The Translation Venture of Paz and Hayashiya in a Haiku from Sendas de Oku


Octavio Paz with Elena Poniatowska, Atlixco, Puebla, Mexico, 1970. Photo: Héctor García.

Octavio Paz and Eikichi Hayashiya published the Spanish translation of Oku no hosomichi (奥の細道) on April 9, 1957. This collaboration resulted in the first translation to a Western language of this work entitled Sendas de Oku (The Narrow Road to Oku). These two authors made it possible for readers of Spanish to discover this travelogue, which is considered a classic of Japanese literature. The author of this book, Matsuo Bashō, is a renowned master of the haiku, whose unique approach to the form has made its translation valuable. Sendas de Oku was subsequently published in two other editions, in 1970 and 1981 by Seix Barral, and in 1992 by the Shinto Tsushin publishing house, in a new edition illustrated by the painter Yosa Buson (1716-1784). 

The work has garnered much critical attention over the years due in part to the creative versatility of Octavio Paz and his interest in Eastern literature. For instance, both Graciela Isnardi, in her essay “El hacedor de milagros. Octavio Paz, maestro de traductores” (“The Miracle Maker. Octavio Paz, Master Translator”), and Octavio Armand, in his article “Octavio Paz o el traductor no traiciona” (“Octavio Paz or the Translator Who is No Traitor”), emphasize Paz’s ability to invent brilliant poetic solutions without knowledge of the original languages. In his article “Poesía y traducción” (“Poetry and Translation”), Marco Antonio Campos states that Paz treated translation as an act of creation. That is to say, even though Paz tried to maintain the meaning of the original text, he did not hesitate to add a personal touch or two to enhance its literary value. Finally, in his article “Octavio Paz, traductor: teoría y práctica” (“Octavio Paz, Translator: Theory and Practice”), Todd Burrell reinforces this notion when he observes that Paz advocates for freedom in the translation process, which he likens to a creative act. 

If we consider the insights of these critics, we can surmise that Sendas de Oku follows a process of translation that opts for fully conveying the meaning, while allowing for creativity within that process, as the author himself affirms in his essay “Traducción: literatura y literalidad” (“Translation: Literature and Literalness”). In this text, Paz asserts that translation erases the differences between one language and another. Although there has been much debate among literary translators about the limitations of translating, given the cultural differences that accompany different languages, Octavio Paz was able to get around these limitations because of poetry’s universal (i.e., cross-cultural) nature.

To return to the work in question, it is worth noting that Paz’s decision to translate Sendas de Oku is the result of a serious study of Eastern literature. It is well known that he developed an interest in Japanese poetry in 1945, after reading works by José Juan Tablada, whom Paz credited with introducing haiku to Latin America. In the 1950s, Paz studied the writings of Daisetz Teitaro Susuki on Zen Buddhism, and during this decade, he spent six months as a diplomat in Japan, an experience that allowed him to delve into Japanese and Chinese poetry. Although he could not read the works in their original languages and had to rely on English translations, this initial stage was an essential step towards what would later become the translation to Spanish of Sendas de Oku. His understanding of Japanese poetics and the haiku went hand in hand with his increasing appreciation of the spiritual world, as he explained in his 1954 essay “Tres momentos de la literatura japonesa” (“Three Instances in Japanese Literature”). In this study, Paz referred to the haiku as a swift notation about a significant moment, and more importantly, a spiritual exercise. 

Fascinated by the inherent spirituality of the haiku, as a translator, Paz sought to rescue the form’s metaphysical dimension. For this reason, the objective of the translations was to comply with the dialectical structure of the haiku: the first line expresses stability, the second a shift, and the third a synthesis of both that provides an opening to a different reality. This is understood as the encounter between opposites, referred to as fueki (that which changes) and riuku (that which flows). When we consider the haiku from the perspective of Octavio Paz, we realize that the transcendental dialectic is an essential counterpoint of the poem. Concise words are selected with the intention of capturing the instances of fueki and riuku. We can observe an example in the first haiku of Sendas de Oku (1957), included in the prologue of the work: 

Otros ahora
en mi choza - mañana:
casa de muñecas.

Others living now
in my thatched home – changing soon
into a doll’s house.

As we can see, Octavio Paz has the ability to capture the transcendental quality of zen in these verses. The first two instances, for example, are defined with precise words. The translation created, in collaboration with Hayashiya, achieves the economy of language characteristic of nihongo (Japanese language) and of the haiku itself, and thus presents a dialectic that alludes to a change and to the generations that will occupy the spaces and bring them back to life. In the original, Bashō has just embarked on a journey and has rented his home to others, which is the reason he expresses in this haiku the transformation that occurs after sheltering a hermit like him. Granted, to truly understand the translation by Paz and Hayashiya, we must compare it to the original nihongo. I will now present my own literal translation in Spanish of the same haiku found in the prologue: 



También la ermita 
es remplazada.
Casa de muñecas.

Also the hermit’s house 
is replaced. 
House of dolls. 

In nihongo, or in Japanese, it is not just a matter of economy of expression, but rather the construction of reality through objects. So while the hut with its thatched roof represents a time that transpired many years ago, the house of dolls expresses a new time in which the home will shelter children or new generations. Referring to this aspect, we note the kidai, a seasonal term that often appears in haiku poetry, is present in the words ひなの家, which allude, precisely, to the dolls. I would like to point out that on their birthdays, little girls often received dolls from their grandparents. These objects were kept in the family for generations, and preserved by the oldest daughter. 

The act of bestowing the doll from grandmother to granddaughter (with the child’s mother as designated caretaker), tends to appear in this poetry as a way of emphasizing “the return to life,” or rebirth, a season of time passing and renewal. In fact, this is exactly what occurs given that Matsuo Bashō has just taken leave of his house, which will soon be occupied by another family. 

Although a subjective allusion is never made, it is understood that the “I” has managed to insert itself deeply into material things, which then become aesthetic objects. The following elements comprise that aesthetic and eventually undergo a transformation: ひな (dolls), 家 (house), and 草の戸も (which literally in kanji, means thatched hut, but is understood in Japanese as hermit’s house). Consequently, Paz and Hayashida have translated these elements adhering to their closest meaning, and with brevity in mind. The choice of the word “thatched hut” instead of hermit’s house or hermitage, for example, is appropriate because it contains the seme for grass or straw alluded to in the word 草の戸も.

Let us turn now to what Octavio Paz considers the two components of the haiku: a point in space that is static and descriptive, and a point in time that contains the element of surprise. As for the spatial locus, it can be reconstructed in Spanish, although without the Japanese cultural context that precedes it. To maintain some of this context, Paz and Hayashiya try to clarify in their translation the relationship between subject and setting, thus introducing the possessive adjective “my” to designate the hut as a space that belongs to the narrative voice. They do the same as well with the word “others” to announce the future presence of the other occupants. The allusion to those people and the subject who actually owns the house are necessary in Spanish, even though they do not appear in nihongo, in order to introduce the relationship between subject and object and the perspective of the person who perceived that change. With a literal translation, the same effect would not be achieved and the relationship between the objects would be lost in the poem. That said, in nihongo the treatment of the subject is different. For example, if we examine the first line, we see that emphasis is placed on the particle も, which means “also.” This is not a coincidence because its inclusion encompasses the idea that not only will the thatched hut change its current state, but the subject will change his condition as well. One thinks first about the subject and later, as a whole, about the house as an object that “also” “will change.” 

In contrast with the Spanish translation, there is no need to indicate ownership in the original language, with a possessive adjective, or to point out that the thatched hut belongs to the subject, as Paz and Hayashiya do in their translation. This is absent in the original because it is understood that while both entities are independent, they both undergo a change. In Western thought, this is difficult to understand fully because a separation exists between subject and object. Another example that illustrates the implied presence of the subject is the particle ぞ. This particle typically refers to males and is added to indicate a dynamic way of speaking; therefore, attached to the phrase 住替る代 (“replace something”), it reinforces the transition in time. The characters も and ぞ allow us to understand the point of view of the subject, something that is expressed in other ways in Spanish. Therefore, in both languages, mechanisms are in place to convey both the subjectivity of the poetic voice and the transformation of reality around him.

The haiku’s second component concerning temporal references is not as difficult to achieve in translation. In this haiku, as with the others in Sendas de Oku, three planes are represented: the moment of enunciation in the present, the future that is imagined, and the past that is evoked. The translation is faithful to that passage, and through the use of temporal adverbs, such as “now” and “tomorrow,” it emphasizes the distinct time frames within the poem. In this way, Bashō is able to envision little girls playing with dolls in the future. On the other hand, at the moment of enunciation in the present, he observes the thatched hut that he leaves behind, and finally, from the past perspective, he returns to the time when he once lived there. The choice of adverbs in Spanish is effective therefore because the haiku in nihongo does not include characters that indicate temporality, something barely perceptible in the verb 住替る, which means “to replace,” an active verb that expresses the passage of time. It is important to note that in their translation, Paz and Hayashiya select words of great intensity not only to capture the spiritual dimension of the haiku but also to emphasize the shifting temporal planes that create a dialectic in motion. For this reason, it is possible to discern in Spanish the three time periods implicit in nihongo

Translating a haiku is not a simple undertaking, but together Paz and Hayashia have preserved the vital spirit of this poetic form. Although some elements differ from the original translation, theirs is certainly successful in maintaining the haiku’s precise metric count (5/7/5), economy of expression, and evocation of time, while capturing the sublime in everyday life. Given that the haiku’s spiritual meaning is so crucial for Octavio Paz, his most outstanding achievement is his ability to incorporate that transcendental dialectic in three lines of poetry. They may lack the contrapuntal character of the original, but the translation by Paz and Hayashiya is truly an invitation for contemplation. Considering that the nihongo is often the language of the implicit, their translation stands as a laudable work that strives not to violate the haiku’s original world any more than it must in order to create a poetic effect. 

Translated by Rhonda Dahl Buchanan


Rhonda Dahl Buchanan, Professor of Spanish and Director of Latin American and Latino Studies at the University of Louisville, has published translations by Argentine and Mexican writers and received an NEA Literature Fellowship in 2006. She would like to thank her fellow translators from the 2019 Bread Loaf Translators’ Workshop for their assistance with the translation of this essay: Slava Faybysh, Jeffrey Zamostny, and Steve Bellin-Oka (and his husband Kenichi Oka).


LALT No. 17
Number 17

In our seventeenth issue, we highlight the work of groundbreaking Colombian writer Albalucía Ángel, alongside Octavio Paz, a towering figure of Mexican letters and the second Latin American winner of the Neustadt International Prize for Literature. We also feature Peruvian poet Eduardo Chirinos, a series of photo portraits of writers in the pandemic, a selection of new translations seeking publisher, plus writing in the Murui, Quechua, and Tseltal lenguages in our ongoing Indigenous Literature section.

Table of Contents

Editor's Note

Featured Author: Albalucía Ángel

Dossier: Octavio Paz

Dispatches from the Republic of Letters






Pandemic Postcards

Indigenous Literature

Translation Previews and New Releases

On Translation: Seeking Publisher

Dossier: Eduardo Chirinos

Nota Bene