no ue ni
falling on the unfinished bridge,
Oh, if only on top
わからない, Wakaranai, I don’t understand
“Master Basho,” the disciple says after reading this haiku, “Wakaranai, わからない, I don’t understand.”
After a momentary pause, Master Basho replies, “Those who speak, do not know. Those who know, need not speak.”
The disciple bows his head, the fingers of his two hands interlaced in his lap, and exhaling a deep breath before repeats, almost as if in prayer, “Wakaranai.”
The old master removes his cap and runs his hands through his graying hair. Then he strokes the beard of his chin as if it were the fur of a cat and says, “We are all looking for answers. But some things in life are mysteries. There are no answers my son. Perhaps, a haiku, a word picture may suffice.”
After a moment, the disciple nods.
Unexplainable, unknowable, ineffable
Even the most gifted writers know than not all experiences can be rendered into language. A common example, the first light of the morning sun parting the darkness greeting the new day. “You had to be there,” one usually says when trying to describe the unexplainable, the unknowable, the ineffable.
Matsuo Basho’s haiku is inspired by the building of the lofty Shin Ohashi (New Great Bridge). Constructed in the fall of 1693, it spanned the Sumida River, and for the first time linked the bustling city center of Edo (old name for Tokyo) and rustic Fukagawa, where Basho lived in a hut provide to him by his disciples. One source reports that the construction was begun “in July and finished in five months on Dec. 7 1693.” (See the online essay, The Spaces of Robert Hass, March 10, 2015, James Karkoski). If so, it still allows time for the a first winter’s snow before the bridge’s completion, a moment for Matsuo Basho to stand below the unfinished bridge.
Although it depicts rain and a completed bridge, this later day painting by Japanese artist Hiroshige, 1857, conveys a sense of being exposed to the Nature’s elements.
Lost in translation
Translators rarely agree about wording and Matsuo Basho’s poem is no exception.
The most Spartan example by David Landis Barnhill:
first-snow ! / make / bridge ’s top
on the half finished bridge
This last example seems to eliminate the last line of Basho’s poem, の上に, no ue ni, which I render as “If only on top” and adding the gratuitous exclamation “Oh”.
One might add a little more context to the haiku by explaining that Basho moved from Edo to Fukagawa in 1680. The river Sumida separated the two and there were no bridges. I suspect that not all of the residents would look forward to becoming a part of metropolitan Edo (Tokyo).
Understanding and knowing
One has to wonder if there is a difference in Japanese between understanding and knowing. My answer is: わかりませんです, Wakarimasendesu.