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August 2007 Issue VII:3


Clearing the Brush, Finding Our Way —
The Bilingual Publication of Presents of Mind, by Jim Kacian
Richard Gilbert, Faculty of Letters, Kumamoto University, Japan



In order to mark the occasion of the re-publication of Presents of Mind as of the bilingual (Japanese‑English) edition, and to clear up some misunderstandings that have arisen, I would like to discuss a translation journey lasting over four years here in Japan, and comment on the publication as a whole; a work our Kon Nichi Translation Circle (Kumamoto University) has become intimately familiar with over the past several years.

Quality and Selection
I first ‘met’ Jim Kacian via email correspondence, in 1999. I had been living in Kumamoto for two years, and was seeking North American publication for a first research‑article on Japanese haiku, written as a result of living in Japan, “Stalking the Wild Onji.” At the time, I was unaware of Red Moon Press. Upon discovering Jim’s efforts, I ordered the existing catalog, and later read Presents of Mind. I found the book to represent a sustained and innovative achievement at a level of creativity I had not encountered in English‑language haiku. I found interest, depth, humor, contemplation, language creativity, originality of image, and composition, in all 85 haiku presented. There was something rarer as well—the haiku knit themselves into a cohesive world, a world of solitary woodland retreat encompassing a yearlong contemplation of nature, self, and the seasons—reflecting with epistemological clarity the intentions of Thoreau and Walden. It is rare for any grouping of haiku to articulate a meta-narrative—arrive not only as pastiche but as coherent “parts of a world,” in Wallace Steven’s coinage. This was my predominant reaction to the work, and inspiration for my founding the Kon Nichi Translation Circle, in 2002. Reading the work both individually and as a group, we all became excited by the project.

Over the succeeding years of translation effort, the poems of Presents proved themselves worthy of intensive scrutiny—poems of discovery and delight. Our translation group of five took four years to translate the work into Japanese, completing the project in 2006. The significant reason for such a timescale had to do with our goal: to introduce a translation of English haiku into Japanese which would work at the highest possible level of genre acceptance in Japan. To our knowledge this had never been successfully attempted. It was a challenge which took our varied talents and experiences to muster, if not master. For five busy professionals, each holding down a different job, meeting on a weekly basis for some years wasn’t an easy thing to accomplish. There were two elements which held our group together: delight and depth. Both qualities sprang from the poems themselves.

Upon finishing our task, we sought publication in Japan, as the book was designed primarily for a Japanese market (this should be obvious, by the right-to-left succeeding page order). To our frustration, we found that publishers we approached in Japan deemed there would be no market for the book. As a result the completed project languished. After over 18 months of fruitless attempts, I contacted Jim to explain our frustration, and we were consequently able to work out a means to publish through Red Moon Press—this also gave Jim creative control over his original text, as he had retained the original 1996 galleys. It was a serendipitous solution.

Our relatively small run of copies arrived in Japan late in the winter of 2006. Over the last several months of 2007 copies have been sent to professors and literary critics around Japan, and has been introduced by Tsubouchi Nenten in his Sendan Journal and Hoshinaga Fumio in his HI‑HI Journal. In celebration of the publication, Jim visited our translation group in Kumamoto for 10 days (October 2006), gave lectures at two universities, and was interviewed by the Kumanichi Newspaper. As well, Jim gave a public reading and entered a recording studio to create a CD of the haiku of Presents of Mind, accompanied by Jeff Cairns‑sensei on shakuhachi (Jeff is a recording artist and internationally respected shakuhachi teacher, whose recent CD is titled Silent Letters, Secret Pens [http://cdbaby.com/cd/jeffcairns]). Following the production of the CD, additional copies of the book and CD were sent around Japan, and as we had extra copies, it became possible to make the project available in North America, through the Red Moon Press website. The CD has proven to be a nice addition.

Within the bilingual publication itself is an essay detailing some of the innovative features of Jim’s work, and a Translator’s Note, co-authored by the Japanese translators. I have reprinted the English version of the Note, as an addendum to this article—you will find that the text is oriented towards the native‑speaking Japanese reader familiar with the Japanese genre.

 It is my opinion that Jim is among the finest haiku poets in English and that this work in particular represents both an advance for the genre and will stand the test of time.

The book is worth owning just for Jims Introduction alone—a superb piece of poetic prose. Addressing the question of literary judgment, I would like to briefly quote from Favorite Haiku Volume 4, by H. F. Noyes, who comments on this haiku,

the cold night
comes out of the stones
all morning

"We have here an unusual twist: the poet reverses the usual practice of haiku to achieve depenetration. But we sense a spiritual element commensurate with that which Bashô found in interpenetration. There's a touch of genius in Kacian's saying ‘the cold night’ instead of just ‘the cold’: it forms a stronger tie with universe and eternity." (The haiku and many others in the book have been translated into French, German, Slovenian, German, Italian and now Japanese.)

H. F. Noyes has also commented on the following, in his Favorite Haiku, Volume 3:

chopping wood—
someone does the same
a moment later

“I rank this haiku as close to Bashô’s frogpond haiku—in much the same way, it connects me with eternity. I don't think we hear the frog's splash anymore the way Bashô did. We may need Jim's two sounds to propel us into an awakening, an echo to remind us that we can be so self-absorbed as to be oblivious even of our own sounds, or those right next-door. We need to rediscover time and space and silence, to receive the grace of an eternal moment of sound.”

A different opinion of the haiku just above was recently expressed by Robert Wilson (Simply Haiku, 5:2), who seems miffed at what he takes to be the scent of self-promotion—Red Moon Press being responsible for the publication. I hope I have set the record straight: the impetus for the re-publication and entire project came from our translation group in Japan. It was only after over a year of fruitless searching for a suitable publisher, following four years of translation, that we turned to Jim for advice on publishing in North America. I take full responsibility for the critical content and errors contained within. Naturally, critics of poetry are liable to disagree on which haiku or work succeeds or fails, rises or falls in estimation. Nevertheless, virtually all of the haiku contained in Presents of Mind have been published previously in haiku journals (that is, independently judged and selected), including a number in the Yomiuri Newspaper; several were awarded in international contests, and selected as exceptional representatives of the genre. This record accordingly suggests that professional critics have judged many of the haiku in Presents of Mind to reflect excellence and accomplishment.

The Future
Our translation group has languished since completing our book project, and sadly, Prof. Higuchi, the main translator of Jim’s prose‑poem “Introduction” into Japanese, has suffered a stroke, and is only now in recovery from a coma. We are planning to play him the CD—this was the last project he was involved in before his terrible illness. Our group is looking for something new to bring into Japanese, so please feel free to offer your suggestions. Life is short and we have only certain shining moments. That is why we commenced on our project, and why we were determined to publish our collaborative effort: to share these moments. It was well worth the effort, and we honor the poet who brought us this depth of shared culture.


Kon Nichi Circle, Celebration Party
From the left, Takke Kanemitsu haikaishi, Dr. Richard Gilbert, Itô Yûki (Ph.D. cand.), Jim Kacian, Dr. Masahiro Hori (Prof. Yasuo Higuchi is absent)


Presents of Mind — CD Session


Addendum: Japanese Translators’ Note from Presents of Mind


Publication: Translator’s Note in English, from Presents on Mind. The original text presented Japanese/English on facing pages. The Japanese co‑translators are: Professor Masahiro Hori, Ph.D. (Kumamoto Gakuen University), Professor Higuchi Yasuo (Prefectural University of Kumamoto), Kanemitsu Takeyoshi (poet and haiku historian), Itô Yûki (Ph.D. candidate, Kumamoto University).


A Note on the Translation

Our motivation for composing the Japanese translation of Presents has been to introduce a notable poet, writing haiku in English, to scholars and poets in Japan. As we examined published translations of English haiku into Japanese, we saw that translations usually treated the haiku literally in Japanese, with little or no attempt being made to offer the haiku as a powerful poem, fitting within the existing tradition of Japanese haiku literature. It has been our goal to provide readers with a Japanese-interpretive translation which can be immediately felt as native rather than as foreign haiku.

In fact, this book has taken several years to complete, as there were a number of issues to resolve. For instance, how should the youthful, modern American haiku genre best be comported in Japanese? We can say that Jim’s haiku run a fine line between what we consider to be Japanese gendai (modern) and early-modern (kindai) haiku. And yet, all use language in ways which would date them at the earliest to the 1920s in Japan, and the postwar era of the late 1950s in America. That is, in terms of their predominant three‑line form, syllable count, indication of nature or seasonal theme, punctuation, and often their basal imagery, these haiku in part evoke the translations of R. H. Blyth, and the early growth of haiku in America, dating back half a century.

As Jim’s haiku fit a familiar (we might say traditional) form of haiku in English, we likewise modeled our translations on the familiar 5‑7‑5-on form of Japanese (with a few necessary exceptions). And, as Presents contains not only Chapters, each dedicated to a season, but also a clear seasonal reference or indication within each haiku, a search was made for appropriate kigo. But we must add a note concerning the difference between “seasonal theme” in English, and kigo in Japanese. The kigo tradition in Japanese poetics finds its roots in ancient China, and has developed over many centuries of literary and cultural evolution. On the other hand, the haiku genre outside of Japan exists within an entirely modern literary ethos. For this reason, a traditional saijiki (kigo compendium) is not possible. Additionally, due to extensive and heterogeneous geographies as well as cultural diversity, a unitary saijiki is not likely to arise in the future. Jim adds this comment:

It has been my express desire to connect with the Japanese tradition in this book, but in ways that still function within the English literary model. For example, the use of multiple kigo is not done as a deliberate affront to the Japanese tradition, but in the knowledge that what functions as kigo in Japanese is only image in English—we can say “moon” and not automatically assume it to be the harvest moon. This is a function of the English haiku trying to speak more directly to experience, and less to convention, in part because the convention is not our own. Such a relationship is both a strength and a weakness: the haiku can be quite fresh and direct, but we must also work to evoke allusion and depth—not always a simple task in such a brief poem. [personal communication]

We hope that readers will be open-minded to the idea, as it exists in American haiku culture, of “seasonal reference” and can say that an evocation of the “environment” of the haiku is quite important in the English‑language tradition—which also includes all of the environmental variety found in gendai haiku (urban haiku, socio-political haiku, etc). At the same time, environmental depictions are not restricted by a requirement for any specific word to be delimited to a specific season (and time-period within that season). In a sense then, haiku in English are gendai, in that they appear as muki‑teki haiku (haiku reading without kigo). However, this would be overly simplistic, as season plays a strong role, as does a sense of naturalism—and there are additional features. We can say that there are no strict rules in terms of syllable count, or keywords, or kigo, in English. Some of the haiku in Presents, when first translated literally into Japanese, had more than one kigo. Resolving such issues, as well as differences in geography, culture, climate, and language have been among our goals as translators.

Especially, we have sought to create haiku which would have power in Japanese, seen from within the existing haiku tradition. In any literature, including Japanese haiku, there are few truly excellent poets in a given era who have produced an oeuvre such as Jim has which possesses commanding interest and depth. We hope that the importance and promise of haiku in English from such a talented poet can be experienced from the dual perspectives of our mutual traditions.


Copyright © 2004-2007 by Roadrunner Haiku Journal. All rights revert to the authors upon publication.