Itô Yûki talks with Udo Wenzel: Forgive, But Do Not Forget: Modern Haiku and Totalitarianism

Michael Dylan Welch: This Perfect Rose: The Lasting Legacy of William J. Higginson

Susumu Takiguchi: Karumi: Matsuo Bashō’s Ultimate Poetical Value, Or was it?

Charles Trumbull: Meaning in Haiku

Martin Lucas: Haiku as Poetic Spell

Bruce Ross: Haiku Mainstream: The Path of Traditional Haiku in America

Robin D. Gill: Can One Hundred Frogs All Be Wrong?

Jane Reichhold: Building an Excellent Birdcage

Charles Trumbull: Between Basho and Ban’ya (Bypassing Barthes): A New Brand of Haiku?

Aubrie Cox: Clarity in the Unsaid

Zoe Savina: The Influence of Japanese Culture on the Contemporary Society


Vol. 11, No 19, Winter 2014

Angelee Deodhar: Haiku Silence 

Steve Wolfe: Bards of a Feather Lost Between Heaven and Earth

Klaus-Dieter Wirth: Haiku in German-Speaking Countries

Beverley George: Haiku and the Seasons

Bruce Ross: Haiku as an Absolute Metaphor

Klaus-Dieter Wirth: The Haiku in Europe

Ferris Gilli: The Power of Juxtaposition

Jim Kacian: The Way of One

Toshio Kimura: A New Era for Haiku


Vol. 11, No 18, Spring 2014

Stephen Wolfe: Death in Deep Autumn

Klaus-Dieter Wirth: The Haiku at the Crossroads?

Michael Dylan Welch: Getting Started with Haiku

Richard Gilbert: Haiku and the Perception of the Unique

Robert D. Wilson: TO BE OR NOT TO BE -
An Experiment Gone Awry

Jane Reichhold: Should Senryu be Part of English-Language Haiku?

Jim Kacian: Skinning the Fish: Interpenetration in Haiku

Michael Dylan Welch: The Practical Poet: On the Art of Writing


Vol. 10, No 17, Summer 2013

Robert D. Wilson: What Is and Isn't

David G. Lanoue: Animals and Shinto in the Haiku of Issa

Interview with Professor Peipei Qiu by Robert D. Wilson

Richard Gilbert: Kigo and Seasonal Reference in Haiku

Tatjana Stefanović: A branch with birdsong

David G. Lanoue: Write Like Issa


Vol. 9, No. 16, Summer 2012

Chen-ou Liu: Read It Slowly, Repeatedly, and Communally

Jim Kacian: So: Ba


Vol. 8, No. 15, Winter 2011

Jim Kacian: Haiku as Anti-Story

Chen-ou Liu: The Ripples from a Splash: A Generic Analysis of Basho’s Frog Haiku

David G. Lanoue: Issa's Comic Vision

Ikuyo Yoshimura: Kato Somo, the First Japanese Haikuist to Visit the United States

Dr. Randy Brooks: Haiku Poetics: Objective, Subjective, Transactional and Literary Theories

Vincent Hoarau: Suggestiveness in haiku through the work of Svetlana Marisova

David Grayson: The Sword of Cliché: Choosing a Topic

Robert D. Wilson: To Kigo or Not to Kigo

Saša Važić: What's the Use

Tomas Transtromer awarded Nobel Prize


Vol. 8, No. 14, Summer 2011

Haruo Shirane: Beyond the Haiku Moment: Basho, Buson and Modern Haiku myths

Geert Verbeke: Haiku Study & Photo Haibun

David Burleigh: In and Out of Japan: The Contours of Haiku

Robert D. Wilson: Kigo – The Heathbeat of Haiku

Michael Dylan Welch: Haiku Form and Content

Richard Gilbert: Kigo and Seasonal Reference: Cross-cultural Issues in Anglo-American Haiku

Robert D. Wilson: Study of Japanese Aesthetics: Part I: The Importance of Ma

Matthew M. Carriello: The Contiguous Image: Mapping Metaphor in Haiku

Richard Gilbert: The Disjunctive Dragonfly: A Study of Disjunctive Method and Definitions in Contemporary English-
language Haiku

Bruce Ross: The Essence of Haiku

Robert D. Wilson: Study of Japanese Aesthetics: Part II: Reinventing The Wheel: The Fly Who Thought He Was a Carabao

Anatoly Kudryavitsky: Vera Markova’s “Ten Haiku Lessons”

Anatoly Kudryavitsky: Tranströmer and his Haikudikter

Anatoly Kudryavitsky: Haiku Poets' Last Line of Defence

Michael F. Marra: Yūgen

Robert D. Wilson: Simply Haiku Winter 2011 issue's Featured Poet: Slavko Sedlar




Robin D. Gill, USA


Can One Hundred Frogs All Be Wrong?


◎ why the most translated poem of all cannot be ◎


There are well over 100 translations of Bashô’s famous frog-ku in Hiroaki Sato’s One Hundred Frogs. I was surprised to find the first on the list was by Shiki:

“The old mere! / A frog jumping in / The sound of water.”

I will not give any other translations for many can be found on the world-wide web and there are hundreds of libraries with Sato’s book. As far as I know, however, no one has thoroughly explained why the ku cannot be perfectly translated, so that is where we will start. First, a word-by-word rendition:

~~~~~~ furuike ya kawazu tobikomu mizu no oto ~~~~~~

old/ancient pond!/?/a/the/ Ø : frog/s jump/leap-enter/s/ing water-/water’s sound/s

The problems for a translator who knows both English and Japanese well (which, I am afraid, rules out almost all translators of haiku) are as follows:

Furu, with its patina, seems less literal (opp. “new”) than “old.” Its “o” sounds hard, when it should evoke a soft, tranquil ambience. Ancient, on the other hand, sounds overwrought, and “ole” cannot help but conjure up Southern (USA) kids fishing in it. Spelling it auld would help but. . .

Ike is well matched by pond, though a darker? mere would be better if it were not obsolete. Hearing “the auld mere” today we might expect a horse.

Ya is a kireji. These “cutting-letters” generally Englished as “cutting words” or “cutting terms” – caesura by eggheads – were originally few and always found at the end of a ku to separate it from other ku in a sequence. Sato, quotes Harold J. Isaacson to the effect that “they have a meaning that lies in themselves as sounds, and in that way are as meaningful in English translation as they are in Japanese” (not quite) and points out that, by this time, eighteen such kireji had been recognized and Bashô himself wrote elsewhere that “every sound unit is a kireji” (precisely). Depending on the way the words cling together (depending on sound, syntax, and semantics) a ku can break, that is encourage the reader to pause without any recognized kireji. Sato also emphasized the conjunctive nuance of the kireji as a colon both separates and by equating, joins phrases, i.e.,”An old pond: a frog jumps in –– the sound of water.” But the most common kireji (kana and ya) also may be emphatic, exclamatory, and/or interrogative. In English, it is enough to break the line, and the biggest question becomes a choice Japanese lacks: whether to use “a” or “the.” I prefer the “the,” indicating a specific pond, for being more evocative.

The only way to really connect all of the last 12 syllabets of the original in English would be “[the old pond – ] the sound of water into which jumps a frog” or “the sound of water into which a frog jumps.” Leaving aside the ugly swarm of articles (“the,” “of,” “into which,” and “a”) that English needs to tie things together, the sound (oto) which comes to a head at the end of the original is replaced by the frog/s or jump. As long as it must come out backwards, then, why not just put the old pond at the end? One of the translations given by Sato did. Variation III of Ten by William Matheson (one of two reprinted by Sato) ends “In thyss olde Bogge.” The “In” appeals not, but the “e” on old does. I like the rhyming bogge, but knowing Bashô was in a tame setting must forgo it. I will give you three paraverses which are like, Matheson’s, out-of-order:

A poet passes,
frogs riot and once again
the pond is quiet.

~ water-sound ~
a frog has jumped into
the dark pond  

a frog’s plunk:
how the silence fills
the old pond!

The impossibility of doing justice to Bashô’s ku led me to write dozens of paraverses. This was maybe twenty years ago, mind you, before buying Sato’s book, for books are my file cabinets and had I not already lost them, they would have been glued or taped inside the cover. The first above is one of them, as close as I can recall. The idea of adding the poet (probably borrowed from senryû Englished by Blyth) is found in a number of translations in Sato’s book, without the ridiculous riot which was, of course, arrived at by reason of rhyme. The second is an effort to skirt some of the problems enumerated above. The “dark” works, but the overall structure is too explanatory to be poetic. The third, also ad hoc, is, like the first, more along the lines of an expansion upon the original than a translation. “Plunk” has more gravitas than the hollow “plop,” more profundity than the shallow “splash” (the two most common mimesis used in “translation” of the ku), and is softer than Ginsberg’s harsh and corny kerplunk (that would be perfect for some haikai link-verse, but not this). But let us get serious and consider a translation that is one of the closest if not the closest to the original of those I have seen, for it will help to see the limits of translation more quickly.

the old pond
a frog jumps in
water’s sound

tr. William J Higginson

One of my lost translations had the frog plumbing the water to prove it sound, for, to me, the sound is less an open-ended splash than a capsule, created when the water seals over the hind-legs of the frog. It speaks, or, rather demonstrates the solidity (?), or soundness of the body of water. It makes good sense to allow this English idiom some play, as it can add poetry not in the original to compensate for some of that lost in translation. It is one reason I like Higginson’s translation, though he might not have intended the pun – likewise for his apostrophic predecessor Suzuki Daisetsu, who wrote: Into the ancient pond / A frog jumps / Water’s sound! (in Sato ibid). The more important ambiguity in Higginson’s translation, also found in Shiki’s, one of D. Keene’s and some others (see Sato’s book), is that which allows us to put the frog’s jump within the sound of the water, if it were. I like that, because the scene as I imagine it is this:

an old pond
in the sound of water
a frog leaps

For if Bashô did not see the frog, but imagined it from the water-sound, or -note, as some music-minded translators put it, such is the reality. Indeed, one of the explanations in Makoto Ueda’s Bashô and His Interpretors, has him seated in his hut across from Kikaku when the sound is heard, so I am not the only person who does not have the poet sitting or walking by the pond. Yet, one thing is wrong about these readings: in the original, water is what is jumped into plain and simple, and the sound is of that water. True, the Japanese possessive no allows a reading where the “water’s sound” can be jumped into, but it is not so read by 99.9% of Japanese readers. There is only one way translators can keep the original word-order and significance of the last 12 syllabets of the original more or less intact in English, and, I am sorry, but it is ugly:

The old pond . . . a frog-leaps-into-the-water sound.

Why? Because, when the original is read through to the end, everything that comes after the cutting-letter ya modifies that sound, not the water. Readers familiar with my other books should immediately recognize what I call the “Japanese style” of poetry, where an entire poem can be nothing but one long modified subject. Here, the poem is 2/3 that. I wish hyphens were not so damn ugly. Phenomenologically speaking, I feel such a sound means this (a clear exposition of what I put more poetically above) is what happened:

the old pond
i see that frog jumping
after the plop

Until this chapter made me work on it, I was unsure what made me like Bashô’s ku. Now, I know. It is that the apparent order in which things happen is wrong, yet still seems right. In other words, we do not just experience quiet paradoxically brought out by noise, which, as Lee O-Young pointed out, was old hat in the Sinosphere, or the new idea of repetition at natural intervals that he hypothesized was what made the poem good, but something I would call dream reality, which can preface an actual sound with a sequence of events – a whole dream! Cognitive scientists have studied the way our perception can act like the television or radio censors and edit our reality without our being aware of it within the space of a split-second delay (I read a whole book about it from Basic, the champion publisher of badly edited books by brilliant scientists, a decade or two ago). Well, my dreams can do the same and squeeze in a whole story, to boot. The body-clock, knowing the alarm clock will ring explains only a portion of such dream-events, for many happen despite the outside stimulous being a one-time event. I doubt I am an anomaly, so I dare to think at least a part of my readership will follow my reading of Bashô, inspired because I recently had such a bass-awkward dream. Nevertheless, my last translation is off, for our perception, right or wrong, is our reality and the ultimate source of poetry!

☆ Forget Sato’s Frogs! Read Ueda’s Bashô and His Interpreters!

There are probably a score of books ★ treating multiple-translation in English, though only the half-dozen that are mine use this form of translation for translation itself, rather than for the sake of collection and comparison; but there is only one book I know of dedicated to showing just how many interpretations a single poem may have: Makoto Ueda’s Bashô and His Interpreters – Selected Hokku with Commentary (Stanford:1992) has over 400 pages with thousands of interpretations by scores of fellow poets and critics for 255 ku, all translated (just one translation!) by the author from the Japanese. These include thirteen interpretations of the famous frog-ku, spanning three long-pages, which tell us far more about Bashô’s ku than all the translations ever made! If the limits of language intrigue you, read Ueda’s book, the only haiku-related book I am completely satisfied with (other than wanting it expanded). It should be much, much better known than it is. ★


★  The Matter of Line Order. All translation must trade-off 1) original order, 2) original flow/linkage and 3) something hard to sense, which might be called right-feeling; and, nothing makes this so clear as three-line translated haiku. The second two lines of Bashô’s frog-ku are good at bringing out 1) and 2), but, despite the Matheson translation and my paraverses, the old pond seems so natural at the head of the poem that we do not have to consider whether it might not seem more natural at the tail. With many haiku, however, that is the case. Something seems amiss if we do not reverse that order. One might say the original order should be respected, but is that respectful to the original if keeping it kills the poem? I would love to have a linguist (one could make a thesis of it) go through Blyth or my translations (we both do not hesitate to reverse the order to get the right feeling and we both give the original, so you would not need to look it up) and try to find out what factors are involved. Order vs flow problems are relatively easily understood as coming from the difference in syntax (SVO vs SOV) and other matters related to right and left-branching languages. It is something psychologically subtle, hard to pin down. I only brought it up here, at the risk of boring most readers – for which I apologize! – because I just received HAIKU, TRIKU, TANKA AND MORE – Fifty Years of Japan Inspired Fixed Form Verse from Harold Wright, and his “triku” offers a new tool for thinking about that hard-to-sense order problem.

One day, while writing conventional haiku in English, I was trying to decide which of the two images that I wanted to come first. I wrote, “My legs are asleep” and “A temple bell rings” then I reversed the lines. Then I realized that if I wrote a poem of three lines, all of equal length, perhaps five syllables each, then I could read the poem in any order . . . My first one was:

My legs are asleep
A temple bell rings
My mind is a well.

Which is, of course, also:

My mind is a well
A temple bell rings
My legs are asleep


A temple bell rings
My legs are asleep
My mind is a well

Or, whatever . . .

“Whatever” means there are three more permutations. If I had the first two lines, or better yet the experience, it would probably have gone altogether elsewhere:

the big bell’s boom
my legs are asleep: i taste
shiki’s persimmon

(All haiku-lovers know of Shiki hearing the big bell as he bit into a persimmon.) But, not to get off-topic, Wright offers other examples of which I think this the best by far: She has gone away / I can hear the fan / For the whole summer. If you try this one in various orders – six, if I am not mistaken (and if you put it into your computer, decap and center balance and it is much easier to create all of them) – you will be able to experience a variety of nuances. Wait! I’ll save you the trouble after these notes end. Let me just say that thanks to the way “for the whole summer” links with the proximate line, there is combinative variety not found in Wright’s first effort, where each line is absolutely independent. Most haiku do not break completely in three, but tend to be like this “for the whole summer” poem. Think when you look at the six renditions, you will see that the last one or two lines are what seems to count most. One reason is because we cannot help but expect a punch line or resolution at the end. This makes a difference in another way, which, as far as I know, was first pointed out by me, in another book, after my all-too-common juggling of the syntax (line order) was kindly challenged by the late William J Higginson – kindly, for it was in a personal letter after he praised Rise, Ye Sea Slugs! in print. There are reasons why the context in which a haiku appears favors one or another word order. If a poem with, or on a sea slug is a stand-alone or mixed in with poems about other subjects, its appearance at or near the end is a surprise and improves the wit; but, if that same poem were to be read along with hundreds of sea slug (namako) poems, the sea slug would be anticipated and the poem deprived of what would have been its snapper. Perhaps, the only solution would be to translate all such poems in composite, with a for-this-book-version on the left with a surprise at the end for the reader to see first, and a stand-alone version keeping the original order even though the snapper will not surprise. Perhaps, I should name this practice. Situation-appropriate order?Context-dependent translation?Context-dependent syntax-reversal?

★  Wright’s triku sextet is on the next page


I do not include smaller publications, such as chapbooks or magazines. This matters because Liz Henry, a young software engineer has a site called (as of 2007/3 = in what seems to be a state of suspended animation) dedicated to the creation and publication of composite translation. As noted in the introduction, she may have invented the term composite-translation. Here is a description of her magazine:

Composite features one poem in each issue. The poem in its original language is printed on a page that folds out from the back cover. Inside, various translations of the poem into English or other languages will be printed together.

Because the original may be viewed together with each translation, I understand why Henry uses the word “composite,” but, for me – both because my memory has a hard time holding together poems on different pages and the nature of the readings – she just presents multiple-translation, including what I call paraverses (she welcomed freestyle contributions) in a practical way. I say “just,” but it is a great idea. Hofstadter’s Le Ton beau de Marot also has the original on the leaf of the book jacket but not on the inside, where it might be folded out and better seen (that is where he keeps his private treasure, the delightful paraverse by his late wife). For right or wrong, I consider some of my clusters of haiku, senryû and kyôka readings the only true composite-translation (excepting some examples of untranslatable kyôka by Blyth and others showing the straight reading on one side and the punning reading on the other), and poems arranged serially as multiple-translation. Regardless, I credit Liz Henry for coining the expression unless/until someone else claims prior use of it. I may have used it myself, but lacking time to search my scattered or lost papers may recall what I wish rather than what was, for had I appreciated it enough, I probably would know for sure.

from HAIKU, TRIKU, TANKA AND MORE – Fifty Years of Japan Inspired Fixed Form Verse from Harold Wright


she has gone away
i can hear the fan
for the whole summer

she has gone away
for the whole summer
i can hear the fan

i can hear the fan
she has gone away
for the whole summer  

i can hear the fan
for the whole summer
she has gone away

for the whole summer
she has gone away
i can hear the fan

for the whole summer
i can hear the fan
she has gone away

You may note that when you actually try it the grammar does not mesh perfectly for the last three. Let me do them over now, cheating only enough to naturalize the poems. This is similar to the problems one faces in translation when one stays too close to the original.

i can hear the fan
for the whole summer –
she has gone away

for the whole summer
(she has gone away)
i can hear the fan

this whole summer
i hear the damn fan –
she has gone away

I trust you can see how triku and paraverse and composite-translation all come together in such play. Adding “my” (it was composed at Bashô’s hut) to warm up the old pond a bit –

my old pond
a frog jumps in
the water sound

my old pond
the water sound
a frog jumps in

a frog jumps in
my old pond
the water sound

a frog jumps in
the water sound
my old pond

the water sound
a frog jumps in
my old pond

the water sound
my old pond
a frog jumps in


Or, starting basic, then playing –

the old pond – / a frog jumps in / water-sound. one naturally follows the other

the old pond / the water-sound of frogs / jumping in. making its sound as they join it

a frog jumps / into the water: sound out / the old pond! an old pond left to itself is lonely

a frog jumps / into the water: the sound of / an old pond. that sound is not that of any pond

a water sound / only the frog’s feet still / out of the pond. imagine catching only the webbed feet

a water sound / how long frogs, how long / this old pond? call it irregular tick-tocks or testing both

a frog sound / how many plops of water / in the old pond? would “left” in the last line be too clear?

a water sound / the life of a frog and / the life of a pond. not quite the same idea, but much better

a water sound / the old pond gobbles up / another frog. ever heard of Jinny Greenteeth?


Besides the basic choices, the variety of articles and number required by English make for not six but scores of choices of which we have only seen a part and, with paraversing . . .

The old poem mistaken? New Words from Oxford.

I just found something new to me about the old pond ku among Susumu Takiguchi’s remarks at “a conference at Oxford” repeated in a “Speech at the First International Contemporary Haiku Symposium, 11 July 1999, Tokyo,” called “Japan Has Embarked on Her Voyage to World Haiku,” among the Appendices to his book The Twaddle of an Oxonian (2000). After claiming this most famous ku was “also the most misunderstood and mistranslated,” he noted that of the 170 translations he saw only three had “frogs!” And, speaking as a Japanese, added that “it is not our usual experience to see a single frog in early spring in Japan” and that “the sound of water is not normally a single plop or splash.” If the Korean essayist Lee O-Young argued for multiple frogs over time from the relationship of Bashô’s ku to Chinese poetry and Sato from Bashô’s particular circumstances, as noted in the main text, Takiguchi argues from realism, which is, for better or worse, general. As I had a small pond with a hermit frog and I know there are always preternatural times of day when even coconuts don’t fall (I grew up in such a plantation), I tend to hear that one frog. But plural is possible, and I would only take issue with Takiguchi when he implies that “we Japanese” read the poem differently than non-Japanese readers with respect to the number of frogs, for, as far as I know, most Japanese imagine one frog, and all the Japanese commentators, including famous haiku poets and top haiku editors quoted by Ueda in Bashô and His Interpreters imagine a frog. Of course, he could have mistranslated, but from the context in almost every case, only the singular makes sense. But, wait, I did not add two pages to this chapter to criticize Takiguchi, but to praise him, for I was delighted with his next statement.

More importantly, the haiku depicts a cheerful and merry scene whereby frogs are noisy and there’s life everywhere . . . far from the standard interpretation of a world of tranquility and eternal stillness. If my interpretation is correct, most of the English versions of this famous haiku have to be mistranslation and mistakes. [sic]. (Ibid)

Yamamoto, the greatest of modern haikai editors, in my opinion, has this ku articulate “a sense of existential melancholy” (trans. Ueda: Ibid). Needless to say, that implies one frog. Or, at least, one at a time. But, if one imagines a “cheerful and merry scene,” lots of frogs makes sense for the first time. One of my many (mercifully) unpublished translations of the ku made the frog’s splash a bracing tonic slapped on the face of the old pond. That is silly. But many frogs would make an old pond come alive in Spring. And Bashô was supposedly with Kikaku at the time; he was hardly one to be melancholy with. The only problem, as I see it, is that if Bashô intended that, he would not have specified the sound of water or the jumping in. There are other ways to describe such a scene. Still, I am grateful for Takiguchi, as his wholesome modern interpretation – I think of Kyoshi getting cheer from the white top of a mountain over a barren winter field (one of Takiguchi’s favorites), where Issa would shiver from the added cold of the image, sunlight or not – adds something to the reading of the poem. However, I can not guess what he wants of the English translation. If “frogs” was chosen by all but three translators, most Japanese critics would call that wrong, would they not? Unless frog/s jump/s – which is to say, hitherto not permitted ugliness can English ambiguous number, or the composite translation I advocate is resorted to, choice and the resultant argument are unavoidable.


From A Dolphin in the Woods, Paraverse Press 2009.