What Japanese Haiku Can Teach Us About Translation

Haiku is a deceptively simple kind of poem. Three lines can hold so many possible meanings.
Japanese Haiku

Different languages can feel, well, different from each other. An English speaker learning Japanese for the first time can be convinced that the two languages are nothing alike. But don’t be deceived; languages tend to have more commonalities than differences. If languages weren’t at a base level pretty similar, translation would be impossible. There are some who argue that speaking different languages can change your worldview, but there’s not much credible evidence to prove that. Instead, what really separates languages is not what you can express, but how you can express it. Perhaps there’s no better example of that than in the poetic artform of the Japanese haiku.

The Japanese haiku is one of the oldest forms of poetry to be written, having appeared in Japan during the 15th century. It’s also seemingly one of the simplest, which is probably why it’s one of the first kinds of poetry taught to young children. The formula, as it’s taught in schools, is pretty simple. A Japanese haiku is just three lines — five syllables, followed by seven syllables, followed by five syllables — but

that makes it seem like
any random syllables
could make a haiku

when really, it’s more complex than that.

There is something lost in translation when a haiku appears in other languages. That’s not to say it’s impossible to write a haiku in English, but rather that studying the Japanese haiku can highlight the differences between various languages. There’s a lot more to these 17 syllables than meets the eye.

The Difference Between Written Japanese And English

Perhaps the starkest difference between Japanese and English is the way they’re written. Japanese is slightly more complex than English on paper; instead of using a single alphabet like English does, Japanese has three different kinds of characters:

  1. kanji (漢字) — Chinese logograms (each character represents a word or phrase) that were adapted into Japanese over a thousand years ago. There are thousands of kanji characters that are used in Japanese.
  2. hiragana (ひらがな) — a 46-character Japanese syllabary (each character represents a single syllable) that is used for any words that are not covered by kanji.
  3. katakana (カタカナ) — another 46-character Japanese syllabary (each character represents a single syllable) mostly used to write loanwords that are taken from other languages.

All three of these sets of characters can be used within a single sentence, and you can see the clearest visual differences between kanji and the others. It can seem very confusing to someone first learning the language, but it’s perfectly natural to a native speaker.

The writing system is important here because it has a particular effect on poetry. The way individual characters represent whole syllables makes it clear why haiku would develop in Japan. Excluding kanji, the syllables in a haiku can be counted by the number of hiragana and katakana characters that appear.

To get even more in the weeds, it would be more accurate to say that each hiragana and katakana character represents a “mora,” not a “syllable” — a mora is a linguistic term for a unit of sound in language. It’s morae that form the basis of Japanese poetry, and it’s more apt to say that a haiku has 17 morae than 17 syllables. The term On, which in Japanese means “sound,” refers to the counting of these sounds and is important in writing poetry. To simplify a bit, 12 English syllables are roughly equivalent to 17 Japanese mora.

Translating The Japanese Haiku

After reaching a basic understanding of the Japanese haiku, we’re left to wonder how we can apply it to another language. As with all poetry in translation, translators have to ask themselves a few questions. Do they want to stay as close as possible to the exact translations of each of the words? Or is it more important to capture the mood and sound of the original poem? Each translator answers these questions differently, and it alters the poem in visible ways.

Haiku provide a prime example of poetry in translation for several reasons. For one, they’re very short, and many Japanese haiku have been translated dozens of times. This isn’t to say they’re easy to translate, however. They may be even harder than a longer poem because each small decision can stick out when you only have three lines.

To show how these differences arise, we can look at the translations of a single haiku from 1689 written by Matsuo Bashō, arguably the most famous practitioner of the artform:

Kare’eda ni karasu no tomarikeri aki no kure

First, you can note that this poem has 19 syllables (or mora), not 17, showing that even the most famous haiku writers didn’t always stick exactly to the form. It’s also styled as a single line, instead of three, because most famous haikus were written as a single line in the original Japanese. And while it’s such a short sentence, the results of translation can be very different. In one collection of poetic translation titled Into English, three different versions appear:

The end of autumn, and some rooks
Are perched upon a withered branch.
translated by Basil Hall Chamberlain (1902)

On a leafless bough
A crow is sitting: — autumn,
Darkening now —
translated by Harold G. Henderson (1925)

A black crow
Has settled himself
On a leafless tree
Fall on an autumn day.
translated by Nobuyuki Yuasa (1966)

You can see that overall, they’re pretty much about the same thing. Other than that, they’re pretty dissimilar. The number of lines changes in each one (though in most other translations it’s the usual three), the punctuation is all shifted, and the word choices vary. But most important is that each poem has a different inherent feeling to it. Whereas Henderson’s is disjointed, Yuasa’s feels like a more coherent sentence. Chamberlain referred to the perch as a “withered branch,” whereas the others simply said it was “leafless.” They could almost be considered entirely different poems.

If this were a purely factual piece of writing, all of this wouldn’t matter, because all you need to know is that a crow is on a branch and it’s autumn. In poetry, however, small word choices can change the whole thing. And when you’ve got so few words to deal with, these tiny decisions become very apparent.

In a world of Google Translate, we can become convinced that there is only one way to translate something, and that everything exists in a one-to-one ratio. But such is not the case.

None of this is to say that translation is some sort of impossible act and that everything is arbitrary. It’s just useful to think about the importance of word choice and how it can affect our understanding of something in subtle ways. In a world of Google Translate, we can become convinced that there is only one way to translate something, and that everything exists in a one-to-one ratio. But such is not the case.

If a poem consisting of a mere three lines can contain so much possible meaning and ambiguity, it’s almost intimidating to consider the vast world of language we inhabit. But that will never stop us from striving to understand each other, no matter what language barriers divide us.

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