Bush Clover and Moon
On Translating Fictional Nonfiction in Bashō’s Travel Diaries
Darcy Jay Gagnon
Over the past two years, I have been writing a biography of the 17th century Japanese poet Matsuo Bashō, the most recognized haiku poet in Japan and probably the world. In my research, I have accumulated at least seven different translations of Bashō’s most notable work, oku no hosimichi, which has been translated as Narrow Road to the Deep North, Narrow Road to the Interior, Back Roads to Far Towns, Road to the North, and The Narrow Road Through the Provinces. I will refer to it as, simply, Narrow Road.
Narrow Road is, more or less, a travel diary, one of our earlier accounts of what we might categorize as creative nonfiction, and consists of fifty-three haibun, a kind of mixed form writing that Bashō used in his daily journals. A haibun starts with a prose account that details an incident of the day, which is then followed by a seventeen-syllable haiku. The prose often serves to explain the conditions for why the haiku exists, though the haiku is generally expected to survive even without that context, and the short poems are frequently anthologized without their prose companion. Rarely do the prose and verse sections directly reference each other explicitly.
Of the fifty-three haibun Bashō recorded in Narrow Road and the various translations of them that exist, I am always drawn to a certain few that, when handling a new translation, I look to see if it delivers the same pathos as my initial readings. One is an account of Bashō and Sora, Bashō’s student and travel companion for his journey, encountering two courtesans staying at the same roadside inn as them, deep in northern Japan. For the journey, which would take them one-hundred-fifty-six days and across fifteen hundred miles into the rural north of Japan, Sora and Bashō dressed as Shinto-Buddhist monks to avoid being robbed by bandits, because even bandits were often devout or superstitious enough not to harm monks and priests. Here’s a translation of the account by Nobuyuki Yuasa:
Exhausted by the labour of crossing many dangerous places by the sea with such horrible names as Children-desert-parents or Parents-desert-children, Dog-denying or Horse-repelling, I went to bed early when I reached the barrier-gate of Ichiburi. The voices of two young women whispering in the next room, however, came creeping into my ears. They were talking to an elderly man, and I gathered from their whispers that they were concubines from Niigata in the province of Echigo, and that the old man, having accompanied them here on their way to the Ise Shrine, was going home the next day with their messages to their relatives and friends. I sympathized with them, for as they said themselves among their whispers, their life was such that they had to drift along even as the white froth of waters that beat on the shore, and having been forced to find a new companion each night, they had to renew their pledge of love at every turn, this proving each time the fatal sinfulness of their nature. I listened to their whispers till fatigue lulled me to sleep.
When, on the following morning, I stepped into the road, I met these women again. They approached me and said with some tears in their eyes, ‘We are forlorn travelers, complete strangers on this road. Will you be kind enough at least to let us follow you? If you are a priest as your black robe tells us, have mercy on us and help us to learn the great love of our Savior.’ ‘I am greatly touched by your words,’ I said in reply after a moment’s thought, ‘but we have so many places to stop at on the way that we cannot help you. Go as other travelers go. If you have trust in the Savior, you will never lack His divine protection.’ As I stepped away from them, however, my heart was filled with persisting pity.
under one roof,
courtesans and monks asleep—
bush clover and moon
I like the haibun because I like the haiku that ends it. I like that in a writing form of so few syllables and that rarely focuses on human encounters, precedent is given to these two prostitutes. I like that, in a work that focuses so rarely on human encounters, and in a style of poetry that so often removes the poet-speaker, Bashō has dedicated a portion of his work, which he revised thoroughly before finally distributing it three years after this encounter, to two women he met only in a fleeting moment, as opposed to the many famous poets he stayed with along his journey.Various translators have different takes on Bashō’s use of the word yūjo, which Bashō uses to classify the women. Some translate it to “courtesans,” as Yuasa has; others as “prostitutes,” and others as the more literal translation of “play-girls.” Why this disparity? Because, from Bashō’s account, it is hard to determine exactly what occupation or social standing these women held. The term Bashō uses, yūjo, would generally be used in his time to refer to an occupational courtesan where sexual acts would be secondary to their role as a skilled entertainer and performer. But, according to the Japanese historian, Yasuke Sato, yūjo were predominately located around the major cities of Edo and Kyoto, and even there they were outnumbered by baishōfu, or prostitutes purely for sex that usually worked in brothels and bathhouses: "apart from a very privileged few, the women who worked in brothels and bathhouses were suffering, not playing, and their floating world was not a place of shared pleasure or radical aesthetic experimentation.” In addition, the Echigo region these women are said to come from was particularly notorious during the Tokugawa Era, Bashō’s era, for “familial pimping,” as peasant farmers sold their daughters into indentured servitude in bathhouses and brothels throughout the northern region.
It is possible, even welcome, to imagine Bashō used the term to slightly elevate the suffering women to a slightly more respectable, poetic occupation, but let’s imagine that they truly were yūjo. Why would they have been there, in Echigo, where Bashō wrote this haibun, 300 kilometers north of Ise, their final destination, and nearly as far from Edo or Kyoto, where yūjo were more likely to reside?
Then there is the complication of the overheard conversation, in which the courtesans make an allusion to a poem by Saigyo, one of Bashō's predecessors and chief influences:
Where the white foam-crested waves breakSome translators dramatize the allusion into casual dialogue, as Yuasa does in the example above, while others translate it to resemble the original poem more closely, even going so far as to add line breaks in some cases or by having the courtesans literally mention Saigyo before the reference. This invalidates the theory that Bashō was trying to elevate the status of what are probably baishōfu by giving them a more formal title, because, as rare as it might be to find a pair of yūjo travelling in the northern provinces, it is just as rare to find a pair of rural women of the peasant class learned enough to recite Saigyo.
On the shore
[We] live out our lives.
As daughters of fisherfolk
Our dwelling too is impermanent
Regardless of whether they are yūjo or baishōfu, Bashō has done something unique in his poem by putting courtesan and monk alike in the same line, bush clover and moon together in another, the latter two symbolic of the two parties, respectively. Their proximity is not only controversial—courtesans sharing both a literal and metaphorical line with religious figures—but shows that Bashō thought of he and Sora, costumed in the robes of priests, as being akin to the journeying women, two groups of two travelers playing a part, actors in a play, sleeping under one roof, parting in the morning with different paths; bush clover and moon.
The reason this is so significant and forward thinking is because haiku of this time rarely featured references to more than one person in a single poem, yet two thirds of this seventeen-syllable poem is dedicated to just that. And as much as it breaks the rules of haiku, it also adheres to them, staying an aesthetically beautiful, complicated poem even without the context of the prose.
Of course, no part of the encounter ever happened in reality—Bashō’s meeting with the courtesans. In the final line of the haibun, after Bashō delivers the haiku, he writes that he dictated the poem aloud and Sora recorded it in his journal. But, there is no record of the poem in Sora’s journal, nor this episode with the courtesans. So, in this historical text, translators have to go beyond the literal word on the page, which is flawed in its logic, and instead imagine the scene as if they are Bashō, imagining the scene as if it is reality.
I’ll do it too. It is possible that Bashō might have encountered the courtesans somewhere else along the road, substituting place names so it fit closer to his narrative, and later wrote it into his diary, which might explain the yūjo confusion. But I like to imagine it is pure fiction, something that Bashō stirred up along the road one night and forced into his reality. I’ll imagine Bashō at the roadside inn. Instead of overhearing the prostitutes’ woes to each other, he hears nothing at all. The moon outside is covered by clouds and the bush clover has withered. Sora is sleeping nearby, not even snoring, and Bashō is alone before an empty page. Outside, he hears a field mouse’s call, maybe being swept off by the talons of a night predator, but it sounds like evening laughter to him. He smiles. Meanwhile, the wind outside blows through a crack in the shutters. It sounds nothing like a zither, he thinks, but recalls its sound anyways. How sad, he writes, that I can’t take these things with me.
Sato, Y. "Early Modern Prostitutes, Concubines, and Mistresses." Journal of Women's History, vol. 28 no. 2, 2016, pp. 156-165. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/jowh.2016.0015
Haiku and Saigyo poem translated by Christine Murasaki Millet.
Darcy Jay Gagnon is a writer based out of Washington D.C. He is presently working on a collage biography of Matsuo Basho, but also writes about music and birds. You can find his other work at The Rumpus and Opossum: A Literary Marsupial.