Thursday, December 8, 2016

Basho: autumn haiku translations

Once before I had posted a number of different translations of a haiku by Basho.  Well, inspired by a discussion on at least one other blog that I follow, I decided to do it again, this time of an autumn haiku by Basho.

No. 38

on a withered branch                  from The Selected Poems of Matsuo Basho
a crow has settled                       trans.  David Landis Barnhill
autumn evening

A solitary                                    from The Sound of Water
crow on a bare branch--              trans. Sam Hamill
autumn evening

On dead branches                       from The Classic Tradition of Haiku
crows remain                              trans. Hiroaki Sato
perched at autumn's end

on a barren branch                       from The Classic Tradition of Haiku
a raven had perched ---                trans.  William J. Higginson
autumn dusk

On a leafless bough                       from The Classic Tradition of Haiku
A crow is sitting: -- autumn,          trans.  Harold Gould Henderson
Darkening now --

No. 120
on a bare branch                           from Basho:  The Complete Haiku
a crow settled down                      trans.:  Jane Reichhold
autumn evening

A black crow                                 from Matsuo Basho:  The Narrow Road
Has settled himself                        to the Deep North
On a leafless tree,                          trans:  Nobuyuki Yuasa
Fall of an autumn day.

I like the subtle differences found in these translations.  For example, that branch is described as "withered," "bare," "dead," "barren," and "leafless."  They are not identical, or so it seems to me.  Each suggests a different feeling.  "Withered" gives the impression of something dying, long past its youth, soon to be dead.  "Dead" has a finality about it: all life is gone.  "Barren" says to me that it may be alive,  but it is sterile; nothing can come from it.  "Bare" and "leafless," however, are factual statements: this is the way that branch is.  As we know the sequence of the seasons, we realize this is only a temporary state, and therefore it contains a element of hope.  They will be bare and leafless for a time, but then there's spring.

My favorite is the second one, the translation by Sam Hamill

A solitary                                    from The Sound of Water
crow on a bare branch--              trans. Sam Hamill
autumn evening

Which one do you favor?  


  1. I will wait to choose one as favorite, pondering each word's worth for a while. Yes, words, words, words matter.
    Note: one pun and one literary allusion as my gift in response to your gift.

  2. I prefer the third. The universal presence, promise, and acceptance of death dominate without being morbid.

    1. R.T.,

      Interesting choice. It's also the only one that translates the haiku using the plural, rather than the singular as do all the others.

  3. I like the differences for the future of the bird. The third one is my favorite in that regard. "Remain" makes it sound like the crows are hanging in there to wait out the winter.

  4. translation, particularly from oriental languages, is very difficult; from my reading, Haiku should, ideally, eschew any emotionally loaded words or any personal references; simply telling what is... in line with that idea, my preference is #2, "solitary"... i might add(blushingly) without intending to brag, that i won a Haiku contest once thrown by some Japanese Monastery which i now can't remember the name of... here's another i like, with indications of my place of residence:

    At that pond
    the frog is growing old now-
    among fallen leaves


    1. Mudpuddle,

      I see you prefer the same one I do. That's interesting.

      Buson's haiku is a play on Basho's most famous haiku, isn't it? I use the verb "play" deliberately as I seem to sense that haiku do have an aura of play about them.

    2. do your mean:

      kawazu tobi komo
      mizu no oto

      trans.: the frog jumps into the old pond; SPLASH!

    3. Mudpuddle,

      No, I mean this one. . .

      At the ancient pond
      a frog plunges into
      the sound of water

      Such subtle differences, even though the overall meaning is the same.

    4. Fred: same Haiku, different translation - the Englished version in Japanese is the one cited above.

    5. Mudpuddle,

      I know--just joking. The version I quoted came from _The Sound of Water_, translated by Sam Hamill.

  5. mademevauquer,

    Yes, "remain" does give a sense of a greater length of time than do the others.

    I just realized my choice is the only choice without a verb. The crow isn't doing anything: it is just there with the branch in the autumn evening--part of the whole.

  6. Fred: Thank you for sharing these. As you and I have discussed in the past, these sorts of comparisons help us to get at the essence of the original, don't they? In that spirit, I offer two additional versions:

    As you know, I greatly admire the haiku translations of R. H. Blyth, whose 4-volume Haiku and 2-volume A History of Haiku are (in my humble opinion) essential reading. Here is his translation:

    Autumn evening;
    A crow perched
    On a withered bough.

    Blyth includes this footnote: "'Perched' is of course the past participle."

    Here is a translation by Robert Hass (from his The Essential Haiku: Versions of Bashō, Buson, and Issa):

    A crow
    has settled on a bare branch --
    autumn evening.

    Regarding your comment that your favorite translation "is the only choice without a verb": the Japanese verb used by Bashō is "tomaru," which means "to stop, rest, alight, or perch." It is interesting to see how the different translators render this verb.

    1. Stephen,

      Thanks for the two translations.

      The translators' choices for the verbs give each version a slightly different flavor.

    2. Stephen: the six works by Blyth are what led me into Haiku and Zen; by now i have quite a collection of associated texts. finally i ended up by winning a Haiku contest thrown by a Zen monastery in Japan; they sent me a nice Zennish purse thing and a document with the emperor's seal on it that is in Kanji so i'm not sure what it means, but i assume it's something about Haiku... i like it...

    3. Mudpuddle,

      Congratulations on the award. Could you post it here?

    4. not unless i could take a photo and somehow get it into a comment; i've tried that before unsuccessfully... i'm not a technophobe but my skill level is next to the bottom...

    5. Mudpuddle,

      Sorry, I meant could you post your award-winning haiku here?

    6. sure, although i don't by any means think it's my best effort; i really don't know why or how i won that contest; the only thing i can think is it must be better in Japanese than in English...

      A silent herd of elk
      Crossing the snowy pasture -
      Distant sound of cows

      here's a couple that i think are a lot better:

      How kind these trees are!
      Not growing branches
      Where i choose to walk

      Crow, walking,
      Looks for breakfast -
      Jogger kicks a nut...

      some of mine degrade somewhat into Senryu, but that's okay i like them anyway, well, some of them...

    7. Mudpuddle,

      Thanks for posting your haiku. I like the first one--the contrast between the silent wild ones and the noisy domesticated ones. Significant?

      Interesting interactions between human and the natural world in the second and third haiku.

  7. Fascinating. The differences are so subtle and so enormous.

    Met a woman in a writing class who wrote a haiku a day as a way to get started in her writing - with I could contact her with these! Always was amazed at her ability...

  8. Anonymous,

    Yes, and the more I read them, the greater the differences appear to be.