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Metamorphoses:  the journal of the five college faculty seminar on literary translation             Spring 2005 (Vol. 13.1)   Editor-in-Chief  Thalia Pandiri


Review:   Rise, Ye Sea Slugs!  A theme from In Praise of Olde Haiku, with many more poems and fine elaboration. Compiled, translated, introduced and essayed by robin d. gill.  Paraverse Press.


Reviewer:  Thomas H. Rohlich, Professor of Japanese Language and Literature at Smith College.


I first learned of this book on a Premodern Japanese Literature listserve, and was intrigued by both its title and subtitle, “1,000 holothurian haiku compiled and translated by robin d. gill.” I did not then know what a holothurian is, but I do now, and I am pleased to count a small serving of holothurian guts [konowata] among the dishes I recall enjoying at a very expensive Kyoto dinner not long ago. But I wondered, can one really devote 480 pages to haiku on sea slugs?  The answer is emphatically ‘yes.’   Although difficult to read from beginning to end, this book contains great learning and insight, and deserves a wide reading among specialists and non-specialists alike.


A few caveats are necessary before I sing the praises of this curious book. First the sea slug is the Apostichopus japonicus, what is commonly known in Japanese as namako, in English as sea cucumber.  The rationale for calling it a sea slug, sometimes shortened to ‘slug’ in translation, is reasonable poetic license.  And there aren’t exactly 1,000 Japanese haiku, more like 900, but who’s counting and who cares?  This book on namako is a treasure, and belongs on the bookshelves and in the hands of Japanese literary scholars, haiku and nature enthusiasts, translators, and anyone who is curious as to why someone would gather haiku written over a period of several hundred years about such a humble creature.


The title poem is an early 19th century verse by Issa, one of Japan’s best loved haiku poets (p. 146):

rise, ye sea slugs!
the day of judgment
is nigh!


The author’s attention to translation detail is evident in the format of the book.  For all poems, the original Japanese is followed by a romanized transliteration, followed in turn by a gloss in verbatim English.  The somewhat cryptic glosses, which consist of single English words and numerous technical grammatical markings, may be instructive for those who don’t understand Japanese, but are generally difficult to decipher.  For many of the haiku, Gill gives multiple translations as a way of showing possible interpretations.  I know of no other book of English translations of haiku that goes to such lengths to explain translations, which in Gill’s hands are accurate, economical, and often elegant. In addition to being an accomplished translator and poet (over 100 of the poems are by the author, under the nom de plume keigu), Gill is an articulate defender of the art of translation. The translations are followed by commentary that runs freely between close readings of the poems, digressions on Japanese literature, history and contemporary culture, anecdotes of many hues, and even an occasional rant.  As an example of the presentation format, here are the romanized transliteration, gloss, and four versions (there are seven in total) of the first poem of Chapter 20, “the nebulous sea slug,” by the 17th century Bashô disciple Rosen (p.287).


namako kana yo ga aketa yara kureta yara – rosen (1660-1743)
(seaslug/s!/?/Ø/the/a/i’m/: night has brightened[just dawned] perhaps?[or day] darkened perhaps?)

the witching hour

hoh, sea slugs!
are you creatures of dusk
or early dawn?

the vector of grey

sea slug time:
is it the dawning
or the dusk?

coming to

sea slug me
i cannot tell if it is
dusk or dawn!

edo identity

a sea slug world:
are we in our dawn
or in our dusk?


The titles to each poem are by Gill, not the original poet. The seven English versions are followed by a paragraph explaining some of the translation difficulties.  Gill then moves to two related poems by the late 19th century poet Shiki, which in turn are followed by a discussion of weather, food, and the establishment in the haiku canon of the idea of “sea slug day” weather. Gill is also a master of the discursive footnote, and at times I found myself reading along the bottoms of the pages, jumping among footnotes, and marveling at his often amusing and always reliable views of Japanese culture, both literary and everyday. For all the eccentricities one might expect (and does find) in a book devoted entirely to Japanese haiku on the sea slug, the author is an accomplished haiku writer, a very talented and engaging critic, capable of reading with an acute understanding of culture and cultural differences. Haiku enthusiasts, scholars of Japanese literature and marine biology, and professional and amateur translators alike will certainly welcome this interesting book.


AUTHOR'S COMMENTS I am especially honored to be called “an articulate defender of the art of translation.”  If I seem articulate, half of the credit should probably go to good luck in my choice of languages: the mutually exotic tongues of English and Japanese are ideal for bringing out the nature of translation as an art. The Ø in the admittedly ugly gloss means that one significance of kana is “null” or no significance to speak of.