Frogs – Basho’s Many English Frogs

imageMatsuo Bashō (1644 – 1694), was the most famous poet of the Edo period in Japan and is still renowned as perhaps Japan’s most popular poet. Today he is recognized as the greatest master of haiku (then called hokku). And his most famous haiku, probably the most famous poem in Japan, is his brief poem about the frog jumping into the water of an old pond. It has the same iconic status in Japanese poetry as William Carlos Williams’ red wheelbarrow has in American poetry, William Wordworth’s daffodils has in English poetry and William Butler Yeats’s Lake Isle of Innisfree has in Irish poetry.

Basho’s frog haiku is almost definitely the most famous haiku ever composed. Here is the poem in the original Japanese:

(Kanji)
古池や蛙飛こむ水のおと

(Hiragana)
ふるいけやかわずとびこむみずのおと

(Romaji)
Furuike ya kawazu tobikomu mizu no oto

And here is a literal translation:

Fu-ru (old) i-ke (pond) ya, ka-wa-zu (frog) to-bi-ko-mu (jumping into) mi-zu (water) no o-to (sound)

This haiku, by Basho, was said to have occurred when Basho’s Zen master, Boncho, was visiting him. According to legend, the master had asked Basho a koan-like question (meaning a riddle with no answer) and Basho, instead of searching for an answer, replied with “a frog jumps into, the sound of water.” This may be true as Basho was living, at that time, in a cottage-hut his students had built for him on the marshy ground at the edge of what is now Tokyo. So he was living in an area with plenty of frogs.

The first line is a simple setting of the scene -“The old pond.” A frog appears, suggesting twilight. To the Japanese, frogs are pleasant little creatures, full of energy and activity. It jumps in the pond and creates a sound. The word “oto” is onomatopoeic. It is interesting to see various Western attempts to translate this word and sound. There is “splash” (used by six of the translators below: Jozy Big Mountain, Lucien Stryk, Eli Siegel, Peter Beilenson, Dion O’Donnol and Cid Corman); there is “plop” (used by four: Alan Watts, Peter Beilenson, James Kirkup and Harold Stewart); there is “plash” (used by Clare Nikt); there is “plunks” (used by Dick Batten); then there is my favourite, “kerplunk!” (used by Allen Ginsberg).

I tried to translate the poem myself but, knowing no Japanese and not having the brevity associated both with the haiku and with the poems on this post, it morphed into a sonnet.

Basho’s Frog

That day a dark vermillion sky,
like a Turner water-colour, was seen
reflected in an old pond where, nearby,
the poet Basho watched a small, unclean
and speckled frog jump in the evening air
and meet the water with a gentle plop,
an almost soundless splash, a plash near where
the other sounds of twilight seemed to stop
as Basho, without writing, memorised
that gentle movement and, with a sad smile,
acknowledged to himself he had devised
a way to turn a frog into a style.
So: this is my version of Basho’s frog.
Go: post your comments on my briefpoems blog.

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ENGLISH TRANSLATIONS

Old pond – frogs jumped in – sound of water.

Lafcadio Hearn

***

The old pond;
A frog jumps in —
The sound of the water.

R. H. Blyth

***

An old pond —
The sound
Of a diving frog.

Kenneth Rexroth

***

Pond, there, still and old!
A frog has jumped from the shore.
The splash can be heard.

Eli Siegel

***

The old pond, yes, and
A frog-jumping-in-the-
Water’s noise!

G. S. Fraser

***

The old pond, aye! And the sound of a frog leaping into the water.

Basil Hall Chamberlain

***

An old pond
A frog jumps in —
Sound of water.

Geoffrey Bownas and Anthony Thwaite

***

old pond
frog leaping
splash

Cid Corman

***

The silent old pond
a mirror of ancient calm,
a frog-leaps-in splash.

Dion O’Donnol

***

The old pond,
A frog jumps in:
Plop!

Alan Watts

***

The old pond
A frog jumped in,
Kerplunk!

Allen Ginsberg

***

Listen! a frog
Jumping into the stillness
Of an ancient pond!

Dorothy Brittan

***

Old pond,
Young frog.
Splash!

Jozy Big Mountain

***

The old green pond is silent; here the hop
Of a frog plumbs the evening stillness: plop!

Harold Stewart

***

Old pond
leap — splash
a frog.

Lucien Stryk

***

The old pond —
a frog jumps in,
sound of water.

Robert Hass

***

OLD DARK SLEEPY POOL. . .
QUICK UNEXPECTED
FROG
GOES PLOP! WATER SPLASH

Peter Beilenson

***

dark old pond
:
a frog plunks in

Dick Batten

***

Hear the lively song
of the frog in
BrrrBrrrBrrptyBrrrBrrrrrrrrrrIp
Plash!

Clare Nikt

***

pond
frog
plop!

James Kirkup

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LINKS

A Contrarian View of Basho’s Frog

Jane Reichhold discusses the poem on her website.

Dan King gives his response to the poem

Chen-ou Liu discusses the poem.

David Landis Barnhill discusses the poem.

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4 thoughts on “Frogs – Basho’s Many English Frogs

  1. I forget who said it, but the best translation I have read is to the effect:
    The ancient pond = Universal Mind or Consciousness, still and calm;
    The frog jumps = ‘I’, that is Basho as an aware individual and not an egocentric person;
    The splash is heard = the Primordial Vibration, termed Aum or Om in Buddhist circles
    Love It

    Like

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