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:


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:

Continue reading “Some translations of a Kobayashi Issa haiku on a child and the harvest moon”

How to read Leopardi? No, seriously, I’m asking! The paradox of choice in translation

Who’s that clever boy?
Image source: Wikipedia

[I am not a scholar or anything close… instead just a confused consumer trying to read the 19th century Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi in English and finding that it is much harder to choose a translation than I ever expected. But, I hope this post can maybe function as an un-academic bibliography of Leopardi translations, and for my own purposes, a purchase guide for leisure reading.]

Have you heard of the paradox of choice? The concept comes from the 2004 book The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less by psychologist Barry Schwartz, who popularized the idea among casual audiences with this 2005 TED Talk. It proposes the counter-intuitive behavioral economics hypothesis that consumer welfare might decrease when the market presents them with too many similar products because the costs of choosing the utility-maximizing option between those products will increase.

…or to eliminate the economics jargon and talk like a normal person, trying to pick the perfect product out of dozens can become stressful, especially for anxious people with what Schwartz calls “maximizer” personalities who fixate on ideals and feel prone to regretting their choices.

Of course, the concept has faced some substantial criticism by economists and the early experimental results have failed to replicate like so many other psychological studies popularized by TED (and then even if it did replicate, I’m not sure how much choosing between 6 jams or 24 can tell us about more serious decisions like purchasing a car or health insurance plan).

However, despite the weakness of the empirical results, I think Schwartz does propose a subtle insight that can apply to our most complex, difficult choices: in economics jargon, taking the time to consider the opportunity costs of a complex decision itself carries an opportunity cost. And in ordinary language again… instead of agonizing over a tough choice by trying to find the best one, you could just make a quick pick and go on to enjoy your day (the easy-going “satisfier” personality type identified by Schwartz).

Simple everyday experience can probably provide better examples of the idea than any experiment every could. Most grocery shoppers won’t worry much about grabbing one of the 175 varieties of salad dressing mentioned in Schwartz’s TED Talk, but they might have trouble choosing which of the 80 Vanguard ETFs they should invest in when planning for their retirement (if they’ve even settled on Vanguard out of dozens of investment companies!). Or to use an example from my own life abroad in Japan, I spent hours researching different remittance options to send money back home to America. But when I finally committed to one, I regretted my choice within a few weeks after I discovered that I could have saved money with a different company. It was the paradox of choice in action: the large number of complex options confused me, and when that confusion produced a suboptimal decision, my nagging “maximizer” personality dragged on my guilty conscience.

For the purposes of this post though, I have a much more trivial example of the paradox: which of the 40-some editions of Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi’s translated works should I read in the office between class periods? The question sounds simple, but then my “maximizer” personality strikes again; I’ve spent the last week reading about how to read Leopardi …instead of, you know, actually reading him. And then as I re-read this post before I hit “publish,” I can’t help but wonder if all of that choice hasn’t driven me insane…

Continue reading “How to read Leopardi? No, seriously, I’m asking! The paradox of choice in translation”