Lost in Translation

Junko, an exchange student, has come from Tokyo to our tiny mountain town in Georgia to live with us for a year.

through the torn shade—
the Milky Way


“Like me,” Junko says pulling the flaps of her kimono around her, and I imitate the gesture with my robe, crossing my arms—first left and then right—over my heart. Next she turns to Matt who, all elbows, hesitates before he gets it right—our instincts tell us to wrap these things the other way. At last, he tightens the obi with a flourish and stands back, looking like a cross between a featherweight boxer and a ballerina. Sam in Ninja pajamas leaps from a sofa kicking and slicing the air in imitation of television warriors, needing no instruction apparently in the ways of the East, and Alice, dressed earlier, pads in looking like a tiny geisha.

Once we are taken care of, Junko turns her attention to Nessa and Barbara who are still lost in bright prints. She tells them to go the other way with theirs—right and then left. “Like me,” Junko says again, opening and closing her kimono the opposite way for them. “Yes,” she says, smiling, when at last we all get it right. Clothed in strangeness, we look at each other and laugh.

Wearing traditional Japanese robes in the den of our house in Georgia, we do feel strange. All of us, I notice, move our arms in slow, wide gestures like dancers, getting used to the feel of the open sleeves floating beneath our hands, and there is the subliminal urge— with arms extended this way—for us, so suddenly strangers, to hug each other. Largely unchanged since the discovery of silk more than 2,000 years ago, kimonos can be traced to ancient Chinese dress. In them we float, transported out of time and place by the liquid turning of brightly colored prints. We are, indeed, clothed in strangeness, and by this we can begin to measure how strange we must seem to the one who brought the gifts.

Junko, an exchange student, has come from Tokyo to our tiny mountain town in Georgia to live with us for a year. Her name, so odd on our lips, means “charming child,” and it is easy to see that she is charming—she moves among us, our strange blond selves, with such familiarity. “Very good, very nice,” she chirps, patting us on the lapels. It is also easy to tell from her nervous English that she is— despite her 16 years—-just a child and 3,000 miles from home and her own language.

After all, she looks normal in a kimono—it clings happily to her and rides with, not against, her arms and torso when she moves. A kimono is something she simply wears. On us the robes feel ceremonial and our bodies—scarecrows in silk—resist the seductions of their folds. In short, we look goofy, and lined up stiffly this way, I doubt that we make Junko feel more at home. Still, she plays along, and lifting a slender wrist to her mouth, joins in with our laughter, while the sleeve of her kimono falls casually across her elbow.

“A girl born half a world away is sleeping in the bedroom overhead,” I told Barbara after we settled in bed that first night—-just a sentimental thought. But it wasn’t long before the difference—the realization that Junko was from another world—became palpable. Every morning at 6:30 her wooden shoes clonked down the steps, and at night, when she bathed, the house filled with a sweet, lotus scent. We held our own, of course. Sam still terrorized us as usual with the plastic weaponry of the American West, and I banged out country tunes on the guitar. It was still our house. But we felt, nonetheless, a difference in our midst.

An early assignment in school found Nessa, my 15-year-old daughter, sitting beside Junko at the kitchen table, sorting and identifying leaves—the girls’ differences readily apparent. Nessa’s blond hair tumbles midway down her back; Junko’s hair, even longer, drops in straight, black strands. The skin of Nessa’s freckled arm is bluish and slightly translucent, while Junko’s skin is smoother, a buttery surface that holds light. Cutting labels, Nessa flings her scissors about in the air, her body relaxing into a loose, open posture, legs spread, elbows out. When she talks to us she looks over her shoulder and throws her head back gayly. Junko methodically pastes the leaves on paper, her gestures smaller—a quizzical nod, a lifting of eyebrows, a twisting of the upper body while knees stay firmly together.

Both girls chatter happily, but Nessa’s laugh is explosive and her English—a lifelong friend—dances unfettered on her lips. Junko’s laugh is a sweet sing-song, and her English wears robes.

“This one?’’ Junko asks.

“Uh, oak,” Nessa says. “Yeah, that’s an oak.”

“Oak, good.’’ Junko lifts the next leaf. “This one?”

 “That’s… ah,” Nessa flips through the tree book. “This one right here-—sassafras.”

“Sassarass, good. This one?”

Two weeks after Junko arrived, Barbara and I loaded a guitar and some big boxes into the minivan and took Matt—our oldest child— to college for his first year.

The 10-hour drive to Charlottesville seemed endless, and I don’t remember anything about it except the cassettes—Beatles, Cat Stevens, U2—the least common denominator of our musical tastes. Soon enough we had exhausted the sounds we could share and contented ourselves with silence. Sad as we were, we knew it was time for Matt to leave—in part our silences told us so.

I had gone to graduate school at Virginia only five years before, and Charlottesville had changed little. After the parent orientation was done, Barbara and I had time alone so we walked our old streets, fighting off the urge to say “I remember when” but feeling it at each familiar turn of the sidewalk. We walked past the Colonnades and the park where I played football with Matt and the other kids. We walked past the lights of fraternity row where the family and I on Saturday mornings would clamor beneath sleeping undergraduates on our way to read the latest graffiti painted on Beta Bridge. We walked past Beta Bridge, hidden under a thousand Friday night messages, and I wondered how many layers of paint I would have to chip away to get back to the graffiti of our lives.

The next day we took Matt to breakfast and strolled across the old campus one last time. Then we brought him back to his dorm and watched him walk away. In a moment he was gone and we drove off, the silence in the car like a fresh coat of whitewash over all our words.

Barbara and I took the sting out of the goodbye by staying in an old, grand hotel in Abington, Virginia, for a few days, basking in the luxury of drinks and peanuts on the porch and Braves games on the TV. We found a trail along the embankment of an abandoned train line, the Virginia Creeper, and spent an afternoon walking down it and back, freed from memories by the newness of our surroundings. We talked about the future most of the time—a conscious effort, I think.

That night, on some excuse, we called Matt, but his phone just rang. A good sign, we said, though the rings resonated in some hollow place in me. When we called the girls at home we got giddy voices and learned that Nessa needed something sewn to her band uniform and that Junko had allergies.

It was time to get home.

At home we found that Junko was learning the cost of change. Her eyes were swollen and nose red from pine pollen in our area. In the mornings she woke looking puny like a prize fighter and at night she plowed through a box of tissues, sniffing constantly and saying “I hate, I hate.” Despite her willingness to change, a part of her resisted the pollinated air of her adopted country. Later when she caught poison ivy for the first time and walked through the house saying “Itchy! Itchy!” I feared she would give up and ask to go home.

Colloquial English took a toll, too, and, like a pruritic, served as a stubborn reminder that this was not Japan. So when she heard a fellow student say “I busted my ass,” she thought it was a fine American expression. Unfortunately, it did not go over so well when she delivered it to a teacher on a field trip. For Junko, the air in America was thick with invisible demons, all that glittered turned dangerous, and the ground was hard.

During the first days of school, there was something in the air for Barbara and me, too, and we found ourselves moping about the house at times. For a while we avoided Matt’s room, knowing, I guess, how we would react to the hopelessly obvious metonymy of empty shelves. Bright kimonos and ukatas, the smell of lotus, and the friendly chirpings of a charming child didn’t help.

In Charlottesville, I had picked up a book on Japanese kana, the ideogrammatic writing of Japan, and began studying the language. It was hard at first to make my lines follow the shapes of those in the book. This was not just lettering, it seemed, but drawing too, some kana requiring many strokes, the strokes of each kana made in a certain order and a certain way. It did not help to watch Junko who drew the kana with such ease, the many strokes of the word kimono, for instance, done surely and effortlessly. When I sat down with my Japanese book I felt like Alice, my first grader, who was struggling to print “come” and “go.”

I learned that Japanese is a language filled with strangeness, since much of the written form goes back, like the kimono, to ancient China. When Junko counts to 10 in her language she speaks Japanese, but writes those words in ideograms older than the words she speaks and borrowed from a foreign tongue. This layering of the familiar on the alien, common to all modern languages, began for Japan in the seventh century and is such a powerful feature of Japanese that a second kind of alphabetical writing eventually was developed as a way to bridge more naturally the gap between writing and speech. To Junko all this seems as common as Greek prefixes do to us, but to the outsider there is a special excitement to these ancient shapes. American poets like Ezra Pound were fascinated with the way that anyone—even those who don’t know the language—can look into these images and, peeling back the accrued definitions of subsequent cultures, gain some intuitive sense of their original meaning. With them the poet in us can look through the strange to the graffiti of all souls.

Finding the familiar in the strange is as human as sex and as old as poetry, the delight of differences followed by the shuddering recognition of a shared humanity. We find this paradox in the sonnet, for instance, a poem with a turn or surprise just past the halfway mark that is often resolved in the final couplet. But the most compressed form of this kind of wisdom is haiku. A sonnet fills silence; haiku keeps it. A sonnet binds differences together; haiku lets go of them at the same time.

This ancient Japanese form of letting go has its source in love letters—more precisely, the letters of a departed lover. No one is sure how the custom began, but, by the 10th century, poetry was the mode of discourse in court society and lovers were expected to exchange haiku-like poems after an evening tryst. It is hard for us to imagine this now, men gathering up their clothes and shoes before dawn in order to slip away from lovers without being seen. They would dash across the courtyard in brightly colored hunting robes while tucking hair in the lacquered topknot worn by nobility at the time and— safely returned to quarters, their feet still wet from the dew—would pen a love poem on fine paper which was knotted and marked and sent, sometimes with a flower, before the morning was out. No poem meant no next night—that was the convention. “Indeed,” wrote Sei Shonagon, the most observant of these courtesans, “one’s attachment to a man depends largely on the elegance of his leave-taking.”

Great stuff! I thought, after several nights spent reading “The Pillow Book” of Shonagon and the other stunning source of these poems, “The Tale of Genji” by Murasaki Shikibu. “Genji” is particularly good. The world’s first novel, it tells of the exploits of a “frighteningly” handsome but sensitive prince with many lovers. Moonlight, evening dew, cherry blossoms and love—these are the subjects, all that shimmers and disappears.

The poems in these books were not true haiku—not yet. That would come later when these same court lovers divided the longer poetic form, the tanka, into question and answer games, and the answers were in the strict syllabic form that we call haiku. But haiku borrows much of its imagery from these early poems, and the haiku s theme of the evanescence of things clearly has its source in these notes written by lovers who had spent the night wrapped in each other’s kimono and curled in each other’s arms.

Great stuff, indeed!

The morning after I closed the covers on “Genji,” I left a poem about mist and highways and ankles in sheets for Barbara, folded it with some bedraggled flowers and put it on her pillow.

Needless to say, she was amused.

Armed with my book of Japanese kana and her calculator-like word-finder, Junko and I sat at the dining room table and translated haiku—at least, we tried. I printed a transliterated version of the haiku on the page in front of us and Junko read through it, her hand opening and closing as she counted off the syllables with her fingers.

“Yes, haiku,” she said, when her fingers closed into a fist at the end of the five-syllable last line. She scratched the poison ivy under her eye and began writing English words above the Japanese. Over the word ana she wrote “hole” and over ya she wrote a colon.

“Haiku very boring,” she said, opening her eyes wide as she always does when she is excited. “But if you see in your mind—is okay”

Above the syllable no she wrote “‘s” but stumbled on the word in front of it. “Shoji,” she whispered, “how say that?” Eyes wide, she typed quickly into her word-finder. “Shoji like sliding door,” she mumbled,” but….” Then she showed me the definition on her machine: “A sliding door with a piece of Japanese paper on a lattice.”

“Not good for Sam,” she added with a giggle. She brought her hand down in a mock karate chop and said, “Bam.”

“That’s for sure,” I said.

She wrote “sliding door” and the word “then” above the long first word in the first line and “Milky Way” above the last word in the poem.

“Ama-no-gawa,” I said in her language, haltingly, like a child— the word, not a word for me, but a plaything on my tongue.

“Mil-ky Way,” she answered. “Yes.”

After a half hour of poking around at this text, our literal translation of Issa’s haiku looked like this: Then:

Sliding door’s hole’s
Milky Way.

We both examined the sheet for a while, not sure what to do next—this was our first experiment in translating haiku, and the results seemed, well, meager.

“Words and meaning are very different,” she said, apologetically. “You must picture.”

Despairing of any verbal solution, she drew a stick figure picture of a person under a window with a hole in the shade. Then she drew several lines from the hole to the man.

“Moonlight,” she said, still drawing the lines—as if the figure were bathed in it. “Moonlight “

I looked back at her, puzzled, and pointed out that there was no mention of moon in the poem.

“Always moon in haiku—if night, always moon. I sure.” She scratched the poison ivy again just under the rim of her glasses. “Every peoples in Japan know this shoji and this moon,” she said. “I sure. Must picture moon.”

She looked at me and opened her eyes wide again, as if I might look through them and see what she sees. For a moment we shared what is lost in translation.

did you lose your voice
or become it.


What is lost in translation? What is the rate of exchange? What do we take with us and what do we leave behind? Basho, the great 17th-century Japanese poet, knows. He lived in a shack and spent the last years of his life wandering about the Japanese countryside visiting sites whose names were familiar to him from poetry—translating the words back into places. “He go walking all the time,” was the way Junko put it. Basho said: “The months and days are the travelers of eternity.” Before leaving on one journey, he tacked a sign on his door saying that “even a thatched hut” can become “a dolls house.” Yes, he knew.

A field, a temple, a view—anything he passed might bring to mind the poem of some former master and Basho would respond with a poem of his own. The past challenged him and kept him fresh and clever. The famous names of the Eight Views of Lake Omi, for instance, had been said in a well-known 31-syllable tanka. After seeing the views, Basho was challenged by friends to condense all eight of them into a 17-syllable haiku, a poem less than half the size of the original tanka. One of the “views” was the gong of the bell at Mii temple, so Basho wrote this:

Seven views were lost in
mist when I heard the
temple bell.

Even the original of this poem, then, is a translation, one that wins us because of its losses. In the poem we “see” the views of Lake Omi in the same way that we “see” the sound of the temple bell, a reminder of the simple truth that seeing is insight and originates from ourselves, a lesson worth savoring. And yet, the losses cannot be denied—the names of all those views are gone. In the mists of any translation, something inevitably gets left behind.

Of course, Basho challenged others to translate him, as well. His most famous poem is an early one he wrote when he and friends, after a long silence, heard a frog flop into the water. According to tradition, the poem was composed spontaneously. “Kawazu tobi-komu mizu-no-oto” Basho suddenly blurted out when the frog leapt, the phrase fitting perfectly the last two lines of a haiku. After entertaining several possible opening lines from his friends, Basho settled on this, here in one of the translations that Junko and I devised:

Small pond:
tiny frog jump
happy water-sound.

This little poem is still known by every school child in Japan and Junko knows it by heart in Japanese, but it is not the only famous frog haiku. Issa, who wrote a century later, answered the old master’s poem this way:

Skinny frog,
don’t budge—
Issa is here!

“Issa is here!” the poem claims, as Basho had himself announced to the poets before him. I am with you to help and carry on with the struggle, yes, but I am also here to take your place. That is the art of translation, and that, of course, is what is lost as well.

When asked by his friends at the end of his life to write a death poem, Basho answered that all of his poems were death poems. Later, according to tradition, he did write one. The translation that Junko and I came up with goes like this:

Sick of walking
I left the landscape
to my dreams.

In translation, we get to keep the dreams, perhaps—it is for dreams that Basho himself left the hut—but no matter what we do, the sick traveler, the human being we love, stays behind.



One night Nessa took Junko to a clearing in the woods behind our house to look at the stars. The lights of Tokyo, and most of Japan, are so bright that she had never seen the Milky Way—the “atna-no~gawa”—before. It had been raining for several days and the skies had just cleared, so the girls slipped into jackets and hiked to the knoll.

I thought of Junko’s name. In Japanese it means charming child but the more ancient etymology of the Chinese ideogram for her name means “wet woods.” It seems odd for a city girl from the Orient to be led into the woods by a blond girl from Georgia, odd, yes, but as her name suggests, it is a kind of homecoming as well. We are all, at root, the same, her name tells me, as Junko in mini-skirt and high wooden shoes ducked under the dripping limbs and hobbled on the mulch path behind the khaki coat and blue jeans of my country daughter.

“Is very beautiful” Junko said when she came back later, her hair wet, her eyes big with excitement, the pupils wide with darkness but lit with the unfamiliar glitter of Issa’s familiar haiku.

Is very beautiful, indeed, I thought, knowing that her awkward words were as good as mine at translating such beauty, better really. I thought of our haiku—the losses we found in translation. I thought of the resonant dripping of rain in the mushroom-studded woods. I thought of a seventh-century Japanese lover, his robe in a bundle at his feet and his pen in the air, at a loss, alas, for words to match his smile. Looking at the girls laughing in the hall, I smiled too, and thought of Matt and the kimono in with the empty hangers in the closet downstairs.

About the Author

Steven Harvey

Steven Harvey is the author of “Geometry of Lilies,” “Lost in Translation: Personal Essays about Love and Change” and is the editor of a book of essays, “In a Dark Wood: Personal Essays by Men about Middle Age.”

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