Haiku are short, unrhymed Japanese poems that portray a moment in the ordinary lives of nonhuman animals and plants in their native environment, thus giving them intrinsic value.
Each haiku names either the season or a typical nonhuman animal or plant of that particular season, such as crocus (spring) or deer (fall).
Haiku may also include a meaningless syllable like keri, ya or zo for emphasis.
As these syllables cannot be translated, they are represented by a dash, or by words like ah or behold.
Haiku consist of 17 syllables, following the pattern of five seven five. What are syllables?
Every time your jaw drops when pronouncing a word, you count one syllable.
Syllable, for example, has three syllables: syl-la-ble.
Hai-ku has two syllables in English but three in Japanese because i is pronounced separately: ha-i-ku. In Japanese, the vowels a, i, u, e, o are either pronounced separately or combined with a consonant like k, n, and r into
ka, ki, ku, ke, ko;
na, ni, nu, ne, no; and
ra, ri, ru, re, ro.
Now let's look at a poem by Matsuo Basho* (1644-1694), one of the greatest haiku poets:
kirishigure (five syllables: ki-ri-shi-gu-re)
fuji o minu hi zo (seven syllables: fu-ji-o-mi-nu-hi-zo)
omoshiroki (five syllables: o-mo-shi-ro-ki)
Here is a translation by American translator Hart Larrabee:
Mist and drizzle (four syllables)
Fuji hidden all day- (six syllables)
How delightful! (four syllables)
In contrast to the original, the translation contains more words but fewer syllables. This is because Japanese syllables are very short, while English syllables are variable: mist, driz-zle, de-light-ful.
So following the pattern of five seven five would have made the English version even wordier.
Now, dear Reader, it's your turn. Go out into nature and describe what you see. Can you come up with any English haiku?
*In Japanese, Basho is pronounced with a long o.n
Dr. Daniela Ribitsch originally comes from Graz, Austria. She has lived in the United States since 2009 and teaches German at Lycoming College in Williamsport. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.