1. Form

2. Methodology and Translation Techniques

3. Terminology



1.  Form

A haiku consists of 17 onji (or morae) divided into lines of 5, 7 and 5 onji, and so it appears, at first sight, to be more symmetrical than the form from which it evolved, the tanka or waka (5, 7, 5, 7, 7 syllables).  We may think of the Chinese character for mountain (Chinese reading SEN; Japanese reading yama), in which the central peak is slightly higher than the side ones.  Yet this symmetry is deceptive, for these three divisions actually form two units, a phrase of 12 onji and a fragment of 5 onji. The effect of the haiku largely depends upon the juxtaposition of the two images presented in these two units.


An onji is a unit of sound; it may also be called a haku (in English, mora, a term from Latin prosody).  It is not quite the same as an English syllable: for example, ehaikuf is two syllables in English, but in Japanese, a language without diphthongs, eha-i-kuf is three onji.  Consequently 17 onji are roughly equivalent, in length and effect, to 11 or 12 syllables.  Much poetry in English, German, French, Italian and Spanish is based on a 10/11 syllable line, which tests have revealed to represent the length of a moment.  Japanese poetry, however, traditionally employed 5- and 7-onji lines in varying degrees of alternation, the 5-7-5-7-7 of the tanka being most popular.  By putting three of these lines together, the haiku forms a moment to Western ears – a slightly elongated moment, with two breaks, one major and one minor.


This division of a poem into three units is extremely rare; the majority of world poetry is binary and parallel in construction.  The ternary structure is almost unique to Japanese.  Most present translators reproduce it; very occasionally, a Japanese translator has rendered haiku, or tanka, into four-line English verse.  A substantial body of such verse already exists in English, and it is of a considerably higher standard than anything that Mr. Yuasa (The Narrow Road to the Deep North) and Mr. Honda (One Hundred Poems from One Hundred Poets) have to offer.  I do not simply want to know that the ternary division exists in the original; I wish to experience it.  There are also the heroic couplets of William Stewart, whom we may term ethe last of the Augustansf.  It is a sobering thought that this book of translations has run through 25 printings; one is reminded of the translations of Chinese poetry by Arthur Waley, a great translator who always wrote superb prose.  Finally, there are the one-line translations of Hiroaki Sato, which are not a success; quite simply, anyone who attempts this approach is doomed.  In order to allow greater interplay between the constituent elements, it is necessary to cut the line, to set locks in the canal of thought; through division, we define stages of time and bestow depth and complexity on the relationships we have created.  It could be argued that we could place divisions within one line, to create a horizontal equivalent of the usual vertical effect, and this is certainly a possibility; however, the modern eye is trained to look for poetry in lines.


There is the danger that Westerners, in their attempt to come to terms with and appropriate the haiku, will restrict its range and make it less flexible than the haiku in Japanese.  For example, we sometimes exaggerate the Buddhist tendencies of a haijin, paying insufficient regard to the importance of the Shinto belief in the oneness of nature and possible conflicts between this belief and Buddhist transcendence; we may advocate the absence of personal pronouns and, as far as possible, of verbs, even though several Japanese haijin employ them quite merrily; or we may turn a blind eye to the humour of haiku.  In translation, I attempt to follow the author in such matters.  This exaggeration is perfectly understandable, for we wish to separate the values of haiku from those of Western poetry, and this is easier to achieve when the genre is tightly defined.  In the past, too many restrictions were placed, haiku sometimes being considered synonymous with Bashō, or perhaps also with Buson, the work of many other notable haijin, such as Issa, Tan Taigi, and Chiyo-ni, being neglected.  Nowadays we have gone to the other extreme; relativity has created a world without borders and without defining features.  Poetry, like life, needs restrictions.


2.  Methodology and Translation Techniques

My translations generally employ 11-12 syllables, this length being approximately correspondent to 17 onji.  Some poets like to follow the Japanese syllabic pattern when composing haiku in English, but translators seldom adopt that method (Kenneth Yasuda being an exception), Japanese being a more polysyllabic and inflectional language.  At no stage did I feel that I was forced to omit anything essential; on the contrary, adopting 11-12 syllables as a rough limit assisted my attempt to reproduce the economy of the originals and acted as a guard against interpretative adjectives and pathetic fallacies.  The essence of haiku lies in suggestion, in an unstated emotional response to (seasonal) nature.


My translation is my own work; the strengths and demerits of each version are mine alone.  Some people like to co-translate, or to consult the original poet, and on occasion such collaborations may be of benefit, especially if the translator is not versed in the source language (there seem to be many co-translations from Hungarian, for instance).  However, I find such a procedure to lead to conflict; there can be only one driver, and a poet is but a passenger in foreign lands.  A translator views a poem from a perspective that is closed to the author, who does not possess as deep a knowledge of, and feel for, the target language.  As concerns notions of eoriginalityf, I shall merely observe the following: when Bashō composes a haiku that is the same as one by Sōgi but for one word (yo ni furu mo/ sara ni sōgi no/ yadori kana; yo ni furu mo/ sara ni shigure no/ yadori kana), his poem is considered an original work, for that one word, that one small change, alters the whole.  The new poem thereby establishes roots, and strengthens the roots of its predecessor, in the native tradition.  Translators constantly make such changes; this is unavoidable when one is transferring data from one language into another, for there are no perfect inter-lingual synonyms.  Is their work not therefore original?


Translation may be defined as a search in the snow for what we did not plant; of course, as with many comments on translation, the image is applicable to almost any use of language, and we must bear in mind that the planter was working on prepared ground.  When encountering a language as different from onefs mother tongue as Japanese is from English, the snow is deep.  Haiku is essentially nature poetry, and the English are less alive to the seasons than the Japanese.  We approach it as children, but then we egrow upf and lose ourselves in petty emotional concerns; haiku return our attention to the small details of nature that we have failed to notice since our first, incomplete discovery of the natural world.  The Japanese possess a vocabulary – including a more specific calendar, with shoshū (early autumn) and banshun (late spring) – that exceeds our word-store, so the translation of such words cannot bear the same force in English.  It is fascinating to observe the way in which they monitor the advance of the cherry-blossom front in spring: after all, what is more important than flowers?  Our sense of season is being further weakened by climactic change and our gradual flattening of the festivals of the year: when I was a child, a firework display took place on one night only; nowadays, they occur with inescapable regularity, and the fascination and poetry of eflower-firef, as the Japanese call it, disappears.  There is also the significant structural difference of the two languages.  When writing essays in academic English, Japanese students often use the passive voice incorrectly and excessively, for it occurs more frequently in their language.  I am not advocating the avoidance of the passive voice to be found in Microsoft Word and some academic journals; I am simply concerned with its correct employment.  If we consider the following haiku by Chiyo-ni, in which the blossoming of the plum-flower heralds the arrival of spring:


ume ga ka ya                                     plum-blossom scent (kireji)

doko e fukaruru                                where to [in what direction] is blown

yuki onna                                          snow woman


How are we to translate the final two lines?  We could anticipate:


where has she been blown, / the snow woman?


We could make the passive active:


           where has the wind blown / the snow woman?


Or, in this instance, we may retain the passive through the use of enjambement:


           whither has the snow / woman been blown?


English/American translators of Japanese poetry often claim to have retained the order of the images in the original poem as far as was possible, and their practice often belies their theory.  I shall make the same claim and leave the reader to test its veracity.  There are limits: for example, in Issafs:


yama-yake no                        mountain-firefs

akari ni kudaru                       light in going down

yobune kana                          night-boat [kireji]


we note how the object precedes the verb, an arrangement that cannot be reproduced in English.  Furthermore, Japanese has particles and postpositions, English has prepositions:


sabishisa ni                            from loneliness           (Sekitei)


I generally avoided pronouns, especially the subject pronoun, in order to create ambiguity, a sense of selflessness, of being one with nature:


meigetsu ya                                       harvest moon –

ike wo megurite                                 milling round the pond

yomosugara                                      throughout the night    (Bashō)


In general, haijin employ a concrete and neutral vocabulary.  The poem is noun-heavy, often constructed around the particle enof, a small but significant bridge between two or more nouns, two or more states, and the bearer of the process of mutual enriching modification; in that respect, haiku evoke the German language more than English.  Constructions such as eno otof (ethe sound ofcf) and eno koef (ethe voice off) are frequently found.  It is difficult to maintain this neutrality in translation, for one phrase can change considerably in a new context.  Let us consider two hokku by Bashō in which esemi no koef (ecicada voicef) appears:


shizukasa ya                                     silence –

iwa ni shimi-iru                                  into the rock

semi no koe                                      cicada drill


yagate shinu                                      no sign

keshiki wa miezu                               of dying soon –

semi no koe                                      cicada chirp


In such cases, translators are often unsure whether to use the singular or to pluralise.  There is also the question of how to translate ekoef.  Neutral terms in Japanese can make a significant phonetic contribution to the poem; this is not the case in the above poems with esoundf or evoicef.  The translator usually wishes to employ a more specific term that is suggested by the context and which will enrich his version.  Thus the term that designates the sound of cicadas in English – echirpf – is employed for the second hokku, with its cheerful connotations, to add poignancy to a hokku on the premature death of Bashōfs patron.  The same term would be inappropriate for the preceding hokku, in which the noise made by the cicadas gradually eats into the rock.


Finally, I retained the occasional Japanese word. With esakuraf (cherry-blossom), esazankaf (camellia sasanqua) and, esusukif (pampas-grass), the sibilants and the velar stops were simply irresistible.  Of course, we must accept that Japanese has more Ks than English, and it is often impossible to reproduce that sound effect, unless we fill our page with blossoming sakura and singing skylarks!  Yet it is difficult not to covet the sounds of other tongues; the temptation is always there to essay to reproduce the sounds that carry the poem to our ears, to rewrap the present in the same paper, rather than to create a parallel system of sounds.  The attempt was made to utilise assonance and alliteration wherever possible, although the fact remains that a language with only single consonants and very few vowel-sounds, and in which virtually every mora ends with a vowel (the exception, enf, used to be emuf), is being translated into a language rich in vowel-sounds whose words are often thickly wooded with consonants.  That vocalic variation commonly forms the sinews of the English poetic line; in the haikufs three-tatami mat room, however, the repetition of vowel-sounds forms an enchanting, almost ritualistic, rhythm.



Ultimately, our reaction to a translation depends on the extent of our knowledge of the source language.  If the English is all that we have access to, then a good translation may arouse the wish to imitate; if we can see, and understand, the Japanese, then we may experience the desire to translate.  A translation can only be similar to its original; sameness is an impossible dream.  Yet we cannot help pursuing this dream, for we want our language to convey the same meaning, and we wish to capture and come to terms with the poem in our mother tongue; there is something both stimulating and unnerving in being moved by words in a foreign language.  It expands the limits of our individuality while simultaneously calling into question the nature of the self.  So we note the difference between original and translation, and we search the banks of language for the narrowest of crossings; in the end, we build our own bridge.



3.  Terminology


Aware: a melancholic response to the sadness of transitory beauty; elegant pathos; a gentle appreciation tinged with sorrow; lacrimae rerum, the pity of things.  See the excerpt from William J. Puett, Guide to the Tale of Genji (Rutland, Vermont; Tokyo: Tuttle, 1983) at:

www.uwec.edu/beachea/teach/japanese religion/puette2.htm.


Haibun: terse prose containing haiku, the most famous example being Bashōfs eOku no hosomichif (eThe Narrow Road to the Interiorf, the Interior/Depths being Tohoku).


Haiga: an abstract painting that accompanies a haiku, or is accompanied by a haiku in calligraphy.


Haiku: A minimalist beginning; a guestfs greeting.  The meeting of the eternal and the momentary; the sound of snow beneath the stones; the wind seen by candlelight; the fire inferred from a glimpse of smoke.


Hiragana: one of the two Japanese phonetic syllabaries – the elegant one.


Hosomi: eslendernessf.  Sparse, understated expression.


Ji-amari: (echaracter-excessf), the use of extra onji in a haiku.


Jisei no ku: a death-bed poem.


Kake-kotoba: a epivot-wordf.  More common in tanka than in haiku.  It is an elaborate pun and may be thought of as a hinge for two doors.  The pivot-word is written in hiragana; if the poet were to use kanji, the ambiguity would disappear.  For example: in his tanka eyamakage nof, Ryōkan writes esumiwataruf in hiragana, so the reader sees only the sounds; it is kanji that carry the basic meaning.  Ryōkan is punning on esumif which means both elivef and eclean/puref: he leads a pure life.  These two meanings of esumif are distinguished through separate kanji.


Kanjaku: supreme quietness.


Kanji: Chinese characters in Japanese.


Karumi: elightnessf.  The simple treatment of the beauty to be found in the ordinary; common poetry, not that of the court.


Katakana: the unattractive, over-used Japanese phonetic syllabary that squashes round foreign sounds into squares.


Kigo:   a eseason wordf.  This may be explicit – espring nightf, eautumn eveningf, ewinterf – or it may take the form of a creature or natural phenomenon associated with a particular season.  Thus eharvest moonf suggests autumn, as does elightningf; ethunderf implies summer; and esazankaf are associated with winter.  A small selection is given here; for more thorough lists, and for information of the historical usage of kigo, the reader is referred to a saijiki and William J. Higginsonfs The Haiku Seasons: Poetry of the Natural World respectively.


New Year: hanetsuki (battledore and shuttlecock ~ badminton), hatsumōde (New Year visit to a shrine), hatsuyume (first dream of the year), kadomatsu (a pine-tree at the gate, as a New Year decoration), kagami-mochi (emirror rice-cakesf, offered to the Gods on New Yearfs Day), otoshidama (handsel).


Spring: abu (horsefly), aomushi (caterpillar), atatakasa (warmth), awayuki (light [ebubblef] snow), chatsumi (tea[leaf]-picking), chō (butterfly), hamaguri (clam), hanami (cherry-blossom viewing), hibari (skylark), kaeru (frog), kasumi (mist), kiji (pheasant), kochi (spring wind), komadori (robin), makuren (magnolia), masu (trout), mugi (wheat), nadare (avalanche), neko no koi (catfs love), nishin (herring), nodoka na (tranquil), nori (laver), noyaki (burning dead grass), oborotsuki (hazy moon), rakka (fallen cherry-blossoms), saezuri ([bird] twittering), shinkirō (mirage), shiohigari (shellfish-gathering), sumire (violet), suzume (sparrow), tagayasu (ploughing), tako (kite), tanemaki (sowing), tanpopo (dandelion), tauchi (hoeing), tsubaki (camellia), tsubame (swallow), tsuki no kasa (halo of the moon), tsutsuji (azalea), uguisu (bush warbler), umemi (plum-blossom viewing), wasurenagusa (forget-me-not), yanagi (willow), yūgiri (evening mist), zansetsu (lingering snow).


Summer: aosagi (heron), ari (ant), asagao (morning-glory), ase (sweat), atsusa (heat), ayu (sweetfish), banka (late summer), bara (rose), biwa (loquat), endō (pea), funsui (fountain), fūrin (windchime), ga (moth), hanabi (fireworks), hanashōbu (iris), hasu no hana (lotus-flower), hebi (snake), hideri (drought), higasa (parasol), hikigaeru (toad), himawari (sunflower), hirune (afternoon nap), hoshigusa (hay), hotaru (firefly), ichigo (strawberry), izumi (spring, fountain), ka (mosquito), kaminari (thunder), kani (crab), katatsumuri (snail), keshi no hana (poppy), kingyo (goldfish), koi no bori (carp-shaped streamer), kōmori (bat), kumo (spider), kurage (jellyfish), kuroichigo (blackberry), kyūri (cucumber), melon, mugi no aki (ripe wheat), mugikari (barley-cutting), mugiwarabōshi (straw hat), nanbū (summer [southern] breeze), nasu (aubergine), niji (rainbow), ran (orchid), samidare (early summer [5th-month] rain), semi (cicada), sensus (folding fan), shoka (early summer), sōmatō (revolving lantern), sudare (bamboo blind), suiren (water-lily), suzuran (lily of the valley), suzushisa (coolness), take no ko (bamboo shoot), taki (waterfall), tamanegi (onion), taue (rice-planting), tessenka (clematis), tomato, tōmorokoshi (corn), tōrōnagashi (lantern floating), tsuyu (rainy season), wakaba (young leaves), yagurumasō (cornflower), yūgao (moonflower), yukata, yuri no hana (lily), yūsuzumi (enjoying the cool evening air).


Autumn: amanogawa (Milky Way; eRiver of Heavenf), asasamu (morning coldness), budō (grape), donguri (acorn), gan (wild goose), hōnen (good rice-crop), hoshizuki yo (starry night), ichijiku (fig), inazuma (lightning), inekari (rice-reaping), kakashi (scarecrow), kaki (persimmon), kamakiri (mantis), karasu (crow), kari (goose), karita (reaped field), kiku (chrysanthemum), kinoko (mushroom), kinokogari (mushroom-gathering), kiri (fog), kitsutsuki (woodpecker), konomi (nuts), kōrogi (cricket), kōzui (flood), kuri (chestnut), kurumi (walnut), mangetsu (full moon), [chūshū no] meigetsu (harvest-moon), mikan (mandarin), mizusumu (clear water), momiji (maple[-leaves]), mozu (shrike), mukuge (rose of Sharon), nowake (autumn storm; emoor-dividef), ringo (apple), ryūsei (shooting star), shika (deer), shion (aster), suika (watermelon), taifū (typhoon), tonbō (dragonfly), tsukimi (moon-viewing), tsuru (crane), tsuyu (dew), wataridori (bird of passage), yonaga (long night), yozamu (night-chill), zakuro (pomegranate), zansho (lingering heat).


Winter: bōnenkai (end-of-year party), chidori (plover), fukurō (owl), fuyugare (winter desolation), hakuchō (swan), hifiragi (holly), hisame (icy rain), itetaki (frozen waterfall), kaki (oyster), kamo (duck), kareha (dead leaves), kareki (bare tree), kazahana (snowflake; ewind-flowerf), keitoamu (knitting), kitakaze (North Wind), kitsune (fox), kogarashi (cold winter wind), kōri (ice), kuma (bear), mizudori (waterfowl), ochiba (fallen leaves), sazanka (camellia sasanqua), seki (cough), setsugen (snow field), suisen (narcissus), taka (hawk), takibi (fire), tōji (winter solstice), tsurara (icicle), usagi (rabbit), yuge (steam), yukidaruma (snowman).


Kireji: a ecutting-wordf.  A pause of thought.  Often eyaf, and usually following the ekigof.  This word is emphatic, and is translated as e–f, e!f, ecf or e:f.  There are also the old-fashioned translations by an old-fashioned translator, William Stewart: elo!f, ebehold!f  It serves as a low wall between the initial scene and the following, juxtaposed image.


Other kireji are: kana, a soft sigh (eAh!f), frequently at the end of the haiku; keri, an emotive verbal suffix; ramu/ran (the final enf being originally written emuf), a verbal suffix meaning eIt may be thatcf; and shi, an adjectival suffix that requires a predicate adjective at the end of the clause in English.


Makoto: sincerity.


Makura-kotoba: a epillow-wordf.  This is a decorative epithet which, like all Japanese qualifiers, precedes the noun.  It makes the reader rest his head on a pillow, as it were, and reflect on the noun.  Thus ekusa-makuraf (egrass-pillowf) is a pillow-word for ejourneyf or eeveningf.


Mushin: ewithout heartf.  Denotes frivolous intent and language (in renga).  The opposite of ushin.


Miyabi: courtly elegance.


Renga: (elinked-elegancef).  A long poem formed of three- and two-line stanzas composed by several poets sitting together.  The first stanza, composed by the senior poet, is called the ehokkuf, and this is the term that describes the poetry of Bashō: ehaikuf was coined by Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902).  The second stanza is the ewakikuf (eside-versef) and the third is the edaisanf; apart from this, only the final stanza has a specific name (eagekuf), all other stanzas coming under the nomenclature of ehirakuf (eordinary versef).  A renga is a series of imaginative, almost scientific, leaps, a train journey on which the passenger frequently alights at unfamiliar stations and wonders how on earth he arrived there; it is one of the most lateral forms of poetry.


Sabi: Asymmetrical, impermanent beauty; quiet elegance; acceptance of transience. A epositive sadnessf (Sanford Goldstein et al, Ryōkan: Selected Tanka. Selected Haiku. Niigata: Kōkodō, 2000, p. 151); edetached lonelinessf (Patricia Donegan, Chiyo-ni. Woman Haiku Master. Tokyo; Boston; Singapore: Tuttle, 1998, p. 270); eBeauty with a sense of loneliness in timef (William J. Higginson, The Haiku Handbook. Tokyo; New York; London: Kodansha, 1985, p. 293).  The unfortunate term ewabi-sabif has become quite trendy nowadays.


Saijiki: a kigo dictionary.


Senryū: eriver willowf.  Named after the nom de plume of Karai Hachiemon (1718-90).  The same basic form as the haiku, but the language is more colloquial, and the content and tone are different; the senryū is more concerned with mankind, especially with human foibles, and it is frequently epigrammatic, witty, satirical.  It gives the reader a pointe, not a moment; there is no kigo, no mysticism; it is a song not free from mud, although this earthiness can be its strength.


Shasei: a still-life (Shiki).  The presentation of an actual scene as it is (esono mamaf), not the poetfs aroused reflections, during the process of observation.


Shibumi: eastringencyf.  Subdued images; light, faint strokes.


Shiori: ebending, witheringf.  The delicate, sensitive observation of the world; sympathy with ambiguity.


Tanka: eshort poemf.  For many centuries the dominant poetic form in Japanese, as is attested by its old name, waka (eJapanese poemf).  It originated from chants to the gods, which explains its rhythmic variation: it comprises 31 onji in a 5-7-5-7-7 structure, alternation being followed by terminal repetition.


Ushin: ewith heartf.  Refers to the employment of classical diction and a sincere, elevated tone (in renga).


Utsuri: ereflectionf.  Denotes the sense of transference between renga stanzas.  This transference can also be seen to be compressed within the haiku.


Wabi: Beauty in poverty, in austerity, in simple living and things.  Non-dependence upon material possessions; the satisfying appeal of solitude and loneliness.



Haiku Translations


Haiku Translations with the Japanese Script


Haiku Annotated Bibliography


Haiku Readings


Tanka Introduction


Tanka Translations


Back to Translations