Simply Haiku: An E-Journal of Haiku and Related Forms
November-December 2004, Volume 2, Number 6

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INTERVIEW: Hiroaki Sato by Robert Wilson

Q. Your importance as a translator cannot be underestimated. You have translated several important books of Japanese literature and poetry. Why did you become a translator?

A. This question is at once easy and tough to respond to, and my response can be straight, roundabout, or philosophical. The straight answer: That’s the way things happened.

Q. A follow up question. To translate a poem, for example, one does not look up words in a foreign language dictionary then transpose them on paper. What goes into the translation of a poem?

A. Actually, I spend a lot of time looking up words or comparing words. For one thing I don’t know so many words. Names of plants, names of—well, suppose there is a shallow, lidless box, which is used as a tray or a holder for small personal belongings, such as earrings. What do you call such a box? What do you call the side(s) of such a box? I’d like to be faithful to the original as best I can, and that means I am always looking for words that correspond as closely as possible to the Japanese words I am translating. Probably I spend half the time checking dictionaries. A good thesaurus is indispensable to me.

Q. What did you learn about Matsuo Basho when translating his Narrow Road: Spring and Autumn Passages, that you hadn't known before?

A. I can name two: Before working out those footnotes (which should more properly be called side-notes perhaps because they face the translated text, and I am grateful to Peter Goodman, the publisher, for doing that), I did not know allusions were so extensive. I also did not know that some “pillow words”—makura-kotoba, place names which are supposed to provoke literary associations—were being created as a tourist gimmick just about the time Bashô was undertaking those extensive journeys. About allusiveness, of course, two things must be pointed out. One, the notion of plagiarism—or, the other side of the coin, the notion of originality—did not exist at least as either is understood today. Two, in the kind of writing Bashô was doing, any search for things alluded to can go overboard.

Q. You have translated the haiku of old and modern day masters. This requires a thorough knowledge of the poet you are translating and a deep understanding of haiku. There is some confusion these days as to what is and isn't a haiku. Some insist on the use of a kigo word. Others say they are not necessary. There are those who say a haiku consists of three lines. Others who say a haiku can be less than three lines. To punctuate or not to punctuate. To use a metaphor or not to use a metaphor. What is your definition of a haiku?

A. A haiku is that which the person who wrote it presents as a haiku. I am not being facile or facetious in putting it that way. My good friend Eliot Weinberger, who is a translator of Spanish poetry and an editor, says the same thing. In American Poetry Since 1950: Innovators & Outsiders (Marsilio, 1993), he defines “poetry” as “that which its own author considers to be poetry. ”

Q. Your area of focus in the past has been the translation of Japanese literature and poetry into the English language. Recently you have displayed an interest in Jack Kerouac's haiku. Why the interest in Kerouac's haiku?

A. Because Regina Weinreich had Penguin send me a complimentary copy of Jack Kerouac: Book of Haikus. I went to the big party for that book, too. I have yet to read On the Road or anything else Kerouac wrote. I’ve always been interested in haiku written by people who are known in fields other than haiku: Dag Hammarskjold, Borges, Richard Wright, Allen Ginsberg.

Q. You said in your book, One Hundred Frogs: From Renga to Haiku in English, that hokku (haiku) is an offshoot of Tanka. Would you elucidate on this?

A. Japanese poetic forms developed in a uniquely genealogical way: the tanka split into two, upper and lower hemistiches; when these began to be composed by two hands and “linked,” the sequential form of renga came into being; then, the opening piece of the renga became independent, thereby spawning the hokku, which is today called haiku. (The subtitle of the book you cite is “From Renga to Haiku to English. ” Some have pointed out that it throws you off, but it’s what the publisher-translator Meredith Weatherby devised for the book, and it is correct. )

Q. What influenced you to edit the volume, One Hundred Frogs; From Matsuo Basho to Allen Ginsberg? And why a book containing a hundred versions of Basho's famous haiku ("Old pond, frog jumps in, water sound").

A. Are you referring to the small book, which is in effect one chapter of the book you cited in the preceding question? I don’t have a copy of that book, but somewhere I think I explained how the book came into being. The very origin of the collection—the very idea of collecting translations of a single haiku—probably came from my erudite friend Kyoko Selden, who teaches at Cornell. In one letter, she listed several translations and asked me if I could guess the translators. That was in the 1970s. Come to think of it, I explained that, too, in both books. Also, “one hundred” in both titles simply means “many. ” Both books have more than 100 translations, variations, and parodies.

Q. Who in the 20th and 21st centuries would you say is the most important and vital modern day haiku poet and why?

A. I simply do not know.

Q. If an English speaking person wanted to co-translate Japanese haiku into the English language with a Japanese scholar, what qualifications would he or she need?

A. That’s the arrangement I have with my wife, Nancy. She is from the Midwest and helps me in all endeavors in English—be it responding to a questionnaire like this, writing a monthly column for The Japan Times, or translating Sumitaku Kenshin. In general, of course, such a person should have a deep sense of the English language. Other than that, I don’t know if I can talk about qualifications. I’m glad Nancy doesn’t have a lot of baggage as to verseforms and other matters, but then I say this because I do have a lot of baggage myself.

Q. What poet are you currently translating? And could you walk our readers through the translation process of one of this poet's poems?

A. In translating Sumitaku Kenshin for you, I provided notes to some of the haiku. I hope they tell you some aspects of what haiku translation may require.


Hiroaki Sato has published over two dozen volumes of translations of Japanese poetry. His and Burton Watson's anthology, From the Country of Eight Islands, won the American P. E. N translation prize in 1983. He is also the author of One Hundred Frogs, Bashô's Narrow Road, and Right under the big sky, I don't wear a hat: The Haiku and Prose of Hôsai Ozaki.

Mr. Sato is a past president of the Haiku Society of America (three terms). He lives in New York City.