The HyperTexts

Matsuo Basho: Modern English Translations of the Japanese Haiku Master

Matsuo Bashō [1644-1694] was an ancient Japanese master of brief, startlingly clear and concise haiku/hokku and haikai no renga ("comic linked verse") also known as renku. Bashō influenced many Western poets, including early English/American modernists like 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.

compiled by Michael R. Burch

The butterfly
perfuming its wings
fans the orchid
—Matsuo Basho, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Basho's poem is a deceptively simple masterpiece; it subtly illuminates the symbiotic nature of life through a stunning image. The butterfly is attracted by the perfumed nectar of flowers; in the process of imbibing it helps pollinate them. Basho's poem is an example of art mirroring nature; it's hard to say which is more lovely: the butterfly fanning the orchid, or the exquisitely wrought poem. One might even hazard that the poem is suggestive of a boudoir, with the orchid playing the role of geisha ...

Lightning
shatters the darkness―
the night heron's shriek
―Matsuo Basho, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

This is a brilliant image and metaphor, crackling with energy and life.

The first soft snow:
leaves of the awed jonquil
bow low
—Matsuo Basho, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Here the leaves of the jonquil, heavy with snow, seem to bow low in reverance.

Come, investigate loneliness!
a solitary leaf
clings to the Kiri tree
—Matsuo Basho, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

A single leaf clinging to a tree becomes a symbol of loneliness and isolation.

Pausing between clouds
the moon rests
in the eyes of its beholders
—Matsuo Basho, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

This poem demonstrates the simplicity and power of haiku in the hands of a master. My translation has a slightly different "take" on the poem than other translations, and I can't say that mine translation is absolutely correct or completely faithful to the original, but I like it and I think it captures the "idea" of the original poem, which suggests the connection between the stages of the moon and human life: both consist of passages and rests. Usually we sleep as the moon floats above. If we see the moon at night, slipping between clouds, it can seem eerily lovely, haunting and restful at the same time. When a poet like Basho deftly invokes the image of the moon, he can appeal to all the things we know (or think we know) and feel about the moon.

Graven images of long-departed gods,
dry spiritless leaves:
companions of the temple porch
—Matsuo Basho, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

I like Basho's poem above, because it questions the authenticity and authority of religion. The witchdoctors, priests and evangelists of nearly every religion pretend to be able to speak for the gods, but their gods are singularly unjust and ineffective. The gods of the witchdoctors, priests and evangelists never spare human beings from suffering and death: to the truth-telling poets, that seems to imply something obvious. Basho's poem suggests that the "gods" are just as dead and spiritless as the leaves lining the temple porch.

See: whose surviving sons
visit the ancestral graves
white-bearded, with trembling canes?
—Matsuo Basho, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Again, Basho speaks honestly, with a daunting but compelling truthfulness. The ancient Greek poets also spoke of death forthrightly. Here's my "interpretation" of an ancient Greek epitaph (a gravestone inscription) that rivals Basho in brevity, forthrightness and clarity:

Does my soul abide in heaven, or hell?
Only the sea gull
in his high, lonely circuits, may tell.
Michael R. Burch, after Glaucus

Now here, without comment, are a number of other poems by Matsuo Basho:

This darkening autumn:
my neighbor,
how does he continue?
—Matsuo Basho, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Autumn darkness
               descends
on this road I travel        alone
—Matsuo Basho, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Let us arrange
these lovely flowers in the bowl
since there's no rice
—Matsuo Basho, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

An ancient pond,
the frog leaps:
the silver plop and gurgle of water
—Matsuo Basho, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

The first chill rain:
poor monkey, you too could use
a woven cape of straw
—Matsuo Basho, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

This snowy morning:
cries of the crow I despise
(ah, but so beautiful!)
—Matsuo Basho, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Like a heavy fragrance
snow-flakes settle:
lilies on rocks
—Matsuo Basho, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

The cheerful-chirping cricket
contends gray autumn's gay,
contemptuous of frost
—Matsuo Basho, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Whistle on, twilight whippoorwill,
solemn evangelist
of loneliness
—Matsuo Basho, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

The sea darkening,
the voices of the wild geese:
my mysterious companions!
—Matsuo Basho, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Will we meet again?
Here at your flowering grave:
two white butterflies
—Matsuo Basho, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Ah me,
I waste my meager breakfast
morning glory gazing!
―Matsuo Basho, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

The legs of the cranes
have been shortened
by the summer rains.
―Matsuo Basho, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

A solitary crow
clings to a leafless branch:
autumn twilight
―Matsuo Basho, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

A solitary crow
clings to a leafless branch:
phantom autumn
―Matsuo Basho, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

A raven settles
on a leafless branch:
autumn nightfall
―Matsuo Basho, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

A crow roosts
on a leafless branch:
autumn nightmare
―Matsuo Basho, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

NOTE: There has been a debate about the meaning of aki-no kure, which may mean one of the following: autumn evening, autumn dusk, the end of autumn. Or it seems possible that Basho may have intentionally invoked the ideas of both the end of an autumn day and the end of the season as well. In my translations I have tried to create an image of solitary crow clinging to a branch that seems like a harbinger of approaching winter and death. In the first translation I went with the least light possible: autumn twilight. In the second translation, I attempted something more ghostly. Phrases I considered include: spectral autumn, skeletal autumn, autumnal skeleton, phantom autumn, autumn nocturne, autumn nightfall, autumn nightmare, dismal autumn. In the third and fourth translations I focused on the color of the bird and its resemblance to night falling. While literalists will no doubt object, my goal is to create an image and a feeling that convey in English what I take Basho to have been trying to convey in Japanese. Readers will have to decide whether they prefer my translations to the many others that exist, but I think mine are better in conveying the eeriness of the scene in English.

Winter solitude:
a world awash in white,
the sound of the wind
―Matsuo Basho, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Sick of its autumn migration
my spirit drifts
over wilted fields ...
―Matsuo Basho said to be his death poem, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Sick of this autumn migration
in dreams I drift
over flowerless fields ...
―Matsuo Basho said to be his death poem, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

NOTE: While literalists will no doubt object to "flowerless" in the translation above ― along with other word choices in my other translations ― this is my preferred version. I think Basho's meaning still comes through. But "wilted" is probably closer to what he meant. If only we could consult him, to ask whether he preferred strictly literal prose translations of his poems, or more poetic interpretations! My guess is that most poets would prefer for their poems to remain poetry in the second language. In my opinion the differences are minor and astute readers will grok both Basho's meaning and his emotion.

These brown summer grasses?
The only remains
of "invincible" warriors ...
—Matsuo Basho, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

An empty road
lonelier than abandonment:
this autumn evening
—Matsuo Basho, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Spring has come:
the nameless hill
lies shrouded in mist
—Matsuo Basho, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Fever-felled mid-path
my dreams resurrect, to trek
into a hollow land
—Matsuo Basho, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

The temple bells grow silent
but the blossoms provide their incense
A perfect evening!
―Matsuo Basho, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Fire under the ash
and written on the wall
the shadow of a friend
―Matsuo Basho translation by Cid Corman

Fire levitating ashes:
my companion's shadow
animates the wall ...
―Matsuo Basho loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

The year's first day ...
thoughts come, and with them, loneliness;
dusk approaches.
―Matsuo Basho, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Ballet in the air!
two butterflies, twice white,
meet, mate, unite.
―Matsuo Basho, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

High-altitude rose petals
     falling
     falling
     falling:
the melody of a waterfall.
―Matsuo Basho, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

The cicada's cry
contains no hint to foretell
how soon it must die.
―Matsuo Basho, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Among the graffiti
one illuminated name:
Yours.
―Matsuo Basho, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

A spring wind
stirs willow leaves
as a butterfly hovers unsteadily.
―Matsuo Basho, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Swallow flitting in the dusk,
please spare my small friends
buzzing among the flowers!
―Matsuo Basho, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Morning glories blossom,
reinforcing the old fence gate.
―Matsuo Basho, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Scrawny tomcat!
Are you starving for fish and mice
or pining away for love?
―Matsuo Basho, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

The moon: glorious its illumination!
Therefore, we give thanks.
Dark clouds cast their shadows on our necks.
―Matsuo Basho, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Curious flower,
watching us approach:
meet Death, our famished donkey.
―Matsuo Basho, 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



The HyperTexts