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poem of the day

I haven’t had much at all to write about lately, and so rather than let this space die, I’ve decided to focus, until I have an interesting life again, on posting translations.

Translating longer stuff tends to bog me down, even when I really like whatever it is that I’m translating. (See, for example, the first installment of Mo Yan’s short story “The Donkey-Riding Beauty on Chang’an Road,” which I’ve been meaning to finish for about a year now.) So these translations will be short pieces, and – hopefully – updated frequently. Since I’ve been reading a lot of classical poetry lately, I was thinking of something along the lines of “Tang Poem of the Day.” (Let me know in the comments or via e-mail if you like/dislike/are totally indifferent to the idea.)

Because of the brevity of the pieces, I’ll be able to include the original text (for those of you who can read Chinese) and make some notes on the translation (which will hopefully not be totally boring).
I should start off by noting that English-speaking translators of Chinese run into some major obstacles in their translation. For one thing, Classical Chinese was a highly-stylized, terse language, and often sentences will not indicate their subject. In the poem below, the “we” and “she” are never stated; I’m merely following the standard interpretation of the poem by Chinese commentators. Tenses are generally not indicated except by context, and where English poetry often is somewhat narrative, with single thoughts spanning multiple lines, such is rarely the case in Chinese. Ambiguity and parallelism were highly prized, but both tend to vanish completely in translation. What you see below is an interpretation as much as it is a translation, and most, if not all, of the original’s beauty is lost.

Now that I’ve hyped it up, here is one of the Tang Dynasty poet Li Shangyin’s many untitled poems:

李商隐:无题

相见时难别亦难,
东风无力百花残。
春蚕到死丝方尽,
蜡炬成灰泪始干。
晓镜但愁云鬓改,
夜吟应觉月光寒。
蓬莱此去无多路,
青鸟殷勤为探看。

Li Shangyin (813 – 858): “Untitled”

Hard when we met, and harder when we left;
The East Wind has no strength, the flowers fade.
Spring silkworms spin their threads until their deaths,
And candles burn to ash, tears yet undried.

In glass at dawn, she sees her tresses grey;
At night, she sings to challenge moonlight’s chill.
From here to Paradise it’s not so far —
Bluebird, look lively. Find the way for me.

13 Comments

  1. jg wrote:

    I like it! I like it! I still want to hear the rest of the Mo Jan story.

    Wednesday, November 17, 2004 at 12:55 pm | Permalink
  2. oli wrote:

    how about this for the last bit:

    Here to Olympus can’t be far to travel,
    O Hermes, pray, go find her now!

    I guess you cant just go sticking greek gods in chinese translations though.. It’s just distracting and silly.

    But yes, I liked it. Maybe “hard when we met, and harder when we parted.” would be better. I think Li Shangyin had just broken up with his girlfriend when he wrote it.

    Wednesday, November 17, 2004 at 2:19 pm | Permalink
  3. Brendan wrote:

    Oli – yeah; I decided that translating it as “Paradise” rather than “Penglai” was probably the most I could do in terms of explanation. “Olympus” is slightly tempting, but when you consider the theory that Li was writing these poems to a Daoist priestess, it kind of loses that appeal.
    Translating “Bluebird” there as ‘Hermes’ isn’t a bad idea either, since the Queen Mother of the West used a bluebird as her messenger, but, again, it seems kind of jarring in a translation of a Chinese poem.

    (Likewise, I’ve been working on a translation of a Bai Juyi poem which makes reference to 扁鹊, and I’m trying to think of something less jarring than “Aesclepius” to translate it as.)

    Wednesday, November 17, 2004 at 4:10 pm | Permalink
  4. John wrote:

    I liked it, although I found the last line kind of out of place.

    Friday, November 19, 2004 at 2:51 pm | Permalink
  5. Brendan wrote:

    Out of place how?

    Saturday, November 20, 2004 at 9:55 pm | Permalink
  6. Todd wrote:

    Wow, that first stanza came out really well in terms of sound. Near rhymes in an ABAB pattern, alliteration (especially appropriate for the silkworm threads I think), a very consistent meter except for the striking double stress on “Hard when” at the very start.

    What I’m not so sure about is how you mix first person and third person (blasted chinese poetry with no pronouns, eh!). I like the third person, and after setting up this kind of window where we watch her sadness from a distance, the “me” in the last line surprised me a bit. Or maybe a strategically placed colon could construe the last 2 lines as her song. Was this your intention?

    Oh, “In glass at dawn”…no definite article? Okay, it’s acceptable, but it sounds like translatese. “At dawn the glass reflects her greying hair”?

    Monday, November 22, 2004 at 10:00 am | Permalink
  7. Brendan wrote:

    Todd – glad you liked the first stanza. I wish I’d been able to keep the rhymes going into the second – perhaps in a later revision.

    “At dawn the glass reflects her greying hair” is good, but the literal meaning of the original line is “At dawn, she grieves only [because, or to see] her cloudlike tresses change.” I’m a bit less than literal on that one.

    As for the last two lines — I interpreted them as the poet speaking, referring to wherever she is as “Penglai.” I’m working from a non-annotated text, so I can’t be sure, but I think that’s the standard interpretation.

    Monday, November 22, 2004 at 5:13 pm | Permalink
  8. Ashley wrote:

    Stanza 1, 2 & 8 reads to be a bit awkward…er, I meant the ‘left’ in 1 sounds a bit vague, for this is actually accounting of two lover’s farewell with each other…and stanza 8 would mean more as in ‘lead the way’ than ‘find the way’ so I presume. Stanza 2 was my favourite line, was looking for a bit more poetic-ness…as in maybe ‘the east wind hazily blows the faded flowers’. But your translation.

    Sunday, December 1, 2013 at 10:50 am | Permalink
  9. Ashley wrote:

    There’s a pun in verse 3 since 丝 is a homonym to 思 as in 相思, although that will be difficult to translate…

    Sunday, December 1, 2013 at 10:52 am | Permalink
  10. Brendan O'Kane wrote:

    Hi Ashley — thanks for commenting! I did these poetry translations a little bit over 9 years ago, at a time when my Chinese was not all that good, and now find them more or less embarrassing. One of the problems with the Internet is that it never forgets — and it treats everything as if it were of equal newness.
    I’d do the whole thing very differently these days — or, more likely, would be smart enough not to try translating Li Shangyin in the first place. The pun on 思 is just one of many things that 2004 Me missed.

    Sunday, December 1, 2013 at 11:11 am | Permalink
  11. Ashley wrote:

    Heh, I forgot to look at the date, myself. Well, I didn’t think the 2004 You’s translation is bad, it’s always nice to see poem translations especially from Chinese –> English, and I get all excited. I couldn’t find much of any of your other translations, though, are you putting some up or must we acquire it the more legal way?

    Sunday, December 1, 2013 at 10:40 pm | Permalink
  12. Brendan O'Kane wrote:

    Most of the translations I’ve done are for relatively unglamorous stuff, but I’ve contributed pieces to a couple of magazines and done subtitles for a few movies and that sort of thing. Not much in the way of poetry, though, with the exception of the chapbook Nathan Road (彌敦道) by the Hong Kong poet Yip Fai (葉輝) a couple of years ago. I’m also working on a book of short stories by the author Diao Dou (刁斗), which should come out next year — but at this point most of my energies are devoted to grad school.

    Monday, December 2, 2013 at 12:28 am | Permalink
  13. Ashley wrote:

    Nice, maybe I’ll check those out someday. I hope to see more of your works in the future (I really liked your translation of the excerpt about 屈原). And…well good farings in grad school I guess.

    Monday, December 2, 2013 at 9:52 am | Permalink

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