Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Butterfly and the Moth Redux: Buson and Billy Collins

Following on the discussion of Buson and Billy Collins from this Wednesday's post, I received a very informative email from Charles Trumbull, editor of Modern Haiku. His email contained some salient information, plus variant translations of the temple bell / butterfly haiku, so I asked and received his kind permission to reprint it in full. For those who didn't read the original post, here are the two poems that were discussed:

----on the temple bell


Today I pass the time reading
a favorite haiku,
saying the few words over and over.

It feels like eating
the same small, perfect grape
again and again.

I walk through the house reciting it
and leave its letters falling
through the air of every room.

I stand by the big silence of the piano and say it.
I say it in front of a painting of the sea.
I tap out its rhythm on an empty shelf.

I listen to myself saying it,
then I say it without listening,
then I hear it without saying it.

And when the dog looks up at me,
I kneel down on the floor
and whisper it into each of his long white ears.

It's the one about the one-ton temple bell
with the moth sleeping on its surface,

and every time I say it, I feel the excruciating
pressure of the moth
on the surface of the iron bell.

When I say it at the window,
the bell is the world
and I am the moth resting there.

When I say it at the mirror,
I am the heavy bell
and the moth is life with its papery wings.

And later, when I say it to you in the dark,
you are the bell,
and I am the tongue of the bell, ringing you,

and the moth has flown
from its line
and moves like a hinge in the air above our bed.
Billy Collins

The gist of my musings was why Collins chose to go with "moth" rather than "butterfly," which is how most translations have it. Here's what Charlie has to say:

I read with interest your bit about the Buson haiku and Billy Collins. Here’s some background that may be of use to you.

The haiku by Buson (note, no macron over the O)

釣鐘に止りてねむる胡蝶 かな
tsurigane ni tomarite nemuru kochô kana

is indeed one of his most famous and most often translated. Harold Henderson, in his Introduction to Haiku, renders it literally as follows:

Temple-bell-on settling sleep butterfly kana

where “kana” is a kireji, a word in Japanese that governs the relationship between two parts of a sentence and here is a sort of unvoiced sigh or sotto voce “that’s so.”

Collins apparently saw the translation that was published in X.J. Kennedy’s Introduction to Poetry:

On the one-ton temple bell

On the one-ton temple bell
a moon moth, folded into sleep,
sits still

I haven’t checked my copy, but Kennedy probably got the version from someplace else. This translation is typical of early English translations of haiku, adding words and notions for their poetic values as well as unnecessary titles.

Neither my Japanese nor my Japanese dictionary are good enough for me to know the exact meaning of “kochô,” the name used by Buson for the insect. “Butterfly” is more commonly “chôcho,” while “moth” is “ga.”

Here is a handful of other translations, with translator and published source:


A frail white butterfly, beneath the spell
Of noon, is sleeping on the huge bronze bell

Harold Stewart
Stewart, Net of Fireflies, 52

Asleep in the sun
on the temple’s silent bronze
bell, a butterfly

Behn, Harry
Behn, Cricket Songs

on the temple bell.

Robert Hass
Hass, Essential Haiku (1994), 108

Butterfly asleep
Folded soft on temple bell …
Then bronze gong rang!

Beilenson, Peter
Japanese Haiku (1955); Haiku Garland (1968); Little Treasury (1980)

Clinging to the bell
he dozes so peacefully
this new butterfly

Sam Hamill
Hamill, trans, Sound of Water; Hamill, trans, Little Book of Haiku, 61

on a temple bell
alighted and sleeping
this butterfly

William J. Higginson
Modern Haiku 35:2 (summer 2004), 52 (a)

On the great temple bell
stopped from flight and sleeping
the small butterfly

Miner, Earl
Miner, Japanese Linked Poetry; Bowers, Classic Tradition

On the hanging bell,
staying while he sleeps,
a butterfly!

Sawa Yuki and Edith Marcombe Shiffert
Haiku Master Buson

On the temple bell
has settled, and is fast asleep,
a butterfly.

Harold G. Henderson
Henderson, Introduction; Modern Haiku 4:3 (1973), 51 (a); Frogpond 14:2 (summer 1991), 31 (a)

On the temple bell
Something rests in quiet sleep.
Look, a butterfly!

Buchanan, Daniel C.
Buchanan, One Hundred Famous Haiku (1973), 65

On the temple bell,
Settled down and fast asleep
A butterfly.

Harold G. Henderson
Henderson, Introduction; Modern Haiku 3:2 (1972), 26 (a)

On the temple’s great
Bronze bell, a butterfly sleeps
In the noon sun

Beilenson, Peter, and Harry Behn
Haiku Harvest

Perched upon the temple-bell, the butterfly sleeps!
Hearn, Lafcadio
Hearn, Kwaidan

The buttefly
Resting upon the temple bell,

R.H. Blyth
Blyth, Haiku II—Spring, 258



I checked my copy of Introduction to Poetry by Kennedy and, coincidentally, Buson and Collins are listed next to each other alphabetically in the "Lives of the Poets" section. The translation is Kennedy's own, though he has another poem by Buson translated by Robert Hass. In two romanized Japanese/English dictionaries I checked at the library, kochô was listed as butterfly, but I'll defer to Charlie since I also found chôcho listed as butterfly in a third.

So, though the mystery still remains, we've ended up with a wealth of useful information and a wonderful selection of different ways Buson's poem has been translated. I was particularly thrilled to see a beautiful version by Lafcadio Hearn, the subject of a post here recently, and a typically taciturn, precise version by R. H. Blyth.

Many, many thanks to Charles Trumbull for all the great information and the various translations. Only one question remains:

Will we wake up before the big bell rings?



Ed Baker said...


Don/Charlie thanks-thanks...

as I often say:

every thing
in the details
& the delving-in

Lowell, Buson, Hearn, Elsa von Freytag, etc etc etc


Anonymous said...

Sigh. That last line practically dares one to write a villanelle...


Anonymous said...

For whom the bell tolls?

Grant Hackett said...

One thing leading to another....

Between the bell and the butterfly :: sleep

Greg said...

Don and Charles - thanks for the information, I've never seen most of those translations. Interesting stuff.

temple bell
i wake from a dream
of butterflies

Michael Dylan Welch said...

After a reading Billy Collins gave at the Skagit River Poetry Festival in 2004, I asked Collins directly about this issue, why he had said "moth" instead of "butterfly." He insisted that the original haiku says "moth." I gently insisted back to him that "chocho" has been translated consistently as butterfly, not moth, and that all the many translations I knew of this poem consistently said butterfly (I did not yet know of the X. J. Kennedy version). I think Collins is simply mistaken, and was presumably informed only by Kennedy's "moth" version, which I view as incorrect. That being said, I think that, except for the poem's error of claiming "it's the one about the moth" on the temple bell, Collins' poem is better for saying "moth" because "butterfly" might have been too precious.

Michael Dylan Welch said...

I've just found an enlightening discussion about the difference between kocho an chocho (sorry I'm not adding the appropriate macrons to the appropriate vowels here). Take a look at (skip down to the second answer to the question). Apparently, kocho is classical Chinese for butterfly, so chocho is simply the modern term. Who knows where Kennedy got "moth" from, but I would say it is simply in error.

Issa's Untidy Hut said...

Michael, thanks very much for adding to this post ... indeed, the discussion you point to about the difference between kochō and chōchō is just great.

One of the things I think is of interest here is that both Collins and the Buson haiku are in the Kennedy book - which may, indeed, be the very reason that he went with moth, which I believe is what Charlie is suggesting. I could be wrong on that because, of course, I've misplaced my Kennedy somewhere around here and can't check.

So Collins was probably sincere and not coy, as I always suspect him of being. I agree with you Michael that the Collins poem is just fine with moth.

Which got me thinking, where did moon moth come from?


Issa's Untidy Hut said...

Thanks, too, Ed, for your tip of the hat.

Issa's Untidy Hut said...

LAV, it's been 2 years ... where is that villanelle?

Issa's Untidy Hut said...

Speak, it just keeps on tolling ...

Issa's Untidy Hut said...

Thanks to you, Greg, for dovetailing two classics ...