1020 Haiku in Translation

For the past couple of weeks I have been reading haiku from a book that I got from a co-worker a few years ago. The book is 1020 Haiku in Translation: the Heart of Basho, Buson and Issa by Takafumi Saito and William R. Nelson.


Selecting 1,020 haiku, translating them, and adding the appropriate supplementary information is no easy task, so I give these guys a lot of credit. As  you could probably glean from the title, they selected poems from 3 of the great haiku masters: Matsuo Bashō 松尾芭蕉 (1644- 1694), Yosa no Buson 与謝の蕪村 (1716- 1784), and Kobayashi Issa 小林一茶 (1763- 1828).

The haiku are then arranged seasonally and by author (Bashō-Spring, Buson-Spring, and Issa-Spring, then Bashō-Summer, Buson-Summer, and Issa-Summer, etc.) Then the poems are sub-divided again by imagery (“flowers,” “fragrances,” “insects and animals,” etc.).

You would really have to try hard to put together a collection of poor haiku by these three poets, so it goes without saying…  Many of these poems I had never read before, so I was happy to find them in this book. Also, what I really like is that the translations are accompanied by both the Japanese versions (written in Japanese) AND the romaji reading. For instance, the translated

A little cuckoo’s call lies lingering on the water

appears as,



hototogisu koe yokotafu ya mizu no ue1 

As a reader, I’m really grateful for these additional Japanese readings.

A few things about this book really niggle me though. First, Japanese sentences are in the form of Subject–> Object–> Verb (SOV). So in Japanese they’d say, “I apple eat.” Instead of just writing “I eat apples,” the authors decided to keep the Japanese syntax. The authors seem to claim that this is a more pure translation. What the reader ends up experiencing is 1,020 poems seemingly written by Yoda, rather than beautiful poetry written by masters of the language. This really distracted me from enjoying some of the selections. What really got me frustrated was that they seemingly went out of the way to write jumbled up, goofy English translations. Like, haru [spring]-no-mizu [water] was translated as “the water in spring,” when really “spring waters”2 would have been perhaps more in keeping with their own syntax parameters, and more easily read. I could give more examples…

They didn’t stick to a 17-syllable count when translating the poems. This does not make-it or break-it for me, but there’s a large and loud group of people out there who promote the idea that “English haiku doesn’t need to have 17 syllables” and for me it’s just ridiculous (what can I say, I’m a purest!) Of course a lot of haiku written by masters does not consist of 17 syllables, many have 16 or 18, so if a poem can’t exactly be translated into 17 syllables, then no harm, no foul. An example the authors give for why it’s not necessary to translate into 17 syllables is that a line like kiku no ka ya means (according to them) “chrysanthemum of fragrance.” The Japanese is 5 syllables and their English version is 7. Well how about, “Ah! The fragrant mums!” or “Ah! The scent of mums!” Those are two examples of preserving kiku no ka ya ‘s 5 syllables in English. BOOM! I just preserved the syllable count. Twice.

In keeping with that, “to be 17 syllables or not to be 17 syllables” idea, a lot of these people promote the idea that “Japanese is sooooo different from English” that it’s “impossible” to express the same ideas in such short, concise, and poetic phrases. This is Nihonjinron BS!

Any how, I did enjoy the selections. When it comes to reading poetry though, you can’t just sit down and read 1,000 poems! So even though I just made it about a fifth of the way through, I’ll shelve the book for now and pick it up again later. Maybe when summer’s in full swing I’ll read the summer selections, and so on.

1 haiku #281

2  The full translation is “The water in spring / through the hill-less countryside / meanders” (haru no mizu / yama naki kuni wo / nagarekeri 春の水山なき国を流れけり) (#194) My translation: Water in springtime / Flowing through the mountain-less countryside. I guess the question is the water “meandering” or “flowing”??