Translating Haiku

Haiku poems (September 1 posting) that rely on only seventeen syllables grouped by 5-7-5 are exceedingly difficult to translate into English.  Some translators add rhyme and meter so it fits our idea of a poem, but this often ruins the original.  The best, I find, are those who attempt to keep the 5-7-5 group of syllables, even though they may miss by a syllable or two.  At least this retains the extreme brevity of the original and its requirement that the reader be a co-creator in the pleasure of the poem.  The two haiku poems in the previous posting are examples of such a translation.  The second problem is in the complexity of the Japanese language containing allusions that would be obvious to a native Japanese but unknown in western culture, just as when we hear “Shall We Gather At the River,” we know they are not talking about catfishing in the Schuylkill.

The old pond;
A frog jumps in —
The sound of the water.

Literal translation:

Furu (old) ike (pond) ya
Kawazu (frog) tobikomu (jumping into)
Mizu no (water’s) oto (sound)

The above mysterious haiku poem by the seventeenth century master, Basho, is by far the best known haiku with hundreds of translations into English—and none of them quite right, including this one.  (A recent TV travelog of Japan opened with a cartoon car driving down the map of Japan.  Out of a cartoon forest jumped a cartoon frog into a cartoon pond, without comment.  The poem is that well known.)

The “ya” at the end of the first line is not used in conversation, at least not in this sense.  It is a poetic word that indicates a transition tinged with wonder to what follows while maintaining their sameness.  What follows is the sound of the splash from a frog jumping in, but not necessarily from a frog actually jumping in, just that sound.  The frog, if it was a frog, is unseen.  The sound could be imaginary.

We know from the previous posting that this haiku is not about a quiet pond at all, but is a Zen metaphor for the enlightened mind (a common metaphor in both Buddhism and Hinduism).  My interpretation is the identity of the calm, enlightened mind with the disturbed, distracted mind of everyday life, but you may have a different and just as valid interpretation. Or, you are free to ignore all metaphors and just appreciate the imagery of a quiet pond that you pass by on a forest hike in late summer.  Haiku poetry is not dictatorial.

Different translations of the same poem can have a very different feel.  Here are some random translations I picked up from the Internet to illustrate the variety:

An old silent pond…
A frog jumps into the pond,
splash! Silence again.

(adds “silence again” interpretation)

There is the old pond!
Lo, into it jumps a frog:
hark, water’s music!

(over-interpreted in an attempt to keep 5-7-5 syllables)

The silent old pond
a mirror of ancient calm,
a frog-leaps-in splash.

(last line right, but adds “a mirror of ancient calm” )

The old pond,
A frog jumps in:

(by Alan Watts, who knows his Zen)


(sure maintains the brevity)

Old pond —
frogs jumped in —
sound of water.

(Japanese does not differentiate between singular and plural, so “frogs” could be correct)

A lonely pond in age-old stillness sleeps . . .
Apart, unstirred by sound or motion . . . till
Suddenly into it a lithe frog leaps.

(simplicity of the original is lost)


About Roger Walck

My reasons for writing this blog are spelled out in the posting of 10/1/2012, Montaigne's Essays. They are probably not what you think.
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