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Haiku Maven: The Translator’s Conundrum

hm_logo Dear Haiku Maven, I write haiku in some other language than English and do some translations. While doing translations to English, it is not easy to keep the same original image so I change them slightly to make them more relevant. Recently when going through some haiku collections I found that the same idea which I get out in translations has already been published as a haiku (or in some other form). An interesting point is that some have very similar words too. In this situation what should I do? My translations are also already published.

Signed, What Should I Do?

Dear What Should I Do, Reading over your query, Haiku Maven keeps coming back to your use of the phrase “it is not easy to keep the same original image so I change them slightly to make them more relevant.” Haiku Maven finds that phrase quite telling. It appears that this is the point where you veered off course. Not only did you veer off course, but you also drove straight into a wall of some previously published haiku similar to your own translated-into-English haiku. Now your haiku has some bumps and dents resulting from the accident. Haiku Maven suggests you take a self-taught remedial translation course. In this way, Haiku Maven hopes that you will no longer be tempted to substitute other more “relevant” images for the original images. Should you be called out on your previous transgressions by any aggrieved haiku poet, Haiku Maven advises you to eat some very public humble pie.

The Haiku Maven posts each Friday to The Haiku Foundation blog. Haiku Maven offers advice about awkward situations involving haiku poets. The word maven comes from the Yiddish meyvn, meaning “one who understands.” Please use our Contact page to send a question. Haiku Maven will select a pseudonym for you based on your question. Click this link to see the Haiku Maven archive. Feel free to leave comments.

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Sometimes, when I read translations, I long to know what the original words meant… before the translator felt a need to change anything. Then if there is a big change, to give some reasoning for the change. It’s amazing when you read two different translations of the same text, just how different they can often be. And yet somehow the best translations for me have a flow of poetry that runs through them that is timeless… that doesn’t need “more relevant” phrasing since the poetry itself “shows” instead of “tells”… what the original is saying.

  2. I’m not able to speak directly from experience, but I gather that translation is an art in and of itself.

    Perhaps part of what we have been discussing in recent Haiku Maven posts is how we grow our own voices – and become so very sure that they are original.

    Our gifts may grow fast sometimes, but it seems other aspects of being a writer take some time. The process surely has been uneven for me – rapid growth in a teaching career for 20 years; 20 years with health challenges, losses, caregiving, etc.; and now this new time. My metaphor was a tree that had been cut down, but new growth when the time was right, because of the deep roots. A different kind of beauty. I love the weathered evergreens as well.

    The landscape gave me hope. I will always want to write the same poems.

    along the roads
    marsh marigolds


  3. Dear What Should I Do?

    If your publication came first, I’d suggest you need to find further avenues to publish your translations with the original date of your first publication to distinguish your work from others. If your publication came out later, like Neal said, I would not worry about it.

  4. @ What Should I do

    It would be useful to know what language you are translating from, because that can have a great deal to do with how the imagery turns out in Englih.

    shunrin no
    harunohi wa umu


    spring rain and
    spring sunshine gives birth to
    cherry blossom blooms

    You cannot have true, direct, translation from language to another. You can try to maintain, as close as possible, the original imagery but it’s generally not possible to maintain it 100%.

    Be content with what you can translate. Nothing is perfect.

    As for coming up with similar ideas to other people? So what? There is a finite number of subjects, especially when it comes to haiku, and a finite way of observing, recording, and presenting said subjects to other people. There are only a few ways to say “Spring rains and sunshine bring cherry blossom flowers” because, as humans, we all see the same thing and all use the same words, in whatever language we use, to describe that phenomena.

    Be content with what you write. Others opinions are just that – opinions. They are not important. Mine included.

    mottemeisubeshi no heiwa ni iku – be content with what has been accomplished and go in peace.

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