Lost in Translation: Considering the Possibility of Haiku Translation into English


One of the most unique styles of poetry in Japanese literature is the Haiku. It has developed since the 17th century and is still familiar to many people in Japan and even in some foreign countries. In this paper, I will consider the possibility of haiku translation into English. By explaining some difficulties in its translation with many illustrations I will argue that a proper translation seems to be impossible. At the same time, I expect that by demonstrating my reasons in this article our understanding of intercultural communication will broaden and deepen.

Similarly to other styles of poetry, various techniques are used in the haiku, such as comparison, metaphor, contrast, double meaning, and wordplay; but the haiku is totally different in some points. First, the haiku is quite simple and short. It must keep a 5-7-5-syllable structure (the first and third line must contain five syllables, the second line seven) and it must be divided into two parts: the “fragment” and the “phrase”. The fragment is the first line or the last one and the remaining two lines are the phrases. An example,

“evening settles down
the moor hen on seven eggs
dew upon the glass”

where the first line is the fragment and the other two lines are phrases. As can be seen, long and complex compositions cannot be used, and punctuation and capital letters are not needed. Second, the haiku is a very sensitive form of art that represents nature. Haiku poets are able to perceive nature through their five senses and to fully depict it in only seventeen syllables. For this purpose, the three lines must have a ‘Kigo’ [季語], which literally means ‘season word’, representing characteristic things to each season. In almost all cases only the present tense is used so that readers can experience the poet’s perception as if it were their own. Third, haiku is based on quite peculiar and elusive spirits, which are Wabi [侘], Sabi [寂] and You-gen [幽玄]. These concepts have various meanings according to the situation; Sabi, literally translated as ‘loneliness’ or ‘solitude,’ it can be ‘miserable,’ ‘insignificant,’ ‘pitiable,’ ‘asymmetry,’ or ‘poverty’. Also, Wabi, which is the twin brother of Sabi, is translated into ‘Elegant Simplicity,’ ‘subdued taste,’ or ‘quiet refinement’. This is based on the Japanese spirit to see modesty as virtue and to consider beauty to be the result of living simply. On the contrary, You-gen is often translated as ‘mysterious grace’ or ‘unknown depth’. Even in Japanese, there is no obvious interpretation of their meanings and of the relationship among them, and it is even difficult for foreigners to capture them.

While haiku is sometimes incomprehensible to foreigners, it is certain that it has spread all over the world. Those who took a important role in introducing the Haiku abroad are 19th-century foreign scholars of Japanese literature, such as Basil Hall Chamberlain, and Patrick Lafcadio Hearn (Koizumi Yakumo [小泉八雲] is his name as a naturalized citizen of Japan). In the 20th century, the four-part series book ‘Haiku’ written by Reginald Horace Blyth made great contribution as the first collection of translated haikus. One famous haiku translated in this book is:

The old pond—————     古池や
A frog Jumping in      蛙飛び込む
The sound of water.       水の音

At the same time, Japanese scholars also have tried to translate haiku into English. For example:

In summer grasses           夏草や
Are now buried            兵どもが
Glorious dreams of ancient warriors.   ゆめの跡
(Y. Murakami)                (松尾芭蕉)

As a result of these activities, haiku has become known in a wide variety of countries including some in East-Europe and Africa. Indeed, in 1982, as many as 712 people participated in a Haiku competition that the Japanese Embassy held in Senegal.

As mentioned above, the haiku is quite unique to Japanese culture and famous throughout the world to some degree. However, can it really be translated into English? It is a valid argument to say that it cannot. One factor is the difference in grammar and character systems between Japanese and English. First of all, Japanese poets do not have to specify whether a noun is singular or plural, what tense a verb expresses, and who or what is the main subject. But in English, because translators must manifest these things, readers have no discretion toward them. For example, two translations of the same haiku below are shown separately as to whether ‘cicada’ (蝉) and ‘rock’ (岩) is/are singular or plural:

閑けさや 岩にしみいる 蝉の声 (松尾芭蕉)
Such stillness———
The cries of the cicadas
Sink into the rocks. (D. Keens)

Calm and serene
The sound of a cicada
Penetrates the rock. (Y. Murakami)

In the original version the emphasis is not on the number of cicadas and rocks but on the existence of them, but English translations cannot reflect that. As other examples, look at these translations of the famous Basho’s haiku mentioned above:

古池や 蛙飛び込む 水の音 (松尾芭蕉)
Old pond
frogs jumping in
Sound of water. (L. Hearn)

The old pond,
A frog jumps in———
Plop! (R. H. Blyth, different from the one mentioned above)

In theory, ‘the sound of water’ came only after the frog had jumped in, but in the original the poet intentionally left this chronological order ambiguous to create a lingering imagery. In this case too, whether ‘frog’ (蛙) is singular or plural depends on translators. The following translations also indicate the problem of ambiguous subjects:

It is late autumn   秋深き
I wonder what my neighbors 隣は何を
Will be doing now.   する人ぞ
(D. C. Buchanan)        (松尾芭蕉)

In the original Haiku, though it is the writer who wondered, by abbreviating the subject, he generalized the question and tried to raise the readers’ sympathy. But this device is absent in the translation. And another:

I heard you eat snakes  蛇食ふと
And since then, I fear to hear 聞かばおそろし
Your voice, O pheasant.  雉子の声
(マークス) (松尾芭蕉)

While the original Haiku has no personal pronouns, this translator, by using many personal pronouns, ingeniously translates this poem in the form of dialogue with the pheasant. But compared to the simplicity of the original, this seems a little redundant. Since ambiguity and openness to interpretation are essential to haiku, these problems are a vital deficiency.

Another problematic difference is word order. In Japanese this is relatively freestyle, but in English it is static. As a result, readers of translated haikus cannot experience the thrill of wondering what words will follow:

閑けさや 岩にしみいる 蝉の声 (松尾芭蕉)
Such stillness———
The cries of the cicadas
Sink into the rocks.  (D. Keens)

Calm and serene
The sound of a cicada
Penetrates the rock. (Y. Murakami)

In the original haiku, elements are arranged in this order: ‘stillness,’ ‘penetration,’ and ‘sound of cicada.’ This arrangement triggers the expectation and thrill of readers: ‘what is emphasizing stillness and penetrating into rock?’ In English, however, ‘sound of cicada’ must be put before ‘penetration,’ whether ‘penetration’ is represented as the verb or the modifier. Therefore, the taste of the original one is not preserved in the translation and this is undoubtedly a defect.

One more notable difference is the characteristic system. As you may know, Japanese is a rare language that has three kinds of characteristics, Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji, while the English alphabet is made up of capital or small letters only. In Japanese, words with the same meaning can have different nuances. Therefore, the beauty in some haikus is created by a combination of different kinds of characters that cannot be represented in English translations. Some differences mentioned above are ones in the language rule and are therefore very difficult to overcome through translation.

Second main factor is the incompatibility of content and form preservation. In this context, the word ‘content’ means the image and the emotion that a haiku poet would express in his or her work, but the word ‘form’ means the unique style or various phonological and rhetorical techniques in haiku, such as the syllabic style ‘5-7-5.’ Difficulties in content translation are high suggestiveness and the meanings and nuances of peculiar words. Most pieces of haiku are too thought-provoking compared to the English version. Here is an example:

枯枝に 烏のとまりたるや 秋の暮 (松尾芭蕉)
The Autumn gloaming deepens into night;
Black’ giants the slowly-facing orange light,
On withered bough a lonely crow is sitting.

This Basho’s poem is a very controversial one even among Japanese scholars, regarding what appearance the tree has, where it stands, how many crows are perched on it and what message or feeling the poet tries to express. The translator uses many color representations, but the translation is undeniably lengthy.

Similarly, translation of peculiar words and concepts is a big obstacle. Some particles cannot be translated as English propositions and need a few words of explanation. Moreover, a peculiar kind of particle to Haiku is ‘Kireji’ (切れ字) which is literally ‘end character’ or concretely a word for marking the end of a line. It is used immediately after the word or phrase to be emphasized and means the deep emotion of the poet, such as admiration, wonderment, nostalgia, attachment, amazement and so on. Its meaning is quite ambiguous and translated variously; sometimes it is left untranslated. Here are the examples with agony of Kireji translation:

荒海や 佐渡によこたふ 天の川 (松尾芭蕉)
So wild a sea—
and, stretching over Sado Isle
the Galaxy… (H. Henderson)

A wild sea!
And the Galaxy stretching out
Over the Island of Sado (R. H. Blyth)

O’er wild ocean spray,
All the way to Sado Isle
Spreads the Milky Way! (D. Blitton)

wild seas
to Sado shoring up
the great star stream (C. Corman and S. Kameike)

The second example is onomatopoeia. English onomatopoeia is not as developed as in Japanese. Hence, many onomatopoeias have no exact translation and need translators to invent alternate solutions. One example:

梅が香に のっと日の出る 山路かな (松尾芭蕉)
Suddenly the sun rose,
To the scent of the plum blossoms,
Along the mountain path. (R. H. Blyth)

Blyth translated ‘Notto’ [のっと] as ‘suddenly,’ but ‘Notto’ has the slightly different nuance from ‘suddenly.’ Indeed, in the explication of this translation, Blyth stated that “ ‘Notto,’ ‘suddenly,’ represents the ‘jerk’ to the mind of the poet of his impressions, rather than suddenness of the sun rising.” Moreover, other than R. H. Blyth, A. Miyamori [宮森麻太郎], K. Yasuda, H. Henderson, all translated ‘Notto’ as ‘suddenly,’ and so this problem seems difficult to solve.

Other painstaking words are names of animals and plants as well as pictures of the changing seasons. They are very often depicted in haikus, but some of them do not exist in foreign countries and torment translators. The two translations of Basho’s ‘cicada’ haiku mentioned above (閑けさや/岩にしみいる/蝉の声) are good examples. In Japan, cicadas are familiar icons of charming summer-sights. But in Western countries, the word ‘cicada’ is not famous and sometimes a cicada is seen as mere noisy insect. For those who have such viewpoint, it is difficult to understand the picture of this haiku.

Consequently, haiku translations often necessitate additional explanations in order to overcome these obstacles. Translations must break through form constrictions in order to fit in the 5-7-5-syllable form. Furthermore, various rhetorical techniques are very often used in the haiku, and it is desirable that they are reproduced in translations. As a result, translators must conform to these form restrictions while pursuing the content’s meaning, but this compatibility seems almost impossible. This is too big of a difficulty to conquer.

For these reasons, it is conceivably impossible to truly translate a haiku into English. However, haiku translation is a creative activity in itself because of the inventions needed to overcome the difference in grammar and the character system: which form or content is more valuable, and what interpretation is applied, depend on translators and the chance to show off their linguistic skills. Therefore, while a translated haiku could be seen as art that reproduces the original haiku, the translation in itself should be an art. This paper might indeed be a guide in considering the value of a translated haiku.

Shoehi Kodama


*D. C. Buchanan. (1976). One Hundred Famous HAIKU. Tokyo&San Francisco. Japan Publication, Inc.
*F. Yamagishi. [山岸文明] (2000). English Translation of Modern Japanese Haiku. [現代俳句の英訳]. Numadsu koutoh senmon gakkou kenkyu houkoku [沼津高等専門学校研究報告. Report of research in Professional High school of Numadsu], 34, p.175-180
*J. Reichhold. (2002). Writing an Enjoying Haiku: A Hands-on Guide.
Tokyo. Kodansha International Co., Ltd.
*K. Satoh [佐藤和夫]. (1982). Sotogawa kara mita haiku [外側から見た俳句. Haiku viewed from the outside]. Haiku [俳句. Haiku], 31(9), p.52-59.
*K. Tsuruta [鶴田欣也]. (1965). Eiyaku sareta haiku no mondaiten [英訳された俳句の問題点. The controversial points of haikus translated into English]. Hikaku bungaku [比較文学. Comparative literature], 8, p.20-27.
*O. Murata [村田修]. (1986). Haiku nyumon: Hajime no hajime. Tokyo. Tokyo Bijutsu[東京美術].
*R. H. Blyth. (1950). HAIKU Vol.2: 俳句. Tokyo. Hokuseido shoten[北星堂書店].
*Y. Matsuo [松尾靖秋]. (1982). Haiku ni okeru kokusaisei [俳句における国際性. Internationality in haiku]. Haiku [俳句. Haiku], 31(9), p.42-51.
*Y. Murakami. (1991). CLASSIC HAIKU: A Master’s Selection. . Tuttle Publishing.
*Zolbrod. L. (1982). Kinsei haiku no eiyaku to goshichigo tyou [近世俳句の英訳と五・七・五調. English translation of the early modern haikus and 5-7-5 syllables form]. Haiku [俳句. Haiku], 31(9), p.80-81.

2 risposte a “Lost in Translation: Considering the Possibility of Haiku Translation into English

  1. Enjoyed very much – I caution the assertion in the article that (in English) haiku is strictly 575 (in Japanese this is still almost always so) and you illustrate well that in translation from Japanese to English to strive for 575 would be folly. I’m glad you mention the phrase and fragment approach – it’s my favoured way! Thanks for a thoughtful essay!

    Here’s my own (very short) encouragement to write haiku: http://sakenohana.com/london/how-to-haiku/


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