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:
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.