Bashō wrote an interesting winter hokku that is often found mistranslated.  It is, in Japanese:
冬  枯  れ  や   世は一色に 風の音
Fuyu-gare ya  yo wa hito iro [isshoku] ni   kaze no oto

The mistranslation usually comes in the first line:

Fuyu-gare ya

You already know, if you are a regular reader here, that the particle ya indicates a meditative pause.

Fuyu means “winter.”
Gare (kare) means something that is “withered,” “dead.”  Kare is the same word used in Bashō‘s autumn hokku about the crow on the withered (kare) branch.

Robert Hass translates fuyu-gare as “winter solitude,” but it does not mean that.  It is the bleakness, the emptiness of the withered winter landscape.

Blyth more closely translates it as “winter desolation,” rendering the hokku thus:

Winter desolation:
In a world of one colour
The sound of the wind.

We can translate it very literally as:

Fuyu-gare ya  yo wa hito iro [isshoku] ni   kaze no oto
Winter-withering ya world wa one color in wind ‘s sound

Isshoku is just a variant pronunciation of hito iro — “one-color”

We could say,

Winter bleakness;
In a one-color world
The sound of the wind.

That would cover it rather well, because in English literature we already have Christina Rossetti’s remarkably similar lines,

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone….

Oddly enough, while the version by Hass is bad as a translation (because it changes the meaning of fuyu-gare so drastically), it is not bad as a hokku.  “Winter solitude” would work as a first line with the rest of the verse.  But it is not what Bashō intended, and for that, we get closer with Blyth’s “winter desolation” or the similar “winter bleakness.”



  1. Natalie Wilkinson

    Thanks for this translation. I am a beginner learning Japanese and attempted a translation this week.
    I came up with this (which doesn’t fit the form)

    The winter withers, and, among other things,In the one color world, the sound of wind.

    I don’t know that much about the intention of Basho but I feel like he might have wanted to turn us to hope for the spring. The version that inspired me to look at it more closely went

    Withered by winter
    the sound of the wind-
    one-color world.

    I feel like that translation doesn’t have any movement in spite of the wind.
    I like your use of bleakness because it relates better to the idea of color than desolation.
    I see that the particle ‘ya’ is meant to be a pause in this poetry, that separates the statement and maybe contrasts it. I am used to thinking of its meaning as and plus more than is stated in words. Is this a wrong way of thinking?
    Thanks, Natalie

    In hokku, the particle ya has a slight emphatic sense, while simultaneously acting as a pause, allowing the reader to experience that which precedes the ya. In English we say it provides a “meditative pause,” so that the reader may experience in his or her mind that which the writer has presented. So in lines like furu ike ya, one pauses to see the old pond before moving on to the second part of the verse. That is why in English, ya is expressed with punctuation indicating a pause, most frequently a semicolon.

    If you are studying Japanese, you have already no doubt discovered that “hokku Japanese” differs somewhat from the modern Japanese language.


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