China by Bicycle :: April -- October '98

Subject: Some things Tangy
Date: Tue, 22 Sep 1998 22:00:21 -0700

10:22 Baiyinguolieng Binguan, Korla; Xinjiang--China

Way back in Beijing I picked up a book of Tang and Song Dynasty poems. The Tang Dynasty, particularly, can be thought of as the Chinese Renaissance, and the culture's most famous poets wrote its most important poems during this period, fully the equivalents of a Shakespeare, Wilde, Keats, or any other luminary english poet. The problem with the book is in its translation, which should have been apparent from the cover which announces,

Translated and Versified by...
The 'versification' is rather sterile. However, the book provides also the chinese characters accompanied by their pinyin transliterations which makes looking up the words of each stanza something of a simple matter. All that's left is trying to figure out what the heck the literal translation means, and then attempting to interpret the poet's original intention in english, using the book's 'versification' as a guide. I can't promise an accurate translation, just my own interpretation of the often provocative literal translations of the words.

On reflection, maybe I need to voice this more strongly. The two poems which follow must not be considered 'translations' at all. I am not familiar enough with Chinese language, history or culture to be considered even a hack translator. Hell, even if I were a renowned scholar in each of these, translating poetry is not recommended--poets write between the lines, and translators read between lines which poets never wrote. I think it was Frost who said something like:

If I had written into my poems
Everything people have read into them
I would have required twice as long
To write half as much.
Frost also offers another rejoinder against what I am attempting...
Poetry is what is lost in translation. It is also what is lost in interpretaton.
And yet, I have written two personal interpretations based upon laclustre english translations and the literal translations of the Chinese characters constituting the poem. Still, I wanted to share these ancient, timeless thoughts with you all, but wasn't prepared to just dash off the lifeless translations provided by the book. For an excellent description of the pitfalls of translation, even for professional translators, see the introduction to Stan Rosenthal's Tao Te Ching. While you're there, read Stan's marvellously informative translation of the Tao Te Ching.

Note: the occasional rhyme is happy coincidence.

An interpretation of

Spring River Blossoms on Moonlit Night
Zhang Ruo-xu (fl. 705AD)

Interpretation by Patrick Jennings

Spring river tidewaters swell like the sea.
Bright moon shining, rises with birthling tide.
Green waters roiling, moonbeams in tow,
ox-bow upon ox-bow, ten thousand miles flowing.
Where on spring river is moonlight not glowing?

Spring river weaves its fragrant coils
Through forests of moonlit plum blossom,
Like shimmering refractions through frost-laden glass,
beside the snow-white sand along the river banks.

River and sky merge colours in crystalline light,
Bright, bright moon wheels solitary through the night.
Who by the riverside first knew the moon?
When did moon's rays first illumine man?

Generation upon generation, an unending stream,
Rivermoon unchanging in vision and dream.
Unkown upon whom Rivermoon casts her ray,
But hear the Yangzi carry her water away.

Expansive cloud, snow-white, drifts slowly, slowly,
While green maples pine on Farewell Beach.
What wanderer tonight sails
Across reflected moonbeam tower?

Ah, pity. With tower spire moon aligns.
Did it not see the dressing table of the fair
Through her curtains undrawn?
The maiden washes yet moonbeam stains linger.

Moon's rays presence in her beloved's absence;
She'd pursue the brilliant flow alighting his face.
But the wild swan's flight moonbeams cannot carry,
And the dragon fish leaping, bears no lover's inscription.

In his night-idle dreams: falling flowers.
Sadly spring half-ended and no journey home,
Where river water flows spring will follow; longing exhausted.
River pool declines; moon falls in western recline.

Reclining moon, apathetic, sinks into the mist.
Exhausted are the lover's poems; insurmountable distance between.
At night they ride the moonbeams bright, but homeward how many return?
Sinking moon sheds tears behind riverside trees.
And on the same theme.
An interpretation of

Moon Gaze and Longing
Zhang Jiu-ling (673-740)

Freely interpreted by Patrick Jennings

Birthling moon rises over mother sea;
Worlds apart, we share such moments.
Sweethearts resent the endless night.
In evening's fullness, both rise with the longing.

Extinguish candle; pity light expired.
Awakened, berobed, dewey mist clinging,
I cannot give the moonbeam gift.
Instead, return to bed, and dreams of our joining.

Ummm, not necessarily thematic of my own mood. Separation and longing seem to be particularly favoured themes of Tang poets...

In pursuit of knowledge,
every day something is added.
In the practice of the Tao,
every day something is dropped.
Less and less do you need to force things,
until finally you arrive at non-action.
When nothing is done,
nothing is left undone.

True mastery can be gained
by letting things go their own way.
It can't be gained by interfering.
  graphical element Attributed to Lao Tse
The Tao Te Ching
Chapter 48
trans. Stephen Mitchell