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Second Life: Japanese Haiku in Translation — “the fan”

Welcome to Second Life: Japanese Haiku in Translation, a weekly look at haiku from the source, and how it might be brought to us.

 

 

A dignified priest, with a folding fan in hand, driving away a moth

威儀の僧扇で払ふ灯取虫

igi no sō ōgi de harau hitorimushi

(Takahama Kyoshi 高浜虚子)

 

1. This poem includes two season words: fan, ōgi, and moth, hitorimushi. Both are associated with summer.

2. The syntax of the original puts particular emphasis on the last word, so that everything that precedes it can be understood as as subordinate clause: “A moth that a dignified priest is driving away with a folding fan”.

Second Life: Japanese Haiku in Translation is presented by Dan Bornstein, a language specialist in Japanese and a writer of fiction, poetry, and essays. His work in English has appeared, among other places, in Daily Science Fiction and Star*Line, and is also included in the 2022 Dwarf Stars anthology. He lived in Japan for eight years (four in Kyoto, four in Tokyo). He regularly posts short prose and haiku poetry on his bilingual English/Hebrew website.

This Post Has 7 Comments

  1. All this dictionary stuff is a waste of effort. The original translation is clearly faulty : as shown by the clumsy -Ing word ; the continuous tense should never be used where the active is either clearly more desirable or possible.
    Also it is embarrassingly wordy : the verse clearly should read :

    noble priest
    without unfolded fan
    saves moth from flame

  2. I know nothing of Japanese language, so have to resort to online dictionaries. One of which gave a possible meaning of harau as exorcise (an obvious extension of sweeping away, driving out). I don’t know if such a meaning was intended or perceivable during the author’s time, but if so it makes for quite a humorous haiku.
    Is he swatting that moth away or is he blessing it? And as a dignified Buddhist priest, which should he be doing?

  3. A dignified priest, with a folding fan in hand, driving away a moth

    威儀の僧扇で払ふ灯取虫

    igi no sō ōgi de harau hitorimushi

    (Takahama Kyoshi 高浜虚子)

    Perhaps there is a gentle humor in that the shape of the fan and the action of fanning is similar to that of the moth’s wings. I don’t know what it means to be a dignified priest – perhaps it is significant of enlightenment and moths are drawn to light? I read that in Japan moths are considered spiritual beings, but the significance in relation to the haiku escapes me. Perhaps the priest is sending some sort of signal with the fan? I can imagine many scenarios, but all in all, there is too much of a cultural divide for understanding beyond the literal.

  4. Jisho dictionary gives 儀 as ceremony as well as matter, affair.
    This might give a reading, along with gentle humour/irony, that a monk addresses even a little matter with due ritual?

    solemn ceremony !
    a monk drives off an insect
    with his folding fan

    (or high ceremony? majestic ceremony? all due ceremony?)

    solemn ceremony !
    the lofty monk sees off a moth
    with folding fan

    Or with licence and the arrangement of things:

    what a palaver!
    the monk, the pesky insect
    and the folding fan

    I have read little Kyoshi and had fun thinking about this and trying to bring it to life. Thank you Dan.

  5. I take this haiku to be a mildly humorous ‘slice of life’. By brushing away an annoying(?) moth, the priest/monk is temporarily acting in an undignified manner — losing his cool, so to speak. If there is something more profound happening in this haiku, I’d love to be enlightened.

    1. However, doing a little religious research just now, one site I found says that “in Buddhism, a moth is often seen as a metaphor for attachment.” So, could the priest/monk also be seen as trying to rid himself of attachment?

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