Saturday, June 13, 2009

Basho's eight nameless little hills

Translations frequently pose problems for some readers of works that aren't written in the language of those involved, whether it be a literature class or a discussion group. In order to get the issue out in the open and demonstrate the possibilities, I made up a handout that consisted simply of a number of translations of a haiku by Basho. The point being that if a short poem of seventeen syllables could produce this variety, then a novel or short story could be expected to produce many more "versions."

So, I thought I would provide a number of the translations all based on one haiku by Basho.


It is spring,
Even nameless hills,
Are decorated
With thin films of morning mist.

Yes, spring has come;
This morning a nameless hill
Is shrouded in mist.

Because spring has come,
This small gray
Nameless mountain
Is honored by mist

This unimportant
small gray mountain is lifted
aloft in a mist.

Spring-- through
morning mist,
what mountain's there?

Spring morning marvel...
Lovely nameless little hill
On a sea of mist

Because of early spring, this nameless hill
Is knee-deep in the gauze of morning still.

a nameless hill
in the haze.

Quite a variety generated by only seventeen syllables. All generally have similar elements: a small hill, nameless or not important enough for a name, spring, morning mist or haze.

What differs is the focus of the poem: some on spring or the mist or the hill. Which one is "right"? I don't know, not being able to read Japanese and frankly I think those who could read Japanese probably couldn't agree either.

Which one is your favorite?

For some reason I seem to prefer the even numbered versions, especially 2 and 6.

1. Matsuo Basho: The Narrow Road to the Deep North
Penguin Classics; trans. Nobuyuki Yuasa

2. R. H. Blythe, Haiku: Volume 2, Spring

3. Haiku Harvest, Peter Piper Press
trans. Peter Beilenson and Harry Behn

4. More Cricket Songs
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich,
trans. Harry Behn

5. Basho: On Love and Barley
Penguin Classics, trans. Lucien Stryk

6. A Little Treasury of Haiku
Avenel Books, trans. Peter Beilenson

7.Harold Stewart, A Net of Fireflies
Charles F. Tuttle Company

8. Unable to find the source. If anyone
recognizes the text, please let me know.


  1. I like #3, because it means ( to me ) that Spring makes everything seem special - even this small, nameless mountain.

    I've always wondered about translations of fiction, and how close the meaning is to what the author intended. Thanks for giving this example!

  2. Cheryl,

    Yes, what's interesting is that three seem to suggest the importance Spring has for the appearance of the hill, while the others don't.

    The elements are the same, but the tone and the focus seem to be different, and those are important for the reader's understanding and appreciation of the work. If readers can disagree over the meaning of something written in English, think what can happen based on various translations.

    Love discussions about lit.

  3. That's really interesting. I guess one has to weigh word for word vs thought for thought. And then there's the whole issue of making the syllables right.
    This sort of thing has always fascinated me. I wonder if one can truly translate 100% because of how the mind works in each language.

  4. Sharon,

    Robert Frost when asked-- What is poetry?-- once responded that poetry is that which gets lost in the translation.

  5. Ha! I'll have to chew on that one for a while.

  6. Sharon,

    That's what I like about Frost: his poetry and statements are always "chewable."

  7. You know I bought a collection of Frost's poetry the same time as I bought the book on Haiku. Frost is one of my favorite poets. I feel as though I am walking through a New England forest when I read his poetry.

    1. Sharon,

      There's that side and there's another side to Frost: Lionel Trilling once called him a terrifying poet. If you are curious about this, try the link to a post I did about him with this point of view. After I read the article, I saw Frost and read Frost in a completely different light.