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Thursday, July 23, 2015

'Yume'/Dream Theme – Basho Translations

Learning Haiku by Sifting Basho Translations
Elaine Andre - © July, 2015

Speaking only a single language fluently (English in this case) presents a serious challenge to learning the authentic haiku genre. For those of us attempting to find haiku’s essence we are reliant upon translators and their commentaries to learn the subtleties involved and the universal allegories that underpin certain great verses containing intricate allusions.

In the essay Basho and His Translators by John Carley, New Zealand Poetry Society, 2011, http://www.poetrysociety.org.nz/node/578 Carley discusses the complexities of translating between unrelated languages, e.g., from Japanese to English. The essay includes a portion on Matsuo Basho’s famous natsukusa (summer grass) verse, which Basho wrote at Stage 23 of Oku no Hosomichi (Narrow Road to the Interior, 1689). Many translators have made exhaustive efforts to tease out the meaning of this particular verse:
natsukusa       |    ya     |  tsuwamonodomo | ga | yume | no | ato
summer grass | : – ! ?  |   (strong) warrior   | ‘s  | dream | ‘s | site/mark/remainder

As noted in the direct translation of the Japanese (above) the kireji ‘ya’ can or has been indicated by various symbols that are supposed to be the equivalent of the Japanese cutting word. We are left to ponder whether ‘ya’ might somehow signify a question (substituting for ‘ka’?), a ‘cut and turn’ (nowadays most often signified by an em-dash), or possibly an exclamation (!). Well, it seems quite likely that the question mark can be eliminated. Then, too, it seems unlikely that ‘summer grass’ in a field is cause for exclamation, so apparently the exclamation mark is not a high contender either. Now we are left with a colon and an em-dash, but since the colon is often used to indicate an equivalency, it would seem that the most viable choice is the em-dash, which indicates a ‘cut and turn’ signaling contrast between the fragment and phrase. (OK, this might be a leap to conclusion, so perhaps it needs further discussion to clarify.)

On the occasion of his visit to Yasuhira, Basho wrote about the site in reference to the historical battle that occurred in 1189, five hundred years earlier:

Here three generations of the Fujiwara clan passed as though in a dream. The great outer gates lay in ruins. Where Hidehira’s manor stood, rice fields grew. Only Mount Kinkei remained. I climbed the hill where Yoshitsune died; I saw the Kitakami, a broad stream flowing down through the Nambu Plain, the Koromo River circling Isumi Castle below the hill before joining Kitakami. The ancient ruins of Yasuhira–––from the end of the Golden Era–––lie out beyond the Koromo Barrier, where they stood guard against the Ainu people. The faithful elite remained bound to the castle–––for all their valor, reduced to ordinary grass. Tu Fu wrote:     

            The whole country devastated
            only mountains and rivers remain
            In springtime, at the ruined castle,
            the grass is always green.

We sat a while, our hats for a seat, seeing it all through tears.
                                                                                    (Tr. Sam Hamill)

             [The ‘summer grass’ verse is located here.]
        natsukusa ya tsuwamonodomo ga yume no ato

In the translation you quote, "The ancient ruins of Yasuhira–––from the end of the Golden Era–––lie out beyond the Koromo Barrier, where they stood guard against the Ainu people. The faithful elite remained bound to the castle" is confusing. What Basho writes is that from the hill where Yoshitsune's fort once stood he could see the remains of the fort in which Yasuhira and his followers were living when the attack on Yoshitsune's fort took place. There is nothing about a "Golden Age" in Basho's text, and Ezo in the text probably refers not to Ainu but to people in northern Honshu who were resisting the northward incursion into their area being made by Kyoto-based warriors. "The faithful" in the translation also differs from Basho's text. This refers not to Yasuhira's followers but to Yoshitsune's small band of loyal warriors who fought to the death defending Yoshitsune in their little fort on the hill. They all died fearlessly, and their buried bodies mixed with the earth and became part of clumps of grass growing above them. So "warriors" in the hokku refers directly to Yoshitsune and the small group of followers who made the long trip north with him. Many Japanese commentators feel that, in the larger sense, "warriors" also includes Hidehira, Yasuhira, and their followers, since they also dreamed of establishing Kyoto-based hegemony in northern Honshu and of protecting Yoshitsune and since Yasuhira was also a victim: he was murdered later by the distrustful Yoritomo.

In Basho's hokku the first mention of "dream" (in the translation: "...three generations of the Fujiwara clan passed as though in a dream") actually says "during a brief sleep/nap." This is an allusion to the Noh play Kantan, in which a traveler in China stops at an inn and falls asleep while waiting for supper. He is awakened by a messenger, who takes him to the capital, where he is made emperor. He rules in great splendor there for fifty years until the innkeeper comes to his room and tells him supper is ready.... This Daoist conception of the inseparability of dream and reality is close to the version of Zhuangzi's (Chuang Tzu's) dream of dreaming he was a butterfly, alluded to in Basho's hokku no. 8 on your list. And the traveler in the Noh play is named Rosei, the same Rosei alluded to in the first Basho hokku on your list. Thus in the haibun Basho is suggesting that the high worldly positions of Yoshitsune and Yasuhira were both dream-like and in several senses unreal. 
Chris Drake

Makoto Ueda, in Basho and His Interpreters, Stanford University Press, 1992, page 242, provides some important background information on this verse that helps us to appreciate the occasion:

Takadachi was a castle that Fujiwara Hidehira (? -1187), the lord of Mutsu Province (Aomori and Iwate prefectures), had built in Hiraizumi for Minamoto Yoshitsune (1159-89), younger brother of Shogun Yoritomo (1147-99), in the twelfth century. When Hidehira died, his son sent a troop to attack Yoshidachi and, after a fierce battle, killed him and his retainers. Basho visited Takadachi on June 29.

Note that Basho only wrote nine (9) yume/dream verses among his one thousand-and-thirty-one (1031) known hokku verses, each a variation of the word dream. We may get a better sense of his dream theme’s development by reviewing the nine verses in the order in which they were written:

1.         富士の雪慮生が夢をつかせたり Basho age 34 (1678)
Fuji no yuki Rosei ga yume o tsukasetari

snow on Mount Fuji –
Rosei creates the world
in his dream
                                                            (Tr. ?)

2.         餅を夢に折り結ふ歯朶の草枕 Basho age 38 (1682?)
mochi o yume ni ori musubu shida no kusa makura

I dream of rice cakes
decorated with ferns
on my pillow of grass
(Tr. Greve)

3.         馬に寝て残夢月遠し茶の煙
uma ni nete zanmu tsuki tooshi cha no kemuri  (1684)

dozing on my horse,
with dream lingering and moon distant:
smoke from a tea fire
(Tr. Barnhill)

4.         夢よりも現の鷹ぞ頼もしき  (1687 at Irago Pt. w/ Tokoku)
yume yori mo utsutsu no taka zo tanomoshiki

Even more than dream
the hawk of reality
reassures me

more than dreams
the hawk of reality
heartens me
(Tr. Barnhill, Bashô's Haiku, 2004) #231, 63)

5.         明日は粽難波の枯葉夢なれや Basho age 44 (1688)
asu wa chimaki Naniwa no kareha yume nare ya

by tomorrow
the Chimaki leaves from Naniwa will become dry
and become a dream . . .
(Tr. Greve)

6.         蛸壺やはかなき夢を夏の月 (1688)
takotsubo ya hakanaki yume o natsu no tsuki

an octopus pot ---
inside, a short-lived dream
under the summer moon
                                                            (Tr. ?)

7.         夏草や兵どもが夢の跡
natsukusa ya tsuwamono-domo ga yume no ato  

summer grass -

that's all that remains of

brave warriors' dreams 
                                                           (Tr. Greve)

君や蝶我や荘子が夢心  (1690)
kimi ya cho ware ya Sôshi ga yume-gokoro

            You are the butterfly
            And I the dreaming heart
            Of Chuang-tzu

                                                            (Tr. Aitken)

9.         旅に病で夢は枯野をかけ廻る (Basho’s death verse)
tabi ni yande yume wa kareno o kakemeguru  (Nov. 28, 1694)

falling ill while travelling –
in my dreams I am wandering
over withered fields
(Tr. Greve)

For additional translations of the natsukusa verse, see also:

In the context of the admittedly limited translation choices shown above, we have a glimpse of a twenty-six year journey beginning in the ancient past and culminating as Basho is leaving his own body:

1st verse (1668): Basho declares the connection he is making –– the vertical axis is stated directly in classical context of the Chinese tale of Lu Sheng (
廬生), (713 - 741), who is known in Japanese as Rosei; the unbounded world of mythological dreams

2nd verse (1682?): Basho seems to be daydreaming of New Year treats while living in austerity; longing

3rd verse (1684): half-dreaming; dream residue

4th verse (1687): Basho reunites with his friend Tokoku who is living in exile at Irago Point; here reality is more fulfilling than what was imagined or hoped for

5th verse (1688): the Chimaki leaves’ impermanence; in a day they will become little more than husks; a memory

6th verse (1688): the octopus’ short life passing with the summer moon

7th verse (1689): the hopes and ambitions of ancient warriors vanquished

8th verse (1690): metamorphosis and thoughts of an imagined previous life

9th verse (1694): delirium of illness; out-of-body experience; perhaps the mind surveying its withering host

In light of Basho’s overall theme of impermanence among his dream verses and the variations in context for yume/dream, can we determine which translation of the natsukusa/summer grass verse comes closest to Basho’s intention? For those of us who cannot read the verse in its original Japanese form, we are left with a conundrum as to how Basho’s mind worked in regard to this ethereal subject of dreams. We are led to make a connection through the pairing of ‘grass’ and ‘dream’. On the one hand, the grass, as in many of Basho’s dream verses, springs up quickly and then vanishes. On the other hand, even in his third verse, which holds a sense of dream residue, the sense of dreaming is apparently fading away.

Only Basho’s eighth dream verse concerning the dreaming heart of Sôshi/Chuang-tzu seems to allude to a dream that is sustained, though it is apparently revivified after dormancy through a reincarnation mechanism. In the Hamill translation of Basho’s prose portion that precedes the ‘summer grass’ verse it appears that Basho clearly states that three generations of the Fujiwara clan passed as though in a dream, that it was the end of a golden era, and that the faithful elite forces bound by duty to remain at the castle were “reduced to ordinary grass.” Does this sound like a case of a dream sustained by profound change? The soldiers who fought the battle had had an ambitious ‘dream,’ and these warriors have become grass. Therefore, they are apparently nothing more than summer grass, which is all that remains of the warriors’ dashed ambitions.

I made the effort to ask the renowned Basho scholar Chris Drake if my assumptions were valid. 

In English, translations that stress the profound importance of summer grass as a physical medium linking past and present are hard to find, though John's Carley's translation is an excellent example:
     a trace of the dreams
     of warriors past
     ah, the summer grass
     - Carley 2010

In addition to these two different basic ways of looking at grass in the hokku, there are also Japanese commentators who point out that the ga in tsuwamono-domo ga yume can also mean "my [= Basho's] dream of/about warriors." In this interpretation, as Basho sat thinking and weeping, he dozed off once or several times and saw a vivid dream(s) of Yoshitsune and his followers dying right on this spot. It is a pattern found in many Noh plays, in which traveling monks often rest beneath a tree or other site of someone's death and are soon visited by that person's soul. Basho was very sensitive to language, and he was familiar with Noh drama, so it's possible he deliberately left this reading open as an alternative possibility.  So, for example, the following translation might be possible:

     summer grass --
     traces of my dream
     of dead warriors

Without denying completely the possibility that Basho saw his own dream at the site, I myself like the reading which sees the dreams as belonging to the dead warriors and regards the deep grass as a crucial physical link between present and past, life and death. A few versions:

     deep summer grass --
     vestigial dreams
     of slain warriors

     tall summer grass --
     the remains of
     warrior dreams

     summer grass --                                  
     wild traces of
     warriors' dreams

     summer grass --
     fierce traces of
     warriors' dreams

Chris Drake

What we find in one translation may be a little skewed or even misleading, so commentaries on multipal translations is often necessary to arriving at a tentative conclusion on the Japanese author's intentions.  

Since we find that 'yume'/dream can hold so many varient meanings, which is intended? We see that Basho has used yume to mean:

- mythological dream
- longing
- half-dreaming/dream residue
- imagined;hoped for
- memory
- something passing quickly
- ambitions 
- imagined previous life
- delirium of illness

Most if not all of these applications of the term dream are also common to the English language. The final question then, is whether the summer grass is all that remains or whether the summer grass contains traces of dreams. Perhaps the conundrum hinges upon understanding how the kireji ya is used in the verse, but that question has not come to resolve among the various Basho translators and commentators. After more than three hundred years the debate continues. It seems possible that Basho chose a particular way of wording his verse so that the reader will discover both options. 

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