Saturday, May 29, 2010

Matsuo Basho's Frog Haiku

The above picture is Matsuo Basho's Frog Haiku, possibly the most famous haiku in the world. Basho lived in the 16oo's and wrote many classic haikus but his best known is this one, written below phonetically. Go ahead, speak it outloud and hear the poetry of it for yourself.

Furu ike ya
kawazu tobikomu
mizu no oto

I'll provide a translation. The thing is though, there's not just one. There are as many as thirty different translations of this poem, each one trying to get to the heart of what Basho was trying to convey. Here's the most literal of the translations:

Old pond — frogs jumped in — sound of water.
Translated by Lafcadio Hearn

But other translators attempted to not just translate the literal meaning of the words but to expand on what they thought Basho's original idea was. Some of my favorite translations are below.

A lonely pond in age-old stillness sleeps . . .
Apart, unstirred by sound or motion . . . till
Suddenly into it a lithe frog leaps.
Translated by Curtis Hidden Page
The ancient pond
A frog leaps in
The sound of the water.
Translated by Donald Keene
The old pond is still
a frog leaps right into it
splashing the water

Translated by Earl Miner & Hiroko Odagiri
Old dark sleepy pool
quick unexpected frog
goes plop! Watersplash.

Translated by Peter Beilenson
Listen! a frog
Jumping into the stillness
Of an ancient pond!
Translated by Dorothy Britton
At the ancient pond
a frog plunges into
the sound of water
Translated by Sam Hamill
Ancient silent pond
Then a frog jumped right in
Watersound: kerplunk
Translated by John S. Major

old pond
a frog leaps in —
a moment after, silence
Translated by Ross Figgins

ancient is the pond —
suddenly a frog leaps — now!
the water echoes
Translated by Tim Chilcott
There once was a curious frog
Who sat by a pond on a log
And, to see what resulted,
In the pond catapulted
With a water-noise heard round the bog.
Translated by Alfred H. Marks

Okay, so that last one takes a few liberties but the point is still the same. Notice how each different translation brings to mind a slightly different picture? The power of words can be very subtle.
Works Cited: "Matsuo Bashô: Frog Haiku." Bureau of Public Secrets. N.p., n.d. Web. 3 Jun 2010.
Chowaney, Nonin. "Haiku by Basho." Zen Calligraphy. N.p., n.d. Web. 3 Jun 2010.

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