The Stone Lantern

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Translating Haiku; Emiko Miyashita

I used to think that my only limitations to translating haiku were my fluency in the original language and my poetic talents in English. But I now know there are more obstacles than that.

Last winter, I decided to entertain myself through the bitter cold months in Quebec City (where I live) by translating haiku:

first snow --
I linger in bed
translating haiku

Abigail Friedman

Japanese haiku poet Emiko Miyashita had given me a book of her haiku a while back, so I pulled this off the shelf one Sunday morning, got back in bed, and flipped through the pages. This one struck me as quite translatable:

harusamushi kara no kataki o fumikudaku

At first I thought of translating it this way:

cold spring
the hardness of husks
I crush underfoot

or maybe this way:

cold spring
the hardness of husks
crushed underfoot

but then I felt that “cold spring” sets a stark, clear mood. The cold in springtime isn’t a fuzzy-minded cold, like in the winter, where the cold is so harsh it numbs my faculties. In the springtime, the cold wakes me up and makes me alert. So I thought I should be blunt and clear at the end of the haiku, like this:

cold spring
the hardness of husks
I step on and crush

As an aside, I confess that I am partial to inserting a subject (in the above case, “I”) now and then in my translations, as I think we sometimes take the ambiguity that is natural in Japanese and carry it over into English, where it is unnatural. The result: North America is awash in haiku that sound like the fortune in a fortune cookie. I don’t always spell out the subject, but I think it is okay now and then to favor the natural tone of a haiku over the literal (lack of a subject) in the original Japanese.

Here is a condensed version of Emiko's email back to me on my translation of her haiku:

Dear Abigail,

My English version of this haiku goes like this:

a shell's solidity
crushed under my foot
early spring

殻 can be husk and also shell, a very handy word in Japanese, and at the same time a very confusing word for a translator.

春寒しis used in spring, after risshun 立春 (my note: another haiku seasonal word) and when it is still cold. An early spring kigo (my note: seasonal word). We feel that "Oh, the calendar tells us it is already spring, but we are freezing!!" We feel even colder because our expectation is high and we think it should be warmer judging by the calendar.

I have the image first--the crushed shell--and then the early spring in the third line in my English version. Somehow, I had wanted the fact first and then the matching seasonal word to give the background for the poem.

Crushing a tiny shell under my sole was a cold experience for me. Its crisp texture and that small crushing sound, a very dry sound -- they were very appealing to me then.

And then Emiko took on my translation:

cold spring
the hardness of husks
I step on and crush

She wrote:

I did not intend to step on a shell and crushed it on purpose, but this one has such a feeling, and it interesting in that way--as if to crush the hard husks of winter which are still remaining here and there on the surface of the ground. By crushing those husks of winter one by one, it gets a little warmer and warmer.

I am grateful that Emiko Miyashita was able to clarify for me what she meant by her haiku. With haiku poets who are long gone, my only hope is to learn as much as possible about them before tackling a translation.

The other thing I enjoyed about my exchange with Emiko is how she acknowledged the possibilities in my version of her haiku. It wasn’t just politeness (although she is always gracious and thoughtful). She was also highlighting a reality of haiku: we might write a haiku intending one meaning, and another person will come along and see in the haiku an alternate meaning. In my book, The Haiku Apprentice: Memoirs of Writing Poetry in Japan, Traveling Man Tree touches on this when he says to me, “Sometimes a haiku will hold more meaning than you think of when you write it.” (The Haiku Apprentice, p. 121.)

Rather than being irritated by multiple interpretations, I see it as an intriguing aspect of haiku -- one that is not so different from life itself. I might go about my day thinking I am conveying one face to the world, but another person will see a very different part of my soul, one that I had no idea I was conveying.


  • Hi Abigail,

    I enjoy reading your blog. I congratulate you on your efforts regarding the promotion of your haiku book/memoir.

    This entry about haiku translation is very interesting and helpful. I translate haiku from English to French and found it very difficult sometimes. I can't imagine what it must be like to translate from Japanese.

    Indeed, we don't always have the chance to ask a haiku poet about the original meaning of their haiku. It's great that you can have contact with the haiku poets whose work you are translating.

    I hope your blog continues long after the two months you've assigned yourself and that your Depression file finds its way to the shredder.

    Best regards.

    By Anonymous Tess W., at 10:18 PM  

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