The Japanese poet Matsuo Basho (1644–94) is renowned in the West as a master of haiku, but less well known is the fact that he was also a superb travel writer. He wrote five travel diaries, of which the last, Oku no Hosomichi (The Narrow Road to the Deep North, 1702), is considered his masterpiece.
There have been many English translations of this work. Indeed, the problem with recommending Basho to an English readership is in recommending a translation. I first encountered Basho’s journal in Dorothy Britton’s translation when I was a teenager. I stumbled upon it in my local public library, and it quickly became one of my favour-ite books, one I would borrow again and again. If I now find Britton’s work a little stiff (Britton, for example, insisted on writing the haiku in rhyme, as she felt this helped ‘to suggest the formal elegance achieved in the original’), that is perhaps more a reflection of how my tastes have changed over the years than any slight on the excellence of her translation. Donald Keene’s translation is also very good, as is Sam Hammill’s (he does a fine job translating the poetry), but perhaps the easiest to find is the translation by Nobuyuki Yuasa in the Penguin Classics series, so that is the one I will use here. This is how Yuasa translates the opening passage:
Days and months are travellers of eternity. So are the years that pass by. Those who steer a boat across the sea, or drive a horse over t
The full version of this article is only available to subscribers to Slightly Foxed: The Real Reader’s Quarterly. To continue reading, please sign in or take out a subscription to the quarterly magazine for yourself or as a gift for a fellow booklover. Both gift givers and gift recipients receive access to the full online archive of articles along with many other benefits, such as preferential prices for all books and goods in our online shop and offers from a number of like-minded organizations. Find out more on our subscriptions page.Subscribe now or Sign in