Writing on Bashō's Pond
Matsuo Bashō (1644–94) is Japan’s most well-known haiku poet; and Bashō’s poem about the old pond, the jumping frog, and the sound of water is Bashō’s best-known haiku. Indeed, this haiku, like Bashō himself, is known well beyond Japan, long ago attaining through its many translations a degree of international recognition. However, in Japan, awareness of Bashō, and of his frog haiku, goes well beyond simple recognition, having long ago absorbed itself into a broader and more complex form of remembrance and, with that absorption, a nearly reflexive response by many of those hearing it. Often, the mere mention of this haiku is all that is needed for it to be—madeleine-like—instantly evoked, for its lines to be conjured in the imagination of the Japanese listener. Translation of Bashō’s frog haiku into English has itself taken many forms, with hundreds of versions existing. In this essay, I discuss these translations and what their sheer abundance reveals about the pursuit of that haiku. What, one wonders, is being translated here? I will also contrast this translator’s pursuit of the haiku with the often more immediate recognition of it by many Japanese, that involuntary memory manifested by its indigenous familiarity. Finally, I present my own recent installation-translation of this haiku, in Tokyo, a “writing on water/writing on air.”
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