Friday, January 30, 2015

Carpe Diem Ask Jane #9, translating haiku

Dear Haijin, visitors and travelers,

As you all maybe know ... sometimes I try to translate haiku into another language than the original, but one way or another those translations are always not strong enough or the "painted" scene with its deeper meaning is lost. So I have asked Jane a question about translating haiku.


Dear Jane,

How are you? I hope you are well and that your health has become better. I have a question for you about "translating haiku".

I started writing/composing haiku in Dutch at the end of the eighties. Somewhere in 2005 I wrote my first haiku in English:

a lonely flower
my companion
for one night

A strong haiku I think with a very deep meaning, but as I tried to translate it to Dutch the essence which I caught in the English version I couldn't catch. The scene stayed the same, but the deeper layer I couldn't find ... I think this has to do with the deeper meaning of English words and the differences in that meaning in Dutch. 

Is it possible to translate haiku into another language than its original and catch that same feeling or deeper meaning?


I have read a lot of haiku since I discovered this wonderful poetry form. And for example I ran into several translations of Basho's famous "frogpond haiku":

furu ike ya  kawazu tobikomu  mizu no oto (1686)

an ancient pond
a frog jumps in
the splash of water

I don't know who the translator was, but I found another translation of this famous haiku:

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

Translated by Curtis Hidden Page

These translations are so different, but the essence of the haiku is lost in that second haiku in my opinion of course. I once tried to translate it myself and I came up with the following:

old pond -
the sound of water resonates
as a frog jumps in

© Kristjaan Panneman (a.k.a. Chèvrefeuille)

Why is it so difficult to translate haiku? In my opinion I think this has to do with the Japanese language. It's very clear that Japanese works with sound units (onji), but the characters can mean a lot too.

In short:

Why is it so difficult to translate haiku from the one language to the other language without loosing the essence of the original?

I hope you can give us at Carpe Diem Haiku Kai some insight in translating haiku and how to catch the essence ...

Warm greetings,


Dear Kristjaan,

Well you have jumped into a can of worms with translations! I think the biggest mistake translators make is adding words that are not in the original  text in an attempt to convey the levels of meaning the original has for them. This suavely cripples that translation. Do you have a copy of my book, Basho's Complete Haiku? In the notes at the end I give word-for-word translations of all of Basho's hokku. There you can see the word 'resonance' is not in the original.
(I am sorry! I tried to copy your version from your letter and my d--- computer lost the copy!) But you did add the word that spoils the translation (IMO).
I truly feel that as a translator, word-for-word translations are the kindest way to handle the work. If one wants to say more or show layers one finds in a haiku, then do that in a discussion of the poem and not in the translation.

A Lonely Flower
In your

a lonely flower
my companion
for one night

I would question the use of "lonely"  - that is a human feeling you are giving to a thing. You may feel lonely when there is only one of you (do you?) but the flower is not alone if you are there!

a single flower
my companion
for one night


a single tulip
my companion
for one night

has more connotations. . . even some sexual with single / unmarried and tulip / two lipped!  I hope this helps!

\o/ Jane
Jane Reichhold


Thank you Jane for this wonderful and clear explanation of my question. Thank you for your kind words and a special thank you for you for the "re-write" of my haiku  as you have done. With the explanation you have given I think my "lonely flower" has become now "a single flower". 

Dear Haijin I think you all have ideas about translating haiku. Please respond in the comments field with your ideas about translating haiku. Maybe I can create a nice feature around translating haiku.


Chèvrefeuille, your host


  1. Fascinating! I don’t like “tulip” – a Dutchman writing about tulips would hardly be original and it’s too specific. I don’t know if traditional Japanese haiku is different but it’s surely an integral part of Western poetry to ascribe feelings to natural objects (“I wandered lonely as a cloud”). Having said that, I agree “single” works really well. Either way, it’s a beautiful haiku. On Basho’s haiku, I’m new to the form but I just don’t “get” the point of being told a frog makes a splash as it jumps into a pond. So what? Of course it does. I can only assume it sounds lyrical or surprising or clever in Japanese because that translation does nothing for me whatsoever. For Kristjaan, the poem is about the sound the water makes, so he’s added the idea of it resonating. And although it’s too wordy and unsubtle, with too many adjectives, I do at least like the Curtis Hidden Page translation’s attempt to draw out the idea of stillness being broken. I think a translation needs to capture the “feel” of a haiku – it’s a poem, after all, not a business manual. There must be some quality to the Basho haiku that makes it as famous as it is but that doesn’t shine through in the literal translation. There’s got to be something in the translated version to draw the reader in. It would also seem worth noting that in the first translation of Basho, the frog jumps into the haiku in the second line, which I think tallies with the original (thanks to Google I can see that “kawazu” is “frog”). In the other two translations, it only appears in the last line, which would seem to change the balance of the poem – the frog isn’t the surprise, the thing being held back till the end, it’s something about the sound of the water that’s the vital thing about this poem. Does it make a very loud sound for such a little creature? A more dramatic word than “splash” or a more dramatic placement of the word would seem to be needed. I was wondering about this and, having written all the above, did another Google search to try and work out what order the original is written in and this site popped up – – with 31 translations and a commentary. So I’m going to shut up and go and read that – and apparently there’s a book too with over 100 translations!

  2. fascinating!!
    From both of you. I translate sonnets, where you have more restrictions qua form, but also more freedom because of the 14 lines' length.

    I couldn't find your original Dutch version, but might have transmoglified it thus:

    one night stand
    its own loneliness
    day and night

    and it would have been nixed because I interpreted rather than translated. But then....without the original that is not easy :-)

  3. It would be fascinating to see how others would 'translate' your lines.

  4. slechts een bloem
    begeleidt me
    deze lange nacht

    It's a bit like playing Password :-)

  5. the stress of credibility in Jane's reply i think is so important in our presenting capsuled instances in our haiku experiences

    much love...

  6. I have greatly admired Jane since the mid or late 1990s I think, but I do think her English translation of your English haiku is subjective to a fault. 'lonel' carries baggage. It can suggest cold, trampled on, muddy or boken. But 'single' cannot. However, it is true tat translators trying to tweek haiku as they translate are doing a disservice, and many translators are simply bad. But your orignal point is perhaps the strongest. There are words in one language that simply do not carry the same ethos in the other.
    If I pick the first expression in my head, ''for you'', it is almost a mundane polite addition. However, in French translation, ''pour toi'', or ''pour vous'' both have chocolate oozing between the letters. What to do...well......not everything can be translated!

  7. I reflected a lot on this when we had the Tranströmer month. I think many times the flavor (for lack of better words) was lost in English - that's why I went back to his originals when writing the inspired ones. So I guess it's less in the meaning but more in the subtle poetic color that gets lost. This is probably a general truth, but even more so in shorter forms.

  8. I truly appreciate this post, for translating is so complex. A good friend is a professional translation English, French and Spanish yet her task is to translate the "meaning" . In poetry if you are thinking one language when composing, it is very difficult to translate the nuances of the original. I feel relieved reading Jane's suggestion to translate word or word and to avoid adding "our personal interpretation".
    Translating Kristjaan’s poem in French, I can see “lonely” translated as “single”
    une seule fleur
    ma compagnonne
    pour une nuit

    if I were to translate the interpretation it would be:

    fleur solitaire
    mon acolyte
    une seule nuit