An exercise in translating haiku to toki pona

Recently I've been learning a little toki pona and had wanted to write a set of haiku in toki pona for the zine. Although it didn't happen that way, it had me wondering whether I could translate the stanzas while keeping the hallmark 5-7-5 syllabic structure of haiku. It might sound something like this:

suno tan lupa
lipu lon supa kasi
pini e lape

waso li toki
kalama pi esun tawa
musi jan lili

pimeja walo
tomo supa li lukin
li pini ala

pimeja anpa
mun li kama palisa
kon lape ala

It turned out to be more difficult than I expected. If none of it made any sense, it's because a number of details were lost in an attempt to reduce lines to a familiar rhythm. It almost reads like a grocery list.

One appealing characteristic of toki pona is a short vocabulary list which makes it easy to learn. Most of the words can carry multiple meanings to maximise the range of concepts that can be conveyed. The language encourages a rethinking and simplification of thoughts, and therein lies the difficulty. Haiku might involve using few, precise words to evoke deeper insight and emotions. There might be puns and covert links between words. While complex thoughts can be expressed to some extent in toki pona, due to the small pool of available words this sometimes comes at the cost of brevity. For example, an ice cream truck might be described as "esun tawa pi telo suwi lete", for a total of 11 syllables, and that's only the subject. (A truck might also be "tomo tawa suli", while "esun tawa" highlights the shop aspect where the music being played is meant to attract customers.) There are also few synonyms that can be substituted to enhance the rhythm without overly affecting the meaning. In short, it's not a problem with toki pona — it just wasn't designed to be used this way.

Writers can be as detailed or vague as they wish, and some might prefer leaving a wider room for personal interpretation. Arguably it forces writers to focus on one thing per line that matters most. In contrast, below is a more literal translation without a syllabic structure:

suno li kama tan lupa
anpa supa kasi la, lipu kasi li lukin
mi mute li pini e lape

waso li toki suwi tan sewi
esun tawa pi telo suwi lete li kalama
jan lili li toki pona, li musi

unpa pimeja walo ali
tomo en sitelen telo ona
li supa li sijelo mute ala

pimeja lon palisa
tenpo mun li kama palisa en tenpo open
kon tawa li lukin e lape

In this translation, prepositions bring spatial awareness, the subjects are more distinct along with other shifts in meaning. Neither versions are necessarily grammatically correct, though a lot of modern poetry takes liberties with sentence structure for various purposes including emphasis and emotional impact.

And finally, the haiku set in English:

light through a window
leaves peek out of tulip beds
wake up together

tits chorus above
an ice cream truck's tinny notes
laughing, children play

under endless grey
building and its reflection
incomplete repose

shadows on a ledge
long and early, night descends
wind searches for sleep

In toki pona philosphy it probably doesn't matter much whether "kasi" is a tulip or an orchid, whereas in traditional haiku, certain plants and animals are among cues used to inform readers of the season, or maybe set the mood for the stanza, such as sakura being associated with spring and new beginnings. More generally, there are also language-specific wordplays that don't translate easily to other languages, e.g. "play" can refer to "having fun" or "operating a musical instrument". The literal translation retains the meaning of the third line in each haiku for the most part, but without the cadence that builds up anticipation to the response, if the first two lines were a question.

While this was a fun little exercise, I'd like to try writing lon toki pona — less falling back on the devices of another language and more directed towards expression that comes naturally in toki pona.

Updated:  2021-11-14 00:29 UTC