Lost in Translation

by Danny Blackwell & Clayton Beach

A December 2017 discussion in the re:Virals section of The Haiku Foundation website raised some interesting points about reading haiku in translation from Japanese – as well as the act of translation itself – using a haiku by Chiyo-ni. Clayton Beach and Danny Blackwell have been kind enough to allow that discussion, with some minor modifications, to be reproduced here.

amegumo ni hara no fukururu kawazu kana

rain clouds inflating its belly the frog

— Fukuda Chiyo-ni (1703-1775), tr. Danny Blackwell

Clayton Beach:

I find this translation inserts a bit of English-language haiku aesthetics on what is a slightly different poem in the Japanese. For starters, the poem reads as a fragment and phrase in English, with an implied cut after the first line:

rain clouds<>
inflating its belly
the frog

If this were so, the first part would read 雨雲や (amagumo ya). If that were the case, it might just be better put without the additionally deranged syntax of the first translation:

rain clouds —
the frog inflates
its belly

However, this ku does not have a standard mid-line cut like Bashō’s ‘old pond’ with its use of the kireji ‘ya’. In this case it actually has the end-cut ‘kana’, which provides a playful, wistful trailing off. As a kireji, kana invites a juxtaposition between the current stanza and the next, it is an open-ended, incomplete ending almost like an enunciated ellipsis or semi-colon. So it may be better to translate the poem without a sense of interruption, with an ellipsis or question mark at the end, avoiding a fragment and phrase, as in these two possibilities:

in the rain cloud
is it a frog
that inflates his pouch just so?

toward the rain clouds
the frog inflates his pouch,
I wonder. . .

These are more wistful and playful interpretations, but the ku was written by Chiyo, not Bashō, and should be seen in terms of her unique style. She was writing in a period after Bashō, when haiku was exploding in popularity in the wake of the late master’s passing, and her teacher promoted the karumi (slenderness) aesthetic of late Bashō rather than the austere sabi aesthetic of his middle period.

A surplus of students and teachers made this a time of folksy, light and at times frivolous haiku, a kind of ‘pop’ aesthetic seen as inferior to the serious asceticism of middle Bashō by later conservative haiku theorists like Kyoshi, who was heavily critical of Chiyo and her contemporaries. I think her ku have their own kind of charm, and if looked at separately from Bashō, rather than being judged by his style, they are perfectly charming, if a bit simple. But again, this was the taste of her time, not a fault of her own, she was actually quite beloved in her day.

In this ku, there is a parallel between the billowing, blustering clouds and the frog’s pouch as he sings, perhaps even fancifully placing a frog in the clouds; ‘ni’ can mean ‘at’, ‘in’, ‘on’, ‘to’, ‘for’, etc. and usually has a direction component. The ‘kana’, a questioning, pensive ending somewhat like ‘I wonder’, adds to this musing quality. Perhaps there was no frog at all, and Chiyo was merely daydreaming, looking at the shapes of clouds and finding animals, or the distant thunderclap sounded like a frog, or perhaps there was an actual occurrence of a frog singing while she watched passing spring, rain clouds that also coincidentally looked like a frog. The simplest explanation has the frog defiantly facing the clouds and pointing his inflated form their way. In any case, this ku asks for a lighter, airy style that is undercut by the uber-minimalist translation with a strong mid-cut as originally given.

A more sober interpretation, still respecting the style and use of language might be:

the frog
inflates his pouch
toward the rain clouds. . .

Here, the kana is translated as an ellipsis. While kana was used in haikai-renga to connect the two verses of linked pair, it is still used today in contemporary, solo haiku, to leave a poem open ended. The lack of following stanza with that implied sense of juxtaposition toward a latter half invites interpretation and a ‘what then?’ In writing haiku in English, it would be profitable to occasionally emulate this style, rather than cutting in the middle with two images, we can provide a single image or image cluster and leave things unfinished, ambiguous and invite the reader to ‘continue the verse’, so to speak.

Interestingly, I found this Spanish translation of the same haiku:

La rana
infla el buche
ante las nubes que traen la lluvia

tr. Vicente Haya

(The frog/inflates his throat/before the clouds that bring rain)

This translation is once again very literal and spare, but it at least keeps the continuous structure of the original rather than imposing a cut that was not there to begin with. With so many options, which translation do you prefer?

Danny Blackwell:

I can’t resist the temptation to offer some words about my translation, which received some interesting criticism from Clayton above.

First off, for the sake of simplicity, let’s assume the frog is singular and the clouds are plural although that may not be the case, as the Japanese language often does not specify. With that caveat in place, I’d like to explain that there two things I wanted specifically to do in my translation. The first was to capture a common feature of the Japanese language, and therefore also to haiku, that of ending an oration with a noun and having all the preceding material functioning as if it was a type of adjectifying of that final noun (in this case of the noun ‘frog’.)

A literal rendering of the Japanese would therefore be something like this:

rain cloud belly-inflated frog

The English language would naturally reverse the order, of course, resulting in something like this:

the frog that inflates its belly in front of rain clouds

It is this feature of the Japanese language which explains why many haiku in translation change the order of the elements, and commonly result in the final line of a Japanese haiku becoming the opening line in the English versions — something that I was trying, precisely, to avoid.

Obviously, most would find the above poems, in which the poem is simply the word ‘frog’ stacked under a series of qualifiers, to be pretty indigestible as poetry — bearing in mind the long tradition of haiku in translation and our acquired reading habits. In translation one has to strike a balance between the options of giving an air of exoticism that reflects the different language of the original, and trying to make it sound as natural in the target language as it would do to a speaker of the original language.

The second thing I wanted to do with my translation was allow the poem to maintain the possibility of a double reading. Clayton reads an implied kire after the first line, and while I intentionally allowed for that option, it is not the only option I am allowing the reader, and if one doesn’t impose that cut, one can read the poem as:

rain clouds inflating its belly:
the frog

That is to say, it is the rain clouds themselves that inflate the frog’s belly. This sense of the interpenetration between things is key to haiku juxtaposition, and I feel is particularly acute in this poem by Chiyo-ni.

The Japanese particle ‘ni’ can be used purely to situate the existence of something in a geographical or temporal place, allowing the literal reading that Clayton references, in which the frog is actually seen in the clouds themselves. Regarding particles, one thing that surprised me when I lived in Japan is that while English speakers will naturally stress the words in a sentence that carry meaning and pretty much orally gloss over prepositions and so on, the Japanese do the opposite. When speaking the Japanese tend to place emphasis on particles, that is to say, the punctuative elements of a sentence. In haiku the marker ‘ya’ (used after the words ‘old pond. . .’ in Bashō’s frogpond haiku for example) is much easier to identify and translate, but I find that ‘ni’ is also frequently used in haiku and does indeed cut the sentence, whether one interprets it as a kireji or not. I also feel that here ‘ni’ is allowing us to imagine that the frog’s belly (or pouch) billows due to the rain clouds. This could be viewed as juxtapositional whimsy, or it could be, as another re:Virals commentator mentions, a reference to a very natural phenomenon in which frogs react to approaching rain.

I intentionally avoided punctuation in my translation to allow this middle-line hinge possibility, but one can also read the poem, more conventionally perhaps, as:

rain clouds;
inflating its belly: the frog

Here I use the semi-colon, which I find particularly good for translating a cut between juxtaposing elements. (Whatever one thinks of Blyth, I think he is one of the best translators of punctuation in haiku and adapts his ideas for each particular poem with a great deal of nuance, and one would do well to study his work in this regard.)

Admittedly, my translation may seem like syntactical absurdity (to paraphrase Clayton) but I opted for ‘inflating its belly/the frog’ as opposed to ‘the frog inflates its belly’ because I wanted the word frog to be the last word, for the reasons stated above.

Setting aside his patriarchal preference in his translation of the Spanish translation, I would also question Clayton’s interpretation of the end marker ‘kana’. Modern Japanese speakers often end sentences with the sounds ‘ka’ and ‘na’, and sometimes with the two of them together. They are, respectively, an oral question mark (ka) and a question tag (na). They are more or less equivalent to saying ‘isn’t it’, or ‘I wonder’, at the end of a sentence. However, having discussed this with Japanese colleagues, it is my (possibly mistaken) understanding that the archaic literary ‘kana’ (哉) of haiku is not equivalent to the modern day ‘kana’ (かな) of everyday speech, which is much closer to the ‘kana’ that Clayton seems to have offered in his translations. I would also question having ‘I wonder?’ as a whole line in the English version, when it is only a line-end kire. That said, I welcome Clayton’s comments, which are always illuminating, and his criticism may well be justified — I’m afraid I’m not in a position to be wholly objective about my own translations. One thing I did find particularly worthy was Clayton’s suggestion that the word kana could be treated as a kind of trailing off, represented in one of his translations as an uncompleted ellipses:

the frog
inflates his pouch
toward the rain clouds. . .

I should also mention that it is common, and perhaps at times justifiable, to translate ‘kana’ as an exclamation mark, and it has been common throughout the history of English-language haiku translations to do so. This discussion is, without doubt, a long and complex one that is muddied by a long tradition in both languages.

Reading Clayton’s comments and alternative translations, I do admittedly find myself questioning my inclusion of the word ‘belly’. In using ‘pouch’ Clayton is possibly more precise, as it is the vocal sac — and not the belly — of the frog that we are accustomed to seeing inflate (although the frog would first inflate its lungs in order to do so, and in the original Japanese they use the word for belly/stomach).

Interestingly, a Colombian friend of mind objected to Spanish translator Vicente Haya’s use of the word ‘buche’, which she considered a rather ugly word.

As a final note, readers should be aware that haiku poems such as this one, and the ubiquitous ‘old pond’ poem of Bashō, use an archaic pronunciation for the kanji for frog, which is read here as ‘kawazu’ instead of the modern day ‘kaeru’.*

Translation is always, to a degree, a form of deception — no matter how didactic its intentions.

Clayton Beach:

Great meta-commentary Danny, I enjoy the dialogue! I caught your use of the middle line as a pivot only after I wrote my comments. It adds depth to the ku in English, though perhaps in a much different way than the original, as the clouds seem to be on the receiving end in Japanese, the frog in English.

‘Ni’ is one of the hardest articles to translate for me, just by virtue of its versatility and many possible readings, so that ambiguity definitely adds layers to the ku.

One note, I meant nothing negative about your translation by ‘derangement of syntax’, I use that term to describe our English-language equivalent of ‘katakoto’ in terms of warping sentence structure for artistic ends. After all, ‘Haikai’, I believe, can have a connotation of ‘crippled/bizarre’. So I think we can use deranged syntax to artful effect, it was more that I didn’t feel there was enough katakoto in the original to justify its use in translation.

I appreciate the distinction between the spoken and literary kana. I have spoken with a few friends and nobody has given me a satisfactory explanation of the difference between the two, Japanese translation can be quite challenging to begin with, classical bungo [Japanese ‘literary language’] makes it even more so.

The most important part of your commentary for me, and which I’d like to reiterate for the other readers, is the ability in Japanese to stack sentence fragments, adjectives and verbs all together in a chain to form a single conceptual adjective that modifies a noun at the end of the sentence. We saw this a few weeks back with the paddy stubble of ‘life and death for man’. That phrase could be seen both as a separate concept, and as an adjective modifying the rice field. This is such a difficult concept to render in English, and is used to such brilliant effect in Japanese haiku. Thanks for your corrections and response.

I also agree that in translation, there is always a tension between keeping the logical order of words in English and the sequential, temporal order of images in the Japanese. Sometimes, making the sentence logical in English ‘ruins the punch-line’ of the ku so to speak, by putting the last line first.

Footnote by Danny Blackwell: *01/01/18: While Vicente Haya Romanizes this poem with ‘kawazu’ I have since found other sources using ‘kaeru’. Anyone able to definitively say which reading Chiyo-ni would have used contact us and let us know.

Editor’s note:

This exchange first appeared in re: Virals 119 at The Haiku Foundation website and is reproduced here with the authors’ permission.

Clayton Beach lives in Portland, Oregon, with his wife and children. He has been writing poetry and studying the Japanese language and culture since high  school and studied Japanese literature at the University of California, San Diego. He is the editor of linked forms at Under the Basho. His work is syncretic, drawing inspiration from both Western and Eastern poetry, and has been published in a wide range of journals including Modern Haiku, Bottle Rockets, Otata, The Heron’s Nest and Hedgerow.

Danny Blackwell is editor of re:Virals for The Haiku Foundation, a weekly discussion of a haiku selected by the previous week’s ‘winner’. He is a British-born writer who lives in Spain and over the past 15 years has also lived in Japan, Argentina, Portugal, and Mexico. His haiku appear in Frogpond, Modern Haiku, Prune Juice, and various other journals.