How to Translate a Haiku into English

How to Translate a Haiku into English

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Haiku translation
Picture: マハロ / PIXTA(ピクスタ)
Translator Eric Margolis covers the major points involved in translating haiku into English well, providing a step by step example.

Haiku is the most iconic style of Japanese poetry. It rightfully enjoys wide acclaim around the world. But many English or non-Japanese speakers may not realize that haikus in translation are worlds apart from how they originally exist in Japanese.

Let’s take possibly the most famous haiku of all time, by Matsuo Basho, the most famous haiku poet of all time:


Furu ike ya kawazu tobikomu mizu no oto

old pond (!) frog jumps in sound of water


Haiku (haikai),plural haiku, is a very short form of Japanese poetry typically characterised by three qualities.The essence of haiku is “cutting” (kiru).This…

This haiku is seemingly straightforward, at least for a haiku. Accordingly, it produces a pretty consistent array of translations:

The old pond; 

A frog jumps in — 

The sound of the water. (R.H. Blythe)

Into the ancient pond 

A frog jumps 

Water’s sound! (D.T. Suzuki)

These are pretty literal translations. They create a similar image and meaning. But for such a seemingly straightforward poem, the original Japanese does a number of things that, quite simply, do not ‘translate’ into the English language.

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From the Haiku Project

First, there are simple grammatical problems that flow from the fact that Japanese is quite different than English. Japanese does not specify plural vs. singular nouns, nor does it have to use subjects or pronouns, which leaves a great deal of ambiguity. (There could be one or many frogs, one or many ponds, one or many sounds.)

Words don’t have to be arranged chronologically in Japanese sentences either, so the frog jumping in does not necessarily happen before the sound of the water. The lack of any sort of pause between the last two clauses makes them run together grammatically in Japanese—and in fact, an alternative literal translation might read “a frog jumps into the sound of water.” 

But for such a seemingly straightforward poem, the original Japanese does a number of things that, quite simply, do not 'translate' into the English language. Share on X

Puns and double meanings are also far more common in Japanese. The word for ‘sound,’ oto, sounds like a sound itself, which is why a number of translations write the last line as plop.


Second, there are poetic issues. In poetry, the sound and juxtaposition of individual words are incredibly important. Sonically, the frog “kawazu” is the only presence of the ‘ah’ vowel in the poem besides the emphatic ya, making it stand out sonically. The words in English have almost entirely the same palette of vowels (frog/pond/water), making the scene feel monotone in comparison. 

From the Haiku Project

Haiku are also written as a single line, leaving a little bit more to the reader’s imagination. Splitting up a haiku into three English lines creates a great deal more structure and specificity.

Finally, there are cultural issues. Haiku follow certain rules, including that they always include a seasonal word. In English, it’s not clear that this is a spring poem, but in haiku, frogs usually refer to a spring scene. Haikus are further developed to represent particular concepts and spirits of wabi, sabi, and you-gen, concepts of ‘solitude,’ ‘refinement,’ and ‘mystery’ that have a lengthy, historical discourse and debate around them in Japan.

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Altogether, these problems can create a transformative difference between haiku and their English iterations. In Japanese, a haiku that will imply at once two or three different possible stories in a season, while using sonic devices to emphasize certain ideas and moments. No wonder a more ‘literal’ translation can end up far afield.

A simplistic, imagistic translation will not have the depth of story that the original haiku will have:

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Eric Margolis

Eric Margolis is a writer, translator, and book editor based in Nagoya. His investigative features on Japan have been published in The Japan Times, The New York Times, Vox, Slate, and more.

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