Vanessa Hu on translating Kobayashi Issa

Vanessa Hu


on translating Kobayashi Issa


At first glance, you may notice that I prioritized expressing the haiku’s overall succinctness over the strict five-seven-five syllable pattern. Moreover, I tussled with grammar and vocabulary ambiguities in these poems, as well as the features of traditional haiku: one, the kigo 季語, a seasonal phrase; and two, the kireji 切れ字, to convey emphasis, contrast, or other nuances.

In the first haiku, the ya kireji juxtaposes two elements, and I chose to use a colon, rather than a dash or emphatic “oh!” to preserve the gentleness of the contemplation. I also considered why first snowfalls were yo ni aru / hito no koto, or “living people’s business.” Perhaps it’s not just because we like to measure the natural world through human-made joys and concerns, from postcard scenes to snow-shoveling woes, but also because we simply must exist alongside such markers of passing time. So, I chose “matter” to translate koto (“business”) to imply this obligatory quality and “mortal” rather than “living” being because, to me, a first snowfall emphasizes that impermanence.

In the second, I took some creative liberty to add “how” and “in dance” to provide continuous grammatical structure, and rhymed “whirl” and “twirl” for a similar effect as the reduplicative phrase kuru-kuru (“spinning”). Moreover, I chose “amongst” over “among” since its s matches the s in dance and f in drifting; they convey a whispery lull as a small kitty plays serenely in after-autumn leaves.

Finally, in the third haiku, I tackled the kigo tama arare, or “graupel” (which is essentially smaller hail). Since graupel isn’t well-known, I took inspiration from tama (“bead, gem”) and translated the kigo as “pearls of hail.” I selected the indefinite “a” and not “the” for the nightjar, to highlight mystery and melancholy. I imagine this scene as after a chilly storm — where an unnamed little bird, with a warm sigh of relief, takes to the lemon-lit moon cushioned atop bluish treescapes — as tiny pearls dot its wings and trace its flight-path home.

about the author

History remembers 小林一茶 Kobayashi Issa (1763–1827) as one of the four Great Haiku Poets of Japan, following the most-known Matsuo Basho of the seventeenth century. With his name registered as Nobuyuki, Issa was his pen name, meaning “a cup of tea” and gained him recognition for writing over twenty-thousand haiku, creating accompanying art, and other works like haibun (a mix of prose and haiku) and renga (collaborative linked verse). Issa’s life was quite sorrowful despite his popularity at the time, and he endured the deaths of his first wife and three children, as well as frequent economic instability.

The sheer simplicity, blunt humor, and ordinary subject matter of Issa’s works contrast the more ceremonious character of traditional, Basho-style haiku. Issa often wrote about nature’s tiniest inhabitants: cats, birds, and even mosquitoes, touching upon empathy, loneliness, and the human condition. This search for understanding in the smallest parts of our universe is something that struck me with warmth and nostalgia — like finishing the last sip of a cup of tea.

about the translator

Vanessa is a rising sophomore studying computer science and Ethnicity, Migration and Rights at Harvard University who has studied Japanese for over two years. She is an aspiring techie and “when-I-have-free-time" writer, finding comfort in vignettes, haikus, and other minute forms. She was inspired to translate poetry after buying a Japanese haiku collection translated into Mandarin. Vanessa spent her quarantine in the NJ suburbs drinking lattes, learning to dance, and overthinking a tad too much. You can find more haiku translations at her site here.