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haiku commentary - Kaneko Tohta

猪がきて空気を食べる春の峠

     a wild boar
     comes and eats air
     spring mountain path

          — Kaneko Tohta, Selected Haiku With Notes and Commentary Part 2:1961-2012, translated by the Kon Nichi Translation Group (Red Moon Press, 2012)

The translation of poetry has to be one of the most challenging arts. How can someone translate words, syntax, sound, rhythm and connotation from one language to another and be sure of achieving something comparable to the original author’s intention? How does the translator balance commitment to the original text with the necessity of creating poetic effect in the translated one?

I am not a translator. And while my reasonable grasp of French and Spanish might help me produce a passable English translation of a short poem in either of those languages, all other languages are beyond my reach. So it’s the translation of Kaneko Tohta’s haiku that I must respond to.


I appreciate the overall scene the haiku conjures but I’m less satisfied with a close reading: the word choice and syntax.

The second line is staccato: it lacks the more natural rhythm of, say, ‘comes and eats the air’. Although ‘comes and eats’ feels rather prosaic too: is the addition of ‘comes’ adding anything? Would a different verb more effectively communicate the writer’s intention?

And ‘spring mountain path’ feels overly compressed. I appreciate that haiku is a poetry of distillation but, for me, the last line attempts to pack in too much of a seasonal punch and I find myself struggling to ‘imagine’ that mountain path in spring. What’s the weather like? What plants might be there? Is it warm/chilly?

So please forgive me for what I’m about to do, Kaneto Tohta and the Kon Nichi Translation Group.

mountain path
a wild boar eats
the spring air



But now I can taste the air with the wild boar on the side of that mountain. And isn’t that what we all want to do? Enter a poem and be a part of it? 

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