[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:
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
childDavid 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.
that harvest moon”
cries the childUncredited 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 MoonTakashi 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 childChris 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 childAddiss 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 moonEric 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 begsThe 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:
- A specific autumn imagine, i.e. the red or orange harvest moon
- 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.
- Humor-ish child-speak for the child’s voice, for example “gimme” or calling the harvest moon “red moon” like in Lanoue’s
- An image of reaching or striving across an impossible distance, like with Drake’s “reach up”
- 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
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!”
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!