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Richard Walker

Issa's Autumn Haiku

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There's a haiku, I think by Issa, that means approximately

Autumn's arrived—
Just hearing that
I'm cold already.

A memorable thought.

It's been translated into several (more likely many) languages and I wondred how it turned out in French. I was surprised: in one translation I read the poet felt old already, not cold. But old makes perfect sense.

So who is right, or neither? I don't know Japanese, so I turned to Google translate. The Japanese is

aki tatsu to iu bakari demo
samusa kana

Google gives

autumn... stand ..when... say... only... but... cold... wonder (or feel)

So it looks like the English version is more accurate.

Why is the French different then? My theory is that the translator did not go Japanese -> French but Japanese -> English -> French, and either decided 'old' was better poetry, or just typed 'cold' as 'old' by mistake.

Going through an intermediate (I think it's called 'vehicular') language is very common, in fact it's the basis of most translation. If (say) a news report originates in Tamil and is broadcast on Faroese TV it's unlikely anyone who speaks both languages is involved. It was first translated into English, then from into Farosese.

Incidentally the haiku reminds me a bit of those psychological experiments where half the participants were exposed to words associated with youth and vigor and the other half to words associated with age and decrepitude. The researchers (as psychological researchers tend to) gave the participants an explanation of the experiment (for example that they were testing word recall) that concealed the real investigation, which was to find out if hearing words about old age makes you act more like someone old.

And it does. Although the age profile of each group was the same, as the subjects left the room where the dummy experiment had been held, experimenters surreptitiously measured how long it took them to exit the building. The group exposed to words to do with old aged moved significantly slower.

It probably works with cold as well. Try this

Frozen, icy, frigid, winter, hail, cold, wind, glacial, blizzard, frost, snow, skating, chilblains, sleet

You might not consciously feel chilly but if you went to the shops now you'd be more likely to put a coat on!

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Yup, reaching for the heating button alreadybig grin

Maria Grazia Inserillo

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Hello Richard, 

I have asked my sister who is currently studying Japanese and her response was that the English version is more accurate. 

The original haiku in Japanese is 


The last word is 寒かな where the kanji 寒 means cold


P.S. I always read your posts by the way 

Richard Walker

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Thanks for your sister's help and for posting the Japanese original. I always like looking at these characters because I am a lover of calligraphy in all languages. I wonder if Google translate will work with the Japanese characters as well, I'll try it.

Maria Grazia Inserillo

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It should work with the original characters as well smile 


秋立といふばかりでも寒かな aki tatsu to iu bakari demo samusa kana autumn's begun just saying it I feel cold Issa Trans.David G. Lanoue 'Autumn's begun'...aki tatsu Saying it in Japanese sounds like a sneeze...saying words like ice, icicle, snow etc.in English can make a person shiver too. I believe Issa was telling us this. So much of the meaning is lost in English...I believe it's a great play on words... I applaud your commentary Richard! warm regards Brendon
Richard Walker

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Oh many thanks Brendon, it's so helpful to understand the play on words, which I wouldn't have seen at all on my own!