Sunday, September 25, 2016

Missed cultural signals

No. 93

well nothing happened
yesterday has passed away
with globefish soup
                -- Basho --
from The Complete Haiku

Texts written in a foreign language always present a translation problem for anyone not familiar with the original language.  However, another problem is also present--lack of knowledge about the text's culture.  I find this a regular obstacle because I frequently read stories and poems in translation.  Regardless of my knowledge, limited or otherwise, I was not born in that culture and therefore miss much.

The haiku, brief as it is, presents that problem: many times I have read a haiku, get what it expresses and, yet, feel I'm missing something.  What's even more worrisome is that I wonder how many times I never suspected I missed something.

Fortunately, Jane Reichhold, the editor and translator of Basho: The Complete Haiku has provided an appendix which includes notes for every single haiku.  You can guess how much this helps.

I read the above haiku and was a bit puzzled for it appeared as though the point was that it's been an empty day, with its high point being a bowl of globefish soup the day before.  However, turning to the notes, I find the following:

"1678--spring.  The globefish, or puffer fish, is a popular delicacy.  If a globefish isn't prepared properly it can be deadly.  It remains an expensive dish because chefs have to be specially trained and licensed.  The expense and idea of tempting death add to the thrill of eating this food."

Now I understand.  This haiku is a sigh of relief.


  1. When does the cultural distance undermine universal appeal and lead instead to confusion ? Shouldn't good literature erase the distance? That is often an issue.

    1. R.T.,

      Not sure about your question. The confusion has little to do with Basho. The confusion is a result of my ignorance. Basho was writing for a Japanese reading audience, just as writers write for those speaking their language. To be concerned with those who do not speak or read that language would paralyze the writer.

      Dickinson wrote in English, yet many English speaking readers, including me, find it difficult to understand her poetry. Does this say she lacks universal appeal?

    2. Good points. Translation can be the problem so often.

    3. R.T.,

      Yes, I think we've discussed this issue in the past on your blog, if I'm not mistaken.

      Reichhold seems to follow the literal road of translation to a considerable extent, at least compared to other versions I've seen. What she provides with her translations is more than any other translator does: each haiku comes with the original version in Japanese characters, then the Japanese version in the Western alphabet (name for that escapes me), and then the English translation. In addition she provides notes regarding the time and place and relevant information, such as an explanation of the significance of the globefish.

    4. R.T.,

      What I forgot to mention is that all this information is presented in an appendix at the back. Up front we see only the haiku without the distractions. So, I read the haiku, think about it, and then go to the back, read the notes, and return again to the haiku, now reading it with more information than I had the first time around.