Lost in Translation – haiku by Basho and Buson

My recent interview with Kirk Marshall, editor of bi-lingual literary journal Red Leaves has had me reading widely about the art of translating poetry.

There are many that say poetry defies translation. In her essay, Translating Poetry, Erna Bennett says:

Poetry … is a music of words, and is a way of seeing and interpreting the world and our experience of it, and of conveying to the listener a heightened awareness of it through an intense concentration of metaphor and words in which the natural flow of speech sounds is moulded to some kind of formal pattern. Such patterns can never be the same after the act of translation.

So what then is a translator to do?

Well I liked Willis Barnstone’s take on this question in his An ABC of Translating Poetry

Translation of poetry is conceivable. A translation dwells in imperfection, using equivalents and shunning mechanical replicas–which is the dream of literalists who believe in truth. It gives us the other. Or under another name it gives us itself.

Whichever way you look at it, translating poetry is a difficult art.

I have always been fascinated by the various translations of haiku, particularly, Basho’s famous frog haiku. Some of them adding to the depth of my love for this incredible image, others fueling my distrust of translation (or at least the translator).

I recently found this page showcasing 31 translations (with a commenatry) of said haiku. It illustrates perfectly (or should that be imperfectly?) the varying nature of translation.

Read here:


I also found these translations of Buson’s temple bell/butterfly haiku, which provide further insight into the nature of translation.

Read here:


After many readings of these haiku, the words of Willis Barnstone were ringing in my ears…

A translator operates in the unknown. To choose the unknown path risks loss–and often brings gain.


Filed under poetry & publishing

8 responses to “Lost in Translation – haiku by Basho and Buson

  1. I am firmly on the side that says translating poetry is impossible and I think all the variations on the perfection of the frog haiku are evidence of that. It’s not translation, it is writing a new poem based on the old one. A poem is an aggregation of all its assets, sound meaning look tone etc, change any and it’s not the same poem. My 2 cents worth.

    • gnunn

      I fluctuate from time to time, but always come back to your side of the fence Paul… the translator is interpreting the poem and re-writing it, therefore creating something new… and if that is the approach, the results are often really exciting. I just wish I could read/speak more languages to get deeper into the originals.

  2. I too recently discovered that page of translations and found it fascinating. Everyone trying their hardest to present their point of view. And of course they are all different poems and none of them really that of Basho. But, in total, I actually began to understand the richness of this poem for the first time. Maybe this is the only way to read a translation. Read thirty interpretations, and in both their consensual and unique understandings, begin to see the poem in question. In this one in particualr, I can see the frog jumping into the sound itself, and not the pond. That is somewhat a revelation to me. But of course, there’s so much more.

    • gnunn

      I think that’s a great way to look at it Greg… there is so much in Basho’s image, that I am sure it will be continued to be translated for generations to come.

  3. True. And one other resource in an attempt to understand the genius of Basho is the book by Ueda, Basho and his Interpreters. It provides his poetic translation as well as word by word translations of 200+ poems. But more invaluably, several Japanese interpretations of each poem. One could argue from reading this, as Paul in a comment above suggested, that not only is translating poetry impossible, but reading it in your own language is impossible as well. Which, when you think about it, is what postmodernism was all about. Not that there’s anything wrong with that of course. It’s just not my preference.

  4. this is amazing – I’ve seen the Basho page before and really started to come to grips with the daunting task of translation, how difficult it must be.

    but it didn’t lead me to think it is impossible – only risky. and obviously some translations are less successful (rather than literal or ‘true’) than others, but I don’t think that means we shouldn’t try. (I cannot speak two languages so really I have no authority in this subject, of course)

    but I don’t think I could trade the risk of a lessening of the original poem for silence. without someone translating I would never have been exposed to haiku at all.

    those basho and buson links (and all translations I come across) re-inforced how limitless language can be, and really gave me a lot of joy, and hope. it’s endlessly fascinating to me.

    thanks for this post, Graham!

  5. Hi Graham & Co. This constitutes a rigorous and formidably intellectual discussion, and one that I — as both an editor of a forthcoming English-language / Japanese bi-lingual literary publication, as an enthusiast of Eastern literature, and as an emerging writer, myself — am liable to admit is close to home. I can’t but read a portion of the above, however, without grappling to inhibit myself from channelling all the influential, ideological interventions contained within the seminal essays included within Rivkin and Ryan’s updated “Literary Theory” anthology. Though I, on a personal level, have a tendency towards producing fiction over poetry, I have composed sufficient verse to nonetheless champion the (admittedly) post-structuralist conception of literary interpretation, which is contingent upon Jacques Derrida’s theory of “différence”: in reiterating Willis Barnstone’s observation, written expression cannot be appraised or textually analysed as narratological “truth”, because that implies what was engendered in a poem — sn an example — was an originary (and constitutively whole) essence. It suggests that the poet did not “create” the work, but implanted some Aristotelean or pre-Socratic “seed”, which will thus be corrupted in the act of translation. This, as Barnstone agitates, is the project of literalists; of those who discern literature as possessing a soul: Derrida famously and philosophically discredits this understanding by demonstrating that all “utterances” (or examples of written expression) are constitutively supplementary, in nature. He’s basically illustrating that, in the context of language, (a human facility: and therefore an engineered one), words rely upon other words to develop meaning. Understanding is contextual; not intrinsic to or contained within the poem like a seed to a sod of soil. Translation, then, for me, is the act of *enabling* this process of contextual meaning to be afforded multiple cultures. Correspondingly, I’m therefore pretty fond of Greg’s intimation that the multiple translations of Basho’s “frog” haiku converge to relay a rich, interleaven and multiplicitous understanding. After all, (and though entirely dependent upon my personalised and arbitrary contention), Ryūnosuke, one of the world’s greatest short-story writers, captured in his “Rashomon” — fifty years before Derrida was even consorting with Heidegger and Nietzsche — shows that only through the multiple (and arguably infinite) perspectives of various indidivuals can any semblance of “truth” be arrived at, be united, be capable of eliciting a contextual meaning. And for those who still rely upon ideologically structuralist or literalist interpretations of translation, I insist that you imagine that “seed” being pollinated in the act of dissemination: that you, too, are privileging another culture an opportunity to witness that exquisite blossom.

    • gnunn

      This response is really enlightening and has given me alot to follow up on, first and foremost Derrida’s theory of difference. This statement really hit me:

      ‘only through the multiple (and arguably infinite) perspectives of various indidivuals can any semblance of “truth” be arrived at, be united, be capable of eliciting a contextual meaning.’

      Thanks for your contribution Kirk. It has created a new pathway of exploration for me.

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