Adam Donaldson Powell (Norway & USA)
An essay based upon the following multilingual haiku books by Ban’ya Natsuishi:
MADARAK / BIRDS, 50 HAIKU, including aquarelles by Éva Pápai, translations by
Ban’ya Natsuishi, Jack Galmitz and Judit Vihar, published in 2007, Balassi Kiadó,
Budapest, Hungary, ISBN 978-963-506-743-5; and VOICES FROM THE CLOUDS,
translations by Leons Briedis, Ban’ya Natsuishi, Jim Kacian and James Shea,
published in 2008, Minerva, Latvia, ISBN 978-9984-637-42-5.
World haiku books are generally characterized by bilingualism or multilingualism, i.e. haiku books published with translations or adaptations in one or more languages in addition to the mother tongue of the haiku writer. This is also true of the world haiku books of Ban’ya Natsuishi. Mr. Natuishi’s literary adeptness is well-established – both by fans and reviewers such as myself, and by the international and Japanese literary community at large. What I would like to address in this essay is presentation — the function of haiku with translations / adaptations in the same book, and the function of haiku together with and in competition with art / photography. In other words: the aesthetic dimensions and considerations.
I have previously commented upon the now-popular combination of haiku with photography:”I have written elsewhere that I prefer photography books without captions and titles … this is often a sensitive and over-debated question. However, I do not believe that it is solely a question of aesthetics or subjective ‘likes and dislikes’ / personal preferences. There are also the questions of functionality, total artistic impression as well as technical questions such as ‘when is more actually too much?’ Are the haiku captions or poetry? Do they serve a complementary function or an interpretative function, and are they (in fact) essential to understanding the photographs? Is the placement of these haiku optimal, or would another approach to combining photography and haiku have a stronger effect? These are all questions that strike me in my own personal experience …” It is important to me as reader and reviewer that presentation of haiku in book form satisfies the underlying aesthetic values of simplicity, space for thought and reflection, and maximal visual interpretation by the reader himself / herself. Furthermore, it is important to me that the haiku and the artwork function both on their own as artistic expressions AND together as complements, but not as explanations or rationalizations of each other. They should not be in competition with one another, and not too interpretative of each other.
This applies as well to presentation of haiku translations and adaptations alongside one another. The number and placement of haiku in translation / adaptation must not create a sense of constriction in regards to space, or be too overwhelming in terms of text. There are many possible solutions to these challenges, including: separating haiku and photography / art into different sections in the book, limiting the number of translations / adaptations, utilizing artistic imagery that is less concrete (eg. abstract imagery, painted calligraphy which gives a simple visual presentation, etc.) or watercolors or another medium that mimics the lightness of haiku to name a few possibilities. Of course, another possibility entails combining haiku with imagery that does not attempt to comment directly upon the visual imagery created by the haiku artist but rather explores the underlying “feelings” in other visual expressions. These suggested solutions might allow the reader / viewer to experience the visual, intellectual and emotional openness of both artistic forms of expression — both independently, and in “indirect” comparison, without the one form competing with, overshadowing or directly leading / affecting the experiential and interpretative process of the reader / viewer.
The Hungarian book MADARAK / BIRDS, 50 HAIKU is a very attractive hardbound book (12 x 18,5 cm), with fine illustrations by visual artist Éva Pápai. The illustrations are aquarelles, sensitively executed and without too much direct interpretation of the contexts expressed in the accompanying haiku. The illustrations are consistently placed on the pages adjoining each haiku in English and in Hungarian, and the original Japanese haiku appear under each illustration. Although this attractive book is not of a standard coffee table book size, the excellent presentation enables it to function both as a work of art and as a small inspirational book that may be carried in a bag or in one’s pocket so as to be read on the bus, the metro, the train … or during a break at work or in between appointments. One reason that the presentation achieved in this book is so successful is that the illustrations are more than mere illustrations — they are works of art which function both independently and together with the haiku, they are simple in execution and style — thus mimicking and accentuating the lightness and spontaneity and “space” of haiku as an art form, there are only two haiku translations / adaptations to the page — giving a feeling of time and space for personal reflection in a way that the language that is unimportant to the particular reader can (in fact) disappear on the page, and also because the Japanese original haiku are tastefully reproduced with calligraphy in red — thus giving a sense of writing as visual art, as well as writing and art balanced both on the illustration pages and also together with the haiku in English and in Hungarian (on the opposing pages).
In “Voices from the Clouds” (11 x 19 cm, softcover), there are no illustrations or works of art accompanying each haiku. There are however haiku in original Japanese, Latvian and English on each page. In my view, this small book works quite well in terms of presentation. This largely because of the excellent paper quality, the sequence and placement of haiku on each page (starting with the original haiku in Japanese in one line across the top of each page, followed by the Latvian translation / adaptation, and then with the English version on the bottom of each page), as well as the feeling of “airyness” and space created … all of which give the book a sense of completion.
There are many memorable haiku in these two books which are both beautiful and thought-provoking. I will mention a few from each book:
from MADARAK / BIRDS:
Old women, pigeons,
winds and gossip
gather in this square.
– page 16
A wild eagle
is invited to
the room of mirrors
– page 24
Every thing will disappear:
even the rice paddy,
over it a white heron dancing
– page 54
To the goldcrest
every water drop
– page 106
and from VOICES FROM THE CLOUDS:
The angry flower is
A snow crystal
– page 23
Long, long ago
At the bottom of the sea.
– page 39
Walking is philosophy’s
Best friend —
Voices from the clouds.
– page 80
Suck in our
– page 120
If I were to point out one thing that I would criticize with either of these books, it would be the consistent starting of each line with capital letters in the book VOICES FROM THE CLOUDS. Sometimes initial capital letters feel natural and at other times (as in these haiku) they can (in my opinion) tend to disrupt the flow and music of short literary works where lines are supposed to both function on their own and as a continuous flow. However, this is my own personal opinion and experience.
All in all, I would recommend lovers of world haiku to purchase these books, as they are quite worthy of inclusion in one’s permanent collection … for re-reading time and time again, at one’s leisure.
In Oslo, 17 February 2009.
Madarak / Birds / 鳥: 50 Haiku (Balassi Kiadó, Hungary, 2007)
Balsis no mākoņiem / VOICES FROM THE CLOUDS /雲から声 (Minerva, Latvia, 2008)