Several weeks ago I posted a collection of poems about the moon. The poems in that essay ranged from Louisa May Alcott, to Li Bai, to Kobayashi Issa. However, the poem that stood out for me the most was Basho’s haiku about the moon.
The moon glows the same: It is the drifting cloud forms Make it seem to change --Matsuo Basho
As I copied down this poem, I began to think about its meaning. My first thought was that Basho seemed to be highlighting how our perceptions of reality can be altered by our internal thoughts.
There is a Mahayana Buddhist concept called the Two Truths that seems to capture this idea. The Two Truths talks about the relationship “between absolute reality-whatever that may be-and the relative world we inhabit.” Lion’s Roar explains that relative truth “includes all the dualistic phenomena- ourselves, other beings, material objects, thoughts, emotions, concepts-that make up our lives in this world”(1). Whereas the absolute reality is described as “truth is the reality beyond dualism of any kind. It’s also the true nature of relative phenomena.”(1) In this haiku, I thought of the moon as a representation of absolute reality and the clouds being the material objects of relative truth. In other words, the moon is that reality that is beyond our day-to-day reality, and then the clouds are all of our thoughts and perceptions that “cloud” our ability to see that truth.
I did like my interpretation of this haiku, but I also wanted to know what others thought. So I reached out to a couple of other writers to get their reactions.
Ashley writes for the blog A Different View. In this blog, Ashley publishes reflections on the natural world and haiku. I thought it would be interesting to hear what he thought about this haiku. Ashley commented:
“You made a remark in your last post that “the moon is everywhere” and in a way, Basho’s verse is really stating the obvious. Of course, the “obvious” isn’t always recognized by everyone and so here in 3 short lines is a simple, clear and pointed observation. That is also a good foundation for haiku! However, I think that sticking to the 5-7-5 syllable count (I don’t know who translated the verse, and I hope I’m not upsetting some world-renowned expert!) makes the verse feel a little awkward, especially in the last line.”
Ashley’s comment made me wonder about the process of translating a haiku. Although I wasn’t able to find another translation of this specific haiku, I was able to find some commentary on the challenges of translating Japanese Haiku to English.
John Carley talked about the challenges of translating poetry in an article written for the New Zealand Poetry Society, He started by saying,
“The difficulty isn’t so much in understanding what the source text says, as in conveying it in the language of destination. Compromise is inevitable, even between co-sanguineous tongues such as Dutch and German, or Spanish and Italian. In the case of wholly unrelated languages – Japanese and English come to mind – the sticking plasters are bound to show.”(2)
Carley continues by stating that, “haiku, like the hokku before them, are written in Japanese as a single line (or column). Excepting some cases where the calligraphy itself is a central feature of the art, there are no spaces between characters or groups of characters; so words and phrases are distinguished by the reader from an otherwise undifferentiated text. There is no capitalisation. Such punctuation as there may be is in the form of verbalised (and therefore written) interjenctions which are considered as words in their own right”
Ashley expands on this: “The Japanese language does not have punctuation but it does have “cutting” words, which are sounds really, and these are used to separate phrases. In haiku, we count these “commas” and “semi-colons” as western “syllables”. Ashley then continues by explaining the challenge is to “keep as close as possible to the spirit of the original [and] keeping with our own understanding of the verse.”
What this all means is that there is a lot of space for interpretation in the translation of a haiku. Below is an example of how this all can play out using another one of Basho’s famous haiku.
“Summer Grasses” By Basho
summer grass all that remains of a Samurai’s dream. --Matsuo Basho
This is a fairly famous Basho haiku. However, the translation from the original text varies. For example, Yuasa (1966) translated Basho’s work as directly as possible and came up with:
A thicket of summer grass Is all that remains Of the dreams and ambitions Of ancient warrior
Carley comments that Yuasa received some criticism for putting the haiku into a quatrain format. However, Carley also wonders if the criticism is fully reasonable given the source material. He wonders if Yuasa was trying to give the English reader a similar experience of “harmony and dignity of the source text”.
In 1992, Ueda translated this same text and came up with:
summer grasses where stalwart soldiers once a dreamed a dream
Carley comments that this translation falls more in line with what we know of the haiku format. It has the 3 line format, the seasonal reference, and no excessive language.
Carley translated the same verse in 2010 and came up with:
a trace of the dreams of warriors past Ah, the summer grass
In his article, Carley continues discussing the similarities and differences of each translation. He talks about word choice and how each translator is trying to capture the essence of the poem. He also mentions how some words and phrases don’t directly translate. This can be a challenge in any form of translation. Carley’s article supports Ashley’s question about how translation and word choice can impact the reader’s experience. It also brings up the question about the need to translate haiku into the 5-7-5 format, which Carley states, “is questionable at best”.(2)
Finally, Ashley provides us with this very grounding perspective on this process, “Think about it, how can we who drive cars, have two weeks holiday “in the sun”, put men on the moon and waste the earth’s resources, really understand how Basho understood the world?”
That is a truly good question!
“As a kid, the biggest mystery regarding the moon wasn’t that it “always glowed the same” but rather that it always followed us. I recall long car trips at night, staring at the moon through the foggy window as it kept pace with us as the foreground landscape blurred by. It’s only in that context that I always viewed the moon as being consistent.
“In terms of Basho’s “always glows the same,” while I understand the intent some folks attribute to the poem (as explained in the study guide and references in this thread to relative truth versus actual truth or any perceived permanence of glow or character), I tend to see the moon as constantly changing (phases). To me, an apt (and silly) analogy would be how the difference between the moon and sun is similar to the difference between cats and dogs. With a dog, you always know what you’re getting: an open, boisterous, friendly, loving companion that is always by your side and would give its life for you, a dependable friend you can count on regardless of circumstances. With a cat, not so much. Cats are moody, aloof, they’ll disappear for days at a time with no explanation (and try to make it up to you with the gift of a dead bird or rat), they’re fickle and finicky, they deliberately antagonize you to get your attention and then pretend you don’t exist, and they’ve got claws and they aren’t afraid to use them.
The sun, in my opinion, is the one who “always glows the same,” even given the clouds that sometimes obscure its visage. It never alters its shape–it’s always up front and looking you straight in the eye, and you know what to expect from it (warmth, light, life). The moon, on the other hand, is constantly shifting, hiding its face, giving side-long looks during its phases, provides varying amounts of light (but not of its own), provides no warmth, can generally be regarded as cold and mysterious and distant and even malevolent, and sometimes disappears altogether (just like that darned cat).
I’ve read other haiku about how the moon we see is the same one people halfway around the world see, but that also applies to the sun, so that’s not an attribute exclusive to the moon. In a way, this haiku could be retitled “The Clouds Always Change” to describe the transient nature of clouds as opposed to the more permanent (regular? reliable? predictable?) background of the moon. . . . There’s a Japanese proverb I read once that says, “The bamboo that bends is stronger than the oak that resists.” Perhaps Basho’s poem demonstrates that, although changes (clouds) will always come, we can remain strong (like the moon in its permanence). But hey, what do I know? I’m just a guy who writes silly haiku.”
Mike brings up some interesting points here as he contemplates the ever-present nature of the moon. His perspective really made me think about my thoughts regarding the moon and clouds as symbols for the absolute and relative truth. Maybe the intention should not be to focus on the moon (absolute truth) with the clouds (relative truth) as interference but focus on the clouds with the moon as the backdrop. Maybe this haiku is asking us to embrace change.
This discussion brings me back to the idea that reading and understanding poetry is very much an individual sport. Carley says, “Even if we accept without question the less-than-certain premise that the poet always knows his own mind . . . we can agree that the reader will always bring their own experience into play”.(2) Similarly, Margarita Engel wrote, “Poetry is interactive. The open spaces between lines and stanzas are filled with echoes like the resonance after ringing a bell. Those spaces hold the poet’s emotions, as well as the reader’s.”(3) Both of these statements are very true and evident in my discussion with Mike and Ashley. Our individual experiences bring lenses of interpretation to these poems. So perhaps the question really becomes, not what does this poem mean. But, to borrow from Engel’s work again, “How does the poem make you feel?”
- Lion’s Roar Staff; “What are the Two Truths?”
- John Carley, “Basho and His Translators”: New Zealand Poetry Society
- Margarita Engel; “The Care and Feeding of Poetry”: Poetry Magazine
Engel’s article is also featured in my post “Some Prose About Poetry“.