How an Irishman from Toyko translated a haiku master

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Matsuo Bashō, born in Iga Province in 1644, is surely the greatest figure in Japanese literature, and a major presence in poetry around the world. It is entirely thanks to him – his work and his influence – that haiku is today the most popular poetic form on the planet. Just as most of us will remember at least a line or two from Wordsworth or Heaney, we probably had an equally memorable encounter with Bashō; probably his most famous haiku of all –

On the old pond now

A singing frog springs into

the sound of water

Originally written in the spring of 1686, the above translation is from an extraordinary new book, Bashō: The complete haiku of Matsuo Bashō – translated, annotated and with an introduction by Andrew Fitzsimons. It is a truly landmark publication, described by the poet and Oxford professor Bernard O’Donoghue as “a moment of enormous significance in world poetry”.

It is also a time for Irish poetry as Andrew Fitzsimons, Professor of English Language and Cultures at Gakushuin University in Toyko, is from Walkinstown.

He’s also a poet, and one of the great pleasures of the book is how Fitzsimons brings his own language and sensibility to these original 980s. The art of the translator is notoriously difficult, and to use the word “lonely” according to Hank Williams is to be fully aware that the words “lonely” or “alone” are simply not correct. To know when to choose the childish word “pee” (as opposed to a scientific or rude term) is to understand the precise tone of a 17th century master, himself reveling in all sorts of language, from the highest to the most debauchery.

This collection is the first to strictly follow the form of the originals. By adhering to on count (syllables for the sake of argument), Fitzsimons managed to re-present, without any feeling of being constricted or trapped, all of Bashō’s music, depth and clarity.

Counting the syllables is never easy, especially when the poet writes, as Bashō often does, about the cuckoo or the hototogisu—two syllables in English but five in Japanese. Use the word hototogisu in a haiku and you’ve used up a good chunk of your ration.

Also in Kyoto

Kyoto nostalgia

Hi Hi

For Andrew Fitzsimons, who owns three books of poetry himself, respecting and working with such demands has long been instructive. He insists on the necessity of what he calls “a level of linguistic tension, a pressure on the enunciation, for which this formal constriction proves to be useful indeed”.

Referring to Heaney, he talks about the “pressures” that actually produce a poem and the feeling of constraint overcome.

But that’s only part of Fitzsimons’ success story. In this infinitely rewarding work of scholarship, skill and dedication, we find a Bashō not only as we usually see him – a philosopher-poet of nature – but indeed as a man of the world. In Fitzsimons’ translations we encounter a poet of both town and country, of wandering and contented stay at home, and of love in all its forms. In the well-chosen words of Andrew Fitzsimons, Bashō is not so much a seer as a seer. One of the great observers of poetry.

Bashō – The Complete Haiku by Matsuo Bashō, translated, annotated and with an introduction by Andrew Fitzsimons is published by University of California Press. John Kelly presents Mystery Train on RTÉ lyric fm every Sunday – Thursday from 7pm – listen here.


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