I was pleased to find out that W.S. Merwin and Takako Lento’s translation of the Collected Poems of Yosa Buson has just won the 2014 U.S.-Japan Friendship Commission Prize for the Translation of Japanese Literature, which is distributed by the Donald Keene Center at Columbia University.
Click here for more information about the prize.
Click here for a link to the book on Amazon.
A few months ago, I wrote this review about the book on Amazon.
Yosa Buson (与謝蕪村) is one of the most important haiku poets to have ever lived. Born about a generation after the death of Matsuo Bashō, Buson helped to push haikai in important, new directions, and shape haiku (the first verse of a haikai sequence) into an individual, independent art form.
It is no surprise that many collections of Japanese traditional verse in English, such as Robert Hass’ collection of “essential haiku,” contain some of Buson’s poems. Most of those collections, however, only contain of a tiny number of poems, which are presented with minimal commentary and little to no context. Because the offerings in English are currently so poor, Anglophone readers have not yet really had the opportunity to figure out what is actually Buson-like about Buson, and how this giant’s voice differs from those of other haiku greats, such as Bashō, Issa, and Shiki.
Those of us who love Japanese poetry owe a great debt of gratitude to Takako Lento and W.S. Merwin for giving us the first thorough retrospective of Buson’s work in English. This book presents renditions of 868 haiku, plus a small scattering of longer poems—the best look at Buson yet in this English. All of the poems are presented in Romanized Japanese as well.
Donald Keene once wrote about Buson’s poetry that it was “so exclusively concerned with his private feelings, tastes, and perceptions that it strikes us as being modern; there is no barrier of time between him and us” (Seeds in the Heart, 1976, p. 343). Indeed, some of the poems do feel strikingly imagistic, such as haiku 211, “nanohana ya / kujira mo yorazu / umi kurenu,” rendered as Lento and Merwin as “A field of mustard flowers / no whales passed today / night falls on the sea.”
At moments, Buson even gives us glimpses of surrealism avant la lettre, such as with haiku 360: “dedemushi ya / sono tsuno moji no / nijiri gaki” or “With his horns / a snail slowly scrawls / a hesitant letter.” At the same time, Lento and Merwin give us a look at Buson’s other side as well, the one that loves to draw upon Chinese influences and earlier Heian-period literature. The picture that emerges is one of an erudite, intensely focused poet with a distinctive voice.
Personally, I was surprised that this otherwise excellent book provides so little commentary. The translator’s introduction includes a short, one-page summary of Buson’s position in Japanese poetry, but obviously, there is much more that could be said about such an important poet. I suspect that Lento and Merwin felt they did not need to reinvent the wheel; after all, the Japanese literature scholar Makoto Ueda has written about Buson’s life and work in the long out-of-print book The Path of Flowering Thorn. Still, it would have been useful, especially for those of us teaching Japanese literature at universities, to have had some basic information about Buson in the same volume as the translations themselves.
All in all, these are the best Buson translations currently available, hands down. Lento and Merwin deserve much praise for bringing them to us. I hope that they will collaborate again in the future and will continue enriching our bookshelves with their collaborations.
Human institutions are built on terms that are more like the word “happiness” than they are like the word “apple.” Acknowledging that the concepts on which we build these institutions, our expectations, and our forms of life are tied to the languages in which they take shape and are expressed does not mean abandoning the task of making these institutions better, more equitable, more precise, and it doesn’t mean granting privilege to one experience or one identity or one tradition over others. It means agreeing that the project of building these defective institutions is an endless and often a violent one, beset by injustices that need to be expressed and imagined in words we will have to translate again and again, for ourselves and for others. — Jacques Lezra, “How to Translate an Untranslatable Book,” The Washington Post, 16 Jul 2014.
At the Allegan Antique Market last Saturday, in a box of photos showing cows and steers in different fairs and competitions, I found this wonderfully sweet old photograph, taken long before it was possible to call up televised images instantly on Youtube or Hulu. I still remember the days when there were few ways to record a televised image other than waiting by the TV set with a camera ready. (I remember my father taking pictures of the television during one of the early Space Shuttle flights.) No doubt this photograph was kept to show somebody’s friends that a favorite steer had hit the big time!
Life is better with a sense of wonder.
I see each translation as gain: you can gain a little or you can gain a lot, but every time a work of literature is translated, you end up with more, not less. Even a “bad” translation is a gain. — Karen Emmerich, “Translation Questionnaire,” Full Stop
Takashi Yoshida, From Cultures of War to Cultures of Peace: War and Peace Museums in Japan, China, and South Korea (Portland, ME: MerwinAsia, 2014)
Because news from Japan is filled with stories about textbook censors routinely downplaying the aggression of the imperial Japanese military during World War II and politicians visiting Yasukuni Shrine 靖国神社, it is sometimes easy to forget that there are countless people across Japan actively invested in remembering the experience of World War II from an entirely different perspective. Most people know of Japan’s culpability during the war, but there are activists across the country who actively seek to remember the difficult parts of history that nationalist politicians are quick to leave out. By creating dialogue about Japan’s aggression on the mainland and its disastrous results, these grass-roots activists hope to inspire the population of Japan never to want to engage in war again. They seek to overturn textbook accounts of the war and show that the war was not just something that happened to Japan; the war was something Japan created.
My friend and colleague Takashi Yoshida’s new book From Cultures of War to Cultures of Peace: War and Peace Museums in Japan, China, and South Korea (Portland, ME: MerwinAsia, 2014) examines the history of public displays about World War II. Discussions of war-related displays in Japan usually focus on the Yūshūkan 遊就館, the infamously nationalist, pro-military museum located at Yasukuni Shrine, which glorifies World War II and selectively passes over Japanese atrocities on the mainland. Yoshida travelled through Japan to countless small museums and public displays created at the grass-roots level in order to remember the war. He finds that, if anything, the nationalist Yūshūkan is an aberration. The majority of museums dedicated to war memory in Japan seek to forge a new culture of peace.
In examining the history of those places, Yoshida looks at newspaper articles, editorials, histories of governmental support, and public debates about the display contents in order to better understand the ways that people have talked about World War II as part of their own contemporary sociopolitical projects. In addition, Yoshida visited a number of similar sites in China and South Korea, showing once again that there is sometimes a sizeable gap between the official rhetoric of politicians and the beliefs of ordinary citizens.
This important book should, I hope, begin the process of bringing the work of postwar Japanese peace activists to the forefront so that Japan’s image on the international stage is not fashioned only by the actions and rhetoric of politicians seeking to earn support from well-funded, politically active nationalist groups.
Prof. Yoshida is a professor of history in the Department of History at Western Michigan University and one of the core faculty of the WMU Soga Japan Center. He is the author of The Making the “The Rape of Nanking”: History and Memory in Japan, China, and the United States (London: Oxford University Press, 2009), which examines the differences in the ways that Japan, China, and the U.S. remember the Nanjing massacres of 1937. As one might expect with such a difficult subject, Yoshida finds that contemporary political realities are always at play within the process of remembering the past. The new book published this year is an extension of Yoshida’s ongoing interest in war memory and the ways that the use of a reified “past” continues to inform current thinking in Japan and its neighbors.