11 September 2020


Mika's Notes: The Autumn Sunset

This is the first post in a vein I've long thought about entering, but until now I never felt like it could fit into my main blog. Many of you already know, but in addition to writing and illustration, my passion lies in learning the Japanese language and everything else about Japan. Today, these three passions came together as I completed a part of my current Drawing II assignment.

I created a matte medium transfer print using a magazine image and a piece of sample Yupo paper. Looking at the list of prompts I was given (we have to use one per drawing in this assignment) I chose "text & image" and then looked up a Japanese haiku in a little book I love called Classic Haiku: A Master's Selection. The poem had an English translation, but, as an upper-intermediate student of the language, I wanted a more literal equivalent and, as an artist, I wanted one that still fit the original 5-7-5 syllable pattern. I wanted to write the original plus my own translation on my print, so my drawing homework turned into a Japanese lesson!

Of course, I am no expert and still have a long way to go in my understanding of the Japanese language and the history and culture of haiku, but I did my best based on my current knowledge and I will now share with you what I learned and the decisions I made as I penned my final translation of this poem.


The above is the original Japanese as written in my source book. Breaking it down, here are what all the words mean in English:

かぎり limit, [archaic] death

有「ある」 to exist (inanimate things)

命「いのち」 life

の (possession indicator)

ひま free time, leisure time

や and

秋「あき」 autumn

くれ sunset, end

Now, there are many more meanings to these words, but using the English translation in my source book as a guide, these seem to be the poet's intended meanings. So the most extreme literal translation of this haiku might be something like this:

there is a limit
to life's leisure and
the autumn sunset

The way I translated it for my assignment is this:

there is a limit
the leisure time of life and
an autumn sunset

But after I finished the little sketch (one of 55 I have to complete for the assignment!) I showed it to my Japanese tutor who reacted in a surprising way. She said the original poem is really dark, like someone writing about dying. She studied haiku in school, growing up in Japan, so I took her words to heart and began musing about a better way to achieve my translation goals while still invoking the true mood of the original Japanese. This is where I ended up:

there is a limit
to life's little leisure and
the autumn sunset

My source book used the phrase "fleeting life" to get the point across, but "fleeting" is only an implication in the original, rather than a word literally used in the Japanese version. Inspired by that choice, I decided to add one word in my translation which isn't in the original: little. Its addition not only helps meet the seven-syllable requirement of that line, it makes it smoother ("life's little leisure" just rolls off the tongue!), and gives a stronger suggestion of death, by pointing out that life is short, and leisure time even shorter.


I may have mistakes or misinterpretations in my translations, but based on my current knowledge, I'm very happy with my first attempt at translating a classic Japanese haiku! I hope you found my notes interesting, if not informative, and I hope you'll look forward to more Mika's Notes entries here on the Studio Mikarts blog!