TRANSLATING LI BAI

translating li baiPoints Illustrated

1. Translation is a re-evocation, not a dictionary rendering.

2. What Ezra Pound did and didn't do.

3. Working from the original text.

Getting at the Poetry

I have tried to show that Chinese poetry can be rendered into English metrical forms, but is the result necessarily poetry? Theoretical issues are so often raised that it seems best just to try. The most famous and successful of Pound's renderings in Cathay is The River Merchant's Wife: A Letter, which begins:

While my hair was still cut straight across my forehead
I played about the front gate, pulling flowers.
You came by on bamboo stilts, playing horse,
You walked about my seat, playing with blue plums.
And we went on living in the village of Chokan:
Two small people, without dislike or suspicion.
At fourteen I married My Lord you.
I never laughed, being bashful.
Lowering my head, I looked at the wall.
Called to, a thousand times, I never looked back. {1}

It is a beguiling piece, so simple that we seem to be looking through clear glass. That we aren't, of course, is shown by the efforts of other translators:

Other Translations

Soon after I wore my hair covering my forehead
I was plucking flowers and playing in front of the gate,
When you came by, walking on bamboo-stilts
Along the trellis, playing with green plums.
We both lived in the village of Ch'ang-kan,
Two children, without hate or suspicion.
At fourteen I became your wife;
I was shame-faced and never dared smile.
I sank my head against the dark wall;
Called to, a thousand times, I did not turn. {2}

When the hair of your Unworthy One first began to cover her
    forehead,
She picked flowers and played in front of the door.
Then you, my Lover, came riding a bamboo horse.
We ran round and round the bed, and tossed about the sweetmeats of
    green plums.
We both lived in the village of Ch'ang Kan.
We were both very young, and knew neither jealousy nor suspicion.
At fourteen, I became the wife of my Lord. {3}

I with my hair in its first fringe
Romped outside breaking flower-heads.
You galloped by on bamboo horses.
We juggled green plums round the well.
Living in Chang-kan village,
Two small people without guile.  
At fourteen I married you sir,
So bashful I could only hide,
My frowning face turned to the wall.
Called after -  never looking back. {4}

That was when I combed my hair
To fall over my forehead.
I used to pull flower stalks by the gate.
You ambled up to me on your bamboo stilts.
We played with these little green plums.
We chased each other round the bed.
We lived together in the town of Ch'ang-kan
Then we were young and foolish together. {5}

When my hair just began to cover my forehead,
I was plucking flowers, playing in front of the gate.
You came along riding a bamboo stick horse,
circling and throwing green plums.
Together we lived in Ch'ang-kan Village
never suspicious of our love. {6}

Worthy attempts, but Pound's is still possibly the best. All are in free verse, moreover, and some suspiciously close to a reworking of Pound's version.

Examining the Chinese

The poem is the old style {7} and a transcript {8} shows the poem to be be in 30 lines of five characters to the line. A stanza of six lines is followed by six stanzas of four lines each. The second, third and fourth stanza open with a reference to events at ages fourteen, fifteen and sixteen; the fifth and sixth stanzas express the speaker's sadness, and the seventh looks forward to the husband's return.


First Attempts

I haven't located a pinyin version, and my Chinese is not up to working from the text here. But any manageable translation will inevitably leave out many aspects of the compact and allusive Chinese, and the words we do need are abundantly given by previous renderings.

Being in the old form, the rhyme scheme will not be critical, and we have no hope of conveying the tone patterns. Our version should be simple, reflecting the five character lines of the original, and a tetrameter 4-2-4-4-4-4-4-4 version may be best. I am also anxious to avoid the disputes that have raged over what is meant by seat/bed/trellis, etc. — all of which overlook how poetry is actually written. If Li Bai had found some other word of useful meaning within the formal constraints of the poem, he would doubtless have used it. Poetry doesn't turn on these matters.

It won't be a close translation — any more, in fact, than Pound's was. I simply want to see if a straightforward poem in strict form will convey some of what Pound's rendering is praised for:

How simple it was, and my hair too,
picking at flowers as the Spring comes;
and you riding about on a bamboo
horse; playing together, eating plums.
Two small people: nothing to contend
with, in quiet Ch'ang Kan to day's end.

All this at fourteen made one with you.
Married to my lord: it was not the same.
Who was your concubine answering to
the thousand times you called her name?

I turned to the wall, and a whole year passed
before my being would be wholly yours —
dust of your dust while all things last,
hope of your happiness, with never cause

to seek for another. Then one short year:
at sixteen I sat in the marriage bed
alone as the water. I could hear
the sorrowing of gibbons overhead.

How long your prints on path stayed bare!
I looked out forever from the lookout tower,
but could not imagine the distances there
held you still travelling, hour by hour.

Now thick are the mosses; the gate stays shut.
I sit in the sunshine as the wind grieves.
In their dallying couples the butterflies cut
the deeper in me than yellowing leaves.

Send word of your coming and I will meet
you at Chang-feng Sha by the mountain walls.
Endless the water and your looks entreat
and hurt me still as each evening falls.

A few lines took some work, but nothing was inherently difficult. The result seems cleaner and closer-textured than previous translations. And as with the Du Fu poem, the details are worked in: they pull their weight rather than stand idly in the background. There are some additions — particularly in the fifth stanza, which develops the enigmatic lookout imagery earlier in the poem, and the last stanza, where the original deals only with the young wife's journey and has no mention of mountain walls.

How the piece works as poetry I must leave to readers to decide. Many will probably retain a strong affection for the Pound version, as I do, and for much of Pound's work. More importantly, some may wonder why I am trying to put the clock back, when the great innovator showed how much fresher and more compelling poetry could be when cast in idiomatic language and natural speech rhythms.

Well, what Pound actually did was to write a prose version, pick out the interesting phrases, and assemble them in evocative echoes of metrical forms. He had an uncanny ear for rhythm, and some of the novelist's gift in creating character — gifts he developed further in the Cantos. Yet for readers who didn't like verse — and a large proportion of poetry readers don't appreciate verse — Pound's approach was a godsend. Look, the piece seemed to be saying, we don't have to let literary conventions complicate matters: here are the plain facts, which are poignant enough to speak for themselves.

But of course Pound was selecting and shaping. What he didn't find or fully appreciate, he made up, as any decent writer will. We have things like for ever and for ever and for ever, which are not in the original, and called to a thousand times / I never looked back, which is far from alluding to a child-bride's sexual unhappiness. By replacing never turned (to you) by never looked back, Pound is giving another perspective altogether, a nostalgic one, which professional translators haven't liked — any more than they will like this rendering, which supposes that her childhood freedom is what the speaker first missed.

Translation is invariably personal. Few of us have the seven years plus needed to learn Chinese — which is the only way really to appreciate Li Bai — and we fall back on equivalents, partial renderings, re-creations. Much gets left out — indeed in most translations, however literal — but that is the nature of poetry, which is its own language, and makes its own transcripts as we surrender to its imaginative power. How we create that poetry, the instrument we play on, is our choice. Theoretical arguments for and against free verse are pointless: all that matters is the quality of the end result, and in this there are natural preferences, outlooks, ways of responding, in both poets and readers.

Working from the Original Text

The above was how I proposed to leave matters, but then came across Fifty-five T'ang Poems by Hugh M. Stimson, who provides a pinyin version entitled Long Gulley Song: {9} If we translate this, word for word with an online dictionary, {10} we can sense the poem slowly taking shape:

chang2 gan1 xing2
long/excel/leader oppose/offend/dried go/travel
Chang Gan travel

 

1. qie4 fa3 chu1 fu4 e2
concubine hair initial/young/primary cover/return forehead/fixed
concubine hair young cover forehead

zhe2 hua1 men2 qian2 ju4
break_off/bend flower/blossom gate/entrance in_front/preceding theatrical_plays/drama
collect flower gate in_front_of play

lang2 qi2 zhu2 ma3 lai2
young_man/husband ride_horseback/mount bamboo horse come/returning
young_man ride bamboo horse come

rao4 chuang2 nong4 qing1 mei2
entwine/surround couch/trellis/chassis play/alley blue/green/black/young plums/surname
around trellis play blue plums

tong2 ju1 chang2 gan1 li3
same/together_with reside/sit length/excel_in/leader oppose/invade/dried unit_of_distance/village/lane
together reside Chang Gan village

liang3 xiao3 wu2 xian2 cai1
couple/ounce small/insignificant have_no hate/suspect conjecture/feel
couple small have_no hate conjecture

shi2 si4 wei2 jun1 fu4
ten four govern/act/be sovereign woman/wife
fourteen be sovereign wife

xiu1 yan2 wei4 chang2 kai1
ashamed/shy face not_yet taste/experience open/initiate
shy face not_yet experience intiate

di1 tou2 xiang4 an4 bi4
lower/hang head/chief toward dark/secret wall/walls_of_house
hang head towards dark wall

10. qian1 huan4 bu2 yi1 hui2
thousand/many call/invite no/not one turn_round/time
thousand call not one turn_round

shi2 wu3 shi3 zhan3 mei2
ten five begin/only_then open/extend eyebrows
fifteen only_then extend eyebrows

yuan4 tong2 chen2 yu3 hui1
desire/ambition same/together_with dust/ashes and/with/give ashes/dust
desire together_with ashes with ashes

chang2 cun2 bao4 zhu4 xin4
nomal/regular live/survive/remain embrace support/lean_on trust/letter
normal live embrace lean_on trust

qi3 shang4 wang4 fu1 tai2
how/what top/go_up/send_up look_at/hope man/husband/those tower/platform
how go_up hope husband tower

shi2 liu4 jun1 yuan3 xing2
ten six sovereign distant/profound go/travel
sixteen sovereign distant travel

ju4 tang2 yan4 yu4 dui1
Ju pond/embankment overflowing/wavy arrange/in_advance heap/pile_up
Ju embankment overflowing in_advance pile_up

wu3 yue4 bu2 ke3 chu4
five/Wu moon/month no/not may/possibly touch/ram
five month no may touch

yuan2 sheng1 tian1 shang4 ai1
ape sound/music sky/celestial highest/send_up mournful/pity
ape sound sky send_up mournful

men2 qian2 chi2 xing2 ji1
gate/entrance in_front_of/preceding late/slow/delay go/travel search/track/trace
gate in_front_of slow go track

20. yi1 yi1 sheng1 lu4 tai2
one one lifetime/living/birth green moss/lichen
one one lifetime green moss

tai2 shen1 bu2 neng2 sao3
moss/lichen deep/very no/not able/permitted clear_away
moss deep not able clear_away

luo4 ye4 qiu1 feng1 zao3
fall/surplus leaf/period autumn/year wind/manner/atmosphere early/soon/morning
fall leaf autumn wind soon

ba1 yue4 hu2 die2 lai2
eight/all_around moon/month butterfly butterfly come/returning
eight month butterfly butterfly returning

shuang1 fei1 xi1 yuan2 cao3
couple/both fly/dart westward garden/orchard grass/herbs
couple dart westward garden grass

gan3 ci3 shang1 qie4 xin1
feel/perceive in_this_case/then wound/fall_in_from concubine heart/intelligence/soul
feel then wound concubine heart

zuo4 chou2 hong2 yan2 lao3
seat/base anxiety/worry_about red/blush face old/experienced
base worry_about blush face experienced

zao3 wan3 xia4 san1 ba1
soon/morning evening/late under/inferior/bring_down three mouth/desire/anxiously_hope
soon evening under San Ba

yu4 jiang1 shu1 bao4 jia1
prepare/in_advance going_to/future/general letter/writings report/announce home/family
prepare future letter announce family

xiang1 ying2 bu2 dao4 yuan3
mutual/reciprocal receive/welcome no/not path/way far/profound
mutual welcome not way far

30. zhi2 zhi4 chang2 feng1 sha1
vertical/high arrive/very long/excel_in/leader air/manners/atmosphere sand/granulated
high very long Chang Feng Sha

 

And we can see the rhyme and tone patterns:

 

TONE
TONE
TONE
TONE
TONE
RHYME
X
X
O
X
X
a
X
O
X
X
X
b
X
X
X
X
X
c
X
X
X
O
X
c
X
X
X
X
O
a
X
X
X
O
X
c
X
X
X
O
X
b
X
X
X
O
X
c
O
X
X
X
X
a
(10) O
X
O
X
X
d
X
X
X
X
X
c
X
X
X
X
O
d
X
X
X
X
X
e
X
X
X
O
X
c
X
X
O
X
X
f
X
X
X
X
O
d
X
X
X
X
X
b
X
O
O
X
O
c
X
X
X
X
O
a
(20) O
O
O
X
X
c
X
O
X
X
X
g
X
X
O
O
X
g
O
X
X
X
X
c
O
O
O
X
X
g
X
X
O
X
O
e
X
X
X
X
X
g
X
X
X
O
O
h
X
O
O
X
O
i
O
X
X
X
X
j
(30) X
X
X
O
O
h

 

where O is the level tone and X an oblique tone. {11}

 

We should now realize that the first version is not a translation but a re-rendering of what other translations suggest: a poem on a theme by Li Bai. Such approaches lead to 'orientalism' {12} and we'd do better to produce a literal rendering that conveys something of the compression, cadence and rhyme of the original. The first version uses a 'clipped metre' or stress rhythm:

How simple it was, and my hair too,
picking at flowers as the Spring comes;

which we can take further. Let's aim for a muted and simple rendering: four stresses to the line, little rhetoric, translations close to the dictionary sense, Li Bai's rhyme scheme preserved in pararhyme:

From first your woman, hair covering forehead,

a

playing at the gate, picking flowers.

b

There you came riding on your bamboo horse,

c

tossing blue plums round trellised house.

c

Two ordinary people, not vexed or worried

a

in Chang Gan village, living close.

c

At fourteen you sovereign of all my powers.

b

Yet married to you, I only was

c

shy and embarrassed, not turn my head

a

10. however you called, a thousand times.

d

At fifteen I smoothed out girlish brows,

c

desired to be one, as the fire consumes

d

ashes to ashes, be trust of yours,

e

nor climb to the tower with lookout cause.

c

At sixteen my lord on distant journey

f

departed on the river that onward foams.

d

Five months together feel empty hours,

b

the monkeys sound sorrowful in the skies.

c

The marks you left in your unhurried

a

20. going are green as moss inset in floors:

c

whatever that moss, too thick to clear

g

as leaves and the wind come soon this year.

g

Eight months: the butterflies have me gaze

c

on the heart and its hurting, make me stare

g

on couples fled westward over orchard grass:

e

I find myself blushing, as though you're near.

g

Send me a letter, tell me arrival where:

h

wherever you are will be my homeward there.

i

Morning and evening, if through San Ba Gorge,

j

30. I will walk on as far as Chang Feng Sha.

h

 

This rendering is much closer to the dictionary sense, though the previous piece seems to me the better poem, particularly if the composite fifth stanza is omitted. But whatever we prefer, one thing should be clear: Chinese poetry is better rendered with some of its formal elements in place. Much of translation today is in prose, elevated to 'free verse' to claim a more contemporary and faithful rendering, often spuriously. The techniques employed in the second piece are still verse techniques — compare with the 'free verse' renderings above — but they are very simple, which has allowed the rendering to be only marginally poetry. Words don't 'speak for themselves' in Chinese or any other poetry, or we should be conversing in poetry every day.

If we're willing to take a few liberties with the dictionary sense, then we can write more effectively, but the form still doesn't allow for much:

Your woman first, hair covering forehead,

a

playing at gate and picking flowers:

b

there you came riding on your bamboo horse,

c

throwing blue plums round the trellised house.

c

Just two small people, not vexed or worried,

a

in Chang Gan village, and always close.

c

At fourteen I surrendered whatever powers

b

I had to be yours, but only was

c

shy and embarrassed, could not turn my head

a

however you called, if a thousand times.

d

At fifteen that stopped; I smoothed my brows,

c

desired to be one with you: as life consumes

d

that which is mine into ash with yours,

e

nor climb to the tower with lookout cause.

c

At sixteen my lord on his distant journey

f

left on the river that after him foams.

d

For five months already I have empty hours,

b

find monkeys sound sorrowful to the skies.

c

The moss you marked in that unhurried

a

parting stays green along the floors:

c

that moss is now too thick to clear

g

when leaves and wind come soon this year.

g

Eight months: the butterflies have me gaze

c

on the heart and its hurting, make me stare

g

on couples fled westward over orchard grass:

e

I find myself blushing, as when you're near.

g

Send me a letter, wherever you are,

h

wherever you go to, is my homeward there.

i

Morning and evening, if through San Ba Gorge,

j

On banks I will walk on to Chang Feng Sha.

h

 

Concluding Note

Pound's Cathay has become a vexed issue, even a shibboleth. Earlier scholars were not impressed by Pound's textural accuracy, nor the quality of the verse. The champions of Modernism swung to the other extreme, and announced that Pound had divined the essence of Chinese poetry while producing some of the most beautiful poetry ever written in English. {13} {14} In general, as I've tried to point out, divination is not required for translation, but scholarship most certainly is. A faithful rendering insists that we understand the words fully, and appreciate the very different traditions and structures under which they operated in a particular poem. Pound's verse in Cathay is generally attractive but not beautiful, and the approach removed many of the devices needed to convey what is concise, allusive and deeply musical in the original. It is dangerous to argue from examples, but a second approach, that deriving from William Carlos Williams and his followers, may be even less equipped to cope, its avowed aim being to write an idiomatic American English free of conventions and literary devices. Today the professional translator's approach is often adopted, the least demanding, in which a precise prose meaning must stand duty for literary quality. All three approaches can miss, and generally do miss, what is most important: the poetry as it appears to a Chinese reader. Distinct Chinese voices sound alike in these translations, and the poems dwindle into engaging little thoughts or anecdotes. {15} Formal verse is difficult to write, or even to appreciate, but the effort does sometimes find equivalents in English for the very different conventions in the Chinese.

 

References

1. Ezra Pound's Version. On the River Merchant's Wife: A Letter. Modern American Poetry. http://www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/poets/m_r/pound/letter.htm.
2. Arthur Waley's Version. On the River Merchant's Wife: A Letter. Modern American Poetry. http://www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/poets/m_r/pound/letter.htm.
3. Robert Lowell's Version. On the River Merchant's Wife: A Letter. Modern American Poetry. http://www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/poets/m_r/pound/letter.htm.
4. Tony Kline's Version. http://www.tonykline.co.uk/PITBR/Chinese/AllwaterLiPo.htm.
5. Kenneth Hope's translation entitled Ballad of Chang'an. http://lian.com/HIRANO/favor/li_bo02.htm NNA.
6. Li Po (701-762) Translated by Arthur Sze. http://www.thedrunkenboat.com/lipsze.htm.
7. The River-Merchant's Wife: A Letter. http://www.cs.rice.edu/~ssiyer/minstrels/poems/70.html NNA.
8. Hideaki Hirano. Li Bo: After Story. http://lian.com/HIRANO/favor/li_bo02.htm NNA.
9. Fifty-five T'ang Poem A Text in the Reading and Understanding of T'ang Poetry, Hugh M. Stimson http://faculty.virginia.edu/cll/chinese_literature/stimson/FT4.htm NNA.
10. Chinese Character Dictionary. http://www.mandarintools.com/chardict.html. I have occasionally supplemented this with Rick Harbaugh, Chinese Characters, A Genealogy and Dictionary (Zhongwen, 1998).
11. Chinese Poetry in Alex Preminger and F.V.F. Brogan The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993).
12. Explored in the Japanese context on: Ewick, David. “Introduction: Ezra Pound and the Invention of Japan." Japonism, Orientalism, Modernism: A Bibliography of Japan in English Language Verse of the Early Twentieth Century. http://themargins.net/bib/B/BK/bk00.html. (accessed December 17th, 2005). A detailed and immensely readable contribution to Japanese influences on Modernist literature, and much else.
13. "No one has ever pierced so brilliantly, even achingly into the very core of the vast and splendid poetry of China". T.V.F. Brogan on Pound's The River-Merchant's Wife in the Translation entry of The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, Preminger, A. and Brogan, T.V.F. (Princeton Univ. Press, 1993).
14. "Pound's small book, containing some of the most beautiful poems in the English language, was based on a notebook of literal Chinese translations produced by the orientalist Ernest Fenollosa and a Japanese informant." Eliot Weinberger and Octavio Paz. Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei: How a Chinese Poem Is Translated. (Asphodel Press, 1987), 9.
15. 'Red Pine' (Bill Porter), Poems of the Masters: China's Classic Anthology of T'ang and Sung Dynasty Verse (Copper Canyon Press, 2003). A handsome volume, informed throughout by a first-hand knowledge of Chinese literature, but one where the commentaries are often more rewarding than the translations. Chinese poetry is not written in everyday language, and translations also need something better.


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