Confessions of a Translator, part 1

VOL 1, ISSUE 1 – MAY 2001

Confessions of a Translator, Part 1
David G. Lanou

Introduction to David G. Lanoue

David G. Lanoue is quickly becoming synonymous with Issa. His interactive website project, The Haiku of Kobayashi Issa, has grown popular and expanded in size since its inauguration in April 2000. This is an interesting project whereby translation is understood to be a continuous process of evolution which allows for new interpretations and corrections. It is an alternative methodology to the traditional “definitive” translation, which has led to rigid and even arrogant attitudes on the part of translators from time to time. Lanoue’s method provides flexibility and modesty with which translators can function.

Lanoue received Honourable Mention for this project in the World Haiku Achievements Competition of the World Haiku Festival 2000. The accolade reads in part:

Mr. Lanoue’s academic research into Kobayashi Issa has resulted in an enormous translation project of Issa’s poems into English… He has taken a “participatory” approach, involving other scholars and haiku poets alike in this project, and by taking their comments and criticism into account, he has improved his translation, a truly new way of democratic research activity in the Internet age.

In this series of four episodes, Lanoue reveals both the joy and trepidation of haiku translation. In this first episode, he shows how translation of a single haiku can and should change and develop as more research is done and more informed opinions are given to him.

Confessions of a Haiku Translator: Episode 1
David G. Lanoue


David Burleigh, one of the Working Group members of last year’s Masaoka Shiki International Haiku Awards, made the following observation in a discussion of translating haiku:

Whatever the results of an attempt at translation, be they good or bad, the exercise itself is valuable. This is because you have to examine the original so carefully, minutely scrutinising every word to clarify the meaning, and the effort that this involves brings you closer to the text than any other kind of reading. 82

Translation is a process of discovery, and as such, the products of such labor–i.e., translations–are always provisional, never the final word on what a particular poem can yet become in the target language.

It has taken me years to overcome my hubris as a translator and admit that even when I believe that I’ve captured the essence of a haiku, its image, action, feeling, and even basic meaning can shift under deeper scrutiny, making my first version appear embarrassingly inadequate. These days, older and wiser, I take comfort in the fact that such is the nature of translation. As Mr. Burleigh points out, good translation depends on good reading, and so when I discover new layers and nuances in the original text, even though this might cause me to shred an earlier translation, I’m consoled by the thought that my understanding of the haiku has deepened, and that I am passing on that understanding to others.

In 1991 I published 450 haiku in Issa: Cup-of-Tea Poems. Now, almost ten years later, I find myself re-translating many of those same poems for my online archive, The Haiku of Kobayashi Issa. With technical help from my son, Bryan Godfrey-Lanoue, and Bart Everson, a colleague at Xavier University in New Orleans; I launched the website in April 2000 at the Global Haiku Festival hosted by Millikin University in Decatur, Illinois. At the time, the archive contained 600 poems in English and rômaji. Today, it presents over 2,000 English versions with rômaji, original Japanese texts, comments, haiku lessons, Issa’s biography, and general information on haiku. Unlike my printed book, such a project is no fossil. The interactivity of the Internet allows me to respond to critiques and suggestions made by readers from around the world, improving poems one by one while giving credit where credit is due. Since translation is provisional by its nature, the electronic medium seems ideally suited for it, allowing the archive to grow and change organically.

I could cite hundreds of examples that illustrate how my thinking about certain poems by Issa has evolved over time, but for the purpose of this essay, I’ll mention just three. But first an aside: in Japanese the decision as to whether a noun is to be thought of as singular or plural is often left to the reader’s imagination. This has enormous consequences for translators. Susumu Takiguchi points out that of 170 translations of Bashô’s “old pond” haiku, only three put “frog” in the plural. He asks,

Who decided that this haiku talked about only a single frog? … It is not our usual experience to see a single frog in early spring in Japan, which is the time when this haiku was composed. Also, the sound of water is not normally a single plop, or splash. More importantly, the haiku depicts a cheerful and merry scene whereby frogs are noisy, and there’s life everywhere…far from the standard interpretation of a world of tranquility and eternal stillness. 25

An exactly parallel example can be found in Issa. One of his most memorable images is that of a bird darting out of the nose of a Great Buddha statue:

daibutsu no hana kara detaru tsubame kana

from the great bronze
Buddha’s nose…
a swallow!

I translated the above in 1991 for my book, and this version remains in the online archive. I believe that it gets across the main idea and feeling of Issa’s original, but to paraphrase Susumu, “Who decided that this haiku talked about only a single swallow?” Bob Jones, in a 1996 version in Modern Haiku, imagines otherwise:

from Great Buddha’s
nose pour forth
swallows~   49

Like the frogs of spring, swallows tend to appear in groups, so is it not logical to assume that the Great Buddha has sneezed forth a flock? On the other hand, if Issa’s bird is solitary, the feeling in the haiku is more comic, I believe, like the old adage about a mountain laboring to give birth to a mouse. Lacking contextual clues from Issa’s diary, we must admit that there could be one swallow, there could be many. Any single translation, either way it goes, is semantically incomplete. Personally, I like both versions, mine and Bob’s, but they are indisputably different poems.

I mentioned the lack of diary clues in the above example because this is something that the translator of Issa ignores at his or her peril. Here’s a poem that I completely flubbed in 1991:

shônin ni mi-hana saretaru sakura kana

Buddha’s saints
don’t care
cherry-trees bloom  29

When I rendered it in this way, I assumed that the haiku was referring generally to unworldly holy men who can turn their backs to the ephemeral glory of spring’s cherry blossoms. A few years later, however, I took the time to examine the poem’s diary context. It appears in Bunka kuchô (Bunka Era Haiku Notebook) after a long prose anecdote about a local holy man named Tokuon, who endured cold and heat, rain and snow, staying on his rugged mountain preaching Amida Buddha’s way to wild boars and apes. As an act of supreme generosity, this Tokuon came down from his mountain to preach to human beings at Ryôzen Temple, leaving his beloved wild cherry blossoms behind (Issa zenshû 2.200). In light of its context, the haiku’s meaning and feeling have completely changed for me. The holy man is plainly singular, and his turning his back on the blossoms contains a bittersweet poignancy that I simply didn’t see before. Here’s my corrected version:

the holy man looks
no more…
cherry blossoms

But even translated in this way, the poem alone fails to convey Issa’s full meaning. His prefatory anecdote is essential to the haiku, indicating that it is a good idea to include, as I have done in the website, prose commentary in certain cases.

A final example of a haiku about which my understanding is evolving illustrates the importance of colloquial idiom. The poem concerns a person who is going off to look at the cherry blossoms. Its third phrase, bashiyori kana, is problematic. I couldn’t find bashiyori in my dictionaries, so I knew that some sort of idiom was involved, perhaps an archaism. Hoping for insight, I turned to earlier translations. The original poem goes:

sakura e to miete jin-jin bashiyori kana

Nobuyuki Yuasa renders the poem:

With feeble steps
The old man
Totters by–
To look at flowers    40

And Sam Hamill translates:

Full cherry blossoms–
his old hip tentative under
tucked-up kimono    5

Of the two versions, Hamill was the more helpful. His third phrase, “tucked-up kimono,” revealed the meaning of bashiyori–the climax of the poem that Yuasa strangely left out. I was puzzled, though, that both translators viewed the man as frail. In Yuasa’s version he “totters by,” and his “old hip” is “tentative” according to Hamill. Just because the man is old, does that make him totter? And why is his kimono tucked up? Its placement in the haiku as the third phrase suggests the importance of this detail, but what might that importance be?

The editors of Issa zenshû confirm Hamill’s translation of the last phrase (jin-jin bashiyori) as “tucked-up kimono.” They elaborate: Jin-jin bashiyori is a euphonic exchange for jijibashori, an old man’s tuck-up. The kimono’s rear hem is lifted and inserted into the knot of the sash [obi] (6.136, note 28). So now we have the picture, but what does it mean? I found a clue in a Japanese book published in 1949 by Fujimoto Jitsuya. About this haiku he writes (and I translate): His kimono hem is tucked up so as not to hinder his stride 434. In other words, the man, despite his age, is dressed for speed, suggesting the rejuvenating power of the blossoms as he tucks up his kimono and rushes off to view them:

off to view cherry blossoms–
old man with kimono

He’s neither tottering nor tentative. On the contrary, the old man exudes joyous vigor. The cherry blossoms, for him, have become his Fountain of Youth.

But wait. As further proof that translation is a never-ending process, I received more questions than answers concerning the above haiku when I submitted the original draft of this essay to this journal. The editor, Susumu Takiguchi, wrote in an email (4/17/01):

This is one of the more difficult haiku to translate. Such obvious things as identifying the hidden subject is the first hurdle. However, there are more intractable problems.

Let us look at it more closely. First and foremost, the interpretation of “e to” (towards) in “sakura e to” does not sit well with “miete” and does not make clear sense. “Miete” could be the biggest problem. If it was “mite,” it would indicate at least that there is a subject. Who is seeing what? Is it the poet? Or is it someone else?

The next problem is “jin-jin bashiyori “… an action whereby a man picks up the centre-back of the hem to his kimono and tucks it to his obi sash at the back of his waist. By doing it, his legs would be given freer movement and it is presumed that a man does this when he wants to do something, such as walking a long way as in a walking journey, dancing or engaging in an active action. It is not clear if this noun only refers to old men, or men in general. 

So the man with tucked-up kimono might be several men, and he or they might or might not be old! On the latter point, Mr. Takiguchi observes, it could be a group of people who have done this particular act, for the purpose of dancing under the cherry blossom, for example. And, he adds, Issa himself might be the subject, since at the time of composition he was 56 by Japanese reckoning, “a ripe old age by the standards of the day.

If Issa were the hidden subject himself, then it could be something like: Issa was somewhere (at home, on an errand etc.) when had the reason to know that cherry blossom viewing was possible or being done. He then decided to do the viewing himself and hitched his kimono’s hem up and tucked it to the obi sash at the back of his waist and began to proceed towards the cherry blossom. It is well-known that Issa wrote a lot of haiku about himself, so, should this one not be one of them? 

After assuring me that Hamill was right to translate the garment as “kimono” (in the first draft I had the old man anachronistically wearing trousers), Takiguchi concludes:

What all this means is that this particular haiku needs much more research to be done into it and that a final or definitive interpretation is far from being close. Against the points I have made, both Yuasa’s and Hamill’s translations may contain mistakes. My intention here is not to look into their possible mistakes as it needs more research but to point out that the translation of haiku is an evolutionary process which should allow for new evidence and interpretations.

Like the little snail inching up the side of Mount Fuji in Issa’s famous haiku, the important thing is the journey, not the destination. The translator, on a journey of discovery, will never reach the top of the sacred mountain. And though he or she might be a perfectionist, his or her translations will not be perfect. This is why the Internet seems custom-made for sharing, critiquing, and improving literary translations. In the first year of my own web project, I received the generous help of several visitors–scholars of Japanese literature and haiku people with keen ears and eyes. Thanks to them, the contents of the archive–its elusive and provisional translations–continue to become sharper and more faithful to Issa’s original vision as we collectively learn to read more deeply into, and better appreciate, his art.



Burleigh, David. David Burleigh’s Comment. International Haiku Convention 2000: Masaoka Shiki International Haiku Awards. Ehime: Ehime Culture Foundation, 2001. 82-84.

Fujimoto Jitsuya. Issa no kenkyû. Tokyo: Meiwa Insatsu, 1949.

Hamill, Sam. The Spring of My Life and Selected Haiku by Kobayashi Issa. Boston & London: Shambala, 1997.

Issa (Kobayashi Issa). Issa zenshû. Nagano: Shinano Mainichi Shimbunsha, 1976-1979. 9 vols.

Jones, Bob. Seasonality. Modern Haiku 27, No. 3 (1996): 47-50.

Lanoue, David G. The Haiku of Kobayashi Issa. (2000-01)

—–. Issa: Cup-of-Tea Poems: Selected Haiku of Kobayashi Issa. Berkeley: Asian Humanities Press, 1991.

Takiguchi Susumu. Japan Has Embarked on Her Voyage to World Haiku. Proceedings of The 1st International Contemporary Haiku Symposium. Tokyo: Gendai Haiku Kyôkai, 1999. 23-25.

Yuasa Nobuyuki. The Year of My Life: A Translation of Issa’s Oraga Haru. Berkeley: U. of California Press, 1960; 2nd ed. 1972.



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