I am currently reading The Heart of Haiku by Jane Hirshfield. In it, many examples of haikus translated from Japanese are given. However, in their English form, they lack the rhythm and meter of Haiku. Does this take away from their meaning? If so, in what way? In music, songs' lyrics are often translated loosely to maintain the melody and rhythm. Does an equivalent process occur for music?

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    The Strange of Pushkin and Nabokov by Edmund Wilson, a critique of Nabokov's translation of Eugene Onegin. Nabokov criticised Walter Arndt's translation for preserving the rhyme bot not the meaning, so he published his own, often prosified, translation. See What's Gained in Translation for comparison of other translations of Eugene Onegin. Commented Jun 8, 2017 at 11:29
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    This question is very broad. Is there any way you could make it more specific (e.g. maybe ask about a specific haiku?)
    – user111
    Commented Jun 8, 2017 at 13:27
  • @Hamlet I can think of a specific haiku or poem, but if someone could offer a recommendation, I would happily change it.
    – Benjamin
    Commented Jun 8, 2017 at 22:13
  • There may be some books that are improved by translation. I have heard it claimed, for example, that James Fenimore Cooper's books are better in French. And I have met one German who said he never understood Kant's philosophy books until he read them in English. (Of course, whether that last is an improvement depends on the metric you're measuring books by.)
    – Peter Shor
    Commented Jun 9, 2017 at 12:46

2 Answers 2


Douglas Hofstadter wrote a wonderful meditation on translation, the book Le Ton Beau de Marot. It contains literally scores of translations of the same poem from French into English. Each translation preserves some aspects of the original: meter, rhyme, various aspects of tone, wordplay, vowels, consonants. Some are close, some are loose. Some are whimsical, some are serious.

Each of them is the same poem; each of them is different from all others.

There is no way to capture everything about a poem in translation. You can't even read the same poem twice: the "translation" from the page into your head will always vary a little. A great poem, I'd say, is one that will vary more between readings, making it evergreen.

I don't think it's fair to say that translation "takes away" from the meaning of the poem. There was never any single "meaning" for it to detract from. A translation adds to it, creating a new poem which is somehow conceptually related, but the original remains right where it was.

A poem -- indeed, any text -- is a dialogue between its author and its reader. The "meaning" of that dialogue is the change it produces in the reader. The author never really knows the reader's state to start with, and can't point to a unique transformation that they can be certain will take place. The author may have a variety of hopes for it, and the totality of those hopes are expressed in the text as you see it. Change a single letter and you get a different thing. Substitute a word for its "synonym" and you still get a different thing. That's why Tom Robbins had a character declare, “There are no such things as synonyms!"

So in every translation, something is lost, and something is gained. That "something" could be anything, any aspect of language. You can hope to arrive at a similar effect that a native reader would have had upon reading the original, but even that native reader won't have a single "meaning" for the poem. So how close you come to achieving that effect is itself a new dialogue.


Oh yes. But it should not stop you reading in translation!

Many poems contain wordplay that is only possible in the original language, or idiom that is only meaningful in the context of that culture.

Tang Dynasty Poetry, for instance, has an additional layer of meaning based on the ideograms used. Reading in translation removes this dimension.

Rhythm can be used to impart meaning, but in my experience this is fairly rare.

Many of these elements will be described in commentary on the poems in the translated works, so my advice is, where possible, look for translations with the most annotation, and, where possible, read multiple translations.


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