This online workshop focuses on a selection of three haiku, chosen by Alan Cummings, and presented along with his literal translations.
This workshop has been generously sponsored by if:book as part of the Dot Award, set up to encourage literary authors to develop new work inspired by digital possibilities for literature. We are aiming to experiment by inviting translations not only into English but into any other medium: from audio to animation, photographs to sketches (Masaoka Shiki, popularised the idea of the haiku as ‘shasei’ or sketching).
You can submit a text translation through the form at the bottom of this page. If you’d like to submit audio, video images or any other media, please fill out the submissions form and, in place of poem text, please include a link to a Soundcloud, YouTube, Vimeo (and so on) where we can view your submissions and embed it on the MPT website.
You are welcome to translate as many as you choose: just a single haiku, two or even all three.
Please send us your translations by 20 May and translator Alan Cummings will pick the best to discuss on our podcast.
HAIKU 1 – by Enomoto Seifu.
Chiru hana no | moto ni medetaki | dokuro kana
HAIKU 2 – by Yosa Buson
harusame ya | koiso no kogai | nururu hodo
HAIKU 3 – by Sugita Hisajo
chō oute | haruyama fukaku | mayohi keri
Three haiku (literal translations)
Literal translation by
HAIKU 1 – ‘literal’ translation
Beneath, lying happily
HAIKU 2 – ‘literal’ translation
spring rain –
beach’s small shells
to moisten enough
HAIKU 3 – ‘literal’ translation
butterfly chasing –
spring hills deeply
Help on translating this poem
Haiku are 17 syllable poems, normally written in a single line in Japanese. In English, they are often translated into a three-line poem, where the syllable count follows the original 5-7-5 syllable pattern of the Japanese. Some translators, however, prefer to translate haiku into a single line, while others use two lines.
Haiku traditionally combined linguistic and imagistic elements drawn from both the classical and vernacular language, often making play with the contrast between the two. The classical poetic tradition in Japan had created a canon of words and images that were thought of as being appropriate. For example, in the second haiku we are looking at, by Buson, the first word ‘harusame’ (spring rain), is a resolutely classical term, found in hundreds of preceding poems dating back centuries. In contrast, the image of the seashell is not one that is used in the classical tradition.
Some linguistic features of the Japanese language enable the brevity and the flexibility of haiku. For example, nouns are not specified as being singular or plural. Rather, it is up to the reader to decide whether Sugita Hisajo pursued a single butterfly or a cloud of butterflies into the spring hills.
Likewise, Japanese lacks any definite or indefinite articles. Pronouns are very commonly omitted, and there is no way to tell from the verb whether it applies to a first-person singular subject or a third-person plural one.
– Alan Cummings
Alan Cummings is Senior Lecturer in Japanese Studies at SOAS University of London. He works on early modern Japanese literature and theatre. Amongst his translations is Haiku: Love (British Museum Press, 2013).
Notes from the translator
Haiku 1, by Enomoto Seifu
Enomoto Seifu (1732-1815) was born into a samurai family and began to write haikai under the inspiration of her stepmother. Her poems began to appear in haikai anthologies from the mid-1750s onwards, increasing in numbers after the death of her husband in 1770. In her late years, she became a Buddhist nun, taking the name Seifuni (Star Cloth Nun). Some things to think about in this haiku:
- chiru: verb, to fall or scatter, always used with cherry blossoms.
- hana: noun, flowers but in poetry it is used to mean cherry blossoms specifically.
- moto: noun, under or beneath. It can also refer to the base of a tree. The ni that follows it is a positional particle indicating location.
- medetaki: adjective, fortunate, lucky, auspicious, joyful. The ending of the adjective shows that it is describing the noun that follows, dokuro.
- dokuro: literally a skull, but in poetry it is sometimes used to mean the whole skeleton, particularly one that is found by the side of the road. There is a Japanese poetic tradition of poems inspired by dead bodies.
- Many haiku work in two parts, divided by a kireji (cutting word). The cutting word in this poem, ‘kana’, appears at the end of the final line and indicates poetic emphasis. Grammatically, the poem functions like a single sentence.
- Seifu’s poem references the medieval traveller poet, Saigyō (1118-1190), and his well-known verse: I dream of dying | under cherry blossoms | in spring | when the moon is full | in the second lunar month. Famously, Saigyō’s wish was granted as he died on the sixteenth of the second lunar month, 1190. More gruesomely, the years when Seifu wrote this poem were marked by widespread famine in Japan.
Haiku 2, by Yosa Buson
Yosa Buson (1716-1784) was a Japanese haikai poet and painter, one of the greatest haikai poets of the premodern period. Born in a village near Osaka. Buson later moved to the capital city, Edo, where he began to study poetry. He later travelled in the footsteps of his idol Bashō around northern Japan, before finally settling in Kyoto in his early 40s. Compared to Bashō, Buson is more concerned with the sensual world and is often fascinated by the creation of visual, aesthetic and dramatic effect in his poetry. Notes on this haiku:
- harusame: noun, meaning spring rain, and here also a kigo (seasonal identifier) for spring. Japanese poets read ‘harusame’ as the light, drizzly rains of spring that bring back life and fecundity to the natural world.
- ya: kireji (cutting word). A kireji is used in haiku as a break, dividing the poem into two sections.
- koiso: noun, beach.
- kogai: noun, kai are shells, here with the diminutive ko, indicating their size.
- nururu: verb, to dampen, to moisten.
- hodo: noun, the extent, the degree.
Haiku 3, by Sugita Hisajo
Sugita Hisajo (1890-1946) was born in Kagoshima, Kyushu. After her marriage, she began studying haiku with the well-known poet Takahama Kyoshi and became an active member of his haiku circle, even publishing her own haiku magazine. However, in 1936 for reasons unknown Kyoshi expelled her from his circle. Heartbroken, she gradually stopped writing haiku and died in 1946 at a sanitarium. Notes on this haiku:
- chō: noun, meaning butterfly, and here also a kigo (seasonal identifier) for spring. Sugita manages a neat trick by using it’s classical spelling (tefu), thus keeping her first line to five syllables.
- oute: verb, meaning to chase or pursue, here in its conjunctive form.
- haruyama: noun, spring hills or mountains.
- fukaku: adverb, deeply.
- mayohi: verb, to wander, to get lost but also to lose control of oneself or to give into temptation.
- keri: a classical auxiliary verb, often used in poetry as an emotional exclamation, most usually when the poet notices or realises some truth.