I often mention how the verses of Masaoka Shiki, paradoxically considered the “founder” of modern haiku, were actually for the most part just the old hokku under a different name. They certainly bear little resemblance to much that is written as “modern haiku” today in English and European languages.

Modern haiku (except for some conservative writers) has largely abandoned the connection to Nature and the seasons so essential to hokku. But Shiki not only kept the old traditional “season words,” but also, for the most part (though he stretched the envelope now and then) kept the link with Nature. Modern haiku is definitely not Shiki’s notion of haiku.

Shiki’s “Nature” verses tend to be pleasant, though they also tend to be “illustrations,” not surprising, given that he was strongly influenced by the open-air sketches and paintings popular in European art of his day. One could say that in essence Shiki’s approach to hokku was to regard it as “sketches from Nature.” That is why I always say that his better verses remind us of the woodblock illustrations of such Japanese artists as Hasui and Yoshida.

Today’s verse demonstrates the difficulty sometimes encountered in translating Japanese verses into acceptable English. Here is Shiki’s verse literally translated:

Furuike no oshidori ni yuki furu yūbe kana

Old-pond ‘s mandarin-ducks on snow falls evening kana

As you can see, the meaning is quite simple and straightforward. It is:

On the mandarin ducks on the old pond, snow falls; evening.

It is easy to see why I say that many of Shiki’s verses are largely illustrations, if pleasant illustrations. One can easily imagine a woodblock print of mandarin ducks on a lake in falling snow.

Kana is just the “filler” word that Shiki used (one might say over-used) repeatedly in his verses.

The difficulty, of course, is that English, in this case, requires more space than the form of the hokku ordinarily permits. So if we want to say what Shiki is saying, but in English hokku, we end up either with something with an overlong line, like this:

Snow falling
On the old pond’s mandarin ducks;

or with an abbreviation like this:

Snow falls
On the ducks in the pond;

Of course we have left out that they are specifically “mandarin” ducks, and we have left out that the pond is “old,” so much has been lost, and it is hardly a satisfactory rendering.

R. H. Blyth (that clever fellow) used the content of Shiki’s verse, but presented it quite differently, thus managing to come up with a very acceptable alternative (I have changed his internal punctuation mark), but it still feels a bit overlong:

Evening snow falling;
A pair of mandarin ducks
On an ancient lake.

He does not say, as Shiki does, that the snow is falling on the ducks. He simply tells us that evening snow is falling, and then presents us with the scene of mandarin ducks on an ancient lake. The mind of the reader automatically connects this with the falling snow, so the reader sees the snow falling on the mandarin ducks on the ancient lake, as Shiki intended.

Blyth thought it better in this case to use “ancient lake” instead of “old pond,” even though Shiki employs the same furu-ike term used in Bashō’s famous “Old Pond” hokku). He also specifies the number of mandarin ducks (a pair), which Shiki did not. However in Asian culture, mandarin ducks are believed to mate for life, and are naturally thought of in male-female pairs.

I would simplify Blyth’s rendering slightly, like this:

Evening snow;
A pair of mandarin ducks
On the old pond.

That leaves it up to the reader to see the snow falling, and it eliminates some of the awkwardness of length.

I discuss this today not so much to present the difficulties encountered at times in translating old verses as to demonstrate the usefulness of moving the elements of a hokku around, of re-arranging their order and of trying different possibilities, so that one might get the best “fit” when writing original hokku in English.


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