Some translations of a Kobayashi Issa haiku on a child and the harvest moon

Source: Pexels public domain images

[Since I don’t have access to an English-language library out in rural Japan, I found all of the translations online so it’s a mix of serious academic efforts and maybe some more casual ones. I’ve included links, though a couple of the websites are absolute fossils that are difficult to search, so sorry about that. I didn’t realize how much I would miss Inter-Library Loan when I left university…]

Last week at my adult English conversation class (“eikaiwa”), I thought I would shock and sensationalize by presenting a bunch of middle-to-old-aged Japanese ladies with haiku in English via some of Jack Kerouac’s American “pops.” They found the idea of haiku outside of the Japanese language hilarious (seriously, they laughed at me!) and accused Kerouac of writing senryu (“no season word!”), but their surprise at the topic triggered some of the best discussion I’ve had since I started the class almost two years ago.

But better yet, after class one of my students emailed me an early 19th century poem from the haiku master Kobayashi Issa with the message “Tonight’s moon is good. Do you think so? This haiku is famous” (too bad I had already gone to sleep!). She sent me the text in Japanese, which I have transliterated and lazily translated below:

名月をとってくれろと泣く子かな

Meigetsu o (5) / totte kurero to (7) / naku ko kana (5)

harvest moon / get (bring) it! / child that cries…

You can break down the literal sentence like this: “harvest moon” is the grammatical object (を particle) of “get / bring,” an imperative verb (ろ ending) in indirect statement (と particle) to “cries,” which then modifies “child.” The last two beats with “kana” modify the whole sentence to mark uncertain thinking like an ellipsis… I suppose here you could take it as something like a gentle, thinking-out-loud observation along the lines of “Hmm…” or “Oh” or, if you want to sound fancy, a sighing lamentation like “How!” or “Alas!” As I first read it, I came up with this unpoetic line translation:

Oh child that cries… bring (me) the harvest moon!

In terms of the rules of haiku, harvest moon (meigetsu) is the season word (kigo), recalling the autumn, while that “kana” I discussed before is the formal cutting word (kireji). As I imagine it though, I like to think of “to” as an informal cutting word as well, splitting the poem into two voices: a young child making an impossible, maybe humorous demand (“gimme the moon!”) and an adult then quoting the child to make a melancholy or frustrated reply (“oh kiddo…”). But before revising my line translation to account for the haiku features, let’s see how a few other translators have rendered the poem in English:

“Gimme that harvest moon!”

cries the crying

child

David G. Lanoue.

This seems to be the most common translation online, so I’ll start here even though I have a couple nitpicks. First, I don’t like the repetition on “crying” when “cries” alone suffices. And second, I don’t understand the point of isolating child on the third line except for the simple sake of having three lines. As a more serious matter of interpretation though, it feels odd to me to mix in the specific term “harvest moon” with the punchy slang “Gimme that!” when we might expect a literal-thinking child to say something more like “orange moon” or “red moon.” Or in other words, a child old enough to know to say “harvest moon” probably wouldn’t be young enough to want it in their hands.

“Give me

that harvest moon”

cries the child

Uncredited here.

Similar Lanoue’s above, but with a nice economy of words and none of my nitpicks. Though it doesn’t use direct slang like Lanoue’s, the brevity means that you could maybe still read the first two lines quickly as “Gimme that” in the child’s voice before cutting to the slower adult’s pace for “harvest moon” on the second and third lines. However, the quotations marks get in the way of that interpretation, leaving me with my same critique as with Lanoue’s. Would a child say harvest moon?

“Catch it for me!”

the child cries for the Full Moon

Takashi Nonin.

I like this one because the exclamation maybe functions like a cut: the first line shows the child observing the moon while the second line shows an adult observing the child. Unlike the previous poems, the quote seems to capture a child’s voice. Another nitpick though: in the second line, I might change “full moon” to “harvest moon” to preserve the clear fall seasonal reference and capture the unusual orange color that would catch any child’s eye.

reach up and get me

the harvest moon

begs the crying child

Chris Drake.

This might be the best studied translation I could find… the linked website includes a ton of historical context that Drake wrote around the poem. I especially like Drake’s image of a child riding a parent’s back reaching up to the orange moon because it looks like a yummy rice cracker. The only thing I might change here would be to split the voices like in the previous poem. Even more so than with Lanoue’s “harvest moon,” I can’t see a child saying “reach up and get me the harvest moon.”

The child sobs,

“Give it to me!”

The bright full moon.

R.H. Blyth.

Blyth is the OG haiku translator, but eh, I don’t know about this one. I like that each line maybe switches voices, from an adult observing a crying child in the first line, to the child’s own quoted voice in the second line, to a unity of the voices observing the moon in the third line (or no voice, with the moon silently watching them!). But then “sobs” feels strong to my 21st century American-English ears and I feel like Blyth missed an opportunity to play on the double meaning between crying as sobbing and crying as shouting / interrupting. And to repeat a nitpick: I prefer the orange-ish image of a harvest moon to a common full moon for its power in surprising a child.

The harvest moon–

“Get it for me!”

cries the child

Addiss et al.

I quite like this translation because it’s the only one to follow the original Japanese word order, and to good effect I think. The dash maybe functions like an English-language cutting-word as the poem zooms out… it starts focused on a classic haiku moon-viewing image, but then subverts that when the child’s voice interrupts the scene to refocus on more grounded human concerns observed in the adult’s voice for the last line. Neat stuff. Of the translations I’ve listed, this is my favorite.

Get me out of here!

I cried all autumn under

the black sky, blood moon

Eric Margolis

Every collection of haiku translations needs an oddball and… I don’t know what to think of this one. Margolis insists that it’s “grammatically viable,” which sure, whatever. But in turning a slightly humorous, melancholy poem into a humorous-for-the-wrong-reasons “despairing” one, it takes too many liberties for my taste (and I like despair!). I like that “blood” observes the color of the moon, but then put together with “black sky,” it seems a little bleak for a poem about children. What happened to the stars? ='(

“I want the harvest moon”

Crying child begs

The Nelson Izu-Shi Friendship Society.

I don’t have any real commentary here because it seems pretty quick and casual, but it’s fun to note that the Friendship Society shared this translation for a real-life moon-viewing party, so cool on that! I love the Japanese tradition of sharing poetry, so I’m glad to see that people still do it.

Anyway, those are all the translations I could find. Thinking about what I liked from each of them, I came up with five points to include in my own:

  1. A specific autumn imagine, i.e. the red or orange harvest moon
  2. A cut between a child’s voice and an adult’s, with the child observing the moon and the adult switching back down to earth to observe the child like in the Addiss et al.
  3. Humor-ish child-speak for the child’s voice, for example “gimme” or calling the harvest moon “red moon” like in Lanoue’s
  4. An image of reaching or striving across an impossible distance, like with Drake’s “reach up”
  5. Grammatical fidelity, i.e. “harvest moon” as the object of the imperative verb “get” and “crying” as a modifier on “child.”

Drafting through a poem with my line translation from before, I came up with this unwieldy thing first:

Get me the red moon

Oh the child cries

None of the other translators had done anything with “kana,” but I liked the idea of using it as “oh” to catch the sound of a sighing parent. However, the second line felt awkward and I still wanted to try out point 4), so I substituted in “bring down” for this awful attempt:

Bring down the red moon

Oh poor crying child

I flipped “child” and “cries” to match the grammar in the original Japanese and tossed in “poor” for no real reason. But bleh, that didn’t sound right. I began to realize that point 4) maybe hid a redundancy: the moon is already far away, even when close to the horizon during a harvest moon, so I didn’t need to emphasize the distance and direction with “bring down.” I deleted the useless “poor” and went for super-economy on the words:

Get me the red moon

Oh crying child

But I think I lost something by removing “bring down.” First, it’s a genuinely impossible request. A parent can give a child a “red moon” by, for example, distracting them with a rice cracker like Drake suggested. But no parent can “bring down” the moon, thus highlighting the melancholy clash between a child’s vast imagination and simple human limitations. Second though, I think it creates another subtle image like out of the Addiss et al. translation: the parent looks up to the moon and contemplates its heavenly form, but the child cries out and brings the adults’ attention back down to earth. It’s a bit humorous then to have a child interrupt a lofty moon-viewing party by pointing out the impossibility of seizing the moon… no matter how much you may stare at it. To that end, I tried out “go” to express distance instead:

Go get me that

Red moon

Oh crying child

That still didn’t seem right, so I decided to shamelessly imitate the structure of Addiss et al. a bit further (or more charitably to myself, follow the word order in the original Japanese):

The red moon…

Go get it

Oh crying child

I liked the ellipsis better than the sharp dash in Addis et al. because it gave the moon image time to linger. But now that the child was no longer saying “red moon,” I felt that I could go back to the more poetic term “harvest moon.” Then, I decided to add in quotation marks and an exclamation to function as an interruption like the dash had done and give the kiddo some extra childish speech:

The harvest moon…

“Go gimme it!”

Oh crying child

I was about satisfied with this one, but I still don’t like the last line much. So I tried one last thing: I deleted the crying and replaced it with the sympathetic diminutive “oh kiddo…” to imitate my first impression of the scene (“gimme the moon!” “Oh kiddo…”). Then, I moved the ellipsis to “kiddo” so that the focus would linger on the child rather than the moon:

The harvest moon

“Go gimme it!”

Oh kiddo…

I’m no poet, but I’m pretty happy with this! The slangy language and pushy child make me giggle a little (I could imagine my parents or grandparents saying it to my younger brother on a still warm autumn night in their slightly southernish, mid-America dialects) while the melancholy last line hits at one of those awful, essential lessons of childhood: some things are impossible, regardless of the motivational platitudes society likes to shower on us. But then it’s also melancholy for the adult, who wants to provide the child everything but cannot. Or is it humorous again? Is the adult frustrated too, with an annoying, crying child? After all, the kid had just interrupted a perfectly good, quiet moon-viewing!

What do you think? Which translation do you like best? Did I do a good job with mine? Leave a comment, if you’d like!

4 thoughts on “Some translations of a Kobayashi Issa haiku on a child and the harvest moon

  1. First, about myself: My mother tongue is German. I studied English at university, but only as a supplementary subject to Sociology. During that time I’ve attended a poetry translation workshop (English to German) more often than needed for credits, because it was fun. That means I have some personal experience with translating poetry, but I’m no professional.

    I also took two semesters of Japanese, but my focus was more on acquiring knowledge of non-indoeuropean grammar for comparison, so I never bothered to actually become fluent. Most of my exposure to actual Japanese comes from supplied material (e.g. I have a little booklet that they use to teach Japanese in elementary school (?) in Japan), or movies and anime. So, I don’t really speak Japanese either.

    I, too, like the Addiss one best from those you quoted, but I think all your takes do something important, and that is react to the child. However, I’d personally prefer the moon to be inside the quotes, because of the grammatical cohesion. Structurally, it’s the difference between a 2/1 partition (which is how the read the original) and a 1/1/1 partition, which is how I read your translation. However, the grammatical connection is still there (antecedant for it) and I definitely see your point about the register of “harvest moon” if we put all that in one quote.

    But I do really like that you addressed the “kana”. This is where I personally have trouble reading the original. I had an intuitive reading of that third line (I gave up on the second line, which I don’t understand at all without research), and in my intuitive reading, no child is involved at all. It’s something like this:

    That Harvest Moon
    Give it to me!
    (I’m a crying child, aren’t I?) or (What a child I am!)

    But I’m not sure if that’s even a feasible interpretation. (Note that’s just me typing out I meaning I got, not a translation.)

    Basically, I read it as:

    Line 1: introduces image, turns it into grammatical object
    Line 2: Contextualises the moon as something someone (most likely the poet) wants to have
    Line 3: Reflects on that impulse.

    However, since I don’t really speak Japanese and have only limited experience with Haiku, I’m not sure whether that’s too sharp an angle or not, and whether the second line having no physical addressee even makes sense in the context of Haiku. And with no other translation even considering this possibility, I’m very doubtful how plausible that is. (It’s very hard to read poetry in a language you don’t speak but aren’t entirely unfamiliar with.)

    However, no matter the reading, it’s the child that gets the reaction particle, and yours is the only translation that pays attention to that, which I like. (I enjoy your poetry posts but usually have little to say.)

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    1. Wow, thanks a lot for the insight, your comments are always very good! It sounds like you have a lot more experience with poetry and translation than I do too; I am a total amateur.

      Anyway, yeah, I understand your point about the 2/1 partition with the indirect statement. It’s why I mentioned “to” as something like an informal cutting word, splitting the poem between a child’s voice and an adult’s. However, I maybe disagree a little about the importance of the literal grammar when thinking about partitions. After all, Issa put the formal cutting word “kana” at the end, making the whole poem one unbroken, coherent line!

      I think a 2/1 partition maybe requires reading the poem backwards. You’ve put the moon in quotes because you already know that the child says it with a view of the full statement, but with the Japanese word order, you don’t know about the quotation until the 12th beat! So reading the poem line-by-line, you end up with a structure sort of like a joke, with a set up, a subversion, and a punchline. This is how I outline my thoughts:

      Line 1: “Oh a classic autumn haiku image, but the moon is the grammatical object (を). What will happen to it?”
      Line 2: “Huh, that’s weird, demanding to take the moon? And it’s a quote (と); who says it?”
      Line 3: “Ah, a child, that makes sense!”

      Third-line cutting words like “kana” often imply a link back to the first line, so I like to imagine the adult looking back up to the moon after observing the child. In terms of voices then, I read the first line in a contemplative, adultish “haiku” voice, then the second line interrupts with the unexpected, childish imperative, and finally the third line returns back to that calm adult voice to observe the child and loop back around to contemplate the impossible distance of the moon again.

      On your other point, sure, I suppose you could interpret the poem as an observation of the self, like “Oh, I want the moon? Man, I’m such a crybaby…” But I think it would start to sound a bit like Margolis’s indulgent, “despairing” translation and lose a lot of its thematic depth. Like I wrote above, with an actual child speaking, and an adult responding, I can see about four symbiotic meanings in the poem: 1) serious – a child learns a lesson about human limitations 2) serious – an adult cannot provide everything to a beloved child 3) humorous – a child interrupts a contemplative moment 4) serious – that interruption has just as great contemplative value as the silent moon. I’m not a Buddhist, but that’s Zen right there!

      Poetry is all about imagination and interpretation though, so I dunno, I don’t think anyone can have a clear right or wrong answer. It’s a lot of fun to try though!

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    2. Ah, so “to” is a dialogue marker. I don’t even know that much Japanese, see? Now I can go into my partitioning point into more detail I think, without making an actual decision.

      The first indicator that the first line is a setup for a larger unit (a sentence?) is the line-final “o”, marking the moon as an object. Then, at the end of the second line we have a dialogue marker. What I was missing is this: it’s not closure since we’re still waiting for the information of “who said this?” (I’m not actually completely sure about this, since I don’t speak Japanese. A lot could be infered from context, so maybe it’s possible for a the dialogue marker “to” to stand alone, implying something like “someone”. This would be easy enough to research, but I’m lazy, so I’ll just assume this is not the case.)

      So in a sense, I was wrong, in the sense of basing things on unexamined assumption (and I’m still doing this actually – see my bracket comment, especially about me being lazy).

      Now, the Japanese version doesn’t use quotation marks (they’re those half-bracket thingies in Japanese, right? again not sure), so the question becomes: should we use them? Part of the question depends on how common it is to use quotation and in what context, so I can’t answer this, as I can’t read Japanese and thus have no experience.

      The other part is more directly related to translation philosophy. The relative effect between languages of using or leaving out quotation marks isn’t necessarily stable and the same. There are no quotation marks in the original, so we’re adding something that’s not there if we use them. On the other hand, if we leave them out we might be doing the same literal thing as the original, but it might have raised stylistic significance, compared to the original. If neither using nor leaving out quotation marks gives us the same effect (and this is very, very common in literary translation), then we’re forced to make a decision and we’ll be falling back on our translation philosophy: What do we pay attention to? Do we want the poem to read naturally, or do we want to create an alianation effect to facilitate cultural learning? There are a lot of potential questions here.

      If we do decide to use quotation marks, we have to decide where to put them. This is where – to me – grammar comes in: the sentence final “o” points forward, and I just can’t see inserting quotation marks after the object. But that’s predicated on me being an instinctual structuralist: i.e. for me structure precedes content. However, I do recognise that structure influences meaning.

      The sequence in which we encounter information has framing effects, and there’s a possibility that cultures have different tolerance levels for reframing information, or arrange these effects differently.

      Addiss, for example, chooses to put the quotation marks around the giving-line only, but keeps the line connection through the dash. In one of your version you replaced this through an ellipses. To me, this doesn’t have the same sense of connection, though. It’s a trailing-off effect, and what comes after this might as well be change of subject. It turns out it isn’t, because of the discourse-connective “it”, which refers back to the harvest moon. The quotation marks re-inforce this sense of sparation.

      Where in the original the two lines run together due to the object marker, there’s a sense of separation in the translations because of the quotation marks. The punctuation is ambiguous, and it’s my impression that the dash is a little more connective than the ellipses (because at times it functions like a colon; some traditions even use sentence intial dashes as quotation marks [I think I’ve seen that in Irish and French texts]).

      German has the opposite problem, btw. If I were to translate the first line the reader would know by the first word, the article, that whatever follows is an object. Articles inflect for case. (“Den roten Mond” – “The red moon (accusative)” vs. “Der rote Mond” (“The red moon (nominative)”). There is no time for the image to form before we learn its relation. It’s possible to step away from the grammar here and use the nominative (maybe even with the indefinite article, which would give the line a sense of surprise [“ein roter Mond!”]), but that’s a conscious decision to change the grammar. Again, whether you want to do that or not depends on your tranlation philosophy. And again neither translation really replicates the exact orignal partitioning with its framing effects in tact.

      So basically English has little trouble replicating the sequencing, but it’s hard to keep the object status of the moon in the first sentence (you’ll have a reframing effect in the second line). Meanwhile German naturally keeps the object-status of the moon, but that makes it hard to keep original sequencing.

      Japanese: Moon (image) – reframe as object
      English: Moon (image) (reframing doesn’t happen in the first line, though you can attempt to forshadow it with punctuation)
      German Article frames the moon as object from the get go

      None of these consideration are that worrysome in technical writing, where clarity is key. In prose this mostly not a problem, but it’s not rare to find authors playing with language in a way that’s untranslatable. In poetry, these framing and reframing effects are much more important, though, and that’s what makes things so interesting.

      I personally try to stick to the original as closely as possible, and only use personal interpretation where the language forces a choice. But you need to be very good at the source language for that approach to work, because simply sticking to the words is a recipee for disaster. Not to mention that anything you read is always already full of unacknowledged personal interpretation, which I don’t recognise as such because I don’t see any alternative.

      Ideally, a translation of mine would allow all the interpretations above (including the oddball one) with the same degree of plausibility as the Japanese original. In practise, this is nigh impossible. If the original has ambiguity, than so should the translation. Basically, I’d never personally come up with your translation, but that’s because of the way my mind works. I find your translation fun to read, and it would be a loss not to have it.

      Finally, I don’t think poetry and poetry translation has any need for gatekeepers, and your thoughts on the topic are every bit as interesting to read as those of many published translatiors. They’re easy to follow, too, which isn’t always the case with professionals, who sometimes get bogged down in detail. (I might have that habit myself, even if I’m not a professional. Heh.)

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    3. I think I may have overemphasized my commitment to “grammatical fidelity” with that fifth goal. I meant it more as a reaction against the — in my opinion — implausible excess of the Margolis translation. He makes “me” the object rather than “moon,” turns the imperative verb “get” into an undirected exclamation, and then makes cries the verb for “I” rather than “child,” which he deletes completely (and I think the child is the whole point of the poem!). Like sure, I guess you *can* interpret the poem like that… but I don’t know if you *should*. I don’t think that the original Japanese is nearly so ambiguous as Margolis implies.

      I’m probably more concerned with the thoughts behind the grammar than the literal grammar itself. Or, like you said, I would prefer to preserve the sequence of the content:

      Japanese: “Moon” with an を object marker → Japanese goes object to verb, so what verb comes next?
      English: “Moon” as a subject → English goes subject to verb, so what verb comes next?

      Japanese: the ろ ending is the bluntest, least polite imperative form in Japanese → strong, maybe childish, interrupting demand
      English: “Go gimme” plus the exclamation is blunt, impolite slang → strong, maybe childish, interrupting demand.

      Japanese: と as an indirect quotation → who said it?
      English: Quotations marks → who said it?

      Japanese: Ah, a crying child → the answer
      English: Ah, a sympathetic diminutive with “kiddo” (and the exclamation point hopefully further implies the crying) → the answer

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