Basho's enlightenment is no different. The substance of his words and the function of his words are one. That is order, that is harmony, that is enlightenment. I call it radiance.



  • "cut my teeth on": acquire initial practice or experience of a particular sphere of activity. J. で経験を積む、…から初めて学ぶ
  • "a young Turk": The term "Young Turk" is now used generally to denote a member of an insurgent group within an organization (often, although not always, a political party) advocating  change,  sometimes  radical  change,  in  that organization. J. 改革を求める急進派
  • "nondescript": J. あまり印象に残らない
  • "samadhi": J. サマーディ. 三昧. 仏教やヒンドゥー教における
  • 瞑想で、精神集中が深まりきった状態のことをいう "Zhuangzi" (Chuang-tsu, 4th century BC). J. 荘子 "offbeat": J. 風変わり, オフビートの
  • "Dogen"   (1200~1253)   Founder   of   the   Soto   sect   of   Zen
  • Buddhism. J. 道元禅師
  • "have their act together": 効果的に行動している

 This address was presented by the author at the 10th World Haiku Association Conference in Tokyo on 15th September 2019. It is reprinted here with permission.