Someone asked me today about the correct translation of Bashō’s famous “Old Pond” hokku, a spring verse. What prompted the reader’s question was seeing a version in a recent book in which the last two lines were rendered as,
“…a frog jumps into the sound of water.”
The question was, is this what Bashō intended — a frog jumping INTO THE SOUND OF WATER, and not as we find it in more traditional translations?
The answer is no. This bizarre new version is just a personal rendering or re-writing, not an accurate translation of the original.
Here is a closer look at the original and its meaning:
Furu ike ya = Old pond ya
Kawazu tobikumu = Frog jumps-in
Mizu no oto = Water ‘s sound
The faulty translation “…jumps into the sound of water” seems misled by the division in English of the Japanese into three lines, separating “the sound of water” from the rest. But in Japanese, it is to be understood like this, as the two parts of the hokku:
Furu ike ya
Kawazu tobikomu mizu no oto
Frog jumps-in water ‘s sound
That is the old “hokku” Japanese way of saying simply,
The sound of a frog jumping into the water.
In other words, the Japanese “kawazu tobikomu mizu” (frog-jumping-in/into-water) is to be taken as a syntactical whole — and as such, it functions as an adjective qualifying the sound.
So what did Bashō hear?
He heard a “frog-jumping-into-water” sound, or in Japanese, a
Kawazu tobikumu mizu no oto.
The particle no in Japanese means “of or belonging to.” So what is intended is not “…a frog jumps into the sound of water,” but rather “the sound of a frog jumping into the water.”
There is a similar verse by Ryūshi, a winter hokku in Japan though more appropriate to late autumn in my part of the world:
Shizukasa ya ochiba wo ariku tori no oto.
Stillness ya fallen-leaves wo walking bird ‘s sound
Again, we are to understand it as the two parts of hokku, like this:
Ochiba wo ariku tori no oto
Walking-fallen-leaves-on-bird ‘s sound
Again what is heard is a “walking-on-fallen-leaves bird” ‘s sound
or in English form,
The sound of a bird walking
On fallen leaves.
Getting back to the “Old Pond,” if we wanted to translate the hokku to more literally reflect the meaning of the Japanese original, we would write:
The old pond;
The sound of a frog jumping
Into the water.
But while quite accurate, it is not as euphonic, nor does it have the sensory effect of
The old pond;
A frog jumps in —
The sound of water.
And that is the effect Bashō intended to convey.
We should keep in mind Blyth’s admonition that we are not to understand this as cause and effect; it is not
Cause: a frog jumps in
Effect: the sound of water
Instead we are to understand it, as we have seen, as “the sound of a frog jumping into the water,” thus a unity, not an “after this, therefore because of this.”
As an added historical note, Toshiharu Oseko mentions that “This was the first time a jumping frog without any voice appeared in the history of Japanese poetry.”
Though the croaking of frogs was found in older verse, it is their appearance without their cries that interested Bashō here, and typifies his mixture of high and low elements in his verse — a new departure.
For the sake of completeness, I should add that given the nature of hokku Japanese, with its lack of singular-plural distinction and the absence of articles, we could translate the verse also as:
The old ponds;
The frogs jump in —
The sound of water.
We could make “pond” plural or singular, and “frogs” singular or plural. But of course that would violate the aesthetics of hokku, in which one thing has more significance, generally, than many things.