Robin D. Gill

Robin D Gill. Well-known in Japan/ese for 7 iconoclastic books (See Wiki). Less-known in English for 12 books, starting with Rise, Ye Sea Slugs! (Visit Google Books). His readers like Borges, Montaigne, Sterne and Thoreau. An ecoradical and artist (website:, he is back home in Miami, Florida, again writing in Japanese.

Home Winter 2013 Features Interview - Robin D. Gill
An Interview with Robin D Gill PDF Print E-mail

By Robert D. Wilson


RDW: Thank you, Robin, for taking time from your busy schedule to be interviewed. You have given much to the haiku/hokku world. Your books of haiku/hokku translations have illuminated many, giving us insight into the mindsets of famous Japanese poets: their poetry, the meanings behind them, the intricacies inherent in translating a poem from one language to another, and the variations with a language that differs today from how it was ascertained and understood centuries ago. [of a language that has changed much over the past two centuries.?]

The Japanese language today is a far different language than the one used by Matsuo Basho centuries ago. In the late 19th century, Japan adopted the German-based university system and adapted its language and word definitions to accommodate Western thought. Some of the words used today had no definition centuries ago, their meanings intuited and culturally taken for granted. 

Wrote Michael Marra in his book, Modern Japanese Aesthetics:

“Behind the vocabulary of aesthetics stood a thick layer of Western philosophy that extended from Plato's notion of Idea to the Hegelian system of Absolute Spirit. The importation of aesthetics required Japanese scholars to explain and justify the new 'science' in the light of Western epistemology. In the last three decades of the nineteenth century, Japan was faced with the introduction, study, and digestion---or indigestion---of more than two thousand years of Western thought."

Wrote Michael Marra, paraphrasing Nishida Kitaro's words:

"The West depended on a 'strong' metaphysical apparatus that was based on the presence of 'being' (yu), Japan, like China, rooted the explanation of reality in the formlessness of a less strong but otherwise effective notation of nothingness (mu)."

What could be ascertained by the Japanese in regards to their mindset was at odds philosophically with how the West would ascertain the same principle.

How hard is it for a translator today to translate the intent of a poet's decades old mindset into a truth that can be comprehended by the West without altering or bastardizing his poetry?

RDG: Before replying to the question, let me qualify some of your preliminary remarks. Yes, Japanese translators quickly coined new words with the help of the abundant Chinese characters and sentences adapted existing grammatical devices to try to follow the logical connections found in Western languages, as they had already done for Chinese, but what amazes me is how little Japanese has changed over the centuries. Were it not for orthographical changes and for the unwritten associations not related to language per se, Edo era haiku is on the whole no more difficult for me to read than English poetry. And, I can pick up and read the waka of, say, Saigyo, written about a thousand years ago and read it almost as well! Note, mind you, that I find Chaucer, half as ancient, more difficult to read without glancing at a translation. The difference between our respective languages dwarfs any change brought about by Japanese translating Indo-European books.

As I have translated only a few hundred 20c haiku and have pretty much specialized in older poetry, I am unsure how to respond to your phrase “decades-old mindset.”  Even if we are talking about a contemporary haiku poet, in almost all cases, the work includes some or a lot of associations going back centuries or even a millennium. Even if a good, translation is possible – often, it is not -- it could not share more than some of the vaguest associations with you any more than the original could share the same with Japanese readers. As the poem is always altered in translation, the translator’s main job is deciding what to preserve and what to change in order to do a decent translation. Only someone who has read tens of thousands of haiku in Japanese can get much out of most without additional information. If that additional information is included, meaningful translation is possible. Otherwise, for most ku, it is not. And, when it comes to Basho, let me say that for many of his poems, even well-read Japanese need additional information.

While the way of haiku pioneered by Basho did bring a religious intensity and sincerity to what had become an increasingly outrageous body of short-form poetry, I am not sure if we should use terms such as “a truth.”  To turn a ku into “a truth” itself seems too monotheistic for Japanese. The best we can do is study up and make educated guesses about what the poem/poet means, as do the Japanese readers of Basho gathered and translated by Makoto Ueda.

RDW: In the Japanese language the use of particles are important, especially in bringing to light the unsaid via silences, pauses, stresses, and inunciation [?]. Please ilucidate [illustrate+elucidate]:

RDG: Because particles and postpositions follow nouns, and the conjugations – if they can be called that – of the verbs ending the sentences themselves may have little tails of sound emphatic, quizzical, etc. all of these tend to fall on what is or could be a break and this does increase their impact. That is important as it gives haiku that is generally written in a single line – in printed anthologies almost always just one line – phrases, which bring it somewhat closer to our multi-line ku.

Some may be translated by our signs (?,!, --, :), others by careful use of italics (something as often as not mistranslated by Japanese and AI translators of English). They can be a problem for lack of equivalence, the “o” that often following a phrase makes it a had-it-only-been-true-but-alas-it-is-not lament may sometimes be translated by “if only ~” but that, of course, means the first part of the poem must come after that rather than before ... My particular interest, maybe even bugbear? – is the “mo” -- I cannot count the times the particle meaning “too” or “even” has told me I must stop and find out what the poem is referring to. All too many translators translate it as “even” or as some other intensifier, when “too” was intended, as they fail to investigate enough to discover what the subject was being compared to, i.e., the point of the poem. I cannot much speak to silences and pauses as my relationship to haiku has been pretty much written word. 

As far as kireji, the so-called cutting-particles go. The most common one, generally found only in poetry and more in haiku than any other form – the kana or ya, usually written with the same Chinese character but pronounced differently depending on context – is sometimes little but a space-filler to finish off a poem (one finds it far more common in some decades than others), and at poems end is best thought of as an emphatic which may well have an iffy tone, as an increasingly large number of people (mostly female and relatively well-off from the West coast of the USA?) do in English. I can never repeat enough what Basho pointed out, i.e. any word can be a cutting-particle.

RDW:  Much is made today about the importance of rhythm in the monotony of the Japanese [monotony is a disusing term, how about =>tonally flat Japanese] language, thus the traditional 5/7/5 syllable pattern ascribed to haiku, the rhythm further aided by the use of cutting words. How does a translator capture the metrical cadence of the original penned in the Japanese language when translating into a language that does not use cutting words?

RDG: I think the relative lack of tonality and weak accents in Japanese are but half of it and the way post-positions and what not make decent end-rhyme impossible the other half. I think the best we can do is consider the approximate length of the average ku and its parts. R. H. Blyth, after a decade or two of syllable-counting, realized he had been wrong and went instead for 7 or 8 beats, if I recall correctly. I find 2-3-2 beats generally does the trick. When Japanese haiku have an extra syllabet, it is most commonly the first part, then the last part and then the middle one.  We, too, may sometimes go a bit over with a 3-3-2, etc. Japanese haiku also may have some internal rhyme, mostly of the vowel rhyme type we associate with Emily Dickenson [sp?]. If the lines are short and it is enjambed, there is a cutting-word feeling and if the words are right, we also get the magic most common to Japanese poetry, a pun of sorts. Finally, depending where the beat is in the words we chose, we can capture much of the cadence of the original.

RDW: As a follow-up question, Robin, isn't it true that the Japanese have no syllables as conceptualized by the West? And if so, how does one compose a haiku with a haiku-like metric schemata that approximates that used by the Japanese in the composition of haiku?

RDG: While the 5-7 Japanese syllabet scheme found in Japanese advertizing and political slogans, too, I might add, is no fiction, there is no fixed metric schemata. If I were to read a hundred Japanese haiku, you would hear great variation. Each word and phrase and the whole must just sound right. Right for the subject/feeling. As you know already, Robert – but thanks for letting me mention it – Japanese syllables and English syllables are not even close to being the same animal. I say “animal” for the “breath” in the word. Some of the West comes close to having nearly uniform short syllables. That is why linguists may refer to the Japanese syllables with the Greek word mora. We may not consider our syllables to be strange, but clusters of consonants sandwiching a vowel (as in strange) are two or three times longer than a mora or syllabet, to use my coinage, reflecting the fact that Japanese syllables are individual letters.

RDW: How important was dual meaning in the composition of haiku from Basho's poetic world-view, and as such, how did he accomplish layering of meaning to evoke a surplus of meaning for his readers while limited to an economy of words and intonations?

RDG: I would say multiple rather than dual, though I suppose that two layers may be average as some are single layer bare-bone observation and others much denser. About half -- or is it more than half? -- of Basho’s poems are social: greetings, condolences, thanks, goodbyes, etc., as poetry waka or haikai was generally social behavior – not the proverbial lone poet of the West writing things no one will read. An easy example I can recall offhand as many have written about it is the way Basho compared himself with a bee coming out of a peony laden with pollen as a thank-you+goodbye. The season was right and this flower a symbol of happy prosperity – both those facts would be known by those receiving the poem, while the bee coming out like that would fresh – all the ku before him, as far as I know – fail to mention the incredibly large cache of pollen they hold, and, as the people who saw him off would expect a thank-you poem, Basho did not need to literally compare himself – he does not appear in his poem – to make the metaphor explicit. I think more of his ku refer to longer poems by mentioning the poet’s name in his poem or using a phrase from it, leaving two-thirds of the poem free for new observation. Or, there may be a phrase from a popular song, or puns linking the observation to the place, but I do not have time to look through Basho for examples at this time. 

Let me just add that using parts of other’s poems or songs in Japan generally did not mean a poet was lazy or intending parody, but that the poet was diligent to look it up and by including the part of the poem brought the entire poem and poet into the picture. And, as far as puns go, we might best think of what Jung called synchronicity – that golden beetle flying in at just the right time to punctuate, and in a sense validate, his conversation. Puns, like rhyme, tie things together and one finds all sorts of things – especially but not limited to food for various seasonal celebrations – bound by pun in Japan/ese. So saying, because haikai culture overdid it with the puns, the mature Basho punned relatively little. Judging from his interest in karumi, or lightness, toward the end of his life, I am sure he would have come back to pun from age 60 or so.

RDW: The haiku world these days has its share of amateur translators and those posing as expert translators. Can one accurately translate a Japanese poem by Basho, Buson, Chiyo-ni, Doho, or some other haiku pioneer, using a Japanese/English language dictionary? Can one accurately translate said poetry limited to a knowledge of current day Japanese with its self-colonized Western influence and an unfamiliarity with the cultural hermeneutics of the era in which the poetry was written?

RDG: Of course, you cannot translate them well. However, even a machine translation if it is allowed to sit out there on the web and enough people see it and some who know more about the poem and where it came from help, may, with time be improved and if the poems include ones the pros have not felt worth translating, it might goad them to step in to at least correct or improve the translation. I am afraid I have seen so much poor translation coming even from scholars and published by decent presses, that such amateurism does not bother me, so long as it is open. 

I am more upset by the lack of imagination of choice not only in translation but in the selection of old haiku reprinted in Japan. You might note that Rise, Ye Sea Slugs! was unique not only for almost 1000 ku on so obscure a theme but for the hundreds of ku by little known or unknown poets. My haiyu (friend-in-haiku) Saibara Tenki -- whose online zine weekly haiku (only in Japanese) seems to be doing great! – thought that was what made my work revolutionary. He called it more an exhibition than an anthology in the usual sense, and that made me a curator of haiku. 

RDW: You have translated literally thousands of haiku/hokku into the English language. What are the challenges facing you when translating haiku? How do you deal with said challenges? Perhaps you can offer up an example.

RDG:  I have a lousy memory. I joke about it and say I would keep my mind open for work, but probably it is because I cannot absorb fish-fat. And, I hate to look up stuff in my own books. I do recall a thorough elaboration with examples of why Issa’s famous fly-ku cannot – I repeat, cannot -- be well-translated in my book by that name. But, awakening from my afterlunch siesta, I cracked open a book of novelty (kokkei) haiku and the first ku that caught my eye was “kogarashi no hate wa arikeri umi no oto” by Gonsui. It is far less obscure than most in the book and I think it must have a few translations, but let me just try a few.

A winter gale / in the sound of the sea / comes to an end

Gale winds / your final destination? / the sound of the sea

The sound of the sea / Is this where that gale / ended up?

The sound of waves / crashing on the beach / -- that gale!

Literally, it reads “gale’s end-as-for is+finality sea’s sound.”  Try it yourself. That is why I give such a gloss in my books. There are older poems about where autumn leaves blown into rivers and the summer heat ends up, but they would not affect the translation. Gales in Japanese are literally tree-witherers as the Japanese winter is pretty dry compared to the monsoon-including summers. The ku after that, perhaps never Englished, was also interesting, but far harder to translate: “kogarashi ni yori kakari yuku bajou kana.” Literally: “gale-to/with nearing-catch-go horseback ‘tis!”

Catching the tail of a gale off I go on horseback!

Not knowing the poet (Shunki? 春幾) or the context, this is not the sort of poem I would translate, but I feel good about the above one-line translation. 

RDW: Why is it important to study and read accurate translations of Japanese hokku/haiku, as poets? What is your goal as a translator?

RDG: That is a question I cannot respond easily to as it has been decades since I read Blyth’s thousands of translations. As I was learning Japanese at the time, having the original Japanese as well as a translation and some explanation was a Godsend. I could not study from textbooks, as the content was too damn childish. I suppose my goal as a translator is to make readers as happy as I am when reading the originals. If I add something, it is only because I am so aware of what is lost. I cannot bear to read translations that do not excite me as much as the originals, so, I confess, I read little.

RDW: Thank you, Robin, for sharing with us from your storehouse of expertise and experience. Is there anything else you would like to add?

RDG: Two things. First, almost every time I read a translation of mine, I come up with a better one. Please consider my work as unfinished and do not hesitate to improve whatever you read.

Second, my original plan was to do a ten-volume haiku saijiki. Lacking monetary support and feedback for most of the ideas in my books, and realizing that unless I make a case for the poems I like in Japanese, most will never make it into English, as not only amateurs but academics tend to explore only what is already accepted in Japan. I am once again* writing in Japanese championing the B-side of waka, the kyouka, or mad poem. Academia marginalized kyouka, but I agree with tankaist Yoshioka Ikuo who finds the roots of modern tanka and, with my haikai background, find much interesting development of seasonal themes as well. Health and wealth providing, I will return to haiku translation in a couple years and may gather my own haiku, too, but, first, I must finish my work on kyouka. As mad as it may sound, I feel that kyouka, while less extraordinarily condensed and pure (?) as haiku, are so playful, so logical (like the grooks of Piet Hein) and so cheerful that if I can manage to present them in a form readable to even those young Japanese who might find Basho too subtle while not simplifying the orthography or explaining too much for older readers, my next books with 10,000, 1,000 and 100 kyouka, respectively, will help pick up the spirits of tens of millions of Japanese and help Japan sail out of two decades of what I would call cultural doldrums.