On haiku form.

 The translation of poetry is one of the most challenging things a linguist can attempt* — above the normal demands of translation poetry requires a deep understanding of how non-literal and idiosyncratic uses of language carry meaning, as well as facility for preserving form. One who would translate poetry well must be something of a poet herself.

Haiku, with its deeply formulaic composition rules, is among the most difficult forms of poetry to translate. Consider the following translations – all of the same haiku by Basho –

Old pond…
a frog jumps in
water’s sound.
-translated by William Higginson

Old dark sleepy pool
quick unexpected frog
goes plop! Watersplash.
translated by Peter Beilenson

Old pond
leap – splash
a frog.
translated by Lucien Stryck

The old pond
A frog jumps in
The sound of water.
-translated by R.H. Blyth

Each translation obviously has its own merit — the spartan translation by Stryck effectively captures the sense of fragmentation and momentary action considered essential in Japanese haiku, while Beilenson’s wordiness gives us a depth of atmosphere and emotiveness lacking in the other translations.

Seen together, the different translations help us gain a truer sense of the poem, and illustrate well the difficulties facing translators, and writers of English haiku. Beilenson struggles to maintain the Japanese form in his translation – his translation keeps the 5-7-5 syllable structure of traditional form, but sacrifices some of the two part structure and fragmentary nature expected of it. Blyth and Higginson give us translations quite accurate to the phrasing of the original Japanese, abandoning strict adherence to the form in order to do so, but failing (in my opinion) to capture the poetry of the haiku, so to speak. Their translations seem accurate – just not poetic. Stryck plays freely with both the form and phrasing, giving us a poem more vibrant then Higginson or Blyth’s translations, and less proscribed the Beilenson’s.

Additionally, seeing these various translations together allows us to think more clearly about the syllabic structure of haiku, and how it translates (and doesn’t) into English. 5-7-5 is the traditional Japanese haiku structure, and is, in Japanese, a deeply familiar rhythmic device — think of the “shake and a hair-cut” knock, or “na-na na-na boo boo”. Right off the bat we lose this rhythm in English translation, and indeed expect to – apply rhythm to a short poem in English, and you have a couplet or an epigram, not a haiku. Furthermore the information content of 17 syllables in Japanese is fairly low – in English we can capture the same amount of information in roughly 11 syllables. When translating to, or writing in, English it becomes necessary to choose between matching meaning, or matching form — to match the 5-7-5 form in English leads to a wordiness that is often detrimental to attempts to write good haiku.

Other then syllabic structure, the defining qualities of haiku are brevity, juxtaposition, and (though arguable for English haiku) seasonality. Haiku, while written in three lines in English and one line in Japanese, are usually divided into two parts — a phrase with a juxtaposed fragment.

Beyond the considerations of form, we also need to think about the nature and purpose of haiku. Haiku grew out of courtly poetry games popular in 9th-12th century Japan, but our understanding of it is dominated the Zen Buddhist poets who perfected the haiku form in later centuries. These poet monks took the haiku, and used it as a tool to capture moments of illumination and experience – the two part structure of the poem is intended to create an experience of change of perspective or revelation, and it’s brief and fragmentary form to reflect the momentariness and incompleteness of human experience and expression.

As a writer of English haiku, I work – often struggle – with all of these issues anew every time I write. I let myself be guided foremostly by the poem I am trying to write – on more then one occasion poems I have thought haiku have turned out not to be. After the needs of the poem, I consider the nature and intent of my writing before form — I attempt to remain true to the nature/seasonality focus of Japanese haiku, and to the Zen character of the form. Strictness of syllabic structure and of the other conventions of the form are my final considerations — and, I freely admit, the ones I am most comfortable bending to the needs of the poem while still considering it a haiku. In this I take reassurance from the words of Basho, who told his students “Learn the rules, so that you may break the rules.” , and who was not above bending the rules of the form himself.


Forms in English Haiku, by Keiko Imaoka – an excellent overview of the linguistic issues involved in writing English haiku

Haiku – A Definition – Ray Rasmussen’s thoughts on haiku.

Defining the Haiku Form – another essay on haiku form, with an excellent reference list for further study

Contemporary Haiku: Origins and New Directions – a nice article on modern English haiku.

Haiku of Kobayashi Issa – the haiku of Issa

Basho’s Haiku — for comparing various translations of Basho. Soji’s site as a whole is highly recommended.

*5/26 – edit for clarity:  I am neither a linguist nor translator by profession – this essay reflects my opinion of the difficulties based on my experience with languages other then Japanese, and my many years of fascination with this poetic form.


4 thoughts on “On haiku form.

  1. Thank you for the translations and the overview. I would praise Higginson’s translation more than the others because it gives me the arc of the jump before the sound, and because it does not presume to define the sound. It sounds like what it sounds like, not necessarily a splash – a disturbance of the new into the old.

    When I was an undergrad and still thought I could teach high school English (what a delusion that was!), I did a practice lesson on haiku with a class full of English majors. I gave them a handout of, maybe, 6 haiku, two columns of three each, and asked them to read them, quietly, to prepare for the discussion. To a person, each looked puzzled. Finally, one raised his hand. “Do we read them up and down or across?” That might have been the moment when I realized I had to rethink my career!

  2. I love this! I used to write a lot of haiku, and while I am under no illusions that I had either skill or artistry I loved how the structure and the culture of haiku made me think both before I was writing and during.

  3. My personal favorite is Stryck’s translation — it took me a long time to be able to be more objective, and recognize the value in other translations. And I suspect my preference shows slightly in the essay *chuckle*. It was Stryck’s “On Love and Barley” that first introduced me to Basho, and his work has been a major influence.

    Melanie, I think your point about sound vs splash is excellent – I hadn’t really considered that aspect of the haiku before.

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