Posted in Haiku

Nobuko Katsura’s Wind

the first day in spring –
a wind from the ocean
but no ocean in sight

Tr. Makoto Ueda

original Japanese:


© Nobuko Katsura (1914 – 2004) (Japan)

Reminds me of hurricane season… before the storm reaches land, and seagulls flying inland to avoid the storm.

– Robert Gillette (USA)

For me, this translation by Makoto Ueda of this haiku by Nobuko Katsura illustrates the dichotomy between the Japanese and English (or non Japanese) haiku branches and the problems of trying to unify them. The crossing of language, culture, and time.

Ueda is undoubtedly one of the leading translators of Japanese haiku, his English is natural, but I find this translation clunky. As a non-Japanese, I am dependent on the translator for my initial evaluation of the piece. This translation will affect my willingness to reread the haiku, my understanding and my interpretation of it.

I suspect that this translation was done in the early 2000s. It has the feel of a more traditional Japanese haiku rather than a contemporary English one. This raises the question, for me, when translating from a Japanese haiku, do you stay with the cultural style, or adapt to the market for which you are translating, in this case, English Haiku readers?

To illustrate:
“the first day in spring –”
a contemporary English version would possibly pare this down to:
“first day of spring” without the article or the punctuation.

May I recommend a book edited by David Cobb “The British Museum Haiku” in which he has used original translations from the Japanese by renowned translators like R.H. Blyth. He has also collaborated with more contemporary translators to give some of the haiku a more contemporary feel. See what you think?

– Patricia (Switzerland)

In the first line with “立春” the first day in spring”…
It is the season word.

“立春” is still cold in the capital of Japan.

So “the wind from the ocean” is chilly wind.

I imagine that it’s wind that carries the smell of the sea, and the foreign cargo ship’s whistling sound.

– Norie Umeda (Japan)

The first thing I noticed was the clear juxtaposition between the first day of spring, and the “taste” of something to come, or something far away—in this case, the ocean. It shows a dichotomy of being and not-being, and maybe the enigmatic between.

On further introspection, we can understand that whatever we perceive may represent what is to come, or a potential. This is closely aligned with the feeling on the first day of spring. It is a warm and exciting emotion of suspense for what beauty is to appear.

– Nicholas Klacsanzky (Ukraine)

What do you think or feel about this haiku? Let us know in the comments.



Meditator, writer, editor, musician.

2 thoughts on “Nobuko Katsura’s Wind

  1. I agree with Patricia that the translation here is somewhat unsuitable for modern haiku, in that it treats the Japanese original as less modern and fails to translate the poem into a more contemporary English language aesthetic. As far as meaning goes, it’s accurate, but as far as technique and intent goes, it obscures the functionality of the language. Part of the difficulty in translating this poem is the possesive particle “no,” which is almost like the “apostrophe s” in English. It is common in haiku to have a long string of nouns or concepts that have been turned into adjectives to modify a certain word, in this poem, we have:

    first spring (no) ocean from (no) wind–invisible ocean

    If you treat each “no” as a possesive, they stack sequentially, so the “first spring” modifies the sea of origin, but then also the entire first clause modifies the word wind. To make sense of this we have to dramatically modify the word order, pulling the from (yori) out and reversing the order of the images:

    wind from the sea of the first spring–invisible ocean

    Ueda has put the cut in a different position, after the idea of the first day of spring. Whereas, in the Japanese I see a caesura between the wind (which is modified by the entire clause preceding it) and the unseen ocean, so that while the meaning is very much conveyed, the sense of kireji and wordplay is lost. Trying to retain the original cut and a sense of the wind being modified by a preceding clause, I think this ku could be written effectively as a single line in English that captures both meaning and content, as well as a sense of a more modernist aesthetic:

    from the new spring sea a wind the ocean unseen

    In an interesting aside, if you put the ku into google translate the computer reads the character 風海 (wind-sea) as 風水 (wind-water) or “Feng Shui.” Is this an embedded pun that is intended through ideograms? Is it coincidental, or is it an intentional second dimension to the ku, a “kakekotoba?” There is no cut between the two characters and their proximity invites a fusion of disparate elements. Perhaps there truly is a deeper sense of the harmony and balance of the situation implied by a insinuation of “Feng Shui,” if we were to take that into account in our translation:

    from the new spring sea
    a wind
    harmony of the ocean unseen

    Can we justify that much interpretation and “misreading as meaning?” Perhaps not, though I’ve seen ku translated with that level of implied, additional information included. Ueda’s translation strives for comprehensibility and directness, for ease of digestion in a general audience that is not particularly interested in the finer points of haiku as literature, and may be expecting the facile reductions of Blyth. However, direct communication of imagery is not always the entire story with haiku; oftentimes they have an underlying subtext that we must tease out, and in the past English translators have been woefully disinterested in capturing these nuances or challenging their audience the way the original poems often do.

    Liked by 1 person

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