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Translating Haiku

Memos of the Yahoo Forum, founded in April 2006

My experience in the translation business goes back more than 40 years, working as a medical doctor/translator in research programs for the WHO, University of Heidelberg.
Later I studied Far Eastern Art and began to translate
texts about Japanese Buddhist Art.

I am born German and live in Japan since 1977. I work as professional translator for scientific and HiTech texts and do cultural translations for my pleasure.

I do not consider myself a poet and translating haiku is rather new to me. Since neither Japanese nor English is my mother tongue, it is indeed quite difficult for me to find the right words.

I will nevertheless try to assist as best as I can to help you understand Japanese Haiku. Apart from the pure language problems, there is a lot about the culture that you might not know and I can provide "footnotes" for this kind of missing knowledge, I hope.

Gabi Greve, GokuRakuAn, Japan, 2004
Languages: German, English, Japanese (a bit of French and Latin)

. Japanese Haiku - Translations .
Join me on Facebook, since October 2012


In the translation forum
let us just try to understand the original and present it to the readers who do not speak Japanese (or any other original language for that matter) as best as we can, to give all a chance to understand it better, in its original form and contents.
Considering the old haiku of Japan, we even have to make a time-slip to their use of the language and the culture at that time.

Studying a haiku at the forum includes literal translations and then other versions that might be possible.
Some might read better as poems, others not.
In that way we can show how a short Japanese poem is indeed not so easily transformed into another language.

As I mentioned, we also need cultural background information.
Knowing a haiku is about Manpuku-Ji we need to explain a bit about this important temple and its atmosphere.
"Autumn festival" is a simple translation of AKIMATSURI, but it will not tell you what really happens then and how the Japanese associate and feel about it. So you need more cultural background.

I admire Robin Gill for giving his thoughts and versions while translating a haiku.

In studying a translation by someone else, let us see what other kinds of versions we can come up with. Not as a competition for "Best Version", but for bringing out the broadest meaning of a haiku to more of the haiku friends who do not read Japanese and who are here to study.

Translating Haiku Forum, March 2007

Some haiku are rather wonderful in Japanese but plain and simple in the English translation. Many friends keep asking:

What am I missing ?


Did you know,
you can polish your Japanese,
but not japanese your Polish ?!

I was told so many years ago by a Polish Jesuit priest at the Japanese Language Center in Kamakura.

Many of you are tempted to write their own haiku in Japanese!
I can understand the feeling, but please, take my advise.

First learn the normal Japanese language as it is spoken in Japan (many books teach you "literal" Japanese, which no one speaks).

Once you consider yourself fluent in normal Japanese conversation, start reading about haiku and get your big Japanese saijiki. Learn the vocabulary needed there, get some knowledge abuot the grammar used in haiku. There are plenty of cheap books in Japan.

And then, try to find a Japanese teacher who will kick your shin if you make a mistake.
Do not go for the "backpatting" pet gaijin approach, that will not help you improve your language skills.
When someone tells you "お上手ですねええ” you should know it is time to run, fast ...

And please, please, please, do NOT use Babbelfish or other online translation services.

They may be useful for normal text, but never for poetry !

Writing your own haiku in Japanese only works if you are serious to invest about 5 years of intensive language learning (best spent in Japan) and then the rest of your life for improvements.
So better not start at all and spend your time more efficiently to improve your skills for writing good haiku in English (or whatever your mothertongue is).


Cross-cultural Musings

When translating, it is not only about words, but of a cultural understanding that might not (and usually does not) exist in the target language.

I will always remember the first missionaries looking at what we now call "Buddha Statues". They only saw hineous fiendish demonic fetishes (Götzenbilder in German) and translated the literature accordingly.
When I started writing about "Buddha Statues" in German, more than 30 years ago, I had to sort of make up my own vocabulary to convey what these things mean here in Japan in their original context and in the daily life of the Japanese.
Consider a statue of a Kannon with 1000 arms and a poor missionary 200 years ago trying to cope with such a monster in his Christian vocabulary ...

What I am trying to say is this

Usually you look into things from the standpoint of your own culture, trying to understand it on YOUR terms, using words of YOUR language.

I try to understand things Japansese on THEIR terms, the Japanese way. This means re-programming the old brain, loosing the European cultural clutter and start from ZERO ... Ichi Ni San ...

Gabi Greve


Musings by Chibi, November 2008

I am beginning to believe... truly believe, that haiku can only be written in Japanese because it is intrinsically Japaense. I look at it this way. If you are to construct a sake cup made from Japanese wood, of Japanese design, in a Japanese setting filled with sake made in Japan... then how can you do so in another wood, design, setting or drink? By definition, you just can not.

MORE by Chibi
Translating Haiku Forum


Translating Place names  
I think place names should be used as they are in the original language. If necessary, an explanation about the meaning of the name can be given in a footnote.

Arakawa 荒川 river Arakawa

Arakawa is the full name of the river. Putting the denominator "river" in front of the name will tell a person who does not know any Japanese:
This is a river called Arakawa.
(To not translate: river Ara, or even worse, river Wild.

法隆寺 temple Horyu-Ji, this is a temple called Horyu-Ji

東京, this is Tokyo, meaning the "Eastern Capital".
不二, this is Mount Fuji, in the old writing of Issa, Meaning Mount "Not Two".

Here is a haiku with a play on words on the "stone mountain".

Ishiyama no ishi ni tabashiru arare kana

splashing on the stones
of Mount Ishiyama -
these hailstones

Matsuo Basho, Tr. Gabi Greve
Read the full discussion HERE !


ishiyama no ishi yori shiroshi aki no kaze

autumn wind
whiter than the white cliffs
of this mountain

Tr. Gabi Greve

................... Comment by Larry Bole:

When a Japanese person hears "Ishiyama," do they just hear a name, or do they hear the underlying meaning of that name? I am tempted to suggest they just hear a name, in the same way that English people most likely just hear "Cambridge," and "Oxford," without thinking "Cam-bridge" (a place where there was a bridge over the River Cam), and "Ox-ford," (a place where oxen could ford a river).

So if "Ishiyama" is used in a translation 'as is', I would think it should be footnoted as to its meaning. And if one decides to do that, why not just use the name's meaning in the haiku, and make "Ishiyama" a footnote to that?

I'm also curious about Mt. Asama.
Does "Asama" mean something in Japanese?

Read more of the thoughts on this by
Larry Bole

... ... ...

Haiku has those two elements,i.e Kanji and hiragana, image and music.

Asama 浅間 is old style Japanese that comes from Ainu.
It sounds softly, romantic, analog and emotional.

Sengen is Kanji itself that is image, reasonable, digital and theoretical.

Read the thoughs of Nakamura Sakuo

... ... ... ... ... ...

Famous Places, best with a word of information.
The Hepburn Romaji spelling and the spelling used more or less oficcially now can be different. I usually try to reflect both.

東大寺, Toodaiji, Temple Toodai-Ji
利根川, Tonegawa, River Tonegawa
大和田湖, Toowadako, Lake Towada

松尾芭蕉 Matsuo Basho, Mister Pine-Tale Bananas

Pseudonym for Matsuo Kinsaku 金作,
Matsuo Chu'emon Munefusa 松尾忠右衛門宗房




General problems concerning our haiku translations will be collected here, as they come up.

Spelling Japanese : Please use the Hepburn System.

The Basics of Japanese Haiku Theory - A Long List
Gabi Greve

WKD: Haiku .. Japanese Words in Cultural Context
Reading and Translating the Japanese Haiku Masters

Tips about translating ... Jane Reichhold
Simply Haiku Summer 2008, Basho

WKD: Direct translation versus meaningful translation
chokuyaku versus iyaku

Translating the Poetry of Miyazawa Kenji


Online Dictionaries, Synonym Dictionaries and more

Tools of the Trade, check our various LINKS here.

Add your favorite language tool LINKS.


Some theory about translating Japanese haiku

Basho’s Haiku: Selected Poems of Matsuo Basho
David Landis Barnhill
In the introduction, Barnhill mentions some of the problems involved in translating haiku.

Rise, Ye Sea Slugs!
Robin Gill

The way Gill translates is not only marvelous, it is absolutely revolutionary.
Instead of giving the reader the idea that there is only one way to translate a haiku, he offers a word-for-word translation and then goes into great detail explaining the ambiguities of the Japanese language along with the secrets of Japanese behavior. His final translation is often a series of possible ways of putting the haiku into English. . . .
He is even secure enough to admit when he really cannot figure out what the author was trying to say. . . .

SHIKI : debate on translating haiku, 1999
Susumu Takiguchi


Can the Spirit of Haiku be Translated ?
Susumu Takiguchi


What can I say on translating haiku?
Eiko Yachimoto

Translation discourse on a haiku by Issa
Darko Suvin

... PDF file achive.vanderbilt.edu/

Obscurity is not something to be emulated, and we should be careful to avoid it in modern hokku.
The issue of translation arises, however, whenever one reads an old hokku put into English. The average reader does not know, first of all, if the original was clear or vague, or whether the English translation simply transfers the meaning from language to language, or if the translator has added considerably from his or her own imagination.
. . . . . and more
... reading a word-for-word translation does not mean one is getting the same effect as reading it in the original language.
source : David, Hokku Inn


Professor Yuasa Nobuyuki:

It looks as if
Iris flowers had bloomed
On my feet --
Sandals laced in blue.

Matsuo Basho

"the language of haiku ... is based on colloquialism, and in my opinion, the closest approximation of natural conversational rhythm can be achieved in English by a four-line stanza rather than a constrained theree-line stanza.... "
"this translation is primarily intended for lovers of poetry, and only secondarily for scholars whose minds should be broad enough to recognise the use in a translation like this. It's not for those purists who insist (without believing either in its validity or possibility, I presume) that haiku should be translated with the original seventeen syllable scheme or at least into three lines."
source : The narrow road to the Deep North


Translating Personsl Pronouns 

Personal pronouns are often implied in the Japanese language, but should be translated in other languages when things are not quite clear.

my love for you

(anyone's anonymous) love for you

are two different meanings.
It usually does not add additional depth to a poem, but a bit of confusion which is better avoided.

. aimai 曖昧 ambiguous, unclear or vague .

a bad translation or
. . . . Haiku Riddles . . . .


As a translator, sometimes you have to make up words as you begin to understand things deeper. Or experiment with spellings to convey the meaning of the CUT, kireji etc.

In January 2007, I came across a kind of re-export for the word haiku in English in a Japanese text from the haiku town Matsuyama in Ehime/Japan:

eigo HA.I.KU 英語ハイク

The katakana spelling of ハイク (in my re-translation: HA.I.KU) indicates this is a foreign word not common in traditional Japanese language.

There is now even a book introducing English language haiku to the Japanese reader:

吉村 侑久代

 © amazon.com

another book on the subject

(The world of haiku and HA . I . KU

星野恒彦 / Hoshino Tsunehiko

MANY More LINKS about 俳句 英語 ハイク!!

eisaku ha.i.ku 英作 ハイク English-language ha.i.ku,
ha.i.ku composed in English (to include the translation of SAKU)
source : www.haiku-hia.com
Haiku International Association
eisaku haiku

sekai haiku 世界俳句 World Haiku
. . . CLICK here for Photos !
Magazine of the World Haiku Association 世界俳句協会
Natsuishi Banya 石番矢

sekai haiku nyuumon 世界俳句入門 A Guide to World Haiku
Book by 夏石番矢

. . . . .

shinkoo haiku 新興俳句 New and Fresh Haiku
Modern Haiku - gendai haiku 現代俳句

Experimental Haiku
jikkensei haiku 実験性俳句
zenei haiku 前衛俳句

avantgarde Haiku 前衛俳句 zen-ei haiku
vanguard haiku

jiyuuritsu haiku 自由律俳句 free verse haiku

tanshi 短詩 short poem


is a property of a text, or of any utterance, in one language, for which no equivalent text or utterance can be found in another language.

Terms are neither exclusively translatable nor exclusively untranslatable; rather, the degree of difficulty of translation depends on their nature, as well as the translator's abilities.

Quite often, a text or utterance that is considered to be "untranslatable" is actually a lacuna, or lexical gap. That is to say that there is no one-to-one equivalence between the word, expression or turn of phrase in the source language and another word, expression or turn of phrase in the target language.

A translator, however, can resort to a number of translation procedures to compensate.

Check it out HERE !
© Untranslatability, from Wikipedia

Add your favorite translation LINKS as a comment here.

... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ...

Poetry is language skating on thin ice.
Translators fish through a hole in the ice.

"The Foreignness of Languages" and Literary Translation
Brother Anthony, An Sonjae (Sogang Univeristy, Seoul)

WKD Library

"Buson and
the Language of Japanese Poetry."

by Makoto Ueda
WKD Library


My Archives about Haiku Theory and General Subjects



The discussion on the "cut" has been very interesting and shows another example of "doing your research". The poem "snicked" into place once I realized the meaning of the folding mat and its uses.
This is what I mean about Japanese HAIKU. I have always found it exciting, frustrating, informing, exhausting, etc...(in short a "joyfull struggle") to attempt the translation on my own especially with tools like google combined with membership in groups like this group.

I feel very blessed to know people with such deep interest in Japanese HAIKU.
Thank you all.

ciao... chibi


Thanks. One of the things I enjoy about being in a group like this, is that it gets me to re-reading things I haven't read in a while,and it is an impetus to study haiku. If I could read Japanese fluently, I would follow in Shiki's footsteps, and study, study, study Japanese haiku, both classic and contemporary.
Such study couldn't help but improve one's own haiku (if one can get beyond "the anxiety of influence," to use the critic Harold Bloom's phrase).


Back to the Discussion Forum !!!!!


To the Daruma Museum Index

Translating Haiku Forum



Melchor F. Cichon said...

I translated into Aklanon Basho's haiku based on On Love and Barley Haiku of Basho, translated by Lucien Stryk. Penguin Books, 1985.
Aklanon is the language of Aklanons in the province of Aklan, Philippines.

I posted them in my blogspot: http://aklanonlitarchive.blogspot.com/
in the Saturday, October 28, 2006 posting.

Gabi Greve said...

Thank you very much, Melchor san!
I made a LINK to the Philippines haiku of the World Kigo Database.

Philippines Haiku


Anonymous said...

Compiled by Larry Bole

Ueda writes that the second element of Japanese poetry that an English translation does not reproduce is its 'auditory effect'.
However, he doesn't think this is as much of a problem as the untranslatability of the 'visual effect' of a Japanese poem.
The reason he gives for this is that "while Japanese poets made every attempt to take advantage of the pictoral nature of their language, they were not so eager in expoiting the prosodic possibilities of it."

Ueda then discusses internal rhythm in Japanese haiku vs. the external 5-7-5 syllable pattern. He gives three examples of Buson's
haiku where the internal rhythm overrides the external syllable pattern.

uguisu no naku ya chiisaki kuchi aite

The nightingale is singing
With its small mouth open.

(Translated by Asataro Miyamori)

yanagi chiri shimizu kare/ishi tokoro dokoro

Willow-trees are bare--
Dried the water, and the stones
Lie scattered here and there.

(Translated by Kenneth Yasuda)

gekkoo nishi ni watareba hanakage higashi ni ayuma kana

As the moon-brilliance westward makes its crossing, so cherry-blossom shadows eastward slowly go.

(Translated by H.G. Henderson)

Ueda points out that the first haiku "is split in half by a caesura in the second line, and Miyamori was well justified in translating the poem in two lines."
[What Ueda fails to mention is that Miyamori, in his monumental translation of haiku, "An Anthology of Haiku,Ancient and Modern" (Tokyo: Maruzen, 1932), translates EVERY haiku in two lines!]

Ueda explains that the second haiku has an irregular rhythm with "its caesura in an odd place in the second line" and an extra syllable in the last line, but feels that this "is inherent in the meaning of the poem which depicts stones of varying shapes and sizes scattered disorderly on the white river-bed."

The third haiku has lines of 11, 8, and 5 syllables each. "Again the irregularity arises out of internal need: as Henderson points out, the unusually long lines are suggestive of the slow passage of time."

Ueda then writes, "When a poet makes a deliberate use of sound effects, he does so in such a way that it would create a sensory
image rather than a music of words. Indeed, there are some instances where the sound of a word constitutes the core of the poem, but even here the sound is used to produce an image, an auditory image."

Ueda's two examples of this:

ochi kochi ochi kochi to utsu kinuta kana

Here and there, far and near,
Fulling-blocks are beating.

(Translated by Asataro Miyamori)

hi wa hi kureyo yo wa yo akeyo to naku kawazu

By day, "Darken day,"
By night, "Brightern into light,"
Chant the frogs.

(Translated by R.H. Blyth)

"In the first haiku ... the words 'ochi', 'far', and 'kochi', 'near', ... function as onomatopoeia for the sound of
fulling blocks coming from the houses far away and near by."

In the second haiku, Ueda states that the difference in the sound of the daytime and nighttime croaking of the frogs is suggested by the repetition of the 'hi' sound for daytime frog croaking, and repetition of the 'yo' sound for nighttime frog croaking.

Ueda goes on to point out that there are "very few haiku in which some vowels, consonants, accents or pitches are deliberately combined so as to produce a non-imitative musical effect."

But Ueda points out that this was not always the case. "...it is interesting to note that some of the earliest Japanese poems, such
as those by Kakinomoto Hitomaro (667?-708?) had a good deal of music
in them.

It seems that the language of traditional Japanese poetry moved closer and closer to painting, and farther and farther away from music, as time went on. In...later times, if Japanese literature wanted to bring musical elements into itself, it brought in music as music [via instrumental accompaniment] rather than creating a new prosody."

[end of summary]

anonymous said...

fune to kishi to hanashi shite iru (long)
hinaga kana (short)

Actually, as above, the first “part” is “fune to kishi to,” but as already mentioned, lineation applies only to English, given that we tend to write hokku (and the later haiku) in three lines, while in Japanese they are conventionally a single line. My translation was just intended as an expression of the literal meaning of the Japanese, and does not convey Japanese syntax via lineation.

Mark added:

“I would offer that ‘fune to kishi’ could be adequately translated as ’ship to shore’ in English, especially given Shiki’s life story. Perhaps something along the lines of

ship to shore | communications continue . . . | the long day

and all that personification falls right away. Probably a good portion of the ‘poetry’ too.”

“Ship to shore” as conventionally used in English does not convey the meaning of the verse, and adding the word “communication” makes one think of a large ship in radio contact with a shore base.

Shiki’s verse, however, just refers to a fellow on a (rather small) boat talking audibly with another fellow on the shore or bank. The writer hears the slow back-and-forth conversation, and feels it in harmony with the length of the day. “Fune” in Japanese can mean a large vessel, but one can tell from the context that is not the meaning here.

It is a big mistake to apply Western poetic terms to Japanese verse. I have mentioned elsewhere how disastrously Reichhold misunderstands certain old hokku as metaphorical (not knowing the principle of “reflection” in hokku) and similarly there is no personification (as conventionally understood in the West) in this verse of Shiki. If one must have a Western approximation, it would be synecdoche, which takes the part for the whole or, as here, the whole for the part. The ship (the man on it) is talking to the (man on the) shore.

We often find this in some form in old hokku, in which “umbrellas” talk and “staves” pass through fields, which of course just means that a person with an umbrella talks to another person with an umbrella, and travelers with staves pass through fields.

I cannot emphasize strongly enough how in reading hokku one must abandon the conventional notions and expectations of Western poetry. That is something many in modern haiku (including would-be translators) often fail to do because they have never learned or understood the aesthetics of the hokku, and so the inherent poetry of hokku (and of the earliest haiku, which was generally virtually hokku in all but name and potentiality) is overlooked or overpainted with elaboration when brought into a Western context. The reason for this is that Western ideas of poetry and the poetry of hokku are for the most part two very different things.

Modern haiku in English is a hybrid form that generally has little or nothing to do with either the hokku or the later conservative haiku of Shiki. Whether one understands that as good or bad or indifferent depends on personal taste.

David Coomler