Accepting the Challenges of Translation

A steaming cup of tea, a bag of loose leaf tea, and a French press with freshly brewed tea

Before I commence with this week’s post, I want to take a moment to thank Kimberly Kuchar for buying me three coffees in support of this work. I’m grateful for the support! I’m working on some late summer and early autumn bonus content. If you want to contribute financially, you can do so using the button below.

I recently stumbled on a 178-page PDF of Bashō’s poetry compiled by Hungarian writer and artist Gábor Terebess. What I find remarkable about his work is that virtually every haiku includes three or more translations of the same poem. I wish I’d happened upon it sooner! You can view the document for yourself here: PDF.

In focusing on classical haiku this season, I’ve naturally given a great deal of thought to translation. One of the things that I’m interested in is translational range: the ways in which one poem can seem similar or different based on who translates it. Terebess’ PDF is an excellent resource because it allows the reader to see a number of translations of the same poem, illustrating the range in form and content. 

I’ve admittedly neither taken as in-depth a look at classical haiku or thought this much about translation as I have before this season of the project. (I’m a bit embarrassed to admit this, but it’s true.) And in reviewing Terebess’ PDF, I had a realization that was new to me but perhaps an old idea to people who have been studying haiku longer than I have. It finally occurred to me that not only does translation affect the tone and emotional resonance of the poem, but it can change the ways in which readers perceive the subject matter of the poem. 

Here is the romaji version of Bashō’s haiku:

aki chikaki
kokoro no yoru ya 
yo jō han

Matsuo Bashō

Terebess offers seven different translations of this haiku1. In five of the variations, there was nothing that suggested to me that I should include this poem in my database2.

Autumn is near; 
The heart inclines 
To the four-and-a-half mat room.


as autumn approaches 
our hearts are drawn together– 
a four-and-a-half mat room.

David Landis Barnhill

Autumn nearing 
Inclination of my mind! 
A four-and-a-half-mat room.

Robert Aitken

Autumn approaches
and the heart begins to dream 
of four-tatami rooms

Sam Hamill

Smell of autumn – 
heart longs for 
the four-mat room.

Lucien Stryk

However, two of the translations meet my definition for inclusion in this project:

sensing autumn’s approach
four hearts draw together
in a small tea room

Makoto Ueda

as autumn draws near
our hearts feel closer 
to this small tearoom

Jane Reichhold

As I’ve mentioned at various points during this project, I take a broad view when collecting poems for this project. Planting and composting, cooking and cleaning, feast and famine are all part of the spectrum. So a tea room merits inclusion, but a general room does not.

At the time of this writing, my Japanese is not strong enough for me to make an informed decision of my own regarding the original. (I let my Duolingo streak lapse in the midst of moving last year, and at this point starting over just feels overwhelming.) This example shows me just how much I am at the mercy of translators (in pretty much any language) to accurately and poetically convey the subject matter. 

One might ask whether or not this issue truly matters if one is simply reading for the sake of reading, rather than collecting material for a large project. But I believe that it does. While the issue of the tea room versus the general tatami room is my primary cause for concern, the translational range for this poem is wide. Blyth, Aitken, Hamill, and Stryk have translations that imply a single person and a sense of longing, whereas Barnhill, Ueda, and Reichold mention multiple people. I perceive the latter three poems having a greater degree of intimacy.

I focus on food because it’s a useful lens for me to explore larger topics. Yet the challenges I find and the themes I come across are ultimately not specific to my area of focus. The challenge of whether or not to classify this as a culinary haiku is just a small component about the broader issues that readers face when reading in translation.

Translation is an art unto itself, and like all arts, it is subject to human foible and human preference. There is no perfect approach, and even if there was, an ostensibly perfect translation wouldn’t necessarily resonate with all readers. I think it’s worth embracing that imperfection. That doesn’t mean being uncritical; rather, it means that our criticisms are grounded in this knowledge of translational fallibility. 

I think that the best thing that we can do as readers and practitioners is to read translation as widely as possible. If we can study translation the way we study poetry written in our native language(s), we can learn to appreciate the spectrum of what’s available. Identifying what we enjoy and do not enjoy in a translated work is a useful aesthetic exercise that can not only yield insights about our own poetic values, but also help us recognize potential blind spots. For example, I’ve learned to appreciate R.H. Blyth as a product of his time. I don’t think any of his translations will be my favorite, but I can still find value in his work, as well as gratitude for his anthologies, and the groundwork he laid for future haijin writing in English. 

Ultimately, I will add Ueda’s and Reichold’s translations to my database. I admit that the Ueda version is the one I find most aesthetically pleasing. Beyond that, though, I have decided that I want to simply live with the contradiction of culinary and non-culinary versions of this haiku. Existing with contradiction is one of the driving forces of this project. 

On the day I write this, every coffee shop (chain or local) is selling pumpkin-flavored beverages. Students have gone back to school, the days are getting shorter, and those who care about such things have put their white clothes away. But summer vegetables are still in abundance, and I worked up a serious sweat on my lunch hour walk. We’re nearly at mid-autumn on the haiku calendar, but are still in summer based on the Gregorian calendar. Working on this project, I am constantly aware of how I am always existing within the contradictions of seasons and cultures. So it makes sense to accept the contradictions of working in a form whose foundational texts I must (for now, at least) read in translation.

  1. Terebess does not include full bibliographic information for each translation; he simply credits the author. I do not own works by all of the translators referenced in this post, which is why I have, like Terebess, simply attributed their names. ↩︎
  2. These are not grouped in the order they appear in Terebess’ PDF; rather, I have chosen to group them by similarity of translation in order to better illustrate my point. ↩︎

3 thoughts on “Accepting the Challenges of Translation

  1. Hi Allyson, I appreciate this reflection on translations . I hadn’t really notice the shift in the translation of Basho’s haiku from a singular point of view to a group experience which then totally shifts the feel. That is a great observation!

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