Drgn Mountain Transl. Soc.

The Dragon Mountain Translation Society

# no longer exists; # never existed; # exists only as a figment of the translator’s imagination; # represents the trans-personal process by which peak works far-off in space & time may be brought all the way across into the here & now with meanings intact; # includes all the many who have helped our translation efforts, whether they know it or not.

Trans-world tree v 001There are neither dues nor membership lists, in other words. There are, have been, and continue to be translations-in-progress, however, including works by Issa, Rilke, Rumi and indigenous transmissions on the “Gifts from Everywhere” page,” while Basho has a wing of his own at www.backcountryways.net, which also includes in-depth discussion of various translation issues.

Translation can involve far more than the transmission of information from one language to another. There’s that primary translation of experience into language, for example, and language into experience, as well as the fundamental character of language-based transmission from person to person; time-space to time-place; medium, genre &/or form to medium, genre &/or form.

One might claim that all poetry was an effort at translation, or even all art, wherever there is a form of expression. Any translation into a new form of expression, including another “language,” is obviously not the same entity as the original. The shift in identity reflects, at the very least, characteristics of the instruments passed through at various scales, e.g., characteristics of the languages, of the particular translator, and of the context.

Many complex dimensions make measuring the ‘distance’ between an original & particular translations. Some might seem to have almost identical effects on readers, whereas others might have hardly any trace of similarity at all. The difference between direct translation & “interpretation” is not always clear, or measurable. Sometimes additional words are interpolated to shed light on an original in need of fuller understanding. This may involve commentary, discussion, transmission of background information to clarify perspective.

Although these two orders–translation & interpretation–are two separate things, sometimes they can also be the same, overlapped &/or woven together into the fabric of a transmission, whether part of the original or added by the translator/interpreter. Different conductors may each add certain flavors to what starts as the same score. On the other hand, a great work may be shrunk to the mental-conceptual limits of a context in which intellectual interpretation masquerades as translation, even while leaving a work’s main source of impact & way of working behind. Preferably, thought about a work enhances–but does not clutter or worse, replace–responsive experience of the work.

Below are discussions of &/or samples from some long-running projects.

Basho’s oku no hosomichi

      Backcountry Ways

(Narrow Roads through the Backcountry…Inland Trail)

Our fresh translation now has a site of its own, with layered notes & commentary, along with supplementary discussion of key terms, forms, traditions & techniques at the heart of Basho’s way. We’ve been working on it long enough, and not working on it, too, in bursts and ellipses.

Find whatever’s up at www.bodlibrary.info. [This site is currently lost. A new Basho wing is being made at www.backcountryways.net.]

Two of Yours Crudely’s earlier translations of the oku-no-hosomichi were published in successive editions of The Bedford Anthology of World Literature (2002 & 2007, respectively). These lack satisfactory layout, format, notes, & layered commentary, & have inadequate versions of some poems. Nevertheless, each helped move the half-century effort along.

So did traveling with Basho for most of that time, including “in Basho’s hat,” bringing Basho off the page for live groups. With no two gatherings the same, neither were the selections, details, or new ‘linked poems’ that emerged, where learning, play & practice become one. The translation process continues, then, with each new reader who brings the work the rest of the way–into awareness, experience, and understanding.

Approaching the end of his personal journey, Basho made an ink trail to continue his  transmission in another form, superficially more fixed, though language & readers both go on changing, even while the essence of being, awareness  & experience carry on. Time limits what a life has to offer, whether performer or teacher, instrument or interpreter, and for the translator also,.

The primary purpose of the translation to performer (or instrument) is to bring the score to life all the way across to where the audience lives, feels, and experiences it as sound & spirit, resonance & representation, music & meaning. The end sought is simply a worthy, moving rendering. The translator as teacher & interpreter, on the other hand, goes on responding, reflecting, observing, tinkering, seeking & sharing insight, clearer perspective, richer understanding, i.e., a translation faithful to original score & reader experience.

As a Basho “Chautauquan,” both aspects were at play. In a sense, the inner teacher guided the selection & shaping of particular material for the particular audience. The “score” was not so much any particular work of Basho’s, but the “Basho way” itself, its spirit & meaning in practice, not a conceptual historical artifact, but a potential in our own lives. Nor was the stage character meant to be an imitation of the historical figure as much as a contemporary student’s offering–a partly American Basho, with characteristics of the original woven into an entirely contemporary artistic transmission.

The translator of boku-no-hosomichi has a very specific trail to follow, however. Even so, fuller appreciation can come from many sources beyond the scope of the text itself. Many fellow travelers have helped in this effort to do Basho’s work justice, for example. I consider all such helpers as “Dragon Mountain Volunteers,” in honor of the informal Dragon Mountain Translation Society, named for the physical location where much early work on the text was done, in the high country of northern NM.

During the effort, I’ve consulted with many poets, teachers and experts in renga, haikai, & Basho’s zen, as well as with students of Chinese & Sanskrit traditions, for help in revealing many otherwise hidden values in what Basho wrote. The fact that I found their offerings so useful as a supplement to understanding made me want to share their contributions.

My personal relationship with Basho’s way(s) has been influenced by years as student, teacher, poet, performer, & linked-poetry guide, bringing Basho to people of different ages & backgrounds–poetry fans, residents at meditation centers, pueblo children, state prison inmates, mourners at memorials, art festival celebrants, to single out just a few–from Atlantic to Pacific, northern Vancouver Island to Oaxaca, Mexico, India & Japan, with many linked poems, crocks of country sake’, & personal travel sketches along the way.

In the early 1970s, I’d taught Basho at a university, along with other spiritually driven literature of India, China & Japan. In the 60s, I carried Basho to India & Japan in my knapsack. Between about 1980 & 1995, my poems in the Basho spirit appeared in many publications in the U.S. & Japan, with recognitions from the Museum of Haiku Literature, the Mainichi Daily News, Japan Air Lines, the Haiku Society of America, the St. Louis Poetry Society, the National Federation of State Poetry Societies & others.

I continued to perform live translations of Basho’s work for another dozen years, under the auspices of the New Mexico Humanities Council, various international arts initiatives, schools, libraries, etc. but without “believing in” the forms as entities in themselves. With respect for many paths, I belong to no school or sect, therefore, having learned from many, as well as from the limitations of each.

On the other hand, it’s hard to find any limitations at all in Basho, or in his open way. The openness transcends not the specific landscape & its particular horizons, an approach rooted in fidelity to each experience. Basho is a master at adapting inherited forms to new settings, joining & transforming the forms in the process. He is the root from which diverse schools have since sprung, each incomplete in itself.

Is he traditionalist or innovator? precept follower or rule-breaker? reporter or artist? philosopher or humorist? model student or ideal teacher? tourist or guide? poet of the senses or zen master without a portfolio? Not even his closest traveling companions can find a clear line between any of these, or between the inner-ness & outer-ness of things.

Like a photographer, he speaks in simple images, impressions received via the senses, while his concise expression transmits more than light-reflected surfaces, whether in the inner spirit of the subject represented, in the aesthetic qualities of composition & texture, or in the over-&-undertones where multiple meanings emerge. There is always much more than a pretty scene in Basho’s word pictures & place sketches, for example, something that pops, snaps, lights a spark, evokes the alertness of surprise.

As with Shakespeare, no level of interpretive overlay or quantity of background information substitutes for a sense of the original how & what. In the dance of experience & expression, way & what can reinforce each other, with no substitute for finding that just right combination of words in the new language to unlock a kindred poetic shock (samvega in Sanskrit) from what might be found in the original (whether “original” is considered as the writer’s experience or the written rendering).

Until a rendering “clicks” on sufficient levels with appropriate impact, it’s hard to argue the translation works. With some pieces in translation, one may wonder if there’s any pop at all, or if it comes from something that just doesn’t translate. This is a poor assumption in Basho’s, where some original power may seep through even opaque renderings, though still needing just the right twist to open.


Appreciating Basho has enhanced my own  life practicing the joined arts of poetry & performance, teaching & translation, where the proof was always in the pudding, the direct experience–not a bad training for a would-be text translator. Returning to the work time after time in Basho’s hat provided an invaluable practice in  seeing from “inside,” his point of view, & in exploring how best to bring this across to audience members, the  ultimate “happening place,” as each reader remains for the translation-as-text.

In a performance, as in a conversation, one can select material and style of expression to suit participants, audience & occasion “on the fly.” The main impact is hardly in the words themselves as much as in the total music of the transmission, the shared energy, attitude, spirit, sometimes tonal, sometimes achieved through eye contact & chi (gut energy).

Doing justice to the written Basho masterpiece is another matter, as fidelity to the text becomes paramount. Nor is it enough to substitute a new poem of one’s own in English for one of Basho’s the translator hasn’t quite caught yet–otherwise perfectly workable in a performance or writing workshop. It took years of coming back to certain of the oku poems over & over before the poetic impact finally (& suddenly!) came through, sharpening my focus, & many trials to bring that across into the new language with the appropriate Aha!

Sometimes there is no substitute for deeper experience, particularly in the case of a master like Basho, adept at embedding surprising levels of resonance in the simplest elements. The reader’s challenge is to be as enlightened as the poet–through the illumination carried by the poems, & as alert to the “aesthetics,” the intersection of way & what, where heart of the poet & reader become one.   

In any case, the oku-no-hosomichi translation has gone through many incarnations, none of which would have happened had not the Bedford anthology editors requested the first. Having experienced the accessibility, impact & other effects of the Basho Chautauqua on their students, they hoped some of the comparative value would translate back to the page, but with no commitment in advance. They had other, cheaper, already published alternatives, including one they had previously used by a well-known scholar.

Their choice of my version (“Narrow Road through the Backcountry“), made on the merits, encouraged a process that continued after publication, however, so when the publishers asked to include that text in their subsequent “compact” edition, I declined to grant permission, it no longer being in my judgment “the best available.” Instead I gave them a much improved version 7 years further along.

Almost the same thing happened again, when the publisher offered a generous royalty for a new edition that they subsequently abandoned for economic reasons. As age takes its toll, my interest is in finally offering an “ultimate” version, with no part left unfinished. I am also interested in passing along as much interpretive material as possible, for readers, students & fellow artists/human beings with variable levels of interest. Thus the –Beyond in Basho’s Backcountry Way–& Beyond.

[So far, more of the –Beyond is up on the website than the translation itself! Let me know if there’s an interest, & I’ll try to get on it!]



~ This dewdrop world—Issa’s story

(inter-active experience for presenter & children)

Our Issa story grew from interest in the poet’s amazing life & a particular realization we had about it. Life had dealt the child who became the poet Issa some hard knocks, but instead of becoming hard & bitter himself, he became all the more sensitive to all small creatures, so his work is especially loved by children. Add the realization that “we deveop what we exercise,” what we practice and play, and it hit me: what better way to encourage   empathy than to let them ‘play’ Issa?

Our script [which we’ll put up ASAP] provides for an inter-active presentation, therefore, in which the leader tells the moving story of Issa’s life a sentence or two at a time, pausing in the designated places to ring a small gong (or just nod), signalling the next student to stand & read the next Issa poem in the sequence aloud (poems being handed out in numbered sequence before starting). As the story teller tells the poet’s story in the  “3rd person” (he), in other words, the children offer related poetic moments from Issa’s own point-of-view, in the poet’s first-person words (allowing for translation), from the inside.


Additional translations (Rilke to Rumi, Chinese to Zapotec) may be found on the Gifts from Everywhere & Music/Poetry pages, e.g.,

Chinese trail medley (from Dragon Mountain Suite, translated & recited by R. Bodner, guitar by Carl Bernstein, 1994)

“Gifts from everywhere” (Rilke to Rumi to Rabindranath, from Like WaterBodner & Bernstein, Leaky Buckets Music, 1994)


© 2016 by Mapa Systems

Comments are closed.