Make no mistake, when I saw that there would be a Bashō-lecture open to all, by Lars Vargö, I jumped for joy and wrote it down in my calendar. Bashō is my fave poet probably and Lars Vargö is a scholar of Japanese literature and a well-known and respected translator of haiku, I even have a book on my shelves translated by him.
It was such a diverse and engaged crowd that gathered to listen the other evening. That in itself made me very happy. I mean, liking Bashō is not fringe. When it comes to poetry taste I’m as “basic” as it gets; my top 5 (in no internal order) is Pushkin, Akhmatova, Omar Khayyam, Bashō and Szymborska.
So what I learned is why Bashō is such figure within the discipline; he was not only the master but also the arbiter of style. Haiku, which is what we in the west call it, comes from a long tradition and became more and more minimal over the years. By the time Bashō came around (he was born in 1644) what was needed was a framework, and guidelines. From this tradition other forms of poetry also emerged, but Bashō came to define the school of poetry called Hokku that works with symbols like the seasons and things related to the seasons, and that has as a fundamental technique that the seasonal aspects should be juxtaposed with something. That being the conceptual framework there is a lot of flowers and moons in the poems in this discipline. Vargö said that as a translator there is a hurdle to get over, being fed up with flowers and moons for a bit, and then seeing their beauty again.
Using words and images conjured should be done with the aim of painting a picture but not saying too much, the reader should themselves “connect the dots”. What should transcend though is a feeling of elegance but also lightness. I think that this is what I connect with, the spirit and feeling of the poems. That is also something that translators have to work around. What I have now understood is how different Japanese and western languages work, and that the rhythm is different in the original language. I always knew that it was the case, but the difference between the Japanese counting the sounds for each sign and how that is different from a syllable or a character in the west is somewhat clearer.
When it comes to translations of haiku, and their popularity in the west, there have been waves of which the first included people like Lafcadio Hearn and Arthur Waley (who also translated parts of Tale of Genji). Later people like Reginald Horace Blyth were very important. With the rising interest in haiku, western poets tried writing poems within that style. Jack Kerouac was mentioned as someone how had managed in a good way and was recommended reading by Vargö (the work by Kerouac is called Book of haikus and was published posthumously in 2003).
The many ways to translate was given time in the lecture and examples read; there are versions but no exact right or wrong. Some translators make an effort to keep the format, where as others find that using more words to capture the emotion might be needed. What I reflected on afterwards was how that might differ between Swedish and English as Swedish is a, I think, a more precise language. People always say that there is similarity in design between japan and Sweden (and Finland) and I think that can be probably be said about the languages too? Both being a prodyct of mentality and a way of thinking. In any case, and I learned this with The Tale of Genjji, that translation makes all the difference and it is with shopping around for one you like, or make the effort to compare. Translations, I guess at least, are also influenced by their context which means that the time when they were translated, might matter to the end result.
For those that find Bashō fascinating but might not be entirely sold on poetry I recommend his travelogue The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches, which is just what it sounds like. For those that like his poetry, I also recommend learning more about him by reading the book mentioned in the previous sentence. As a mix of poetry and prose, it has something for everyone. But yeah, I do prefer his poems, I cannot get enough of moons and flowers, I really can’t.