TRANSLATING DU FU 1

translating du fu 1Points Illustrated

1. Importance of the original text.

2. Power of metrical over free verse forms.

3. Need to see the poem in context.

 

Translating the Chinese

Chinese is notoriously perplexing to Europeans, particularly in its writing system, {1} {2} use of tones and tone patterns, etymology, {3} concision, {4} (no conjunctions, articles or plurals) fluid relationship between nouns and verbs, free word order, and allusion to previous events or poems {5} (often hundreds of years in the past {6}).

Then there are problems of understanding: educated Chinese can read these poems fairly readily, but they are often at a loss to explain exactly what they mean. {9} Worse still, Chinese characters link up nicely in compounds that have no literal equivalents in English. {4}

Finally, Chinese poetry takes many forms, all of them a good deal more complicated than this brief summary can cover, {8} so it's not surprising that translations tend to employ free verse, drawing support from the idiomatic and sometimes beautiful renderings of Ezra Pound{10}, Arthur Waley{11} and Kenneth Rexroth. {12}

Unfortunately, classical Chinese poetry is nothing like free verse. Allusive, compact and musical, it follows very demanding rules on number of characters to the line, rhyme, parallelism, phonic and tonal patterns, {7} something not apparent in the deservedly popular renderings of Kenneth Rexroth. Here are the puzzling last three lines of his translation of Du Fu's Restless Night: {13}


War breeds its consequences.
It is useless to worry,
Wakeful while the long night goes

Could Du Fu (AD 712-70), the greatest poet of a country devoted to poetry, {14} have ended his piece with a such a homily? We have to look at the text.

Examining the Chinese

The poem was written around 764, after Du Fu had left government service. From the Chinese poetry and dictionaries (in characters and modern pinyin) on Zhongwen and University of Virginia sites {15}, we see that the 8-line poem is rhymed a b a b c b a b, has 5 characters to the line in the regulated form, with a pattern as:

 

X
X
O
X
X
X
X
X
O
O
X
X
X
O
O
O
O
X
X
X
X
O
X
X
X
X
X
X
O
O
X
X
O
O
O {16}
O
O
O
X
X

 

where O is the level tone and X an oblique tone. {7}

 

juan4 ye4

 

zhu2 liang2 qin1 wo4 nei4

ye3 yue4 man3 ting2 yu2

zhong4 lu4 cheng2 juan1 di1

xi1 xing1 zha4 you3 wu2

an4 fei1 ying2 zi4 zhao4

shui3 su4 niao3 xiang1 hu1

wan4 shi4 gan1 ge1 li3/si1 {16}

kong1 bei1 qing1 ye4 cu2
 

Using the pinyin dictionary {15} we get:

restless night

bamboo/flute cold/disheartened invade/encroach_on lie_down/crouch inside/domestic
field/wilderness moon/month full/satisfied courtyard/hall corner/remote_place
heavy/double dew/exposed completed/fixed brook/select/pure drip/drop_of_water
rare/sparse star/point_of_light suddenly/unexpectedly have/exist no/lack
dark/obscure/secret/covert fly/dart/high glow_worm self/from shine/reflect
water/juice stay/constellation bird/radical196 reciprocal/mutual exhale/call
ten_thousand/innumerable matter/accident/to_serve oppose/invade/dried spear/radical62 ?thought {15}leave
bare/deserted sorrow pure/peaceful dark/night die

We can now pick out the significant, resonating words:

bamboo cold invade lie_down room
field full moon courtyard remote_place
heavy dew completed clear drop_of_water
sparse star suddenly no exist
dark fly glow_worm self reflect
water stay bird mutual call
innumerable accident invade spear leave
bare sorrow pure night die

Which gives the meaning fairly clearly:

I lie down with the cold smell of bamboo in the room.
A remote courtyard, fields and a full moon.
A heavy dew has fallen, collecting in clear drops of water.
The stars are few and suddenly go out.
A glow-worm flies through the darkness: I reflect
On the resting birds calling to each other across the water:
Innumerable are the sharp accidents that invade and leave
A pure, bare sorrow to die on the night.

Final Draft: Free Verse One

A free verse rendering comes with hardly any arrangement:

I lie down with the cold smell of bamboo in the room.
A remote courtyard, fields and a full moon.
A heavy dew has fallen, collecting into clear drops.
The stars are few and suddenly go out.
A glowworm flits now through the darkness: I reflect
on the resting birds that call to each other across the water:
innumerable are the sharp events that invade and leave
but a pure, bare sorrow on the night.

Final Draft: Free Verse Two

If we want free verse in the manner of Rexroth (but keeping closer to the sense) we have to thin the texture, harmonize the tone and use only everyday words:

Cold bamboos come in the room;
across the courtyard, a full moon.
The heavy dew collects in drops
and the few stars go out. A glowworm
flits through the darkness, and I hear
the birds calling across the water,
and think how sharp the thoughts that fade
insensibly into the sad, bare night.

Final Draft: Metrical Version

To make a formal verse rendering we need to think on the full word-for-word translation, and employ the rhymes suggested by the first few line endings:

Into my room comes the smell of cold bamboo,
and beyond the courtyard: fields, wilderness, a full moon.
I watch the water drops collect from the clear dew,
and stars in their glimmering, that soon
go out. A glowworm flits across the dark,
and bird-calls strike the water, a sharp platoon
of thoughts, echoing and anxious, through
which night fades into its thin, sad tune.

Checking with Other Translations

The last three lines of Burton Watson's {17} translation run:

birds at rest on the water call to one another;
all these lie within the shadow of the sword:
powerless I grieve as the clear night passes.

Which is fairly close to ours, though more conventional.

Platoon?

Du Fu employs a word denoting spears. Rexroth takes this as a reference to war. Watson believes (possibly because the poem was written during the uncertain time following the An Lushan rebellion) that the fields, dew, stars, moon and birds are vulnerable to the violence of armies. I suspect Du Fu simply means that he is assailed by sharp thoughts, which I have accordingly personified as platoon, giving force to the plangent sound of the bird calls echoing across the water. Not everyone will be happy with this rendering, but Du Fu's observations are fused this way into a meaningful sequence, rather than being simply lined up to create mood.

The Final Line

Nothing causes novelists so much trouble as opening paragraphs and endings. The usual advice is to make them stunning or wholly unselfconscious, though in both cases worked closely into the text. My guess is that poets have more trouble with the concluding lines, the first lines being what is given to them, gets them going. The last lines are the culmination of the poem, and a harsh stratagem of busy reviewers is to skim through these tail ends, which often give a fair idea of the skill overall. Fu Du's poem starts quietly with the smell of bamboo and description of his surroundings: we have nothing to do but follow him.

But the final line is another matter. It doesn't say much: bare sorrow peaceful night died — the great commonplaces that beginners are advised to steer well clear of. They are immensely difficult to say something original on or with, and attempts are haunted by the great work of the past: "bring the eternal note of sadness in", "the still, sad music of humanity", etc. Rexroth's own rendering comes adrift: a homily is followed by words out of their natural order. Burton Watson's translations are scholarly (and often a good deal more) but there are also problems with his last line: inversion of normal word order, a slightly over-dramatic grieve, and some doubt as to what grieve refers to.

We have racketed up the difficulties with our rhyme scheme. Unless we scrap the earlier lines, which seem to work fairly well, we are left with swoon, tune and soon for the final word. Swoon we can reject: melodramatic, too redolent of Victorian ladies with their smelling salts. With tune, we can write things like:

. . . . a dark platoon
of thoughts spectral and anxious, that residue
which life bequeaths us its sorrowing, still tune.

. . . . a dark platoon
of thoughts spectral and anxious, that residue
in which life passes in its bare, sad tune.

Or more safely (if we modify line 4) with soon:

. . . . a dark platoon
of thoughts, echoing and anxious, through
which life leaves us, sorrowing and or soon.

which life leaves us, not enriched or soon.

Which life leaves us, to our own, and soon.

Which life bleakly leaves us, sad or soon. . .

Which we choose, or of many others, depends on what we judge Du Fu was saying. That is our obligation to him, when we see how limiting (and contrary to experience) was The New Criticism, and much of the following Postmodernism. Poems are not autonomous creations. We respond to them with our full being, and that being includes our own experiences of life, and everything we understand of the poet and his circumstances.

We also see the power of metre. If we stick to speech rhythms and idiomatic language we're very limited in what we can say — naturally: it's the shorthand of everyday affairs, devised for snap remarks and decisions. But with proper phrasing, which employs the metre but makes its own patterns (when the pauses and half-sounded beats impart much needed texture and meaning, New Formalists please note), we can explore the full range of response.

Platoon Again

If we're not happy with 'platoon', and wish to emphasize the poet's empathy with the scene, then we can rewrite the poem a little:

Into my room comes the smell of cold bamboo,
and beyond the courtyard: fields, wilderness, a full moon.
I watch the water drops collect from the clear dew,
and stars in their glimmering, that soon
go out. A glowworm flits across the dark,
and bird-calls strike the water to commune
with what is peaceful emptiness but too
a part now of the night's long-sorrowing tune.

Concluding Remarks

I hope this will not be seen as an attack on Kenneth Rexroth, who introduced many to Chinese poetry, so much as a plea for common sense. Du Fu was still in difficulties when he wrote this poem, but was not so destitute that he couldn't afford accommodation for the night. {11} And as anyone who has slept rough knows, descanting on the beauties of the scene is the last thing likely: the pressing concern is to keep warm and dry. The text makes matters quite clear, moreover: Du Fu is sleeping inside, and there is no dew turning to fine mist, or penetrating damp. Du Fu is watching from his window, for a long time, trying to make sense of his thoughts. He is not saying "it is useless to worry", but noting how everything falls away in the end — the water droplets, the stars, the bird calls — into what poets have always known, that inexpressible and unfathomable sadness of life. We can convey that in free verse, even in the attenuated verse that Rexroth uses, but have greater freedom, and can achieve a richer meaning, in more metrical forms.

Postscript

The above, written some six years ago, was my earliest foray into Chinese verse translation. Essentially a word-for-word translation, without a proper grasp of Chinese grammar and poetics, from what was available on the Internet, the result was some unfortunate translation blunders. Many good books and websites {18-22} have appeared since, and the poem should be rewritten (though doubtless freer than scholars will like) more as:

Into my bedroom comes the cold bamboo.
Beyond are fields, a courtyard that moon
lights up. I watch the drops collect from the clear dew,
and stars in their glimmering, that soon
go out. A glowworm flits across the dark,
and bird-calls strike the water, a sharp platoon
of thoughts that threaten but now pass through
to emptying sorrow in the night's clear tune.

A 568-page free pdf ebook on practical verse writing is available from Ocaso Press. Click here for the download page.

Notes and References

1. Chinese Text Initiative. http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/chinese/index.html. University of Virginia's Chinese literature on the Internet.
2.Calligraphy of Chinese Poetry. http://www.chinapage.com/poem/jpg/poem-cal.html. Some examples from the Chinapage site.
3. Chinese Etymology. Sep. 1995. http://www.linguistlist.org/issues/6/6-1232.html. Note on current research from Linguist List 6.1232.
4. The Challenge of Translating Chinese Medicine. Alexander Gross. 1987. http://language.home.sprynet.com/lingdex/chinmed.htm NNA. How Chinese really works.
5. Chinese Theory and Criticism. Steven Van Zoeren. 1997. http://www.press.jhu.edu/books/hopkins_guide_to_literary_theory/
chinese_theory_and_criticism-_1._pre-modern_theories_of_poetry.html
. Entry in Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism.
6. Chinese Literary Tradition. http://128.103.142.209/issues/ja98/norton.html NNA. Harvard Magazine article.
7. Chinese Poetry in Alex Preminger and F.V.F. Brogan The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993).

8. Chinese Verse Forms. Thomas Beebee. http://www.psu.edu/courses/cmlit/cmlit100_tob/exercises/ NNA.
interp_poems/interpret_p3.htm#Chinese%20Verse%20Forms NNA.
9. All the Way to Chang-fêng-sha: Some translations of medieval Chinese poetry, John Derbyshire. Feb. 2001.
10. On the River Merchant's Wife: A Letter. Modern American Poetry. http://www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/poets/m_r/pound/letter.htm. Also see Eric Hayot, Critical Dreams: Orientalism, Modernism, and the Meaning of Pound's China, Twentieth Century Literature 45, no. 4 (1999): 511. Accessed on 8 Jul. 2004 Q.
11. Chinese Cultural Studies: Selections of Chinese Poetry: All translated by Arthur Waley (1919). http://academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu/core9/phalsall/texts/c-poet1.html NNA
12. The New Directions Anthology of Classical Chinese Poetry. Edited by Eliot Weinberger. http://www.semcoop.com. Translations by William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, Kenneth Rexroth, Gary Snyder, and David Hinton.
13. Kenneth Rexroth, Love and the Turning Year: One Hundred More Poems from the Chinese (New York: New Directions, 1971) 23.
14. Du Fu (712-770) by Tony Barnstone and Chou Ping. http://www.thedrunkenboat.com/dufu.html
15. The Columbia Book of Chinese Poetry. http://faculty.virginia.edu/cll/chinese_literature/watson/CB7.htm NNA.. (Not now available. Try: http://baike.baidu.com/view/333314.htm : page in simplified Chinese but kindly supplied by Gareth Jones.)
16. Last character most closely matches si1, not li3, suggesting thought and not leave is the meaning here, which also fits in better with the general sense and the tone pattern. (Not so, unfortunately: another blunder.)
17. Burton Watson (trans), The Selected Poems of Du Fu. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002). Q
18. Ned Walsh. 300 Tang Dynasty Poems. http://zhongwen.com/tangshi.htm. Chinese texts with click-through dictionary and notes.
19. Mountain Songs. http://www.mountainsongs.net/poem_.php?id=602. An orthodox version of the poem.
20 Chinese Tang Poetry. Frederick Turner's Blog. http://frederickturnerpoet.com/?page_id=210. Translations and helpful introduction.
21. Zong-Qi Cai (Ed.) How to Read Chinese Poetry: A Guided Anthology (Columbia Univ. Press, 2008).
22. Archie Barnes. Chinese through Poetry: An Introduction to the Language and Imagery of Traditional Verse. (Acuin Academics, 2007).

 

The final version is included in Diversions, a free pdf collection of translations published by Ocaso Press.

 

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