Matsuo Basho’s introduction to Oku no Hosomichi is well-known and often quoted. And thus, often translated. Those translations changing a word here and there, and sometimes subtly altering the meaning. Here is my crack at it.*
The months and days are eternal travelers. The years that come and go are too. Those who pass their lives afloat on boats, or face old age leading horses tightly by the bridle, their journey is their life, their journey is their home. And many are the old men who meet their end upon the road.
And I myself, moved by the wind driven clouds, am filled with a strong desire to wander.
To be continued…
Notes on translation
* I confess to reading other translations. I do not confess to being the best, I do not claim to be entirely original. And should we disagree, then fine.
We all possess the same poetic license.
Matsuo Basho, perhaps, understood better than others the difficulty in conveying life’s experiences into language. His famous poem about the frog and the sound of water is a good example. Not everything has a linguistic expression. It is a Zen thing. Just experience the moment, like a sunset, or waves crashing on the rocks, a crow perched upon a withered branch, or a horse pissing on the ground next to where you are sleeping. To truly know what the moment was like, “You had to be there.”
Context is important too. “Summer grass and warriors dreams” makes more sense if one knows the fate of the Fujiwara clan. It is also interesting to note that Basho, fearing bandits upon the highways, had expected to meet his end upon the journey. The journey might be uncomfortable at times, but it was also full of interesting characters and wonderful surprises.
Then too, there is more than one way of looking at something. Take the first two characters of Basho’s introduction – 月日, literally month and day, but collectively time or figuratively, years.
Sadly, though we can approach some understanding of Basho’s haiku, we can not truly appreciate the beauty of the language which has to be rendered into English, loosing something thereby in translation.