Haiku by the Numbers, Seriously

William J. Higginson


As a member of the U.S. Air Force in the 1960s, I encountered the Japanese language, Japanese haiku, and Japan, in that order. My previous training had been mainly in math and science (I went to MIT for a couple of years before the Air Force sent me to Yale to study Japanese), and my initial approach to haiku was structural. The English translations in the books I read that included the original poems seemed to miss the point of much that was going on in the originals, structurally, grammatically, and psychologically. I began translating haiku “in self defense”, though at the time I had little prior knowledge of poetry, literature, or the art of literary or scholarly translation. I soon ran into the numbers game. This paper gives an overview of some of the problems involved.

When I first encountered haiku as a student of military Japanese at Yale and later as a naive young airman in a far outpost of the system of post-occupation U.S. military bases in Japan, I was intrigued by these very short poems that seemed so psychologically powerful. And I was surprised at the rather lackluster English translations that I found, whether by scholars or by those who were attempting to popularize haiku. I soon became fascinated by the structures of the original Japanese poems and the problem of trying to make something similar happen in English, since that’s the only language I know really well. (Studying the military language of another country has its uses, but understanding literature is not among them.)

Some translators seemed to think that because the Japanese count out 5, 7, and 5 “syllables” when composing a haiku, translations of haiku into English should also be in 17 syllables arranged 5-7-5. (Wait a minute! What do Japanese haiku poets actually count? Answer below under “Duration and Rhythm”.) Over the years, I have studied the question of a “traditional form” for haiku translated into English from a number of angles. Here are some of them. (top)

A Sample Japanese Haiku

I will take the first haiku I encountered as a sample poem. This, the most famous Japanese haiku, was written by Bashô (his pen name; surname Matsuo) in 1686. Here it is in romanized Japanese, one word at a time, with English equivalents or [explanations]:

In Japanese, normally, the poem is written or printed out in one column, the equivalent of one line in English. Next, I present the transliteration (spelling out the approximate sounds in roman letters) of the Japanese as one line, followed by a line with what I think are the best English equivalents, in what translators call a “trot”—a word-for-word spelling out of the meanings of the words of the original, without regard to grammar or syntax:

furuike ya kawazu tobikomu mizu no oto

old pond . . . frog leaps in(to) water’s sound

The ellipsis (three spaced periods) in English represents the sense of the original’s ya. The part of the poem following the ya literally means something like “the sound of the water a frog leaps into”. But the form of a Japanese haiku suggests a slight pause after the word tobikomu, as well as the major pause at ya. Haiku translations in English usually appear in three lines, like this:

old pond . . .
frog leaps into
water’s sound

This is the same trot, only broken into three lines. One other feature of the original seems a little bit lost in this way. While the original does read fairly smoothly from the middle phrase into the last, this version seems to lose that sense of a pause between these sections of the poem. So, in the translation, instead of “into” I prefer just “in” at the end of line 2, which gives a little bit more of a sense of completion in that line, until one reads on to line 3. Adding one article to avoid purely telegraphic English, this gives me the following final translation:

old pond . . .
a frog leaps in
water’s sound     (top)

Duration and Rhythm

When I read this English version aloud, it takes about the same length of time to say as the Japanese original. I did this once before an audience of well over a thousand at a conference in Japan, where the audience knew very little English. A reporter later told me that the deep silence after I said the poem in English was because the audience heard the rhythm of the original in my translation. Blarney, but nice!

Still, the eight words of this translation do just about everything done by the seven words of the original. The original is in 5-7-5 Japanese “syllables”, the English is in 9 syllables. How did the Japanese audience “get it”? Let’s look at the rhythms of the two versions.

Japanese poets count their “syllables” (which they usually call on, a word that means simply “sound[s]”), and that is all they count. These on are very short, usually just one initial consonant sound with one clipped vowel following, or just a single clipped vowel. One current writer and translator, Robin Gill, calls them “syllabets” in English, to make clear that they are not “syllables” in the usual English sense (p. 7). Others have noticed that the Japanese word haiku sounds very much like the word“hike” in English, which we would count one syllable, as compared to the three sounds counted in Japanese. Still other Japanese words that mean the same thing in a haiku context include onji (“sound-symbol”), a technical term from linguistics, and moji (“writing symbol”), a term sometimes also used by Japanese haiku poets. On top of this, Japanese professors of linguistics have recently taken up the Latin word mora, which appears in some technical texts on poetry in English. (“Morae” are “the minimal unit[s] of measure in quantitative verse equivalent to the time of an average short syllable”—Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary. For example, three of them is like “potato” but not like “wrought iron”. In the Japanese context, a mora is essentially the same as an on or “sound”.)

For a Japanese linguistics perspective on haiku form—with mora prominently featured—see Prof. Kji Kawamura's book, The Poetics of Japanese Verse: Imagery, Structure, Meter. The book goes into a new method of counting the units of Japanese verse that takes into account longer and shorter pauses, which it treats as similar to “rests” in music. This sense of the quantity of silence in a poem seems valuable for any poetics, though I doubt it can be quite so regulated as Prof. Kawamura seems to think. The discussions in Part 3, “A Metrics of Sevens and Fives”, and Appendix I, “The Japanese Mora”, may be of interest to those who wish to delve into its application to Japanese. The formal views of a poet who has written haiku in both Japanese and English may be found on-line in the essay “Forms in English Haiku” by Keiko Imaoka. Finally, the Haiku Society of America has twice attempted to define “haiku” and commented on its formal aspects; both results may be found in one page on their Web site. (I must admit to having participated in the society's committee work on both occasions.)

So the Japanese rhythm of most traditional haiku, like this “old pond” poem, is simply a very brief 5-7-5. (If you jumped here from the Introduction, you may click here to return.) If we just count the syllables of the English version above, we get 2-4-3. Not as satisfying mathematically as 5-7-5, I’m afraid. However, rhythmically, Japanese lacks the stress accent that characterizes English and forms the basis for our metrics. What happens if we count the stressed syllables of the English (a mark like this ' in front of a syllable means that it is stressed):

'old 'pond . . .
a 'frog 'leaps 'in
'wa-ter’s 'sound

If we count those stress marks, we find a pattern of 2-3-2. Apparently, this English pattern seemed like a reasonable equivalent for the 5-7-5 pattern of the original to that Japanese audience. Thus ends one argument for abandoning 5-7-5 syllable-counting in English and replacing it with 2-3-2 stress-counting.

There is another factor. In the Japanese, the poem has one strong break, as discussed above. This strong break comes—in this poem—at the end of the first phrase, the first 5 of the 5-7-5. (Most Japanese haiku have one such break, called a “cut” [kire in Japanese]; this feature is more important to traditional haiku structure than a strict adherence to 5-7-5. In many haiku, the break comes after the second phrase, and in some haiku it comes near the middle of the second phrase.) After the break, the rest of the poem’s 12 on or “sounds” move along pretty much as one long phrase, with a very slight hesitation at the end of the middle phrase, the 7. These are the equivalents of the first line of my translation (2 stressed beats) and the second and third lines taken together (3 + 2 = 5 stressed beats), with that slight hesitation at the end of the second line.

Note that a verse line in English with five stressed beats is called “pentameter”—as in “iambic pentameter” —which forms the rhythmical basis for both the English sonnet and the most common blank verse, the two most prominent meters in English poetry. Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Browning, all used pentameter blank verse as the rhythmical basis for their best-known works. Some poets and critics have argued that pentameter is the most natural rhythm in the English language, and it may well be, simply because so many of us unconsciously use phrases and sayings from these and other poets whose words have become an important part of the basic stock of our language.

The situation in Japanese is not so different. As the Japanese language became more distinct in pre-literate times when verse was the common mode of memorable speech and the poetry of the oral tradition, as it apparently was in all human prehistories, Japanese poetry naturally fell into rhythms of 12 syllables. This basic rhythm was often interrupted lightly by a grammatical pause, or ceasura, between the first five and the trailing seven syllables. (Remember, these are the short Japanese syllables, not such long things as “wrought” in English, “schwarz” in German, or “chang” in Chinese.) A few of the long poems (chôka or nagauta) of early Japanese poetry, as recorded in the first anthology of poems in their native language, the Man'yôshû (8th century c.e.) have somewhat irregular rhythms here and there, but most all of them generally adhere to this repeating rhythm: 5-7, 5-7, 5-7 and so on. To conclude a poem, poets added one additional 7-syllable line, thus ending with a couplet. From these combinations, 5-7, and 7-7, all the forms of traditional Japanese verse developed. And, as with English and pentameter, the rhythm of 12 subtly divided 5-7 came to be the most common rhythmical pattern in the language. A good deal of so-called “prose” in classical Japanese texts moves in this rhythm, which was also used by chanters of the great Japanese war epics, such as the Heike Monogatari.

An analysis of a wide variety of English pentameter lines and of Japanese 5-7-count lines seems to indicate, to me at least, that these two meters, so basic to their respective traditions and even languages, carry roughly similar amounts of information and yield roughly similar durations when spoken under similar conditions. And while a ceasura within a pentameter line of English may be less common than that found in a 5-7 unit of Japanese, such a hesitation is not uncommon. I certainly encourage others to make their own investigations.

Which takes me back to the observation that the second and third phrases of Bashô's “old pond” poem, together, form a 12-syllable unit, and the translation here offered counters with a pentameter unit of five beats. In fact, one of the best ways to understand the form of a Japanese haiku may be as a truncated 5-7, 5-7 couplet with the last phrase, the final seven, cut off. Translating that perception into English suggests that a haiku can be understood as a couplet in pentameter with the last “half” or so of the second line cut off. Both the 5-7-5 syllabic form in Japanese and the 2-3-2 stressed-beat form in English have a sense of openness, a refusal to close at the end, where the native ear naturally lingers, waiting for the meter to go on to finish the couplet. Thus, the proposed translation not only comes close to the rhythm of the Japanese, to the ear of both Japanese and English-speaking observers, but makes use of one of the most common rhythmical patterns in English, just as the Japanese does in its own language. (top)

One Poem, a Variety of Translations: An Historical Digression

At this point, it may be useful to examine the history of translations of this poem. Since it is the best known haiku in Japan, scholars and poets who know the original have paid special attention to it for over a century. Here are several more or less common English translations of this same poem in chronological order, including my own (years of publication are included in the citations, to show the development over time):

Old pond — frogs jumping in — sound of water.

trans. Lafcadio Hearn (1898, p. 164)

An ancient pond !
With a sound from the water
Of the frog as it plunges in.

trans. W. G. Aston (1899)

The old pond, aye !  and the sound of a frog leaping into the water.

trans. Basil Hall Chamberlain (1910, p. 181)

It seems that, right from the beginning, translators disagreed as to whether this haiku has one or two breaks. The chapter in Chamberlain’s 1910 book which discusses “Bashô and the Japanese Poetical Epigram [i.e., haiku]” first appeared as an essay in the Transactions of the Asiatic Society of Japan, vol. XXX, in 1902. (The first edition of Chamberlain’s book, published in 1880 and called The Classical Poetry of the Japanese, does not include this chapter.) Thus, while the general public first saw these translations more than a decade apart, they were first published only four years apart. Hearn, a very popular author of the time, was a friend of Chamberlain’s, and Chamberlain was a professor at the prestigious Imperial University of Tokyo. The learned professor was among the foreign pioneers exploring Japanese literature in his generation.

Aston, a life-long British diplomat, spent much time in study, and produced such early books on things Japanese as A History of Japanese Literature, a translation of the Nihongi, and a study of Shinto, though they are not highly regarded today. Unlike Hearn and Chamberlain, he rendered Bashô’s poem in three lines; he recognized the grammatical cohesion of the second and third phrases, however awkwardly he translated them.

With these three versions, all three English words for the crucial action of the frog present themselves. As the Japanese tobikomu combines verbs meaning to fly and to enter, “jump” alone has never seemed satisfactory to me. If I think of the sound of a frog entering the water, I can justify “plunge”, but it seems a bit heavy, and only suggests a downward direction, not flying. Both “jump” and “leap” seem to require “in” or something similar to complete the meaning of that tobikomu. Since tobi- suggests lightness, and the indispensable “sound” also has an onomatopoetic ring to it in this context, “leap(s) in(to)” seems to me the best solution.

Interestingly, at this stage, neither Hearn nor Chamberlain offered what they considered finished poems as translations of this Japanese classic. Rather, they presented their versions as prose attempts to show what they thought the poem means. In Hearn’s case, the three metrical phrases of the original result in three phrases in the translation, separated by dashes. (Hearn makes the “frog” plural, which also accurately reflects the original, as the Japanese language does not distinguish between singular and plural for most nouns. Later translators seem to have uniformly preferred one frog, but lately some Japanese critics have suggested that Bashô may have heard more than one. To me, one frog seems more logical in a haiku context, but that may be little more than a personal preference.) Chamberlain, in contrast, recognizes the overarching grammar that ties the last two phrases together, and translates accordingly. In Chamberlain’s essay on haiku, most of the translations appear as couplets; perhaps he felt that this was the minimal element in English his readers might consider as anything like a complete poem. (top)

Perhaps recognizing the same “couplet as minimal poetic unit” in English, Asatarô Miyamori produced mainly two-line translations of Japanese haiku throughout his volumes of 1930 and 1932, often as unrimed iambic couplets. In An Anthology of Haiku Ancient and Modern, he presents two versions of Bashô’s most famous poem as even briefer couplets:

The ancient pond !
A frog plunged—Splash ! (A)

The old pond ! A frog plunged—
The sound of the water ! (B)

trans. Asatarô Miyamori (1932, p. 130)

An ancient pond;
        Plash of the water
                When a frog jumps in.

trans. Harold G. Henderson (1934, p. 33)

The ancient pond !
           A frog has plunged—
                                    Splash !

trans. Asatarô Miyamori (1940, p. 101)

As Japan roared off to war in China, Miyamori shifted to three-line translations, often by simply rearranging his earlier versions. Perhaps he was motivated by a new sense that the somewhat asymmetrical form of the traditional Japanese haiku did not need presentation in the balanced form of an English couplet. Perhaps a new national pride came into his thinking, as the 1940 volume ends with three original haiku in English by the author, praising Japan’s war effort. (The 1932 volume contains about twice as many haiku as that of 1940, and hence has been reprinted a number of times; most recently, the first quarter or so of it appeared in 2002 as a Dover reprint, under the title Classic Haiku: An Anthology of Poems by Bashô and His Followers.)

In the meantime a number of popular writers had produced translations in three lines, though the content of their lines may or may not have reflected the content of the original poem, much less its content line-by-line (Porter, Noguchi, Page, Miller). Perhaps the trend had been set by Aston, or perhaps most translators independently settled on three lines since the originals consist of three metrical units very similar in duration to some of our shorter verse lines in English.

Henderson’s 1934 version manages, within the three-line format, to demonstrate by enjambment the actual structure of the original, with the middle phrase at first seeming complete in itself, then leading into a final phrase that links the two together. This is a striking new development, and sets his translation apart. Unfortunately, the grammar of English also forces him to reverse the content of the second and third lines, which tends to undercut the sense of surprise at the end of the poem. “Plash” seems an attempt to soften the overdone “splash” of other translators’ versions. (top)

Ancient pond unstirred
Into which a frog has plunged,
A splash was heard.

trans. Kenneth Yasuda (1947, p. 8)

          The old pond:
A frog jumps in,—
          The sound of the water.

trans. R. H. Blyth (1949, p. 340; 1981, p. 302)

Old pond—
    and a frog-jump-in

trans. Harold G. Henderson (1958, p. 20)

The post-WWII books by these three, Yasuda, Blyth, and Henderson, were among the first to introduce a new generation to Japanese haiku, particularly in North America. Yasuda, perhaps influenced by Henderson’s earlier book The Bamboo Broom, adopted end-rime for the first and third lines of all his haiku translations, in this and in his later and better known book The Japanese Haiku: Its Essential Nature, History, and Possibilities in English, with Selected Examples (Rutland, VT: Charles E. Tuttle, 1957). (Unaccountably, Yasuda seems to have left Bashô’s single most famous haiku out of the later book.) Yasuda’s version of this poem seems quite unsatisfactory, padded as it is with words like “unstirred” and “was heard”, utterly unneeded to communicate the experience. This one translation alone might serve to prove my thesis that, generally speaking, 5-7-5 syllables is too long for a haiku in English, whether a translation from Japanese or an original.

Blyth’s four-volume Haiku, published over the years 1949–52, became the main source for haiku as known to the Beat and San Francisco poets, who discovered them through Gary Snyder’s involvement with Zen Buddhism. Snyder’s copies became the haiku bible for both Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, and Snyder himself became the haiku-writing protagonist of Kerouac’s most famous novel, Dharma Bums, first published in 1958. Blyth’s work has accounted for thousands of readers’ notion that there is some intrinsic connection between haiku and Zen. His books on haiku are still the main fountainhead of North American interest in haiku, and the journal of the British Haiku Society is titled Blithe Spirit in his honor.

Blyth’s work was my first real introduction to haiku, as it was for so many poets and readers interested in Zen. In my case, as mentioned above, the overabundance of punctuation and of frequent grammatical ties not justified in the originals scattered throughout Blyth’s books first drove me into the translation business. I had known Bashô’s old pond poem for over a year before I found Blyth’s translation, and I had been thinking about how to translate it much of that time. I was delighted to find the Japanese orthography in his book, and rather put off by this slack, and grievously over-punctuated, translation. I read his books avidly, seeking the poetic juices he seemed to be talking about in some of his comments but omitted from his apparently tossed-off translations, which read to me more like paraphrases. Generally, his translations are commendably spare, but too frequently they jettison the structural integrity of the originals, and thus lack the psychological impact of the Japanese.

Henderson’s 1958 version solves the problem of getting both the grammar and the order of the original right. As a literal version, it serves very well, though I must admit I think the poetry gets a bit lost among the hyphens. Unfortunately, the sense of near-completion at the end of line two which his 1934 version introduced has been greatly diminished, as the clearly adjectival composite“frog-jump-in” forces the reader quickly onward without a break.

I should not pass over Henderson’s usual style of translation—of which his version of this poem is not a good example—without further comment. Almost all the translations in both Henderson’s earlier and later books have the first and third lines end-rimed. (The later book is a revision of the earlier.) Henderson felt that his translations needed the end rime to give readers a sense that they were, indeed, poems. Contrary to Blyth’s view of haiku as a quasi-literary manifestation of Zen, he felt that haiku are first and foremost poems, and wanted his readers to appreciate them as poems. To his credit, the end rime in his books is less obtrusive, more quietly convincing, generally, than that of other translators who have used it, such as Porter and Yasuda. However, Henderson evidently felt that any attempt to end-rime an English translation of Bashô’s old pond haiku would seriously impair its accuracy; he discusses the poem at length in both books. Overall, the translations in his 1958 book are carefully re-crafted versions of those in the 1934 volume, tighter and more accurate. While Henderson never succumbed to the “minimalism” that has overtaken some translators of Japanese haiku in recent decades, he also did not count syllables when making his translations. (top)

Breaking the silence
Of an ancient pond,
A frog jumped into water —
A deep resonance.

trans. Nobuyuki Yuasa (1966, p. 32)

Yuasa, long a professor at Hiroshima University in Japan, produced the most widely-read translation of Bashô’s travel journals in a time when hardly anyone outside of Japan really knew why Bashô was such a famous poet. Yuasa’s versions of the prose read as if Bashô were a precursor of Washington Irving—hardly a world-class author, by my estimate—but a writer of pleasant prose. His versions of haiku, almost all in four lines, frequently include extraneous words, apparently in an effort to make sure that readers understand what the originals mean. Unfortunately, this has the effect of greatly slowing down the reader with unneeded verbiage, such as the opening line here which corresponds to nothing in the original at all.

One feature of this translation interests me, however: As with Miyamori and some other Japanese translators of this poem into English, Yuasa puts the poem into the past tense. The original clearly happens in the present. One wonders where this pastness comes from. Perhaps even skilled writers of English, like Miyamori and Yuasa, have trouble grasping the importance of verb tenses in English? But no, verb tenses frequently play a crucial role in Japanese, and in Japanese haiku as well, though Japanese writers rarely resort to the variety of tenses found in typical English writings. This question, as a side bar on a good discussion on the whole business of verb tenses in Japanese haiku, begs for a thorough examination.

Returning to our main theme, no other serious translators of Japanese haiku that I know of have taken up four-line versions of originals that clearly move in three metered phrases. (For versions of Bashô’s prose that read with something approaching the economy and flow of Bashô’s originals, I recommend the translations by Cid Corman and Kamaike Susumu, Hiroaki Sato, and David Landis Barnhill, listed below under Works Cited.) (top)

The old pond—
A frog leaps in,
And a splash.

trans. Makoto Ueda (1970, p. 53)

An old pond: a frog jumps in—the sound of water

trans. Hiroaki Sato (1981, p. 282)

From my point of view, neither of these versions offers much of anything new. Ueda’s 1970 version omits the “water” (mizu in the original), though the careful use of “and” shows an attempt to deal with the independent and yet connected relationship between the middle and final phrases of the original. Sato’s version offers little more than Lafcadio Hearn’s prose version of 1898, though it omits the final period. However, Sato’s one-line English versions of Japanese haiku sparked a new interest in the possibilities of one-line haiku, both in translating Japanese and in writing original haiku in English. His work in various small literary journals in the late 1970s inspired a number of poets experimenting with one-line versions, which Henderson himself had suggested as a possibility in 1970 (comment in a meeting of the Haiku Society of America on April 13, 1970; p. 28). A few significant English-language poets have done outstanding work in one-line haiku, including Marlene Mountain in the United States and Janice M. Bostok in Australia. (Some of their work may be seen online, at http://marlenemountain.org/contents.html and http://members.dodo.com.au/janbos/, respectively.)

old pond . . .
a frog leaps in
water’s sound

trans. William J. Higginson (1985, p. 9)

Regarding my own version, let me say that I am sensitive to the possible reading that the frog leaps into the sound, rather than the water. This does not appear to be what Bashô literally meant in Japanese, but seems too much fun to toss out. Can't we imagine that Bashô would smile at it and perhaps keep it as his own, were he to have written it in English? Given his at least partly humorous intent in composing the poem in the first place, I think so. In any event, such an interpretation may not occur to most readers; meanwhile, this version presents a clean parallel for the words in the original, their order, and some of their syntactic and psychological relationships.

old pond
frog leaping

trans. Cid Corman (1988, in “To the Reader”)

the old pond—
a frog jumps in,
water’s sound

trans. Makoto Ueda (1992, p. 140)

     an old pond . . .
a frog leaps in,
     the sound of water

trans. Haruo Shirane (1998, p. 13)

old pond—
       a frog jumps in,
              water’s sound

trans. David Landis Barnhill (2004, p. 54)

None of these fairly recent versions seems to advance very much on earlier instances. Each separates the poem into three isolated statements, contrary to what I consider the main meaning of the original. I am gratified that Ueda consciously shifted to a mode with relatively little capitalization and punctuation. As he says in the introduction to his masterpiece, Bashô and His Interpreters, “The style should not seem entirely alien to readers of modern American poetry, which includes works by poets like e. e. cummings and William Carlos Williams. I am also influenced by the practice of contemporary American haiku poets, the majority of whom seem to favor a terse style that makes minimum use of punctuation marks” (11).

In the analyses of the translations above, I haven’t mentioned the relative meaning content of Japanese and English, or the actual duration of haiku in Japanese and English, though I touched on these earlier. I have conducted experiments on these questions, and leave it to others to conduct their own experiments, as follows. (top)

Some Possible Experiments with Haiku Content

To establish the relative meaning content of Japanese haiku and English translations of the same haiku, take a book that gives “trots” (word-for-word meanings) in English for the Japanese haiku contained in it, such as Harold G. Henderson’s An Introduction to Haiku or Makoto Ueda’s Bashô and His Interpreters, and compare the number of words and syllables in the transliterated Japanese with those of the trot. (You can make parallel columns similar to those earlier in this paper. Also, you can set up the transliterated Japanese and the English words from the trot in two parallel lines, one above the other, as also done here.) By one means or another, compare their lengths. Do this with a number of poems. See if it takes more or fewer words to express the same meanings in the two language, and whether those words are longer or shorter in one or the other, on average. (Some particular words, of course, will be very different in length, so you have to survey quite a number to get a good average. For example, Japanese kiku = English “chrysanthemum” and English “hare” = Japanese no-usagi.) Be sure you work with haiku, exclusively, because the ratio of semantic content to duration varies considerably when one shifts between various types of language in Japanese. The language of haiku is much more terse than everyday conversation, for example. (top)

And Duration

To establish the relative durations of Japanese haiku and English translations of the same haiku, you will need experienced readers of both Japanese and English. Have the readers read the paired poems and translations in their respective languages, and time them with a stop watch or some other handy means. Compare the lengths of times for the Japanese and English readings with other characteristics of the originals and the translations, such as syllable counts and accented beats and so on. To get an even better notion of this, get several readers to do it. Note that each reader must be relatively fluent in both languages, and that they should not hear each other. Do not tell them the point of the exercise, but simply record their performances, and time them later. (I report on my process and findings, along with the observations of others on this point, in The Haiku Handbook, pp. 101-102.)

Other interesting questions: how do the ratios of 5:7 and 2:3 compare? How close are 5/17ths and 2/7ths? 7/17ths and 3/7ths? 12/17ths and 5/7ths? Does 2-3-2 seem as satisfactory a rhythm, mathematically, as 5-7-5? Can anything be done in English to adjust the 2-3-2 rhythm of accented beats to more closely resemble the 5-7-5 rhythm of counted “sounds” in Japanese? Why even seek a set form for translated haiku in English? Or for haiku written in English? Answers in the addendum at http://www.2hweb.net/haikai/haiku/haiku-numbers_answers.html. (top)

A Bottom Line, and A Reality

For me, the British Zennist and translator R. H. Blyth wrote all that needs to be said on the subject:

The ideal, that is, the occasionally attainable haiku form in English, would perhaps be three short lines, the second a little longer than the other two; a two-three-two rhythm, but not regularly iambic or anapaestic; rhyme avoided, even if felicitous and accidental. A season word is not necessary, nor even a season, but is greatly advantageous, as suggesting one quarter of the year in time. (Blyth, A History, p. 351)

I have personally made all of the investigations recommended in this paper and the addendum, and know no better summary of my findings than Blyth’s 1964 statement. In the intervening years, many people, from amateur to professional poets, have worked at writing what they called “haiku” in a variety of forms. But the dominant form of haiku written across the globe in well over 25 different languages for most of the last thirty or more years is three lines, often with the middle line a bit longer than the other two. Most poets I know writing haiku in English do not count syllables or stressed beats, but use what I have called “organic haiku form”—preferring to make the rhythms of their words project the experience they are trying to convey, rather than count anything. Some of those who do count, now, are more likely to count stressed beats than syllables, working toward the ideal of the two-three-two rhythm Blyth suggested over 40 years ago. (top)

Endnote on “Headline Haiku” and “Computer Haiku” and “Spam-ku” and so on . . . the 5-7-5 Trap

If you're reading this, and have read this far, I assume that you are interested in joining the thousands of people worldwide who appreciate and write and perhaps even teach others to write poems we call “haiku” in a mode derived from the Japanese poetic tradition. The writers of satirical verses along the lines of those mentioned in the headline to this endnote are not usually interested in this tradition, but prefer to make jokes. In the Japanese tradition, there are various names for these kinds of writings, senryû and zappai being two that come to mind. There is absolutely nothing wrong with writing senryu or zappai, but if you teach people to write “haiku”, please avoid this portion of the 5-7-5 trap. The rest of what I'm calling “The 5-7-5 Trap” will have to await another essay. (top)

Works Cited

Aston, W. G. A History of Japanese Literature. London: Heinemann, 1899. (I have not recently examined this work, and so do not have a page citation; the translation is reprinted in Hiroaki Sato’s One Hundred Frogs, mentioned below, p. 151.) Return to the translation.

Barnhill, David Landis, trans. Bashô's Haiku: Selected Poems by Matsuo Bashô. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2004. Return to the translation.

Barnhill, David Landis, trans. Bashô’s Journey: The Literary Prose of Matsuo Bashô. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2005. Return to your place in the text.

Blyth, R. H. Haiku. Vol. 1. Tokyo: Hokuseido Press, 1949. (Note: The second page number refers to the pagination of the completely reset reprint, Tokyo: Hokuseido Press, 1981.) Return to the translation.

Blyth, R. H. A History of Haiku. Vol. 2. Tokyo: Hokuseido Press, 1964. Return to your place in the text.

Chamberlain, Basil Hall. Japanese Poetry. London: John Murray, 1910. (The edition was also published simultaneously in Yokohama and elsewhere by Kelly & Walsh.) Return to the translation.

Corman, Cid, and Kamaike Susumu, trans. Back Roads to Far Towns: Bashô’s Oku-no-hosomichi. New York: Grossman, 1968. (Note: There are several editions of this work, including one from Ecco Press [1996] with an introduction by then-Poet-Laureate of the United States Robert Hass, and two from White Pine Press (1986 and 2004) with revised translations of the haiku. My review of the most recent edition, which includes an overview of the English translations of Bashô’s Oku no hosomichi, may be found on the web site of Modern Haiku Magazine, at http://www.modernhaiku.org/bookreviews/Basho2005.html.) Return to your place in the text.

Corman, Cid, trans. Born of a Dream: 50 Haiku by Bashô, Buson, Taigi, Issa, Shiki. Frankfort, KY: Gnomon Press, 1988. Return to the translation.

Gill, Robin D., ed. and trans. Fly-ku! A theme from In Praise of Olde Haiku. Key Biscayne, FL: Paraverse Press, 2004. Return to your place in the text.

Haiku Society of America. "Official Definitions of Haiku and Related Terms", on-line at <http://www.hsa-haiku.org/HSA_Definitions_2004.html>, accessed 10 July 2006.

Haiku Society of America, eds. A Haiku Path: The Haiku Society of America, 1968–1988. New York: Haiku Society of America, 1994. Return to your place in the text.

Hearn, Lafcadio, trans. Exotics and Retrospectives. Boston: Little, Brown, 1898. Return to the translation.

Henderson, Harold G. The Bamboo Broom: An Introduction to Japanese Haiku. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1934. Return to the translation.

Henderson, Harold G. An Introduction to Haiku: An Anthology of Poems and Poets from Bashô to Shiki. Garden City: Doubleday Anchor, 1958. Return to the translation.

Imaoka, Keiko. "Forms in English Haiku", on-line at <http://www.ahapoetry.com/keirule.htm>, accessed 10 July 2006.

Higginson, William J. The Haiku Handbook: How to Write, Share, and Teach Haiku. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1986. (Note: Currently available in a reprint from Kodansha International. In an earlier version, I started the poem with an initial capital and ended with a period, indenting the lines successively.) Return to the translation.

Kawamura, Kôji. The Poetics of Japanese Verse: Imagery, Structure, Meter, trans. Stephen Collington, Kevin Collins, and Gustav Heldt. Tokyo: University of Tokyo Press, 2000. Return to your place in the text.

Miller, Olive Beapré, ed. Little Pictures of Japan. Chicago: The Book House for Children, 1925. (Miller’s version of Bashô’s frog poem, which seems a conflation of those by Chamberlain, above, and Noguchi, below, runs thus, with the first and third lines slightly indented: “The old pond,—aye! / A frog leapt into it,— / List, the water-sound!” [p. 179]). Return to your place in the text.

Miyamori, Asatarô, trans. An Anthology of Haiku Ancient and Modern. Tokyo: Maruzen, 1932. Return to the translation.

Miyamori, Asatarô, trans. Haiku Poems Ancient and Modern. Tokyo: Maruzen, 1940. Return to the translation.

Noguchi, Yone. The Spirit of Japanese Poetry. London: John Murray, 1914. (Noguchi’s translation of Bashô’s poem: “The old pond ! / A frog leapt into— / List, the water sound ! [sic, p. 45].) Return to your place in the text.

Page, Curtis Hidden. Japanese Poetry: An Historical Essay with Two Hundred and Thirty Translations. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1923. (Page’s translation of Bashô’s poem, given with the middle line indented: “A lonely pond in age-old stillness sleeps . . . / Apart, unstirred by sound or motion . . . till / Suddenly into it a lithe frog leaps.” [p. 110] The entire middle line does not correspond to anything in the original poem.) Return to your place in the text.

Porter, William N., trans. A Year of Japanese Epigrams. London: Oxford University Press, 1911. (Porter’s translation of Bashô’s poem, under the title “Stillness” and with the first and third lines indented: “Into the calm old lake / A frog with flying leap goes plop ! / The peaceful hush to break.” This, as most of Porter’s haiku translations, is rendered in 6-8-6 counted English syllables. The entire last line does not correspond to anything in the original poem.) Return to your place in the text.

Sato, Hiroaki, trans. Bashô’s Narrow Road: Spring & Autumn Passages: Narrow Road to the Interior and the Renga Sequence A Farewell Gift to Sora. Berkeley: Stone Bridge Press, 1996. Return to your place in the text.

Sato, Hiroaki, and Burton Watson, eds. and trans. From the Country of Eight Islands: An Anthology of Japanese Poetry. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1981. (There are several other editions of this fine anthology. The same translation also appears in Sato’s One Hundred Frogs: From Renga to Haiku to English. New York: Weatherhill, 1983, about one-quarter of which is devoted to translations of our sample poem by Bashô. Note: There is a smaller, later edition of One Hundred Frogs with a different subtitle. It lacks much useful material in the earlier edition, which is well worth hunting for through used-book sellers.) Return to the translation.

Shirane, Haruo. Traces of Dreams: Landscape, Cultural Memory, and the Poetry of Bashô. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998. Return to the translation.

Ueda, Makoto, trans. Matsuo Bashô. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1970. (Note: This book has since been reprinted by Kodansha International, 1982.) Return to the translation.

Ueda, Makoto, trans. Bashô and His Interpreters: Selected Hokku with Commentary. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1992. Return to the translation.) If you came here from the quotation regarding capitalization and punctuation, return to your place in the text.

Yasuda, Kenneth. A Pepper-Pod: Classic Japanese Poems together with Original Haiku. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1947. Return to the translation.

Yuasa, Nobuyuki, trans. Bashô: The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches. Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1966. Return to the translation. (top)

This page first posted 23 June 2006, and moved to 2hweb.net and last updated 30 July 2008.