Confessions of a Translator, part 4

Vol 2-1, March 2002

Confessions of a Translator, Episode 4

 From Translation to Creation
David G. Lanoue
Louisiana, USA

Haiku in the world today is being written in Romanian, Serbian, Russian, German, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, English, Swedish, Hindi, Farsi, Dutch…and the list goes on. Indeed, the dandelion seed that is haiku has blown to many lands, planting itself in foreign soil and flourishing. In the year 2000, three events attested to the phenomenon of world haiku: the Global Haiku Festival, held in April at Millikin University in Decatur, Illinois; the official launch of the World Haiku Club (WHC, founded in1998) through its World Haiku Festival 2000 in London (August); and the formation of the World Haiku Association in Slovenia (September). Last year (2001), the online journal World Haiku Review debuted. Haiku societies and magazines, both hard copy and online, exist all over the planet. That they exist begs the question: How? How did a poetry born in feudal Japan cross so many borders and come to thrive in so many places, so much so that today no single country or people can claim exclusive rights to this truly international literary form?

The short answer: translation.

World haiku exists because of translators. At first glance, this seems an obvious fact not worthy of deeper investigation. For any poetic form to travel from Country A to Country B, of course there must first be translations: examples of the form written in the language of Country B, so that poets of that country can know about the form and thus, experiment in it. Though this seems simple enough, it’s actually a more complicated process than one might think. One can’t simply translate the words of Bashô, Buson or Issa, and then be done with it. Haiku is not just poetry; it’s a way of poetry in the Taoist and Buddhist sense: a spiritual, esthetic discipline. Moreover, this way of haiku depends on intertextuality and tradition. That is to say: to write a haiku, one needs to know — and one’s readers need to know — other haiku.

Translation, then, involves much more than a search for word equivalents. To introduce haiku as haiku to Country B, one must expose the readers of that country to the haiku way and haiku tradition.

Viewing this phenomenon historically, we find that two things had to happen:

(1) Haiku had to be translated, so that readers and potential writers of haiku in lands beyond Japan would know that it existed; and

(2) Those same readers and potential poets would need to learn how to receive haiku: how to approach it and value it in such a way that it was, in fact, haiku.

To use a metaphor from the language philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, haiku is a language game, which means if one wishes to participate in it, one must learn its rules (even if one’s aim is to break or change those rules). Hence, translation must go hand in hand with commentary. Often, as we shall see, the translator and the critic have been the same person.

Cor van den Heuvel observed in his 1974 preface to The Haiku Anthology, that English haiku exists thanks to the work of translator/critics Harold G. Henderson, Kenneth Yasuda and R. H. Blyth, who provided “for the first time the solid foundation necessary for the creation of haiku in English” (24). The importance of these translator-critics is evident when one glances through the early English language haiku magazines of the sixties. The first magazine of English haiku, American Haiku, dedicated its first issue in 1963 to Harold Henderson. Haiku Highlights and Other Small Poems, a magazine begun in 1965, featured in its first issue an article by the translator-critic William J. Higginson. And the first issue of Haiku West came out in 1967, dedicated to R. H. Blyth.

You might be surprised to learn, as I was, that the earliest translations of Japanese haiku were done in Romanian — by Bogdan Hasdeu in 1878. In terms of English haiku, the yin and yang of translation and explanation began in the late 19th century, twenty years into the Meiji Era, a time when Admiral Perry had opened Japan to Western influence and made possible a more direct Japanese cultural influence on the rest of humanity. The year 1888 marks the publication of the earliest translation of haiku into English that I have been able to find (ten years after Hasdeu’s Romanian translations): B. H. Chamberlain, in A Handbook of Colloquial Japanese, includes a few haiku examples to provide students practice with colloquial idiom. Here’s one of them:

In belauding the plum-blossoms
I got confused
And belauded a lovely girl instead. (385)

In a footnote, he writes:

Every Japanese of education is supposed to be able to compose in verse […] This particular kind of stanza is termed hokku, and consists of three lines of respectively five, seven, and five syllables. Japanese prosody knows nothing either of rhyme or of quantity. (384).

So haiku (also called hokku) enters the English language defined in Western poetic terms: having three “lines” that comprise an unrhyming “stanza.” Chamberlain makes no attempt to follow the 5-7-5 syllable count, but instead he employs diction that in the English language of 1888 would have registered as poetic: “belauding the plum-blossoms…” What Chamberlain has done here is not unusual for the first-time translators of a foreign poetic form. To make the form palatable as poetry for his audience, he reconfigures the one-line breath-stream of haiku into a culturally familiar form: in this case, a little verse. But his was a halfway measure; though haiku now existed on the page in English, a way for English readers to receive it as haiku had not yet been communicated.

In the years that followed the publication of his Handbook, Chamberlain tried to make this foreign form even more familiarly poetic by forcing rhyme in his translations. However, it is interesting to note that even as early as the turn of the century, this rhyming of haiku was criticized. Elizabeth Balch writes in a 1903 essay that Professor Chamberlain’s translations were “lucid, competent, and restrained,” but she describes his rhyme as trite.

Another turn-of-the-century writer, Lafcadio Hearn, contributed to the understanding of haiku beyond the borders of Japan. A naturalized Japanese citizen, immersed in Buddhism and Japanese culture, Hearn was uniquely qualified to get across not only the literal sense of haiku, but also its spirit: how to receive and value it. In an 1899 book, In Ghostly Japan, Hearn writes:

The term ittakkiri, meaning “all gone,” or “entirely vanished,” in the sense of “all told,” is contemptuously applied to verses in which the verse-maker has uttered his whole thought — praise being reserved for compositions that leave in the mind the thrilling of a something unsaid. Like the single stroke of a temple-bell, the perfect short poem should set murmuring and undulating, in the mind of the hearer, many a ghostly aftertone of long duration. (155)

In another book (A Japanese Miscellany), he writes:

Almost the only rule about hokku, not at all a rigid one, is that the poem shall be a little word-picture — that it shall revive the memory of something seen or felt, — that it shall appeal to some experience of sense. (97-98)

With Hearn, the groundwork was laid: a haiku should evoke rather than explain, it should leave much unsaid, it should comprise a “little word-picture,” and appeal to “some experience of sense.”

However, there was resistance. Captain F. Brinkley wrote in 1901 that haiku could not be written in any language other than Japanese:

The Japanese stanza defies translation in any other language. It is a verbal melody which cannot be transposed; cannot be played on a foreign instrument […] The embodied idea is seldom more than a mere suggestion; the whisper of a thought pervading the melody […] To form a true conception of Japanese poetry one must read it in the original. (1.153)

A few years later, in 1905, Balet and DeFrance claim that Japanese poetry “lacks fullness” (642), and Sir Charles Eliot, in his 1907 Letters From the Far East, complains:

The three-lined poems, or Haikai […] are not only impressionist, but so elliptical and enigmatical as to be unintelligible to a foreigner. Thus, when a Japanese writes…

“That single note —
Did the moon sing?

…he is under the impression that he has produced a poem. (152).

Sir Charles goes on to say that

It does not […] appear that any poet of genius, or even of particular talent, has arisen” in Japan (152). Limiting poems to three lines amounted to an “enforced dwarfing of possible Homers” that must have been “disastrous to the national genius.” (151).

For haiku to enter English as a poetic form in its own right, translators and critics would first need to convince English readers of its value.

A milestone in haiku translation was quietly reached in 1914, when, for the first time, a native Japanese introduced the form in English. In The Spirit of Japanese Poetry, Noguchi Yone devotes a chapter to these “tiniest poems of the world” (34). He discusses how haiku evokes mood, presents a “mystical affinity between the life of Nature and the life of Man,” is a “poetry of the heart,” and expresses Taoist spontaneity (35-43). However, even he admits that translating it into English “intelligently […] is an almost impossible literary feat. Nevertheless, he gives it a try, translating Basho’s famous “old pond” haiku. Here’s the original text:

Furu ike ya kawazu tobikomu mizu no oto

Literally, it breaks down to: “Old pond/frog jumps in/water sound.” Yone translates:

The old pond!
A frog lept into–
List, the water sound! (45)

Four years later, in 1918, John Gould Fletcher translates it:

An old pond
And the sound of a frog leaping
Into the water. (14)

Fletcher explains,

“If we permit our minds to supply the detail Basho deliberately omitted, we see the mouldering temple enclosure, the sage himself in meditation, the ancient piece of water, and the sound of a frog’s leap — passing vanity — slipping into the silence of eternity” (14-15). This is the kind of critical comment that is necessary for a Western reader to absorb the correct way of receiving haiku. And if readers learn how to receive it, nothing stands in the way of their writing their own haiku. Yet, Gould is pessimistic about this prospect.

He concludes,

“Good hokkus cannot be written in English” (16).

In 1911, William N. Porter tried redefining haiku as an “epigram,” added titles to them, and forced a rhyme scheme. Here’s Bashô’s poem reborn:

Into the calm old lake
A frog with flying leap goes plop!
The peaceful hush to break. (19)

It gets worse. Here’s Curtis Page’s 1923 version:

A lonely pond in age-old stillness sleeps…
Apart, unstirred by sound or motion…till
Suddenly into it a lithe frog leaps. (110)

Clearly, people weren’t heeding the insights of Lafcadio Hearn or Noguchi Yone. Nearing the midpoint of the twentieth century, haiku was in danger of being lost in verbose, saccharine versification. Though the first prerequisite for reaching beyond Japan’s borders had been met,  i.e. translations had been done, the second prerequisite had not been met. People were still generally in the dark as to the value of haiku, its unique way of engaging the human spirit in a feeling of connection to Nature and to the universe.

Then along came R. H. Blyth with his four-volume Haiku, published in 1949-52. This monumental study not only translated haiku in a sensible way — with crisp, unrhyming, succinct and evocative verses; it conveyed haiku spirit: how the poet encounters Nature and “self-in-Nature,” utterly open to the wonders of the ordinary, the now-moment — unadorned and unadulterated. Blyth’s work, with its Zen focus and flavor, was widely read in the fifties, and so completed the task begun by Hearn and Yone. A new generation of readers learned how to receive haiku. Jack Kerouac read Blyth; Richard Wright read Blyth; and within a decade, these two writers and many of their contemporaries, worldwide, were trying their hand at composing their own haiku.

The sixties saw an explosion of haiku — writing throughout Europe and the Americas: home-grown, grassroots poetry made possible by Blyth, Henderson, Higginson, and by their counterparts in other lands — such as Vladimir Devidé, the great Croatian interpreter and teacher of haiku.

Translation continues to play a seminal role in the international haiku movement. In my own case, my work as a translator and critic of Issa continually feeds my creative efforts, suggesting new directions to travel on my own “way” of haiku. For example, most English language haiku poets accept as gospel Blyth’s dictum that “comparisons are odious,” and so they avoid simile in haiku. And yet, I have found dozens of examples of this rhetorical device in Issa, as in the following:

saigyô no yô ni suwatte naku kawazu

(Issa zenshû 1.160)

like Saigyo
squatting, croaking

Issa fancies that the croaker is “like Saigyo,” a revered poet of Japanese tradition. Such precedents have emboldened me to undertake my own experiments in haiku simile, such as:

like old women
reading books
the oaks

It’s a small example but points to something that is happening all around the globe as thousands of poets set pen to paper. An exciting and necessary interrelationship exists between translator-critics and haiku poets. Haiku, as a worldwide poetic form based on translation choices and critical insights, enjoys a built-in dynamism, for there will always be new translators and critics arriving on the scene with new solutions, nudging the tradition forward by (paradoxically) looking back — at Bashô, Buson, Issa, Shiki — and at growing traditions of haiku beyond Japan.


Portions of this essay appeared in “English Haiku and the Translators,” Modern Haiku Vol. 25, No. 2 (Summer 1994): 66-76; and in “Poetic Form Crossing Borders: The Globalization of Haiku,” a paper presented at the Modern Language Association meeting, New Orleans, 29 December 2001.

Balch, Elizabeth. “Japanese Poetry.” Poet-Lore XIV, No. 3 & No. 4 (1903): 91-115; 83-94.

Balet, J. C. and L. DeFrance. “Japanese Poetry.” Fortnightly Review, Vol. 77 (1905): 640-53.

Blyth, R. H. Haiku, Tokyo: Hokuseido, 1949-1952; rpt. 1981-1982 [reset paperback edition]. 4 vols.

Brinkley, Captain F. Japan: Its History, Arts and Literature. 8 vols. Boston & Tokyo: J. B. Millet, 1901.

Chamberlain, B. H. A Handbook of Colloquial Japanese, London: Trubner, 1888.

Eliot, Sir Charles. Letters From the Far East. London: Edward Arnold, 1907.

Fletcher, John Gould. Japanese Prints. Boston: The Four Seas Co., 1918.

Hearn, Lafcadio. In Ghostly Japan. Boston: Little, Brown, 1899.

Hearn, Lafcadio. A Japanese Miscellany. Boston: Little, Brown, 1901.

Issa, Issa zenshû. 9 vols. Nagano: Shinano Mainichi Shimbunsha, 1976-79.

Noguchi, Yone. The Spirit of Japanese Poetry. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1914.

Page, Curtis H. Japanese Poetry. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1923.

Porter, William N. A Year of Japanese Epigrams. London: Oxford University Press, 1911.

van den Heuvel, Cor. The Haiku Anthology. 2nd ed. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1986.



This entry was posted in Article Series, Classics, Vol 2-1 March 2002 and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Make a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s