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:



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, winter 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 wry 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.




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


old pond
a frog jumps into
the sound of water

Jane Reichhold


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

Geoffrey Bownas and Anthony Thwaite


old pond
frog leaping

Cid Corman


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

Dion O’Donnol


ancient is the pond —
suddenly a frog leaps — now!
the water echoes

Tim Chilcott


The old pond,
A frog jumps in:

Alan Watts


The old pond
A frog jumped in,

Allen Ginsberg


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

Dorothy Brittan


Old pond,
Young frog.

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



Peter Beilenson


dark old pond
a frog plunks in

Dick Batten


At the ancient pond
a frog plunges into
the sound of water

Sam Hamill


Hear the lively song
of the frog in

Clare Nikt



James Kirkup


old pool
frog jumps in –
old pool
frog jumps in –
water song
the old pond
a frog drops in –
liquid music
Billy Mills



A Contrarian View of Basho’s Frog

Further translations of the poem (including a Limerick version) available on the Suiseki blog.

Thirty-two translations and one commentary.

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.


13 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


  2. Pingback: Frog Haiku by Basho – Suiseki

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  6. Congratulations for a nice post. I came here because I was looking for who translated it as:
    “old pond
    frog jump in
    water sound” — like the way I remember it from decades ago.
    Thanks for the rich info!


  7. Wonderful post and I love your sonnet too.
    The Lucien Stryk version on my shelf is the same words as you’ve put, but different punctuation:

    Old pond,
    a frog.

    (where — is meant to be one of those long dashes).


  8. Pingback: Dewdrops – Brief poems by Kobayashi Issa | Brief Poems

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