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Kobayashi Issa: Modern English Translations of the Japanese Haiku Master

Kobayashi Issa (1763-1827) was a Japanese poet and painter of the Edo period. Also known as Kobayashi Yataro and Kobayashi Nobuyuki, he was born in Kashiwabara, Shinanao province, Japan. He took the pen name Issa, which means "cup of tea" or, according to Robert Hass, "a single bubble in steeping tea." Issa was a master of brief, startlingly clear and concise haiku/hokku. Matsuo Basho, Yosa Buson and Kobayashi Issa have been called the "essential masters" of the Edo Era. Many haiku lovers would add Masaoka Shiki to create the "Great Four" of haiku.

Japanese poets like Basho, Buson and Issa influenced many Western poets, including early English/American modernists such as Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot. Indeed, one of the hallmarks of Modernist poetry has been a turn away from highly ornate language toward the clarity and conciseness of Oriental poetry forms such as haiku and tanka.

Please note that I call my translations "loose translations" and "interpretations" because they are not literal word-for-word translations. I begin with my personal interpretation of a poem and translate accordingly. To critics who object to variations from the original texts, my response is that there are often substantial disagreements among even the most accomplished translators. Variations begin with the readings because different people get different things from different poems. And a strict word-for-word translation will seldom, if ever, result in poetry. In my opinion translation is much closer to an art than a perfect science and I side with Rabindranath Tagore, who said he needed some leeway in order to produce poetry in another language when he translated his own poems into English.—MRB

compiled by Michael R. Burch

Petals I amass
with such tenderness
prick me to the quick.
―Kobayashi Issa , loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Dew evaporates
and all our world is dew—
so dear, so fresh, so fleeting.
―Kobayashi Issa, said to be about the death of his child, translator unknown

This world of dew
is a world of dew indeed;
and yet ...
―Kobayashi Issa, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Standing beneath cherry blossoms
who can be strangers?
―Kobayashi Issa, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

An enormous frog!
We stare at each other,
both petrified.
―Kobayashi Issa, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Skinny frog,
     hang on ...
Issa to the rescue!
―Kobayashi Issa, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Right at my feet!
When did you arrive here,
snail?
―Kobayashi Issa, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

I toss in my sleep,
so watch out,
cricket!
―Kobayashi Issa, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

In a better world
I'd leave you my rice bowl,
little fly!
―Kobayashi Issa, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Cries of the wild geese—
spreading rumors about me?
―Kobayashi Issa, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

While a cicada
sings softly
a single leaf falls ...
―Kobayashi Issa, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Wake up, old tomcat,
then with elaborate yawns and stretchings
prepare to pursue love
―Kobayashi Issa, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

The cry of a pheasant,
as if it just noticed
the mountain.
―Kobayashi Issa, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

The ghostly cow comes
mooing mooing mooing
out of the morning mist
―Kobayashi Issa, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

As I stumble home at dusk,
heavy with her eggs
a spider blocks me.
―Kobayashi Issa, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

All the while I'm praying to Buddha
I'm continually killing mosquitoes.
―Kobayashi Issa, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

If anyone comes, child,
don't open the gate
or the melons will flee!
―Kobayashi Issa, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

All's well with the world:
another fly's sharing our rice!
―Kobayashi Issa, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

It's not at all anxious to bloom,
the plum tree at my gate.
―Kobayashi Issa, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

This windy nest?
Open your hungry mouth in vain,
Issa, orphaned sparrow!
―Kobayashi Issa, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Cruel autumn wind!
Cutting to the very bones
Of my poor scarecrow!
―Kobayashi Issa, translator unknown

Climb Mount Fuji,
O snail,
but slowly, slowly.
―Kobayashi Issa, translator unknown

Plume of pampas grass
Trembling in every wind . . .
Hush, my lonely heart!
―Kobayashi Issa, translator unknown

The snow melts
and the village is flooded with children!
―Kobayashi Issa, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Full moon—
my ramshackle hut
is an open book.
―Kobayashi Issa, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Oh, brilliant moon
can it be true
that even you
must rush off, late
for some date?
―Kobayashi Issa, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

The orphan speaks: the year-end party . . .
I am even envious
Of scolded children
―Kobayashi Issa, translator unknown

Don't weep, we are all insects!
Lovers, even the stars themselves,
must eventually part.
―Kobayashi Issa, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Buddha on the hill . . .
From your holy nose indeed
Hangs an icicle!
―Kobayashi Issa, translator unknown

In our world
we walk suspended over hell
admiring flowers.
―Kobayashi Issa, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

The following are links to other translations by Michael R. Burch:

Matsuo Basho
Yosa Buson
Kobayashi Issa
Ono no Komachi
Oriental Masters/Haiku

The Love Song of Shu-Sin: The Earth's Oldest Love Poem?

Ancient Greek Epigrams and Epitaphs
Meleager
Sappho

The Seafarer
Wulf and Eadwacer
Sweet Rose of Virtue
How Long the Night
Caedmon's Hymn
Anglo-Saxon Riddles and Kennings
Bede's Death Song
The Wife's Lament
Deor's Lament
Lament for the Makaris
Tegner's Drapa
Whoso List to Hunt

Miklós Radnóti
Bertolt Brecht
Ber Horvitz
Paul Celan
Primo Levi
Wladyslaw Szlengel
Saul Tchernichovsky

Robert Burns: Original Poems and Translations
The Seventh Romantic: Robert Burns
Ahmad Faraz
Allama Iqbal
Sandor Marai
Alexander Pushkin's tender, touching poem "I Love You" has been translated into English by Michael R. Burch.
Rainer Maria Rilke
Marina Tsvetaeva
Renée Vivien

Free Love Poems by Michael R. Burch

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