There is only one other book where you can find these four of Basho's "travel diaries" in one volume and that is Nobuyuki Yuasa's. This compilation also includes a generous selection of Basho's hokku. These are the book's pluses. Unfortunately though, Hamill is much too intent on presenting you with Basho as a sort of haiku-zen master, an identity that Basho himself created as a voice through which to narrate. Mr Hamill would have us believe that Basho wrote poetry for the sake of zen, but the truth is that Basho studied zen for the sake of poetry. Also, Hamill's insistence upon translating in the 5-7-5 form ruins quite a few poems: you get sort of overexplanatory, prosaic verses much of the time. It is almost as if he were translating the explanations you will find in Japanese collections of Basho's verse. For example:
Hamill translates "fuyu no hi ya bajou ni kooru kageboushi" as
Crossing long fields,
frozen in its saddle,
my shadow creeps by
though it should probably (more accurately) be rendered:
on horse's back
a frozen shadow
Hamill dropped the phrase "fuyu no hi ya" entirely and replaced it with "Crossing long fields." I don't know why Hamill rids Basho of suggestion and nuance. Maybe he doesn't think the western reader can find poetry in hokku/haiku as they truly are.
The verse quoted by another reviewer
Your song caresses
the depths of loneliness,
high mountain bird.
might as well not be considered a translation at all. There is almost nothing of the original poem remaining except for the notion of loneliness and the kankodori, which is translated as "high mountain bird." "uki ware o sabishi-garase yo kankodori" would be translated literally as
make this sorrowful self feel lonely, cuckoo!
sabishi-garase is the imperative form of the verb that means "to cause to feel lonely." As a translator one of the worst things you can do is to try to improve upon a poem, though, personally, I don't think Hamill's versions actually do. If you don't trust the poet you're translating, then why are you doing it at all?
At the moment I am in the middle of translating Basho's "Oi no Kobumi" ("Backpack Notes") into English, and when I get stuck on an obscure phrase it helps to consult other translations to see how that translator interpreted it, but oftentimes Hamill (Yuasa is guilty of this too) just glosses over a phrase, which in the end robs the text of any of the interesting quirks in Basho's prose. I wonder if Hamill hit the same tough spots as I and just decided to gloss rather than really try to understand it.
I do not mean to be overly critical of Hamill. It is obvious that he is a good writer and some of his translations are successful but I wonder how much he really considered his renderings. In the end we are reading Hamill, not Basho.
Unfortunately, there are not many alternative translations of Basho's other haibun, but there are plenty of his "Oku no Hosomichi." Hiroaki Sato's is probably the best, since it is very faithful and it gives the most background info (including linked-verse sequences written during the journey), but Cid Corman's is nice too because he does a pretty good job at reproducing Basho's prose style. Also, if you're looking for a good collection of Basho's hokku, check out Makoto Ueda's work. For a good critical study of Basho look at Haruo Shirane's Traces of Dreams. A good internet analysis of Oku no Hosomichi: [...]