Lost in Translation: Are We Butchering Haiku?

April 17, 2024 | 5 min read
The venerable Japanese poetic form of haiku has captivated minds and hearts for centuries. With its succinct structure and simplicity, haiku has become a cherished art form celebrated worldwide for its ability to encapsulate profound emotions within fleeting moments.

However, as haiku finds its way into the English language (and others), it encounters challenges that threaten to dilute its essence and distort its beauty. So we went on a deep dive to answer the question:

Is the English language inadvertently butchering haiku, robbing it of its authenticity and depth?

 

Haiku traces its origins back to 17th century Japan, when it evolved from the earlier poetic form known as hokku, which was the opening stanza of a collaborative linked-verse form called renga. It was Matsuo Bashō, one of the most famous Japanese poets of all time, who elevated hokku to an independent art form.

Bashō's hokku were characterized by their simplicity, brevity, and focus on capturing a fleeting moment in nature. One of Bashō's most famous poems is "The Old Pond" (or "The Ancient Pond," depending on your translation).

 

It was Japanese poet and literary critic Masaoka Shiki who first used the term haiku in the 19th century to describe this standalone poetic form originally popularized by Bashō.

Around this time, haiku gained widespread popularity, leading to various schools of haiku composition with differing styles and philosophies. This is when themes of haiku expanded beyond nature to encompass everyday life, emotions, and human experiences.

Haiku also made its way to other parts of the world, influencing poets like Ezra Pound, Jack Kerouac, and the Imagism movement. Over time, haiku has become a globally recognized artform, appreciated for its simplicity, vivid imagery, and ability to evoke profound emotions in just a few words.

At the heart of haiku lies its unique structure, which is often taught to English-speakers as: three lines, typically consisting of 5, 7, and 5 syllables, respectively. But there's a problem. This isn't what makes a haiku.

In fact, "syllables" isn't a faithful interpretation of the component of language that guides haiku structure in Japanese. In other words: we English speakers have been doing it all wrong.

 

Virtually all English-speaking schoolchildren have been introduced to haiku, often while first learning about syllables or poetry, and have struggled through the difficulty of creating a poem that follows the strict 5-7-5 pattern.

But that pattern has been called, by some scholars, "an urban myth."

More accurately, it is an inadequate adaptation of how haiku is structured in Japanese. As Professor Haruo Shirane says in the introduction of Kōji Kawamoto’s The Poetics of Japanese Verse, “the term syllable is an inaccurate way of describing the actual metrical units of Japanese poetry."

That's because syllables, as we know them in English, do not exist in Japanese. (In fact, some scholars argue they don't exist in English, either! But that's a different topic.)

In Japanese, the structure of haiku aligns harmoniously with the rhythm and cadence of the "sounds" or "beats" of the language, allowing for a seamless fusion of form and content. When translated into English, this harmony is often lost, as the constraints of the original Japanese do not neatly correspond to English syllable patterns. (To put it simply: each Japanese character is kind of like what we would think of as a consonant-vowel pair, making their words much denser. For this reason, Japanese readers are often shocked by how long English haiku are!)

Perhaps even more problematic, the cultural context surrounding haiku is often overlooked or misunderstood in English haiku. Haiku traditionally draws inspiration from nature and the seasons, focusing on the profound connection between the human experience and the natural world.

In fourth grade, you probably didn't learn that traditional Japanese haiku also often includes a "season word" (known as kigo in Japanese) and a kireji, literally "cutting word," or a word that completes an expression quickly. (Examples in English include "Ah!" and the em dash —.)

Perhaps most importantly of all is the imagery. Haiku is intended to evoke a certain moment in time and space, as well as a specific emotion far greater than the small passage on the page.

In English-language haiku, all these components beyond syllables are often used superficially — or are absent altogether.

Does this mean English-language haiku is a mere imitation devoid of the soulful resonance that defines the artform?

 

 

Around the turn of the 20th century, Masaoka Shiki was a big proponent of bringing haiku into the modern age. He recommended modern themes and language that weren't found in conventional haiku, and some of his work reflects that, including haiku written about baseball when the sport first spread to Japan. 

“Shiki brought innovation to haiku and established the poetic form as modern literature," according to the Public Relations Office of the Government of Japan. And indeed not everyone agreed with this modernization of a traditional Japanese artform over the decades.

A discussion of haiku would not be complete without acknowledging a painful point in its history: during World War II, when the Japanese government was using art to promote nationalism and support for the war effort, haiku poets who used their poetry to express dissent faced censorship and even arrest.

The government utilized its extensive surveillance and propaganda network to monitor artistic output and suppress dissenting voices, mainly targeting poets in the "New Rising Haiku" movement (shinkô haiku undô), who were attempting to write non-traditional haiku addressing new topics related to contemporary life, like social inequality.

After the war, gendai haiku (modern haiku) evolved into a popular movement, inspired by the ideals of the New Risking Haiku poets, while many still practice classical haiku. This transition into the modern world is yet another topic that would require a whole separate essay to delve into, but the point is this:

A tension between traditional and modern haiku has always existed. So, as outsiders, how should we approach this tension?

In his essay "Beyond the Haiku Moment," Professor Haruo Shirane presents it like this:

“What would Bashō and Buson say if they were alive today and could read English and could read haiku written by North American poets? ... I think that they would be delighted… They would be impressed with the wide variety… however, they would also be struck, as I have been, by the narrow definitions of haiku found in haiku handbooks, magazines, and anthologies.”

The adaptation of haiku into English is certainly not clear-cut, and it's important to recognize that while the English language has undoubtedly embraced haiku with enthusiasm and admiration, its attempts to translate and adapt this venerable poetic form have not always been successful.

But that doesn't mean we shouldn't try.

 

Way back in February 1904, Japanese writer Yone Noguchi published "A Proposal to American Poets," in The Reader Magazine,in which he outlined his own English haiku efforts, and ending with:

"Pray, you try Japanese Hokku, my American poets! You say far too much, I should say."

(He also famously told William Butler Yeats to try his hand at the classic Japanese theater form Noh. Again, a topic for another day.) 

Whether a true invitation or not, poets around the globe continue to explore and appreciate the beauty of haiku in all languages. As we do, it is essential to approach this ancient art form with humility and respect for its rich history.

Only then can we truly appreciate the timeless beauty of haiku.

--

 

Annie Cosby is the Marketing Manager at Freewrite, a former fiction editor, and the author of seven books — and counting. Her work deals with Celtic mythology and has twice won the YA Indie Author Project in Missouri. See what she's writing on Freewrite.

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There’s an age-old debate about the superior version of a story: Is it the book or the movie? Most readers and far too many writers will default to the idea that “the book was better.”

But was it? Was it really?

May 20, 2024 9 min read


Talking to Alex Kazemi doesn’t feel like talking to the guy who wrote 2023’s “most dangerous book of the year,” a book Ellen Hopkins calls “raucous, raunchy, and sure to offend.” And it certainly doesn’t feel like talking to Bret Easton Ellis’s “favorite millennial provocateur.”

It feels like talking to a friend I haven’t caught up with in a while. And my friends just aren’t that cool.


We’re chatting because Kazemi lives a ruthlessly offline lifestyle, a philosophy at the core of Freewrite and which Kazemi sees as necessary to being the best artist he can be. Having garnered a book deal at the tender age of 18, he knows a thing or two about life as an artist.

Kazemi released his first book, Pop Magick, an occult book about how to manifest, in 2020. “Madonna helped me launch that,” he says, casually mentioning one of the biggest pop stars of the twentieth century. “So, yeah, that was insane.”

But it wasn’t until the release of his first novel, New Millennium Boyz, nearly a decade in the making, that things got truly wild.

Kazemi’s unflinching look at Y2K culture and teenage boyhood reads like a horrifying screenplay — or the transcript of a violent AIM conversation between bored, lonely teenagers. Even before publication, the book faced criticism calling it dangerous, prompting the publisher to splash a content warning across the front matter, to Kazemi's extreme annoyance. Conservative American moms later flagged it for book bans, leaving the Canadian author baffled.

Was an honest look at the 90s and early ’aughts really worth all that uproar?

We sat down with Kazemi to discuss the driving force behind his portrayal of this often-glamorized time period, why he felt compelled to present this reality to modern audiences, and how in the world he lives an offline lifestyle in the year 2024.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

 

 Mirror selfies without a smartphone

ANNIE COSBY: First things first. Are you a millennial?

ALEX KAZEMI: Yes. I was born in 1994, which means I’m on the cusp. I do not identify with any Zoomer qualities or tendencies at all.

COSBY: In general cultural discourse, millennials tend to get a bad rap – very infantilizing, even though some of us are 40. What's your take?

KAZEMI: I think it's pretty insane because we were dealt a really bad card, with the recession, jobs being lost, the digital age booming… Many of us still have memories of going to Blockbuster and, you know, AOL chat rooms and the early web. But then we watched everything go chronically online and digital through the 2010s. We watched technology and the information age replace a lot of skillsets. So we became a weird bunch, for sure.


COSBY: I do find it interesting that people glamorize that period specifically because it was the beginning of everything being online — so everybody's mistakes and drunken pictures are out there.

KAZEMI: Right? And we did it willingly.

COSBY: Oh God, the things I said to strange men in chat rooms.

KAZEMI: Me as well. And it’s so, so dark, because the internet has always been and will always be, even as we're adults and growing older, a mirror of our subconscious vomit. The frequencies we vibrated to when we were coming of age were more about exploration, and that's why there was so much stranger danger. There were so many scary scenarios that kids could get themselves into with the early web because of how unregulated it was, as well.

COSBY: Would you say New Millennium Boyz is a defense of the way we Millennials are? Or is it a commentary on how misremembered that era is?

KAZEMI: It's definitely a commentary. And it's supposed to be historical fiction, educating younger folks and also older generations about how, you know, this beautiful picture that you see of Rachael Leigh Cook from She's All That on TikTok? There was actually a lot of darkness and chaos going around, especially when it comes to very normalized racism, misogyny, and homophobia.

 

 

I find it very ironic that this new generation that is so fixated on social justice and evolution and freedom would fetishize the aesthetics of an era of true debauchery and chaos and cruelty — like really — which was mirrored in the art in that period. Look at 2000s teen movies! I just wanted to write a satire of that extreme teen genre, like Catherine Hardwicke's Thirteen, Larry Clark's Bully, Spring Breakers...

My second motivation was to really look at boy culture in the post-Columbine era and how this was very much a prescient, predictive time of where we would end up with the alt-right and 4chan and “incels,” and how it's all connected.

And then of course exploring the romanticized aspect of Y2K — going to the mall, people wearing Marilyn Manson shirts, and the aesthetic obsession with it. I wanted to create the book I wanted to see in the world that I didn't feel existed yet.

COSBY: I’ve heard you talk about the misogyny of the “teen girls are bitches” trope. It's like, have you met boys? Have you been a teen boy talking to other teen boys?

KAZEMI: Oh, they're the biggest bitches. They're so cruel. You see the “mean girls” trope in tons of movies, like Jawbreaker, but it’s so strange how we don't ever look at the cruelty teenage boys face. And not just the cruelty but also the misguidedness and the culture that feeds that.

Especially in the 90s and 2000s, boys were so encouraged to be testosterone-driven and hyper-masculine. Woodstock 99 was such a great example of the chaos of too much of something – and it’s being talked about now because of the documentary.

COSBY: New Millennium Boyz really explores this violence inherent to 90s culture for boys, and because of that, it got a content warning, right?

KAZEMI: Yes. During the final cuts of the book, when we were in edits and copy edits, I got the call from my publisher that “So-and-So is not going to stock it without a content warning because they're really worried about how teenagers are going to react to the work and if they're going to reenact the behavior.”

And I was like, this is a cultural critique. It's not anything to be glamorized. I think anyone who reads it would understand that.

COSBY: Do you think we as humans always look back on past time periods with rose-colored glasses, or is there something special about Y2K?

KAZEMI: There's something really freaky about what we're doing with the 90s and 2000s. I don't think we've ever before been in a place, as humans, where corporations like Meta and TikTok can just algorithmically feed into us all the time.

A teenager in the 90s could fetishize the 70s or the 60s, but they could close the book when it was done or finish the movie and turn off the TV. But with Gen Z, and every generation now, we're just inundated every day with memes, photos, videos, and other people’s thoughts.

And I guess this 90s nostalgia is partly because it represents familiarity for people of a certain age, but even for the people who didn't live during that time, it seems to represent a kind of order, a sense of quietness — “Oh, 90210 is on at 9 p.m. and that's all there is.” No choices to make. There weren’t one billion options like kids today have.

COSBY: So you think people are viewing that period as a time of simplicity and unplugging, which we’re all kind of yearning for now?

KAZEMI: Yeah, and you certainly could unplug then, but you can unplug today, too — we're just brainwashed into thinking that we have no choice, that we have no free will. But it's totally not true. You could simulate Y2K if you wanted to! You just have to set a lot of boundaries.

COSBY: Like writing on a Freewrite.

KAZEMI: Yes! That’s why I write offline. Over the years, I’ve had different cool ways to do that. For a lot of my teenage years, I wrote in Apple Notes. Then, I ordered a BlackBerry off eBay and used it as a word processor for a while. I have a dead AlphaSmart here — rest in peace.

I feel like what's so crazy about Freewrite is a lot of people don't know that these products exist, which is a problem.

COSBY: It's also super polarizing. Without even trying it, some people are like, “What is this hipster thing?” Meanwhile, we get so many messages from new users saying, “What is this magic? I'm actually writing for the first time in years!” It's really interesting to see people's reactions. Tech is such a weirdly touchy subject.

KAZEMI: And a Freewrite is way better than a typewriter. I'm not fucking doing the ribbon, there's no time for that.

COSBY: Some people do though, right? Aren’t you friends with Matty Healy?

KAZEMI: Yes, yes. I told him about Freewrite. I love his songwriting. I love the 1975's lyrics. I love him as a literary mind.

COSBY: Alex. [heavy pause] Is he the one being referenced in the song?

KAZEMI: [rolls eyes] Honestly, I'm not really interested in all the gossip. I don't think great artists should be reduced to that.

COSBY: OK, that's fair. I think they're both great storytellers, too. And it would be so hard to live a creative life under that kind of microscope. On that note, your offline approach to life goes beyond writing, right? How does that work?

KAZEMI: Well, it definitely includes a lot of conscious boundaries that annoy a lot of people.

I’ve had a flip phone for a few years now, and I have a landline. When it comes to the internet and iMessage and emails, I try to do regulated “office hours” of screen time.

It's a very privileged position to be in, because a lot of people have to be on call all the time for work. But being disconnected definitely gives me more time for my mind to be free and creative and to write more.

COSBY: And this annoys people?

KAZEMI: Yeah, it drives everyone insane. It's a huge boundary I put in my life. People have to go through loopholes to contact me. But it's the only way that I can have a life as an artist and as a writer.

All of this technology can be a tool. There's nothing inherently bad with the tools that exist on the Internet. It's just the compulsivity and the addictive mentality we have with it that creates this chaos for us as writers and artists.

COSBY: You've mentioned being on Tumblr before, back in the day — are you on social media now?

KAZEMI: No, I'm not. Sometimes I have to look at it on friends' phones to get a person's email or something like that, but no, I don't have social media. It's so scary, the pressure of having to perform or turn my most personally valuable things into currency — to monetize it. It just feels weird. I'm not into it. I'm not into it.

And when you're online so much, you're like, “I don't have to be doing this. Why am I doing this?” That's where that punishing feeling of addiction comes in. A lot of us, when we are in those spirals, we don't even really even want to be there. There isn't a sense of agency or control.

It's a loss of control.

And I think that submission of when you are looking at other people's work, what they’re doing, and you're scrolling, scrolling, it just creates a huge sense of inadequacy and darkness.

COSBY: It's interesting to me because time goes so much faster when I’m scrolling — and I feel the same way when I get really into something I'm writing.

KAZEMI: Like a flow state.

COSBY: Exactly! It’s complete absorption. But scrolling doesn’t make me feel good after, the way creating does.

KAZEMI: It’s like a black market, counterfeit flow state. A heroin flow state.


So I guess the question is: How can we induce positive, offline flow states?

COSBY: Isn't that the question. How do you do it?

KAZEMI: I find that just setting boundaries is so important. You have free will over your boundaries. This idea that we have no sense of agency and have to give all of our energy and life force to these corporations zapping us is just so crazy and unfair.

But when you bring up these things to certain people, they can't even fathom living without their online habits.

COSBY: Yeah, it has to be a conscious choice.

KAZEMI: You have to ask yourself:

"OK, am I going to just sublimate myself to be a consumer of everyone else's content? Or am I going to be a creator and produce?”

COSBY: Most of us know which one we want to be.

KAZEMI: You have to know which one you want to be.

COSBY: Any last words for the creators out there?

KAZEMI: For creators and artists and writers who are overwhelmed by information overload and the prospect of putting your work out there, just know there is an audience for your work. Just stay focused and don't be discouraged. You’ll find your place in the weird world.

--

Annie Cosby is the Marketing Manager at Freewrite, a former fiction editor, and the author of seven books — and counting. Her work deals with Celtic mythology and has twice won the YA Indie Author Project in Missouri. See what she's writing on Freewrite.

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